Neoliberalism and Mental Health

How does our culture negatively impact our mental health?

By: Gregory McGrath-Goudie, Orillia Bureau Chief

PC Sam Mathers

As I’m sure many have noticed, mental health issues have steadily climbed the list of things that our generation discusses. This is with good reason, as within the past century, we’ve gone from a generation of World War I veterans whose peers lacked an understanding of widespread PTSD, to a generation where mental illness is actively discussed on campuses, in the news, and in social media, in all of its nuances and varying forms. New social workers and other mental health professionals enter the workforce in droves with each passing year, thereby increasing our capacity to aid those in distress. Discussing mental health issues and attempting to eliminate the negative stigma surrounding them is undoubtedly, a positive phenomenon. However, these discussions, as well as this support can seem like an inadequate and superficial fix at times, failing to account for the underlying mechanisms producing our collective anguish.

Although, as mentioned, having mental health professionals is important, a system in which we perpetually graduate and employ these professionals ad infinitum raises a few questions. Are we permanently bound, as a species, to have a sect of our population struggling to cope with life? Is the mentally distressed segment a static demographic, which changes in its population of individuals over time, but remains the same on a larger scale? If not, is poor mental health a reflection of larger, unaddressed systemic issues in our world? Can we move towards a world in which we increasingly need less mental health professionals?

When answering these questions, it is important to consider the basic implications of a system that encourages economic individuality. The capitalist free market has been raised onto a pedestal, although not entirely misguided, as it has been responsible for many of the modern comforts we know today. However, within this market, individuals are incentivized to be little more than agents of profit. We generate profit through our work and our personal reward is also profit, which we then exchange for, as everyone knows, goods and services. Competition is promoted between individuals in the marketplace and jobs go to those best suited to generate profit in any given position. These revelations are well known and self-evident, but it is especially important to consider the basic tenets of capitalism as competition increasingly places a strain on individuals. This strain is prevalent in a 21st century context that grows increasingly saturated with educated individuals all vying for limited job prospects.

Campaigns like “Bell Let’s Talk” fail to address these larger issues. They address the symptom, but not the root cause. Loneliness has become a byproduct of 21st century western lifestyle, as we live in a hyper individualized culture replete with social media and growing economic hurdles to surpass. Human contact is increasingly substituted for interaction on social media platforms which encourage comparison amongst the already unrealistic avatars we construct for ourselves online. Maybe we need to drop the hashtag in favour of a hug, but do we even have the time? Economic competition asks us to have not only education, but applicable experience. Entry level jobs in many desired fields are increasingly hard to get, and many people fill their time with additional workloads to make themselves stand out. Failure to acquire a desirable career is often regarded as an individual’s fault, but this position fails to acknowledge the hyper-competitive economy we are all trying to find a place in. Social media provides a quick outlet for maintaining contact, but can it be considered adequate if it provides an outlet for communication while also encouraging unrealistic comparisons amongst ourselves?

Evidence suggests that loneliness and the increasingly competitive world in which we live are not only linked, but actively contribute to the broader issues surrounding mental health. Isolation is, well, bad for humans, but we continually venture down the path of individualism and free market capitalism. As reported by The Guardian, loneliness can lead to higher rates of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and suicidal tendencies, while also exacerbating physical ailments such as dementia and heart disease. Loneliness can also exacerbate drug addiction and compulsive eating, which are often substituted for social contact. The pressures of acquiring a good job and succeeding as an individual also place great pressure on individuals, while the prevalence of social media as a primary form of interaction increases loneliness. Humans are social creatures—we  function infinitely better as members of communities than we do as individuals, but our cultures incentivize individual success in a world where this type of success is increasingly difficult to attain. We all want to feel as if we matter. We want to make our families and friends proud, but the roadmap to this reward, as informed by our capitalist, competitive culture, has grown treacherous.

Talking about mental health is indeed important, but is it not strange that we outsource our issues to third parties? Obviously, certain issues need professional assessment, but couldn’t others like mild anxiety or overeating be met with a stronger, more supportive community? It seems as though mental health professionals undertake an insurmountable task—they  deal with the negative impacts of our culture and then send people back out into the same culture. Similarly, the Canadian government has asserted its commitment to alleviating mental health issues, while simultaneously trying to grow the middle class with an economic system that is at least partially responsible for these same mental health issues. The whole phenomenon seems analogous to a kindergarten kid trying a jam a square block through a circular hole.

However, the show must go on. I’m not advocating for a Marxist revolution of any sort, but it is important to observe the effects of a world dominated by free markets and its impact on the human psyche. We need to do a better job of looking after one another. Instead of having a full conversation on Facebook Messenger, maybe we can use it to make plans for coffee. Instead of incessantly worrying about career prospects, maybe we can start to realize that the world is a little saturated at the moment, and we can stop using our worries as a measuring stick. We are all here, anyway, so let’s start hanging out more often.