Mental health and wellbeing are now major concerns for government and big business, as stress, depression and anxiety become widespread in modern societies. But their focus is often solely on the attitude of the individual, which ignores the particular social and economic causes behind such conditions. Here, I discuss with William Davies the psychological demands and effects of neoliberalism and the science of happiness.
William Davies is a Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is author of The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty & the Logic of Competition (Sage, 2016) and The Happiness Industry: How the Government & Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (Verso, 2015). His writing is at www.williamdavies.blog
Historically, most social formations have involved widespread inequality and poverty, and have placed many people under mental stress. It may therefore seem likely that people would experience anxieties and depressive feelings less now, given the relative ease of modern life. So, what is it that makes mental well-being such a prominent matter today? Is it simply that we understand and diagnose mental health issues much more clearly and efficiently now, or are these issues actually more prevalent?
William Davies: Clearly diagnostics techniques exert an influence over the thing they diagnose, meaning that symptoms present themselves differently in different eras, especially where there is a psychological dimension. It is true that the vocabulary and techniques for diagnosing and experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in particular have grown since the 1970s, and that this must be considered a factor in their current levels in Western societies. There isn’t some underlying ‘truth’ about distress, that exists entirely independently of the concepts and metrics society introduces for representing and managing it.
On the other hand, the question of why there is so much distress, represented in this way, must still be asked. This distress is not ‘fake’, even if it is conditioned by its historical and cultural context. I think two things are worth focusing on. Firstly, there is the meritocratic ethos of contemporary capitalism, which states that social class is no longer relevant, and therefore everybody ends up with the socio-economic position they deserve. This produces a chronic sense of self-blame, unease, anxiety and self-recrimination, with individuals having nobody to blame but themselves for not being famous, very rich or more attractive. Combine with digital tools that allow all time and space to be used productively, and you have a society without any sanctuaries from economic competition. This, incidentally, is partly why the phenomenon of ‘safe spaces’ is necessary, providing the possibility of being somewhere where vulnerability is accepted, and also why such a phenomenon attracts so much rage from those of an older generation not privy to them.
Secondly, we live in a time of psycho-somatic confusion, no longer knowing what to attribute to the ‘mind’ and what to the ‘body’, with the ‘brain’ serving as a medium between the two. A great deal of mental illness, as discussed and encountered today, hovers in a psycho-somatic space which is existential but also medical at the same time. The medical dimension stems partly from the fact that psychiatry has become increasingly medicalised since the 1970s, and more dependent on pharmaceuticals, but also from the fact that the medical doctor is one of the last experts that we truly trust, and – in Britain – the NHS is one of the last public institutions of all-round care and sympathy. So we turn in these directions in search of those things, as much as because of physical ailments. READ MORE