In England, 17% of the population is currently prescribed anti-depressants (NHS website, 2019) and suicide was found in 2018 to be the single biggest killer of males under the age of 45 (Mackay, 2018). But while we generally consider depression and mental illness to be an unavoidable phenomenon, an unbalancing of chemicals in the brain, is it possible that paramount questions are not being considered? Is this another man-made crisis of the modern world? If so, is depression fundamentally a political issue?
A biological understanding of depression, namely the theory of chemical imbalance which rose to popularity through the success rate of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), fails to answer some pivotal questions, namely what causes this chemical imbalance and why certain populations have a higher prevalence of depression within their societies.
While the Tabula Rasa is an absurdity, we must tread carefully. Biological reductionism naturally eclipses broader thought processes. Does society at large not affect each individual’s sense of self?
Thinking of depression in these biological terms is financially fruitful for the pharmaceutical complex: if the symptom is low mood caused by a deficiency in serotonin or dopamine, then the cure is SSRIs that replenish them. But this is somewhat of a groundhog day, as only the symptom of depression was addressed. You wouldn’t just treat the symptoms of cancer without removing the tumour too. Thinking solely in these biological terms shifts the blame from any larger and important question down to the individual.
An ‘external locus of control’ has been steadily rising. This is characterised by the feeling that external forces have more control over one’s own destiny than themselves. Recent research into Britain’s school children found that the rate of feeling an external locus of control is steadily rising (Department of Education, 2016). To use the US as an example, a meta-analysis has shown that between the years 1960-2002 an external locus of control was ‘substantially higher’ amongst university and school-age children in 2002 than in 1960 (Twenge et al., 2004, p. 317). When your savings can be lost to an overnight economic crash, your employer can lay you off for the failings of upper management, when middle aged renters have doubled in the last decade, it’s no wonder that young people are feeling like everything is out of their control, that freedom is diminishing.
Loneliness and Social Atomisation
Man is obviously sustained by more than economics alone. Social communities are the backbone of our existence and it’s these links that fundamentally drive us. Our economic system’s primary concern is growth and profit. It is diametrically opposed to man’s desire to be part of social networks and thus a collective. Modern man must be mobile and adaptive to maximise results; they must be willing to uproot themselves when required, to work long hours, to commute into the city, mothers and fathers must reduce the importance of their role in the family to satisfy our need for shelter, food and excess profit. Marx rightly observed that family has been reduced to a “mere money relation”.
This effectively demotes the necessity of social communities to a luxury and has resulted in the Mental Health Foundation in 2010 finding that 42% of the population stated that they have felt depressed because they felt alone. With capitalism extending beyond the limits of border’s, a globalism has emerged in which everyone is “interconnected in a global community”. What this really means, is that we have been freed from the idiocy of our local communities and our regional and national identities undermined.
The expansion of the labour pool through the modern expression of a diverse and inclusive society has had inverse effects on community cohesion and individual connection. Laurence and Bentley (2015) found that individuals whose communities have become diversified over time lost connection to their communities compounding the question of mental health, loneliness and social atomisation.
UK Suicide Prevention Minister
In 2018, Theresa May appointed a minister charged with suicide prevention in the UK, the first country in the world to do this. The former PM was then quoted as saying “There are few greater examples than the injustices facing those with mental health conditions.” This came with a £1.8 million pledge to Samaritans. But this seems to be a weak and hypocritical solution. Liberalism, similarly to Communism and Fascism, continues to show a complete disregard for the humanity of people. We routinely criticise the link between animal captivity and their wellbeing, but stumble when it comes to talking about the system and its effects upon us.
Every party claims to be for the little man, whether they are overtly against the rich or for creating business and job opportunities. The main parties are, first and foremost, economists growing the economy. If they were for the wellbeing of the working/middle classes, why do we never hear about affording people more leisure time outside of work? Because affording free time is not profitable. This is why liberal parties offer financial incentives to the middle and working classes. They enrich workers so that they can increase their consumption, therefore facilitating the need for increased production. A material lull.
The essence of our current economic system is individualism, that man should be able to thrive standing on his own two feet, that men and women are freer for foregoing the family unit and relationships with those they identify with in the search for financial achievement and social status. The strongest prevail in this war of all against all. In many ways the fundamental question and need of our time has been of identity – who and what we are – needs and desires that cannot be fulfilled by the individual. Consumer capitalism needs people to be producers at work and limitless consumers at home; everything is commodified to the needs of the individual, a state of atomisation. A cursory look at typical advertising strategies outline this perfectly.
The key to answering key questions about our depression epidemic very well may rest in our economical civilisation. We should cease to talk about mental health as solely an issue about health but frame it within a political and economic frame.