Mental Health and Late Capitalism

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Trigger Warning: mention of suicide.

Despite various other differences, most schools of psychology deny the importance of social status in people’s mental health. Modern theories were majorly developed by upper-class men, experiences of whom are far from universal. Most of them place too great an emphasis on individuality, and not enough on how rooted the individual is in the socio-political atmosphere.

Freud’s topological theory reflects the capitalist society very well. Just as our true motivations are out of our consciousness and control, the “drive” to accumulate wealth that permeates every facet of our life is out of control too; in the sense that we must keep accumulating wealth if we wish to survive in a capitalist state. Under such context, all productive energy is to be channeled to ends of being productive i.e, accumulating wealth. While the upper class is comfortable in this, the lower class often has to engage in dehumanizing labour.

Intrinsic to capitalism is alienation.

This alienation is not just from the product of labour, but also from the community. Thus, it affects the employee’s mental health adversely. Experiences in a capitalist society become highly fragmenting especially when one is alienated from their social and creative selves. Such a lifestyle, as countless times proven through research, is damaging one’s growth and adjustment.

A glum reality:

Is someone socially withdrawn or is he/she not getting enough time out of the wearing nature of work under capitalism to lead a healthy social life? In Japan, the Hikikomori rebel against the hegemonic power and the stress of Japanese school and work life. They break the strict social norm and absolutely withdraw themselves from society “by becoming a hermit”. This has been superficially addressed by various governments by employing therapists and creating support groups. Needless to say, since they do not touch base with policy changes in the exhaustive educational and occupational structures, the phenomenon persists.

Anti-capitalist critics of psychotherapy rightly stress how imperative it is to take into account the socio-political life of the clients while working with them. Therapists must not only look at the client’s personal history but also at, well, history. Individuation of mental distress symptoms can create unhealthy internalisation of symptoms, which can be detrimental. Psychology should not be apolitical. It seems too mindless to assume society as it is, functions in good order, and it is the individual who is malfunctioning.

Humans need to feel valued and useful to communities that they are a part of. Such human-innate needs are constantly dismissed under capitalism.

Anti-suicide nets, an alternative solution to the inhuman working  conditions in one of the biggest factories for apple(Foxconn) in Shenzhen,  China. : pics
Anti-suicide nets as installed by Apple in Shenzen, China, 2010

A corporation might employ superlative organizational psychologists while being indifferent to the grievances of its factory workers. The only heavily media covered spot on Apple’s otherwise favorable and remarkable brand reputation was a crisis in 2010. The assembly line workers at the Foxconn manufacturing plant started “throwing themselves off” from the factory roof. These attempts of suicide in broad daylight were a protest against the working conditions. The workers had two complaints that were common: the stressful never-ending workdays, and the relentless management that constantly humiliated them and went back on their promises of benefits. The city of Foxconn is also otherwise infamous for worker suicides. Steve Jobs, when asked to comment declared “We’re all over that”. However, several workers claimed otherwise. The manufacturers responded by suspending large nets a couple of feet above ground level as suicide prevention.

To conclude:

Capitalism has always been the elephant in the room while talking about mental health. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, working multiple jobs, marketing oneself to capitalists for jobs that determine one’s worth as a human are all synonymous to capitalism. Late capitalism essentially suffers a crisis of profitability. This correspondingly attacks the living standards of the working class; be it the Apple’s assembly line workers or Indian farmers fighting privatization.

With a profit-based health system that caters to only those who can pay, it is more profitable to treat than to prevent. 

Two hundred years of psychotherapy and millions of “more healthily adjusted” individuals have not ended the oppression of the class society. The therapist’s room is not a cell of revolution. At the same time, however, to think mental health care could work by itself, without the eradication of the socio-political conditions that generate mental distress is imprudent and naive. Under a capitalist society, rehabilitation becomes empowering for the individual to inject them back into the workplace. This is why in such a society, empowerment must not just be a feeling – least of all a treatment – but also socio-economic security, comfortable living standards, and time to take care of oneself. Mental health theory and practice must not assume that the individual needs to ‘adjust better’ to fit the society without examining the society critically.

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