- Parent Category: ROOT
- Published: Monday, 01 June 2020 12:00
- Written by Carmine Vacirca
Our Mental Health Today
This month’s blog addresses mental health in our society and culture. Lately, I have been thinking and reading about the state of our mental health, especially during this pandemic. To learn more about this subject I have been researching why we are in the state that we are in. What I learned is that our current socio-economic society plays a significant role in making us sick for the sake of keeping our society’s economic system operational. And, for the most part this fact is ignored. I am no expert or authority on this subject. Most of this information comes from my research, readings and from my life experiences. One source I relied heavily on is the famous social psychologist Erich Fromm. His thinking and analysis have contributed enormously to this subject. I refer you to three, of what I think are, his groundbreaking books. They are The Sane Society, Escape From Freedom and The Art of Loving. In these works, Fromm addresses where we are as human beings, how we got here and how society and culture affects our mental health. Fromm’s texts, published in the mid-20th century, are highly relevant to today’s mental health crisis.
For many years we have been experiencing a significant global mental-health crisis. In his article on “Capitalism and Mental Health,” David Mathews writes: “Recent estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that more than three hundred million people suffer from depression worldwide. Furthermore, twenty-three million are said to experience symptoms of schizophrenia, while approximately eight hundred thousand individuals commit suicide each year”. (1) Our mental health industry, in partnership with the pharmaceutical industry, focus on biochemical causes of many mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, etc.
“In capitalist society, biological explanations dominate understandings of mental health, infusing professional practice and public awareness. Emblematic of this is the theory of chemical imbalances in the brain—focusing on the operation of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine—which has gripped popular and academic consciousness despite remaining largely unsupported.” (1)
Often overlooked is how our current social-economic society is severely impacting our mental health. And, how our need to grow according to the unique characteristics that make us human is being sacrificed for its continued operation. For Erich Fromm said, “everybody’s main goal in life is to become stronger, freer, more noble – essentially, the person you were meant to be.” (2) In today’s socio-economic society the goal is profit-oriented mass-production, mass-consumption, with human beings as the tool keeping it running. There is a fundamental disconnect between our basic goals, as mature and healthy human beings, versus how we live in today’s socio-economic society. Erich Fromm in The Sane Society, on pages 72-73 states,
“A healthy society furthers man’s capacity to love his fellow men, to work creatively, to develop his reason and objectivity, to have a sense of self which is based on the experience of his own production powers. An unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility, distrust, which transforms man into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives him of a sense of self, except inasmuch as he submits to others or becomes an automation.” (5)
This is as true today as it was when first published in 1955. To me our way of life is unhealthy, both physically and mentally. To make matters worse, our current coronavirus pandemic has increased our stress in an already stressed out population. There have been many news reports regarding this in the past several weeks. More than ever, many of us today have a heightened mistrust of each other. Health officials and governments have implemented rules that require us to practice social and physical distancing, furthering our isolation and mistrust, and exacerbating our feelings of loneliness and alienation. Some of us believe these rules are excessive and are ignoring them, thinking their rights are being violated. Also, our leaders must seriously rethink their priorities. They cannot continue to put the health and wellbeing of the economic system above the value of people’s lives. It is obvious to me that this pandemic is exposing the inhuman characteristics of our political, social, and economic system that have been present for decades.
Today, there is a strong belief that suicides are on the rise. According to Erich Fromm, looking at suicide rates can help us understand the wellbeing of a society. I refer you to Erich Fromm’s book The Sane Society. He writes on page 10,
“We find then that the countries in Europe which are among the most democratic, peaceful and prosperous ones, and the United States, the most prosperous country in the world, show the most severe symptoms of mental disturbance. … Could it be that the middle-class life of prosperity, while satisfying our material needs leaves us with a feeling of intense boredom, and that suicide and alcoholism are pathological ways of escape from this boredom?” (5)
The JAMA Psychiatry article Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019—A Perfect Storm? reports that “Suicide rates have been rising in the US over the last 2 decades. The latest data available (2018) show the highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the US since 1941.” (4) To compound matters, suicide rates may increase because of the current world pandemic. “There are fears that the combination of canceled public events, closed businesses, and shelter-in-place strategies will lead to a recession. Economic downturns are usually associated with higher suicide rates.” (4) I agree with Erich Fromm and I think we need to do more, learn more about the detrimental factors operating in our socio-economic system that are causing these suicides.
Sadly, little is being done to help treatment centers deal with an expected increase in mental health disorders. As reported in The Washington Post, “While Congress recently authorized $100 billion in emergency funds for hospitals and medical providers, very little will go to mental health and addiction service providers because they mainly receive funding through Medicaid. … In a joint letter … leaders in mental health and substance abuse treatment pleaded for the Trump administration’s help. The letter — signed by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and 12 other organizations — asked federal officials to save community mental health centers facing financial collapse.” (3) Now is not the time to ignore the state of our mental health.
Our way of life is making us lonelier, more isolated, less real, and sicker. Erich Fromm in Escape From Freedom published on pages 200, 201, 205, 206, states,
“A great number of our decisions are not our own but are suggested to us from the outside; … one is struck by the extent to which people are mistaken in taking as “their” decision what in effect is submission to convention, duty or simple pressure. It almost seems that “original” decisions is a comparatively rare phenomenon in a society which supposedly makes individual decisions the cornerstone of its existence. … This substitution of pseudo acts for original acts of thinking, feeling, and willing, leads eventually to the replacement of the original self by a pseudo self. … the loss of the self and its substitution by a pseudo self leaves the individual in an intense state of insecurity. … In order to overcome the panic resulting from such a loss of identity, he is compelled to conform, to seek his identity by continuous approval and recognition by others.” (6)
I do not have specific suggestions for how we can rise above these harmful living conditions we are all experiencing. Among the many issues facing us, I know the level of income and racial inequality is out of control and it must be addressed. I also know there are many progressive politicians and activists tackling this very aspect of our socio-economic system. I do not think, however, that there are many focusing on the negative impact our so-called modern way of life is having on our core human nature. Dave Matthews in his article on Capitalism and Mental Health states: “The intimate relationship between mental health and social conditions has largely been obscured, with societal causes interpreted within a bio-medical framework and shrouded with scientific terminology. … the social, political, and economic organization of society must be recognized as a significant contributor to people’s mental health, with certain social structures being more advantageous to the emergence of mental well-being than others.” (1)
How can anyone be expected to break out of their current mental state and become healthier, and grow? That just doesn’t happen -- especially when we are all dealing with heightened levels of stress, depression, trauma, and conformity. Erich Fromm describes us in this degraded state in The Art of Loving on pages 16-17 as follows:
“Man becomes a “nine-to-fiver” he is part of the labor force, or the bureaucratic force of clerks and mangers. He has little initiative, his tasks are prescribed by the organization of the work; … They all perform tasks prescribed by the whole structure of the organization, at a prescribed speed, and a prescribed manner. Even the feelings are prescribed: cheerfulness, tolerance, reliability, ambition and an ability to get along with everyone without friction. Fun is routinized in similar, although not quite as drastic ways. Books are selected by the book clubs, movies by the film and theater owners and the advertising slogans paid for by them; … How should man caught in this net of routine not forget that he is a man, a unique individual, one who is given only this chance of living, with hopes and disappointments, with sorrow and fear, with the longing for love and the dread of the nothing and of separateness.” (7)
Capitalism and its current social and cultural order are strangling us! And despite our current pandemic situation, we must find a way to break through this malaise and focus on becoming healthier. We must learn to trust each other; question whether we are true to our genuine selves; break the bonds of manipulation that serve the socio-economic system that is out of control; and learn to work together toward the common good.
- Capitalism and Mental Health by David Matthews January 1, 2019. https://monthlyreview.org/2019/01/01/capitalism-and-mental-health/
- Erich Fromm and Humanistic Psychoanalysis by Exploring your mind November 27, 2017. https://exploringyourmind.com/erich-fromm-humanistic-psychoanalysis/
- The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis by William Wan May 4, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/05/04/mental-health-coronavirus/
- “Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019—A Perfect Storm?” by Mark A. Reger, PhD; Ian H. Stanley, MS; Thomas E. Joiner, PhD, JAMA Psychiatry, April 10, 2020. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2764584
- The Sane Society, by Erich Fromm, published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1955
- Escape From Freedom, by Erich Fromm, published by Farrar & Rinehart, 1941
- The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm, published by Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1956