Politicising mental health helps no one

A recent report in the Independent notes that, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), one in five men and women aged 16-24 display symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are ‘worrying levels of mental illness in all young people’, it claims.

The piece quotes the Young Women’s Trust (YMT), a charity for young women facing poverty in the UK, which often runs campaigns on mental-health issues. A survey it conducted last month showed that more than a quarter of young mothers use food banks because they can’t afford to buy food, 39 per cent struggle to make their cash last until the end of the month, and one in four are in constant debt. The YMT suggests that the situation faced by young, poor mothers could be one reason why the ONS numbers show such high rates of mental-health issues among young women.

Today, campaigners often justify their political demands in terms of mental health. Now, there is quite clearly a link between poor living standards and the negative emotions many of these campaigners brand as mental-health issues. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to conclude that someone struggling financially might feel anxious, stressed or even a bit depressed. Working out how to pay the bills, feed the kids and pay the rent on low wages and/or benefits takes its toll.

But the response to these problems should be political. Indeed, the tendency to see social strife through the prism of mental illness is a relatively new phenomenon. Take feminism, as an example. Many early feminist campaigners sought to challenge the medicalisation of issues relating to gender inequality, arguing that women weren’t hysterical or mentally ill-equipped for public life and that society needed to change. Contemporary feminists, by contrast, are often at the forefront of perpetuating the idea of feminine fragility, suggesting that existing inequalities are taking their toll on women’s mental health.

The danger here is that, in linking material issues to psychological vulnerability, today’s campaigners end up promoting the very thing they claim to want to overcome. In other words, if we make political demands in terms of fragility, we shouldn’t be surprised when people begin to internalise that sense of fragility. When many young people today say they feel distraught, anxious or mentally fragile, they’re not lying. They have internalised, and are expressing, a cultural script that portrays anger, distress and unhappiness as psychological problems.

If we want to talk about mental health, let’s talk about mental health. But we should not conflate everyday emotions, and people’s desire for a better lot in life, with mental illness. Doing so plays down the seriousness of real mental-health problems, paints existing social inequalities as medical rather than political issues, and undermines the human resilience and resolve needed to take these political battles head-on.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University. His most recent book, Empowerment: A Critique, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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