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The ‘Blame’ for Mental Disorders Lies More on Our Broken Society Than Chemical Imbalance

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Recently, I’ve been meditating on a line from Netflix’s “The OA,” a show that was canceled much too soon but which had a profound effect on me. The line itself is a paraphrase of a quote from philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, and it goes like this:

“It’s not really a measure of mental health to be well-adjusted in a society that’s very sick.”

Think about it. We often consider our mental health to be separate from our environmental and social factors. Sure, we might feel depressed because we are lonely, but loneliness is a symptom of a wider problem. The same goes for trauma; we can be well-adjusted after experiencing trauma — we can receive trauma therapy and take our medication as prescribed — yet we live in a society that allows these traumas to occur without wider systemic reform, a society where a woman is raped every two minutes and where we place the blame on the victim, not on the rapist. We live in a society where sexual assault victims are publicly humiliated in the courts before the perpetrator walks free, and this is witnessed by those very people the system is meant to protect but is failing every single day.

When we consider someone well-adjusted in our society, we’re actually saying that they are coping well in circumstances no human being should ever have to endure. Therefore, when we’re treating a mental disorder, we’re treating the symptom, not the disease.

If we have a broken arm, do we administer painkillers and call it a day, or do we treat the break and mend the bone?

Perhaps it’s reductive, but it highlights a wider discussion I believe we’re overdue. I’m not the only one to think so. This morning, I came across a recent article in the Guardian that summed it up perfectly. In her opinion piece, psychologist Sanah Ahsan says:

“Doesn’t it make sense that so many of us are suffering? Of course it does: we are living in a traumatising and uncertain world. The climate is breaking down, we’re trying to stay on top of rising living costs, still weighted with grief, contagion and isolation, while revelations about the police murdering women and strip-searching children shatter our faith in those who are supposed to protect us.”

The problem, Ahsan argues, is with how we treat mental illness. “We are failing people by locating their problems within them as some kind of mental disorder or psychological issue, and thereby depoliticising their distress.”

She asks, will six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — the average offered for free via the health service in the United Kingdom — really help someone who doesn’t know how to feed their family for another week? With record inflation across the world, an escalating climate crisis, and a cost of living crisis that sees energy prices rise by as much as 80%, is it any wonder that our mental health is struggling right now? 

“Antidepressants aren’t going to eradicate the relentless racial trauma a black man is surviving in a hostile workplace, and branding people who are enduring sexual violence with a psychiatric disorder (in a world where two women a week are murdered in their own home) does nothing to keep them safe.” — Sanah Ahsan, The Guardian

All of this isn’t meant to deprioritize (or delegitimize) mental health struggles; rather, it’s to shine a light on a problem that so many of us are all too quick to ignore. When we go to therapy and take our psychiatric medication, we are only treating a symptom of a wider problem that isn’t being addressed by those with the power to enact real, systemic reform.

I wrote recently about the findings that depression isn’t necessarily caused by a chemical imbalance, but that external, environmental factors are just as important in the diagnosis and treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Sanah Ahsan raises this point too. By prescribing an individualized understanding of mental health, we place the problem and its solution purely upon the person, not the broken societal structures and institutions responsible for our hardships.

“It is here that we fail marginalised people the most: Black people’s understandable expressions of hurt at living in a structurally racist society are too often medicalised, labelled dangerous and met with violence under the guise of “care”. Black people are more likely to be Tasered, sectioned, restrained and over-medicated than anyone else in our mental health services today.”  — Sanah Ahsan, The Guardian

In other words, our mental health crisis is, at its heart, a problem with how society has been structured. Capitalism has made it so that life isn’t affordable and even health care can cause bankruptcy. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with our mental health, with many still struggling with the effects of long COVID and the collective grief of 6.51 million dead.

What are we to do with this information? Are we to take to the streets en masse and demand structural reform? I wish it were that easy, but as Sanah Ahsan says, mental illness is fatiguing. Many of us don’t have the mental spoons to get out of bed or to cope with the daily onslaught of traumatizing news, let alone march on the government and demand justice. So, it’s on those carers, those mental health workers, those people who do have the mental fortitude to fight for change on our behalf. 

The answer perhaps also lies in liberation psychology. Founded in the 1980s by activist and psychologist Ignacio Martín Baró, it argues that we cannot treat mental disorders as separate from wider societal problems, and views the treatment of these disorders the same. “It directly challenges the social, cultural and political causes of distress through collective social action.”

I don’t want to regurgitate the entirety of Sanah Ahsan’s excellent article, so I would urge you to read it when you can. My point, however, is this: we need to stop treating mental health as being an entity separate from the society we live in and our daily struggles that are a part of that society. Capitalism has led us to a point where some will have to choose whether to feed their children or pay their energy bills this winter. It has led us to a point where the onus is on the mega-rich, not the common person, to combat climate change by substantially cutting their carbon emissions and investing in renewable energy. Findings clearly show, after all, how much our mental health is being decimated by climate anxiety.

As the original quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti says, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” So, to treat the source of the problem, we must push for structural reform and a society that places the blame for situational depression not on the individual, but on the disease itself.

Getty image by dinn

Originally published: September 8, 2022
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