Protected by the largest military in all of human history, the economic empire of the United States has grown into the most advanced capitalist system that ever existed. In spite of a relatively high standard of living & unprecedented wealth, the US has also managed to develop the world’s highest rates of mental illness. In 2009, the World Mental Health survey found the US at the bottom of world mental health chart with 47.4% — almost half of the population– displaying symptoms of a mental disorder. According to the massive WMH survey, nearly 1 in 3 US citizens struggle with anxiety disorders and a bit more than 1 in 5 suffer from depression, bi-polar, or other mood disorders.
Melancholy & the Marginalized
In the Gardens of the US Empire
Although psychological well-being is a pretty complicated thing to measure ( especially on such large scales ), research on depression in the US clearly shows that looking for areas of high poverty will show you areas with high rates of depression. Being poor is, of course, an excellent reason to feel sad but, if poverty caused widespread depression, we would find the highest rates of depression in the poorest places. And that is not what we find. The prevalence of mental illness in Mexico, a country with a per-person income 1/3rd of that in the USA, was just 26% according to the same WHM study — and symptoms of poor mental health affect only 12% of Nigerians, who earn a mere 1/10th of what people in the US do!
Poverty is a part of it — but it’s obviously not the whole story…
The Links Between Income Inequality, Marginalization, & Mental Health
Other studies show a strong correlation between high income-inequality & rates of mental illness — particularly the depressive disorders. This is true at an international level, as well as the level of individual counties & US states. Symptoms of mental health disorders are reported at higher rates in densely populated urban environments, black & brown communities, & among women in general ( regardless of race ), all of which are historically among the most-exploited in capitalist modes of production.
Explaining why we observe such counter-intuitively high numbers of people in poor mental health at the very center of the wealthiest society in history does not take a particularly imaginative leap from here. And — since this is an opinion article & not a scholarly tome to submit to the sociological canon — it is well within my rights as a writer of very limited notoriety to make that leap…
The Result of Capitalism & Liberalism
Should Depress You
Late-stage capitalist societies — like ours in the United States — clearly produce the ideal environment for mass psychological — or, if I may use a less-popular word — spiritual crisis. This analysis is not new — Marx himself predicted capitalism would result in these kinds of crises. This is called alienation. He believed our species-essence was not just to obtain food, water, shelter, & sex but also to produce or co-create the world around them. And the free choice to make their world by their own labor fulfilled the human being’s species-essence. Since, under capitalism, the value of a person’s labor is extracted by whoever owns the tools & materials used to create our environments, he predicted we would become increasingly alienated from our lives & dissociated from the society around us.
We would feel disconnected from the things we do because we did not choose to do them.
Real mental health disorders do exist, of course. But — as someone who was diagnosed with a number of them at a young age — I wonder if many of our so-called dysfunctions, both my own & those of others around me, are really just the appropriate & completely sane reaction to a set of insane circumstances.
After all — why would I not feel a deep sense of tragedy when confronted by the fact that my country is dragging our ecosystem into a chasm of irreversible climate change?
And should people not be kept up at night by anxiety or vague, urgent, instincts that something is deeply wrong with how all of us are expected to get up, clock in at work, come home, watch TV, drink, consume, & repeat?
And are feelings of sadness, guilt, or anxiety inappropriate when tens of thousands of our human family members are killed by weapons manufactured just down the road from our homes?
Is a person truly “sick” because they become convinced this is not at all how it is supposed to be or that their reality is being shaped by irrational forces beyond their knowledge & control?
These are important questions to consider — because maybe they’re right. Maybe, like Alice finding herself suddenly in Wonderland, it really is the world — not them — that has gone insane.
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