We are living, we’re told, through a “mental health crisis”. Mental health services cannot cope with the explosion of demand over the past two years: 1.6 million people are on waiting lists, while another 8 million need help but can’t even get on these lists. Even children are showing up at A&E in despair, wanting to die.
But there is another way to see this crisis – one that doesn’t place it firmly in the realm of the medical system. 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.
As a clinical psychologist who has been working in NHS services for a decade, I’ve seen first hand how we are failing people by locating their problems within them as some kind of mental disorder or psychological issue, and thereby depoliticising their distress. Will six sessions of CBT, designed to target “unhelpful” thinking styles, really be effective for someone who doesn’t know how they’re going to feed their family for another week? 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. Unsurprisingly, mindfulness isn’t helping children who are navigating poverty, peer pressure and competitive exam-driven school conditions, where bullying and social media harm are rife.
If a plant were wilting we wouldn’t diagnose it with “wilting-plant-syndrome” – we would change its conditions. Yet when humans are suffering under unliveable conditions, we’re told something is wrong with us, and expected to keep pushing through. To keep working and producing, without acknowledging our hurt.
In efforts to destigmatise mental distress, “mental illness” is framed as an “illness like any other” – rooted in supposedly flawed brain chemistry. In reality, recent research concluded that depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain. Ironically, suggesting we have a broken brain for life increases stigma and disempowerment. What’s most devastating about this myth is that the problem and the solution are positioned in the person, distracting us from the environments that cause our distress.
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Source: The Guardian, 6th September 2022