Mental Illness: Is Society Making Us Sick? Part Two

I’m continuing my exploration of the factors that contribute to mental ill health, and BPD in particular, constantly referencing my own experience and trying as much as possible to gain insights which will help myself and others on our journey through life.

I’m hoping that this deepened understanding will help to develop compassion in others and myself.

So far I’ve looked at genetic predisposition and childhood trauma and neglect. Then, in my last post I began looking at the possibility that there is something sick about our society that is contributing to increased mental ill health in the wider population.

In this post I want to look at how we’ve got to where we are today and how I believe greed and selfishness coupled with free markets and rampant individualism have created a sick society.

What’s happening to us?

Now, I’m no sociologist, historian or epidemiologist, but when I see figures like these….

  • The incidence of depression and anxiety has increased by 70% over the past 20 years.
  • The proportion of people with severe symptoms of common mental health diagnoses has risen by 65% in the past ten years.
  • The number of people detained under the mental health act has risen by 31% over the past ten years.
  • The number of prescriptions for anti depressant medication has risen by 109% in the past ten years.
  • The number of children and young people turning up at A&E departments with common mental health issues doubled between 2009 and 2015.

….I become curious as to what’s driving these numbers.

I mean, if we were seeing increases like these in cancer or heart disease there’d be a national outcry. From these numbers it would be easy to believe that we’re experiencing an epidemic, and I’m pretty convinced that societal issues are playing an important role in this.

We’re driven and self focussed

E3F8A17E-6D7E-4C88-8626-F245CE5168F6So far, I’ve discovered that along with the US and Australia, we have the most highly individualistic, masculine culture in the world.

This means that we are not only independent and self reliant, but we may even be against anything which we perceive to infringe on that independence….think the law, police, religion, government and many other state institutions. Put simply, we have an aversion to authority. And so I use the word culture because we are so hyper individualistic it’s questionable whether we have a society at all.

And it also means that, being masculine we are driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner/best in field – a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organisational life. This differs from a Feminine society which means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. Think Scandinavian countries.

So what’s the problem?

Now I know that there are many of you out there, particularly those who are reasonably well off, comfortable and not suffering from any major illness who will already be crying ‘But we’ve never had it so good’ although I guess the numbers will be far less than they used to be. After all, we’re not living in a war ravaged country, we don’t have any illness epidemics like the plague, nobody is really starving, and most people enjoy the benefit of free speech.

So my question to you would be ‘how come our figures for mental illness are so bad?’.

Is it that we are all much less resilient than before? Or is the world around us far more challenging than it used to be? Or has maybe the medical profession got so much better at identifying mental illness? I mean after all, in the last century we’ve seen huge growth in the practice of psychological interventions such as talking therapies and therapy in general, and the self help movement. But in spite of this the figures worsen.

I believe that all of the factors I mentioned above are partly the cause, but in this post I want to focus on societal influences as a potential cause of increased mental illness, simply because I believe that the scale and rate of change we’ve experienced over the last hundred years, coupled with the masculinity of our society and the increased level of individualism are responsible for a big part of the mental illness epidemic.

Back to the Future

To do this I’m going to go back in time 400 years to the beginning of the story of how our society got where it is today, with a real focus on the last century.

Please bear with me. Also bear in mind that this is a hypothesis that I’ve worked through over a few years, and one that you’ve seen similar versions of elsewhere. I do not claim it to be the only explanation, but an explanation. Maybe you could share your thoughts by leaving a comment below if you think differently.

So let’s start by going back to 17th century England. Believe it or not this was the first time that anyone had seriously thought that personal freedom and independence could at be a possibility or was even desirable.

The feudal system had come to an end, parliamentary democracy was becoming a reality, and the power of the monarchy was on the decline, so the big question was what would fill this power vacuum.

Filling a power vacuum

BD9B8D94-0272-4CF4-BC3A-A5D194C0CDA1Philosophers like John Locke, and later in the early 18th century David Hume and the founder of modern economic philosophy Adam Smith, were all proposing a similar idea….that men are by nature free and equal against claims that God had made all people naturally subject to a monarch. Notice that they weren’t against the existence of God per se, just that God hadn’t made them subject to a monarch.

At the time this was seen as both revolutionary and dangerous to the elite, for obvious reasons. But it was done in a context of a higher authority in God himself, and the church as His representative body on earth. This freedom then was within a pre existing framework. The same applies to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Bear in mind that contrary to popular belief, there is no mention of capitalism or the free market in any of Smith’s work, who was a philosopher rather than an economist and was looking for an answer to the question ‘what is a moral society?’.

The Industrial Revolution

Moving along, the 18th century saw the beginning of the industrial revolution. Goods began to be mass produced and in order to overcome excess supply manufacturers began marketing, promoting fashion, and developing built in obsolescence. By the late 19th century this principle was in full swing, the idea that people’s value can be judged on the amount of products they could afford to consume.

The result was a preoccupation with consumer goods and their acquisition which accelerated, and has continued to do so ever since. Old values like community and family began to be eroded. Is was at this time also that manufacturers and marketers realised that their best chance for success was marketing to the individual. This gave greater potential for volume than marketing to a group.

4492E846-3121-423E-9826-CEDEA37B1C40At the same time the industrial revolution was drawing people away from their tightly knit rural communities into major conurbations, often leading to a disconnection of the extended family and the growth of the nuclear family.

So far, so good. I hope that you’re still with me.

But little had changed in the framework within which society took place. God was still God, and the church and government still weighed a heavy influence on the functioning of society. People still identified with their group whether that be clan or extended family, trade union, political affiliation or class.

Hippies and Neo liberalists – two sides of the same coi

Then things began to speed up.

Firstly we had, in the mid 19th century, the publication of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which forced people to confront what they had previously thought about God, although not to the extent that people today would lead you to believe.

We had the Great Depression of the 1920’s.

Then we had a period of forty years of wars in Europe which became world wars, again leading many to question the existence of a loving God. For the first time we began to hear rumblings along the lines of God is dead. And if God is dead the implication becomes that man is God.

Fast forward to the 1960’s and we have two movements lobbying for major societal change. Firstly the Beat Generation and hippies espousing individual freedom, particularly from what they saw as the rules of the establishment. Freedom meant being able to do what I wanted, with whom I wanted, whenever I wanted. Social convention was anathema.

At the same time we have intellectuals and economists proposing what has become known as Neoliberalism, the idea that markets and corporations should themselves be freed from regulation and taxation, with a reduction in the size of government, lower taxes for the wealthy and the corporation, privatisation of state industries and services, and sale of public assets. It provided for tax havens, encouraged globalisation, zero hours contracts and part time work to avoid payment of National Insurance.

(In a later post I’ll write about the wrong issue being debated – the fact of our freedom rather than what we are going to do with our freedom once we have it).

It created a perfect storm. At the very time that the majority of society needed solidarity in order to confront the greed of the corporations, the individual was becoming disinterested in society and concerned only with their own personal right to make choices.

68CB3905-0BAF-4437-AF46-140B6821A1D6This came to a crescendo in the 1980’s with Thatcher and Reagan fully committing to Neoliberal policies whilst giving what were believed to be greater freedom for the individual (given that Neolibralism was partly based on John Nash’s work on game theory some wag commented that it was the first time a major world change had been thought of by a paranoid schizophrenic and implemented by a B movie star and a a grocer’s daughter!).

Thatcher let everyone off the social conscience hook by declaring ‘there’s no such thing as society, only families and individuals. In one statement, the public had been told there was no need to worry about others, and that greed was now good. The Neoliberal policies outlined above were accelerated, and the one last societal group with any strength, the unions, were fought into the ground.

Moral frameworks we’re now replaced with management frameworks. Suddenly there were objectives, plans and targets everywhere. Risk management was the new god.

So where are we now?

Ironically, almost 40 years on from those historic times we have record levels of debt and greater inequality in wealth than at any time since the 1920’s. The promised release of power and control to the masses hasn’t been realised, if anything the individual now has less of these. Social mobility has declined significantly. Job security has almost disappeared. Fewer people own their own homes. And we have witnessed the growth of a new superior class in the form of political bureaucrats, bankers, and technology entrepreneurs.

So, to draw this all together we have been through four hundred years of massive societal upheaval and change. We have been on a drive for freedom but have used any freedom gained more and more for selfish reasons…either to build wealth or to get what we want, when we want it. We have become hyper individualised and competitive.

We’ve experienced a move from servanthood to freedom, from extended families to the nuclear family, from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy, from relational depth to consumerism, the mechanisation of work, and a growth in personal freedom and so called democracy. And we’ve had successive financial crashes and mechanised global wars.

Given this, my first thought is that it’s amazing we don’t have even higher levels of mental illness, or that maybe we do but they just go undiagnosed. For anybody to have to go through all these environmental changes without becoming somewhat distorted in their thinking would appear to me impossible.

With my Christian head on, I believe that this societal illness is what is meant in part by original sin. Sin can be such an emotive word these days, but I prefer to think of it as separation from the truth and love of God.

We are born into a world which has been distorted from God’s original plan for it. We pick up on this distortion from our parents who have developed their own ways of living with this distortion. But we always have a choice, the ultimate choice and the only one which will deliver us into true freedom. We can either choose to return to God or carry on behind our well constructed defences.

So my view is that contemporary society is definitely contributing to our sickness, but behind this is the truth that when we take action and use our freedom for the good of all rather than petty consumer or media choices we can change this. Unfortunately we’ve come to believe that we are somewhat inert and this has led to a feeling of being trapped, a major cause of mental illness.

To what extent and what I think we can do about it I’ll write about in my next post.

Pulling it all together

To summarise, I want to use the key points put forward in a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report ‘A Wrong Turn in the Search for Freedom’ published in 2008.

It pulls these ideas together far better than I could ever do –

Key points

  • The creation of a society based on abundance instead of scarcity presented us with a choice about what kind of world we wanted to live in. Could freedom be found through possessive individualism or would real autonomy, the ability to shape our world, require greater equality and new solidarities?
  • The political triumph of the new right meant that free market ideology put notions of the state and society on the back foot. After the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the search for liberty became overly focused on markets and consumerism. This was a wrong turn.
  • The result, even during a time of economic boom, has been a social recession centring on the social evils shown in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s consultation.
  • Because everyone is prey to the whims of global competition, our lives feel insecure and anxious, and tolerance and respect for others is declining. The social fabric is being eaten away as we compete rather than co-operate; community cohesion is undermined by the forces and consequences of global markets through dramatically higher capital and people flows.
  • At the heart of the neo-liberal project is the consumer society. It is as consumers that we now understand ourselves and others. Consumerism both seduces us and negates the possibility of alternative ways of living. It compensates us, just enough, to keep us on the treadmill of earning to spend.
  • The political and the democratic freedoms we enjoy are under threat from a definition of freedom based solely on market forces and consumption.
  • Progressives need to establish a richer and more ambitious definition of what it is to be free – one that entails not just personal freedom but the ability to shape the institutions that really affect our lives: the market and the state. We can only do this if we are more equal, and more willing and able to work collectively to achieve what we cannot do alone.

5 thoughts on “Mental Illness: Is Society Making Us Sick? Part Two

  1. Thank you so much for this informative piece. I think society is getting more challenging and the incidence of mental illness is increasing in our gene pool. Those two factors combined create what we have now. Society is formed by people and, if the people are getting increasingly sick, it also gets increasingly sick. it’s a system.
    Freedom isn’t free and is being taken away from us.
    Keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great article! I agree with you. I feel my dad’s side was severely impacted by colonialism as they were aboriginal to Canada. Then my mom’s mom was sent away during the war when she was a child. Both of my parents have attachment issues and I feel it is related to general circumstances beyond their control.


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