by Tobias Phibbs
Friday, 3
September 2021
Debate
08:00

We don’t need to talk more about our mental health

The focus can become all consuming and harmful
by Tobias Phibbs
Work in a cubicle, work-out in a cubicle, see a therapist in a cubicle

The ONS has published new statistics showing the suicide rate dropped between April and June 2020, offering apparent support to lockdown supporters and a rebuke to those who opposed it in the name of mental health. They should be taken with a pinch of salt: whenever a crisis first emerges, the sense of something happening and the chance to act heroically usually provides an initial ballast, before disillusion sets in.

But whichever side is ultimately right on the stats, the real winner is the all-powerful cultural hold ‘mental health’ has over all of us. We are encouraged to turn ourselves inside and out, to search our inner recesses for trauma. We are told to place our mental health over our relationships, our family.

Every major company is in on it. So is the government (and the opposition, who’ve appointed a shadow minister for mental health). Your town lost its industry and drugs and crime have filled the void? You’ve been locked out of the housing market and a landlord who won’t fix the mould takes half your salary? Chuck another few million to a campaign for footballers to talk about the importance of mental health.

Mental health places endless demands upon us and, if you surrender to it, can come to dominate every last aspect of life. Constantly wary that you might be hurting others — and that you need time for your own self-care — you end up in a droopy world of inactivity, a race-to-the-bottom of neurosis and pathology.

It is hard to find any proof that all this makes people feel much better. Our culture is uniquely open already; we have never before talked so much about mental health, yet it has had no effect on suicide rates – certainly not for men, the main targets of the demand that we open up. It may be that men in particular need to talk more, but there’s no reason to think they need to talk more about ‘mental health’.

We are quickly following coastal America in the ubiquity of therapists and anti-depressants, not as a response to severe pathology but instead as a thoroughly normalised part of our culture. Work in a cubicle, work-out in a cubicle, see a therapist in a cubicle, then back home for a takeaway and an SSRI.

There’s a real danger here. Rather than embrace integral lives filled with joy, pain, love and hurt, we can attempt to shave off life’s excesses in the name of some smoothed-over notion of ‘wellness’. We have lost the ability to speak persuasively about the good life; mental health is our desiccated replacement.

Join the discussion


  • Depression is suppressed anger. Work out what you are angry about and do something about it. It could be external – job, poor housing, lack of education, unsatisfactory relationship – or it could be internal – the belief that you have to conform to sex stereotypes or familial expectations rather than living your own way. Above all, it is lack of hope and belief that something can be done.
    Most of the things that people are unhappy about come down to money. If people could afford to leave unsatisfactory jobs, relationships and housing, they would stop being angry about them. They also need to recognise that being angry is allowed!

  • The worrying thing for me is how this dialogue (almost an obsession) about mental health has entered the workplace. It worries me for two reasons. Firstly, it gets employers off the hook for presiding over a stressful or unhealthy workplace. If you are overworked or put under excessive stress to meet targets or deadlines, employers can just refer you to their ‘wellbeing’ program, often little more than some cuddly sounding blurb written by the HR department. The problem then is shifted from the employer (who could do something useful like hiring more people to reduce workloads) to the employee, i.e. “get some therapy”. I haven’t read Vivek Ramaswamy’s “Woke, Inc.” yet, but I get the feeling that a similar strategy that he describes is at play with the corporate world’s enthusiasm for promoting mental health issues.
    The second reason it worries me is that continually suggesting to people that they might be suffering from mental health problems is a type of gaslighting, that in other situations would be considered abuse. If you continually suggest that to people, then they may start to believe it, even if it isn’t true. It then might actually prompt mental health problems where none existed before.
    Don’t get me wrong; I realise that many people do suffer mental health problems and I have much sympathy. I also think that NHS provision for mental health care is woefully inadequate and that a lot of sufferers are falling by the wayside. But encouraging people to believe that they are suffering such problems, especially when the emphasis is on the milder spectrum of mental health problems which anyone can add to their portfolio of grievances, is wrong. I would rather that more energy be spent on addressing serious mental health problems, such as severe / psychotic depression and schizophrenia (and myriad other conditions). 

  • Goodness this is complex
    As a gp, a woman who suffered serious postnatal.depression rescued beautifully and effectively by medication and now as a partner an employer of staff who can also call mental health issues as reason for failing to manage work environment I sit on all sides of the coin!
    Without a doubt woefully underfunded because actually a lot can be achieved by fairly minimal intervention. But societal and material circumstances play a huge part. There is no doubt that during the large part of lockdown we saw a huge surge in very acute MH issues many of which were circumstantial (anyone tried to work full-time run a household and home school?) Often the solution was that had schools remained open and people not lost jobs…plus variety of life and social contact…would not have occurred.
    One of the great great Joy’s of being a gp is he ability albeit awfully time limited, to listen and help find ways through. I forever wish I had more time.
    But resilience is far too easily packaged as achievable without understanding of material circumstances.
    In the end, funding both health and education are likely to be effective tools….I am not convinced celebrity rhetoric will help
    I’m off for my gin and tonic now…

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