The focus can become all consuming and harmful
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.
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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.