Legitimizing and de-legitimizing mental illness

I’ve often thought that, along with environmental degradation, the current mental health crisis in the West most decisively indicates the rampant destructiveness of capitalism. In brief, capitalism leads us to participate in forms of life that create a perfect storm for the proliferation of debilitating mental illnesses. (Some of these “forms of life” might be: isolation from others and the earth, non-charitable competition, creation and elevation of exclusively individualistic goods, consumerism and immersion into constant advertisement and misinformation, a culture of exploitation that induces fear of the other and of vulnerability, prioritization of quantifiable production, objectification of our (and others’) bodies into impediments to be overcome or else sites of exclusively physical pleasure, narcissism and an inability to trust others, constant low-level anxiety over finances – and this list does not even begin to delve into the social problems, such as poverty and poor diet, that capitalism brings about and which obviously intersect with mental health.) I’m not necessarily claiming that without capitalism there would not be mental illness (I’d want to do more research first), but it seems apparent that capitalist forms of life greatly aggravate both the intensity and the frequency of mental illnesses.

I’ll try to illustrate. It is not difficult to see how somebody with an acute sensitivity to the world around her would, in a different society, find such a trait cultivated and utilized by her community, perhaps in a religious role. In contrast, unless she is quite lucky, in our society she should expect such a gift to be thanklessly used and exploited or else ignored. And this is to say nothing of the speed with which our world operates at and the volume of insensitive sensory information that screams out at us on streets, in stores, and on our (addicting) computers. Someone with an ability to attend to the emotions and needs of others (an amazing gift!) is, in western capitalism, all too likely to develop PTSD or SPTSD. Someone with a particularly strong need for mutual and meaningful dependencies (another wonderful gift) with multiple others will, in our society, need to “make it on his own” and will probably struggle with clinical depression. In sum, capitalism refuses and tramples on these and other latencies, which have so much positive potential but instead realize themselves as mental illnesses.

I come at this matter, at least in part, with a desire to attend to those people close to me that struggle with mental illnesses. And this leads me to question what it might mean to write or speak about mental illness as a symptom of capitalism. In a certain sense, I am de-legitimatizing mental illness. I’m saying that this does not have to be. However, I am also aware of the stigma surrounding mental illness and how destructive it can be to make mental illness “illegitimate”. Is this what I’m doing? Does my de-legitimation of mental illness make it somehow illegitimate as an illness?

I don’t think so, and, in fact, I hope that I am doing something quite to the contrary. Saying that something did not have to be, does not make it is any less real. We can think of environmental degradation – which I mentioned earlier as another prominent symptom of capitalism – and public health as illustrative of this. Poor air quality greatly increases the intensity and frequency of asthma cases, for example. This does not mean that asthma is some sort of fantasy illness, which people just need to “get over”; indeed, it requires concrete and specific forms of care and treatment. What it does mean is that air polluters and the people and systems in place that encourage and require air pollution are culpable.

This, I think, leads us to the importance of de-legitimizing mental illness, for doing so helps us to see our responsibilities in the face of our (society’s) culpability. Over the past few years there’s been a hopeful decrease in the stigma surrounding mental illness. However, my observation is that, in the popular mind, this stigma has been replaced by a tendency to view those with mental illnesses as people who are afflicted all the way down. They are, in this view, merely weaker members of society that we must care for, with our patience, but most importantly with an ever growing list of pharmaceuticals, which will help “them” function normally. This not only lets us “off the hook”, it also objectifies the person with mental illness, turning her into someone who can never give but only receive, at least as far as her mental illness is concerned. It also holds problems at the systemic level, closing off our imagination to forms of life outside of capitalism, where acute sensitivity, for example, might flourish rather than become debilitating, needing to be sedated.

Far from encouraging us to ignore or repress the reality of mental illnesses, de-legitimizing mental illness, as something that need not be, can function as a legitimation. Naming the evils that cause a disease (I hope) works towards showing that disease to be real and serious, forcing perpetrators (in this case, a society) to take responsibility for the destruction they wreck, and, just maybe, pointing to healing and hopeful ways to move forward. We can see mental illness as a very legitimate problem, at once crippling to those afflicted and damning to our society. Seeing in this way would, then, call us to attend to the needs and gifts of those with mental illnesses as part of the responsibilities of living in a society that catalyzes mental health issues. It would also call us to a further responsibility, namely, seeking out and working towards political forms of life that might do battle with and escape from the capitalist machine.

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6 comments on “Legitimizing and de-legitimizing mental illness

  1. Donald McKenzie says:

    Very good and thoughtful post. There is much to be said for the “this doesn’t have to be” point of view. After all, that was the kind of view that caused us to find ways to improve hygiene and basic physical health care. There is no reason not to apply the same view to mental health. Especially, if we couple that with the view that just like we would never tell a person to “just get over” a physical disease, we shouldn’t expect that someone living with mental illness will just be able to get over it.

  2. Gerald Ens says:

    Thanks for this comment Donald. I’m glad you liked this post. If we can articulate “this doesn’t have to be” in a hopeful rather than stigmatizing way, then who knows what we might start to accomplish.

  3. warrior just says:

    good points.
    ps. why do you address a person by “female: she, her” ?

    • Gerald Ens says:

      Thanks! Sorry I didn’t see this comment for so long.

      I’m not super consistent with pronoun usage (though I do try to avoid using exclusively the male pronoun). Given, the fact that in the history of English the male pronoun has almost always been used to refer to the generic subject I often feel like using female pronoun to refer to the same generic subject functions as a bit of a corrective. Feminists will tell me that that sort of “resistance” is not really resistance at all and it would be much better if I just read a few books by women. As usual, they’re right. But still.

  4. Just read this, so very late. It is wonderful. I am wrestling with so much of this. Your post helped enormously.

  5. Gerald Ens says:

    Thanks a lot. I’m very glad to hear that you found it helpful.

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