12 Oct 2008

Mental Health Day: role of capitalism missed

Friday was World Mental Health Day - commemorated every year on October 10th - observed for the first time in 1992.

Photo: Randwick woods

It as an opportunity to communicate with the general public about mental health issues - particularly important as adults with mental health problems are amongst the most disatvantaged groups in our society -as a mental health worker this issue is close to my heart and I had intended a big blog posting on this - then I went and got unwell - I'm on the mend but this is much briefer and less well put together than I had intended and two days late....

I don't write about my work on this blog but as a Green party councillor I have chosen to look an area of Mental Health wellbeing that is not considered sufficiently as part of this day - our relationship with the environment and economy. Of course it goes almost without saying that there is a great need to invest more resources in mental health, to tackle the stigma attached to mental health, to provide more support to carers, to engage better with communities etc etc - but perhaps a blog on all those and more issues another time....

Prescriptions for a Country walk?

Now some will be familiar with recent ecotherapy initiatives in order "to address the mental imbalances in modern life" - for example last year Mind came out with a report, "Ecotherapy: the Green Agenda for Mental Health" - the first proper look at how "green" exercise affects those suffering from depression - ie a country walk does wonders (i) - see Guardian article here - and a comment on this blog when the research first came out here.

Given that over 31 million prescriptions were written for anti-depressants last year, a 6% increase on the previous year, the Health Service needs more effective and more holistic alternatives to solving our crises of wellbeing. While green exercise is clearly not always appropriate in dealing with incidences of mental ill health, and may not be a suitable replacement for drugs, they clearly can be part of finding a way forward in achieving better health, improved job satisfaction, and better relationships with friends, family and community.

Ecotherapy - more than country walks

In fact ecotherapy is much more than suggested by these reports - Linda Buzzell who writes "Ecotherapy News" which I have subscribed to for some years, says: "Ecotherapy is the reinvention of psychotherapy as if nature mattered. It takes into account the latest scientific understandings of our universe and the deepest indigenous wisdom. This perspective reveals the critical fact that people are intimately connected with, embedded in and inseparable from the rest of nature, which shifts our understanding of how to heal the human psyche and the currently dysfunctional human-nature relationship. It becomes clear that what happens to nature for good or ill impacts people and vice versa, leading to new methods of individual and community psychotherapeutic diagnosis and treatment."

Chris Johnstone's useful Great Turning Times is another place to look at such issues (see here) and Joanna Macy's website (see here).

Meanwhile James Hillman writes: "Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet."

As someone who has a degree in psychology I could not agree more - my whole course which was a long while ago now was devoid of even a mention of the planet. For me one of the key issues is that in the western world economic growth and consumption have failed to deliver high levels of wellbeing and worse still they have undermined environmental protection and social cohesion. One in four people in Europe experience at least one significant episode of mental ill health during their lives; some 80,000 people aged 15 plus are affected by depression, anxiety and phobias in Gloucestershire alone.

It's the economy stupid

Bill Clinton's widely used phrase in the 1992 election refers to the notion that Clinton was a better choice because Bush had not adequately addressed the economy, which had recently undergone a recession. It is perhaps not a surprise that more is not written about the economy's role or rather capitalism's role in our mental health - take shopping as just one example...

We are continually peddled the idea that ‘buying stuff is good’: that we need to keep buying more goods so that the economy can keep expanding. Indeed we are being told that we can never have enough material possessions. Bush is famous for telling his country to "go shopping"(see example here). But it isn't just the buying - it is that we are also encouraged to buy into the idea that our purchases define us and give us status. We are asked to accept that creating wealth as a nation means consuming more as individuals - and it is this that is surely at the bottom of many of our problems of greed, status anxiety, personal dissatisfaction, as well as social and environmental deterioration.

Next month on 29th Nov it will be Buy Nothing Day - this is a chance to highlight some of the absurdities of our economy - then again the collapse of banks should have done that? Amazingly consumer borrowing has increased to £5.9bn in the second quarter of this year, despite the ongoing turbulence in the global economy - a staggering £757m increase in consumer debt compared to the same period in 2007. And as we well know debt can have a significant impact on our mental health - see MIND report here.

Selfish capitalism?

The role of capitalism in rising mental health has been well documented by the likes of Oliver James - see my blog here - and was also the subject of one of the most well attended Coffee House discussions earlier this year (see here). Oliver James has returned repeatedly to the role of capitalism in articles - see for example Guardian here.

In his book he argues Selfish Capitalism is a particularly aggressive form of capitalism found predominantly in English speaking nations. He noptes that in these countries around 23% of the population has suffered from some form of mental illness such as depression or anxiety in the last 12 months. This compares to an average of 11.5% of say German, Italian, French, Belgian, Spanish and Dutch who live under a system of what James describes as social or unselfish capitalism. He then outlines two key factors that illustrate why - in brief these are:

1. Economic inequality - this has increased massively over the last 30 years in the English-speaking world . The top 1% of earners in the UK now earn 13% of the British National Income – up from 6.5% in 1982. While the richest have become richer due to regressive taxation policies under the Thatcher and Blair governments, the wages of average earners have increased by very little and the lower earners bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden.

2. The ‘affluenza’ virus - this has developed in countries such as the UK and US in which a very high value is placed on money, material possessions, physical appearance and fame. People who have enough money to meet their fundamental physical and psychological needs are discontented and feel that they must work harder and harder to become more and more materially successful, even though increased material wealth may not be making them any more satisfied with their lives.

Meanwhile in addition to those factors we have seen social mobility through education has decreased significantly over the last 30 years. Yet our current culture of celebrity suggests that a large proportion of the population could become rich and famous and that this is what we should all be aiming for. This leads too many to think: "If I don't succeed, then there is only one person to blame." Never mind that it couldn't be clearer that it's the system's fault, not yours.

James argues that reduced consumerism and greater inequality would half the incidence of mental illness in societies affected by Affluenza within one generation. Well I am not sure we could achieve such startling results but certainly tackling these issues will be crucial in reducing the incidence of mental illness.

Note: (i) The study compared a 30-minute walk in a country park with a walk in an indoor shopping centre for 20 individuals. After the country walk, 71% reported decreased levels of depression and said they felt less tense, while 90% reported increased self-esteem. This was in contrast to only 45% who experienced a decrease in depression after the shopping centre walk, after which 22% said they actually felt more depressed. Some 50% also felt more tense and 44% said their self-esteem had dropped after window-shopping at the centre.

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