The Pathfinders Column from the May 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
One thing guaranteed to bring out the worst in socialists is rich people banging on about their problems, but one would have to have a heart of stone not to feel some sympathy in the recent stories of princes Harry and William speaking out about their mental health problems after the death of their mother Diana 20 years ago. The revelations were quickly joined by others from Lady Gaga and the CEO of Virgin Money until, ok we get the idea . . . money doesn’t necessarily buy you happiness. But as some wit once remarked, if you think that, try poverty.
And one thing the poor are not poor in is mental health problems. The US Centers for Disease Control 2017 survey reports that 8 million adult Americans, or 3.4 percent, have such problems (New Scientist, 17 April) however this is likely to be an order-of-magnitude underestimation, as under-reporting in this area is rife. According to a 2016 report by the charity MIND, in the UK almost half of adults (43.4 percent) think they have had a ‘diagnosable mental health condition’ during their lives, and while around 20 percent of men and 34 percent of women have had this suspicion confirmed by medical professionals (mentalhealth.org.uk), a further 30 percent said they had never consulted a doctor. This is consistent with a lack of self-reporting across all areas of mental health, possibly because people try to tough it out, or else do not understand that they are suffering from an illness which might be treated but instead believe that they are personally inadequate in some way, for which no cure exists. Women suffer more in all categories. 1 in 4 young women self-harm, an alarming statistic given that self-harm is the most reliable risk factor in subsequent suicide – 1 in 25 hospitalised self-harmers will kill themselves within 5 years. Among UK residents aged 10 or over there is currently around one suicide every two hours (2014 figures). Ironically, given that such people typically have a low or zero sense of self-worth, MIND informs us that the average cost of a suicide, in terms not just of police, hospital and funeral costs, but also of loss of total lifetime ‘output’, is £1.7 million.
Globally, according to the World Health Organisation, mental health problems that are left untreated form 13 percent of the total disease burden, and will by 2030 be the biggest cause of death. The WHO estimates that nearly half the world’s population suffer from some form of mental illness. That’s more than from cancer, heart disease or diabetes. Costs are literally incalculable, as many factors are involved. Costs to the UK economy alone are estimated at between £70–100 billion. Global costs are projected to reach $6 trillion by 2030.
What can capitalism do about any of this? It can’t abolish poverty, a well-documented cause of mental illness. To do that, it would also have to abolish the privilege and luxury of the elite. It can’t abolish its own hierarchy, another well-known cause. It can’t get rid of war, or crime. It can’t take the stress, fear and anxiety out of being a wage-slave except by abolishing wage slavery. It can’t do anything about the entire matrix of oppressions which begins with the CEO yelling at the executive and ends with the black girl kicking the cat. Capitalism is the embodiment of mental illness, a destructive society pathologically bent on chasing its own end. If it was a person, it would be hospitalised as dangerously insane. That half of the population suffer mental illness is not surprising. What is surprising is that the other half don’t, or say they don’t. But then, perhaps nobody really knows, in capitalism, what good mental health even looks like. In a society full of broken people, just managing to get through the day may be deemed ‘healthy’.
Socialism, in doing away with property society’s rules, would do away with most if not all of the environmental factors in mental illness. It’s not a magic cure-all. It can’t address chemical or genetic factors, at least not without more research. It can’t do anything about bereavement. But what it could do is give people a decent life without fear, without low status and a consequent sense of low self-worth. It could give people the support of a strong community, a sense of open possibilities and the freedom to explore them, a chance to determine their own identity and desires and to have these acknowledged and respected by others. There’s nothing magic about it. Socialism would simply stop torturing people. And if that sounds like a hopeless daydream, it’s only because you’re so used to living in a nightmare.