Mental illness continues to rise and diversify while life has, apparently, never been easier. Every year a new crop of disorders emerges to account for ‘abnormalities’ in the human experience.
We have medicalised almost every facet of our behaviour and often see ourselves as our hypothetical therapists would see us. People are no longer quirky or eccentric, they are self-diagnosed sufferers of moderate to grave mental and emotional disorders; that involuntary preference for switching off all power at the socket is an Obsessive Compulsion as opposed to an inclination to be on the safe side.
Mental health terminology has permeated every aspect of our language and culture. We’ve been told that, should we experience any unusually potent emotions like fear, anxiety or depression, then we must seek medical attention at once. Naturally, if you tell a doctor you have been sad for a month and you don’t know why, they are likely to prescribe you anti-depressants or anti-anxieties.
But we tend to leave out some of the finer details when we visit our GP with feelings of sadness, anxiety or confusion. This is because we want the doctor to take our pain away without us having to do anything.
A lot of people who walk around believing they suffer from incurable mental ailments are, in many cases, trapped in a variety of reactive behavioural cycles. They juggle a plethora of soothers to manage feelings of discomfort and live in acute denial that the soothers, themselves, produce discomfort.
People with these kinds of lifestyle problems, which are born out of emotional difficulties, will do anything to continue feeding their short-term needs. Their neural pathways and brain chemistry are running on auto-pilot and any disruption to the usual flow of stimuli can cause serious emotional disturbance.
A mental health diagnosis offers them the chance to continue as they are without having to face their problems. In fact, many will leave the surgery with a prescription and head straight to their dealer or nearest pub to celebrate getting to the bottom of their psychosis.
Coming off your meds…
I know I certainly did. I write this from a place of considerable experience. From neurolinguistics programmers to cognitive behaviour therapists to counselling, I’ve done it all. From 24-hour supported accommodation and a stream of key-workers, to child psychologists and clinical psychiatrists, believe me when I say I know my way around mental health services in Scotland.
I’ve tried the anti-depressants, which left me feeling tuned to the moon and unable to function sexually. I tried coming off them myself and crashed so hard it was a contributing factor in a nightmarish relapse back into alcoholism – which, itself, plagued my mental health for years. The legal fall-out from my behaviour while I was drunk eventually led to being diagnosed with a personality disorder, which I thought would provide me with the answers (and excuses) I needed to get on with my life. But it didn’t. So I stopped the medication and simply left the diagnoses in the past. Enough was enough.
My life has never been better – or more real – and I appreciate happiness a lot more when it comes and goes, as it does.
Our consumer society was designed to cater to our every fleeting whim, both a pacifier of our democratic urges and a playground for our fantasies and aspirations. But it has now become a place we turn to self-soothe as the pace of ultra-modern life unnerves us. After a time these coping strategies, which offer fleeting relief from emotional discord, inevitably fail us and add to the pile of niggling obsessions plaguing our daily lives.
But what will turning up at the GP really do? If all you feel is sad or anxious what can a doctor really do for you? Psychology is still relatively a pseudo-science. If you really want to address your low moods or lingering anxieties do you think the state is the place to turn?
Given their role as the chief architect – or lazy care-taker – of the society that is, arguably, making you ill? And is it even rational, in this day and age, to expect politicians to take care of our mental health? Is that expectation not, in and of itself, a sign of madness?
…and the mental health system
Of course, there is a paradox here. Many people will have to enter the mental health system in order to begin this journey of recovery. But that is only because the system is so poorly designed, as opposed to it being a necessary part of the journey. What if people were encouraged to have a bit more faith in themselves and not taught to defer so quickly to the very systems of power producing their confusion?
Did you know a woman with an eating disorder can wait up to 7 weeks for an appointment with a counsellor? And, while she waits, the full force of consumer culture bears down upon her, while she defers the totality of her well-being to a system which will take two months to even get round to listening to her problems.
In Scotland, despite a nice wave of national pride, the total number of antidepressants prescribed went up by 4.1% between 2011/12 and 2012/13. A total of 5.2m items. Over the last ten years prescriptions for depression have risen by 54% (from 3.4m in 2003/4.) Over three quarters of a million were given anti-depressants in 2014.
This is the true cost of rising social inequality coupled with unfettered capitalism.
If the Scottish Government had any imagination they might commission some people to fearlessly investigate the root causes of this inexorable rise in deep emotional confusion. They might at least sound like they understand the depth and scale of the problem. But I suspect it would not make pleasant reading for a political class so slavishly dependent on corporate scraps to keep the country’s economy (and their own jobs) ticking over.
For those of you who believe you are genuinely ill, I wish you well. You may well be and I am not a doctor. But for the rest of us, how about a radical idea?
Unless we genuinely suffer from a serious mental illness that requires medication and care, could we, perhaps, get a bit more honest with ourselves about the lives we lead and how they impact our well-being? What about the culture of narcissism we engage in daily and how this may be impacting our collective well-being?
Whether it’s the over-stimulation of brightly-lit flat-screens hung in our living-rooms like rare portraits, or the seductive glare of smart-phones on the bus, we are constantly passing through digital wormholes and into new dimensions trying to escape the awkward banality of just being with ourselves.
Consumerism imbues us with a false, almost juvenile, sense of entitlement to be happy.
There are so many layers of pretention required simply to carry out our daily business that it’s no wonder we feel disillusioned and overwrought at times.
Take, for example, the social media itch many of us just can’t scratch. Like many addicts, we create bizarre reasoning in order to justify our behaviour. Behaviour that often falls short of the values we preach, though we are slower at admitting that fact in ourselves than we are at pointing it out in others. ‘’I like to know what’s going on”, “I need it to keep people in the loop about what I’m up to,” or my personal favourite, “It helps me keep in touch with people”.
This strange dance we engage in, indulging the collective delusion that we are having an informed and vital conversation; stroking our fragile egos, fingers in our ears, ruthlessly extending our skewed self-images as brands.
What if our conscience knows that for all the high-minded outrage we espouse, or the veneer of measured rationality we adorn, there is rarely more than prejudice, self-interest, pretention and ignorance at the heart of much of what we say and do publicly? What if the burden of these uncomfortable truths is a big part of what is weighing us down emotionally?
Listen to your body
When we feel sad or anxious, and there seems no obvious reason why, perhaps it’s because we require a course correction in how we carry out our daily business? Perhaps our body is telling us to address something?
Medication is, essentially, used to block that vital signal. Antidepressants mute the call of the human soul and what they buy you in time they will rob you of truth.
The consumer society needs us to be looking outward at all times for the answers. It also needs us to be working at optimum levels of productivity. Antidepressants allow us to function without having to scrutinise ourselves and the society we live in.
That horrific truth we are all running from.
As a result of our child-like inability to grapple with our frailties we now have a mental health pic’n’mix, all you can eat psychological buffet.
May I hazard a guess that many people are currently shopping around for the mental health diagnosis of their choice? A disposition that best accentuates their manufactured self-image?
There are vast sub-cultures marketed specifically to angst-ridden introverts who feel lonely and misunderstood. Slick counter-culture narratives, as corporate as Starbucks, permeate entertainment, telling us that to feel adjusted to this society we must be sick ourselves.
They tell us that mental illness is the natural, default position and that happy people are either ignorant or sociopathic.
I’ll hazard another guess: the desire to get an all-encompassing diagnosis to account for their emotional discomfort appeals to them because it requires them to do almost nothing in exchange for temporary peace of mind.
The consumer utopia extends to our consciousness, making reality itself temporarily optional. But just recognise that approach to life is time-limited.
Shouting at the world
We’re all so busy trying to change the world by shouting at it but we don’t even possess the basic human ability to be with our own feelings. We can’t even sit with ourselves without feeling restless and agitated.
If we want to feel better perhaps we could confront our own absurdity: we now live in the subtext of a Radiohead album, lying awake with our backs to our partners, asking Google for relationship advice.
Modern society renders the hapless consumer powerless in the face of industrial-scale temptation; nothing but a gathering snow-ball of imagined ailments rolling down the shallow slope of mortality towards a life unlived.
The good news is we can opt-out at any moment. We can aspire to more than simply occupying our wandering minds between restless sleeps.
But it won’t be fun all the time. And it certainly won’t be easy. When you accept that you are not entitled to be content and that discomfort is part of your humanity you are already half way there. The rest is about learning to traverse the physiological assault course of western life honestly and with clarity of purpose. Your well-being will become rooted in an instinctive ability to resist persistent illusions – as opposed to any external trinket you could obtain or miracle substance you could imbibe.
A new enlightenment
This is the real reward on offer for our species if only we can wade through the shit storm of the self: true enlightenment that does not require a revolution in politics but, rather, an evolution in thinking
.Genuine human fulfilment is the only thing this system cannot produce in abundance and there is a reason for that; happiness – and indeed unhappiness – is something we cultivate by striving to improve ourselves.
So let’s stop pretending that the government can soothe our troubles when in truth our individual mental health is well beyond their expertise. Sadly, this area of life falls squarely within our own remit.
We know the undeniable link between mental illness and poverty. It’s indisputable.Therefore, any government unwilling to tackle structural social inequality and unfettered, zombie capitalism is effectively consigning a vulnerable cross-section of its population to mental torment. ‘Socialism’ won’t solve this one either. That’s why it’s on us. (The graph shows these links in Scotland).
The question for the Scottish people is simple: are we consumers or are we citizens? The consumer will continue waiting in line, shuffling along, head down, privately hoping someone else will come and take the problem away.
The consumer is a perpetual child. The citizen recognises the truth: nobody is responsible for making you happy but you.
There are too many people walking around in the rain, as I once did, believing they are broken beyond repair, looking outside of themselves for answers when what they need already dwells within them. Some may think this overly simplistic or harsh, but I have found it to be true. I hope one day soon you will too.
Besides, relying on the current government to think outside anything but the ballot box, will eventually drive you insane.
Main image: © Josh Carlisle