Diseasing the recession

The UK government’s offer of free therapy to victims of the slump turns a socioeconomic crisis into a mental health issue.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

The global economic crisis represents a major challenge to society. It is a test of political and economic leadership, and it provides an opportunity for society to demonstrate its capacity to adapt and to innovate.

Unfortunately, however, governments often appear to be prisoners of their own insecurity. And instead of inspiring or reassuring their publics, they often end up exacerbating the contemporary climate of fear and uncertainty. So it is with the recession.

The British government’s announcement that it will offer psychological support to millions of citizens concerned about their economic futures is a textbook example of how to make a drama out of a crisis. New Labour clearly looks upon people’s existential anxieties – about unemployment, poverty and family fallout – as a potential mental health crisis. It plans to train 3,600 therapists and hundreds of specialist staff, and set up new psychotherapy centres around Britain to deal with what it sees as a growing army of mentally ill people.

The institutionalisation of ‘recession therapy’ is based on the assumption that the economic crisis will lead to an epidemic of depression and stress, which could cause long-term mental health problems for millions of people. I can predict, with utmost certainty, that the principal achievement of this plan will be to disease people’s natural responses to economic insecurity, and to normalise the idea that people facing hard times can become mentally ill. This will potentially transform people’s experience of economic and social insecurity into a massive public health problem.

Whenever our feelings of insecurity are treated as a mental health issue, it is likely that people will feel encouraged to see themselves as powerless and ill and to interpret their problems in the language of mental health. Consider a recent example. Over the past decade, experts and therapists have tended to re-present the transition from primary school to secondary school as a major traumatic event for children. Instead of discussing children’s arrival at ‘big school’ as an exciting experience, experts now offer transitional counselling for what was, for decades, regarded as a normal and banal aspect of young people’s lives.

Transitional counselling, like many forms of therapy, has a habit of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once children pick up on the idea that going to secondary school is a traumatic experience, many of them start to interpret their normal anxieties and insecurities through the idiom of psychology. The end result is that a growing number of children understand their life experiences in pathological terms and become disoriented. One symptom of this malaise is a rising number of referrals for a recently invented condition: ‘school phobia’ (1).

There is little doubt that policies seeking to disease people’s response to the economic crisis will have a similar outcome.

Every crisis – whether natural, manmade, economic or social – represents a crisis of meaning. The capacity of people, and the community they live in, to deal with a crisis depends on their ability to comprehend and make sense of it. Sadly, twenty-first century Western societies have fallen into the habit of discussing the structural crisis of the global economy in highly individuated and psychological terms. The public is told that the credit crunch was precipitated by a crisis of ‘confidence’ or caused by individual greed. According to the prevailing fatalistic viewpoint, most of us are ‘victims’ who need to suffer through this crisis and change our ‘attitudes’ towards consumption. As in a Hollywood disaster flick, people are assigned the role of powerless, passive individuals, whose state of mind is defined by their sense of vulnerability. And when meaning is communicated through the language of psychology, it is only a matter of time before social policy becomes focused on behaviour management.

It seems that the British government is far more comfortable dealing with the global recession as a mental health problem rather than as a socioeconomic one. This approach is underwritten by a contemporary cultural outlook which continually promotes the idea that adversity is a major source of mental health issues. We have come a long way since the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s government launched a programme of counselling for those who were about to be thrown out of work. Then, many commentators identified these therapy schemes as a cynical attempt by the authorities to contain and defuse the reactions of the unemployed, through encouraging them to accommodate to their precarious lives. Critics accused the government of being more devoted to helping the jobless to ‘cope’ with their predicament than with creating new jobs. Many counsellors pointed out that the unemployed were not interested in their help.

That was then. Today, therapeutic intervention is endorsed by everyone from the powers-that-be to the trade union movement and anti-capitalist protesters. The institutionalisation and normalisation of counselling is underpinned by an intensely pessimistic view of how people behave during times of adversity. They are pathologised as lacking resilience and the capacity to cope, and therefore they need professional support.

Both supporters and opponents of capitalism have embraced a psychological interpretation of the global crisis. Indeed, in recent times the critics of capitalism have condemned the free market on the basis of its alleged mental health impact. This therapeutic critique of capitalism has been implicitly accepted by policymakers, who assume there is a causal relationship between an economic depression and a crisis of mental health. Today, the destructive consequences of a global recession are given meaning through the idea of psychologically damaged victims.

The government’s therapeutic intervention redefines a crisis of society as a crisis of personal deficits and powerlessness. Instead of offering clarity and a sense of meaning with which we might approach the crisis, the government provides individuals with dubious therapeutic techniques. What we need is a totally different approach, one that regards people as problem-solvers rather than as potential mental-health patients. Experience shows that communities can deal with economic insecurity and hardship if they are provided with a sense of purpose about what should be done. People don’t need counselling, but rather opportunities for rebuilding their lives. Instead of encouraging the public to look to therapists for help, our political leaders should foster a climate that supports individuals and communities who are committed to helping themselves.

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

A downturn in moral values, by Brendan O’Neill

Whatever happened to ‘affluenza’?, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: Financial Crisis.

(1) Tears for fears, Guardian, 3 March 2009

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Topics Politics


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