Capitalism and Mental Illness
The current state of capitalism is in turmoil, according to independent op-eds, political pundits, and even the United Nations; a group of scientists has recently warned the UN that capitalism will fail because it focuses on short-term profits, not long-term benefits.
Mental illnesses, including addiction, exemplify this problem. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) quantifies some of our challenges:
- 9.8 million adults in the US “experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities”
- 20.2 million adults experienced a substance abuse disorder in 2014
- Of these, over 50% (10.2 million adults) experienced “a co-occuring mental illness”
By failing to address our mental health crisis, our society is losing money in the long term. According to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the United States loses nearly $200 billion of earnings each year due to mental illness. The study author, Dr. Thomas R. Insel, calls this a conservative estimate. This is not to mention the human cost of lack of care; as NAMI reports, “Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US, and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 10-34.” In over 90% of cases, suicide can be linked to a mental health condition.
Countless studies prove that our environments and chemistry affect our mental health equally. In 1929, writer George Goetz (writing as V.F. Calverton) proclaimed:
“Treatment of [happiness] in terms of generalizations about what to do to be happy, the happiness of a well-ordered life, or how to live happily, without adequate consideration of the social and economic environment, can be nothing more than the veriest twaddle.”
Calverton was right (and not just because veriest twaddle is a fantastic phrase). The flawed environment of American capitalism only feeds mental illnesses by denying the basic needs of its citizens.
The Deprivation of Human Needs
We can best examine this deprivation through psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as discussed in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”:
The first two levels (physiological and safety) are our “basic needs”; the next two (love/belonging and esteem) are “psychological needs”, and the final level (self-actualization) recognizes our needs for self-fulfillment. According to Maslow, only when our basic needs are met can we hope for fulfillment of our psychological needs and our self-actualization.
By failing to provide too many Americans with our physiological and safety needs, capitalism dooms our mental health to fail. This can lead directly to substance abuse, where our lack of security causes us to turn to creature comforts. It can also lead directly to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, which can then increase our likelihood of addiction.
First, by refusing to accept the threat of climate change and by depending upon fossil fuels for energy, the US government deprives us of our basic need of clean air. According to the American Lung Association’s 2018 “State of the Air” report, nearly 134 million people – 41% of the population of the United States – “live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution.”
When we discuss our right to clean water, many may think of the lead crisis in Flint, MI. In reality, Flint exemplifies a much greater crisis. Drought, poverty, lack of indoor plumbing, and infrastructure problems deprive many citizens of clean water. As outlined in a report by the UNC Environmental Finance Center, our water crisis affects millions of Americans.
Naturally, our problems with air and water also impact our access to food. Per the World Hunger Education Service, 12.3% of American households experienced food insecurity in 2016. This represents 15.6 million households; the number of American individuals affected is far greater.
We must also contend with our country’s problem of homelessness – the lack of shelter. The Department of Housing and Urban Development attempted to quantify this problem via a point-in-time count during one night in January 2016. They found 549,928 homeless Americans – over half a million citizens in a single night without a home.
It is difficult to quantify some of the metrics on safety. Unemployment rates have been positive lately – 4% in January 2019. While this figure is comparatively low, it still represents 13 million Americans without a job. And while the US spends more on healthcare than some of the other wealthiest countries in the world, this money is not improving our quality of care, per a 2017 study by the Commonwealth Fund. Naturally, this only considers how lack of healthcare might impair our mental health, and not the specific challenges of receiving mental health care.
Maslow groups physiological and safety needs into a broader category, “basic needs”, because many of these problems feed into one another. Without employment, one is more likely to encounter problems with food, water, and homelessness; without a home, it is much harder for our citizens to have gainful employment. And while each of these problems individually may not lead to mental illness and substance abuse, our lack of financial security can cause undue stress, indirectly causing mental anguish and/or leading to addiction.
Love and Belonging
The antithesis of love and belonging in all our relationships – friends, family, and intimate relationships – is loneliness. Loneliness is not about the number of people in one’s life, but about feeling connected to those we have. In his recent article on mental health and capitalism in Britain, David Matthews argues, “loneliness is embedded within the structure of any capitalist society as an inevitable outcome.” According to Matthews, this is due to the competitive nature of capitalism: “Other members of society are not considered as sources of support, but rather obstacles to personal advancement.”
In other words, while we may have time to maintain relationships, the nature of capitalism inhibits the depth of those relationships. This directly harms our mental health; loneliness has been linked to depression, personality disorders, suicidal ideation, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, stress, trouble sleeping, and other diseases of the brain.
Finally, as Matthews addresses, “in Britain—as in many monopoly-capitalist nations—a substantial portion of the labor force feels disconnected from their work and does not consider it a creative experience.” He cites a human need model of psychoanalyst and Marxist Erich Fromm in claiming, “the realization of creative needs are essential to being mentally healthy.”
By focusing on creativity, Matthews focuses the conversation not only on what we need to survive, but what we need in our pursuit of happiness. Our problems with poverty can directly impact the time we have to pursue creativity (i.e. having two or more jobs), our financial access to the tools of creativity, and our emotional and physical energy that is drained by the demands of work.
What can we do about it?
While it is more of a wish list than a structured plan, the Green New Deal resolution recently submitted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey may address some of these problems:
- Their goal of cutting carbon emissions will improve air quality
- Their goal to improve our nation’s infrastructure includes
- “guaranteeing universal access to clean water”
- The deal also aims to provide “universal access to healthy food”
- The deal would create jobs, which will improve financial security throughout America (and also help to ensure proper shelter for our millions of homeless Americans)
- The resolution also references “high-quality health care”, though such health care is not further defined and would need to guarantee equal access to mental health care
Some Democratic frontrunners embrace this Green New Deal, while others support the idea of a Green New Deal – though perhaps not this one. The resolution itself is unlikely to pass.
Nonetheless, the problems outlined in the document and at least some of their proposed solutions will likely be an important piece of the campaign trail for the growing number of Democratic presidential nominees. By improving the stressors of our environment, a plan such as the Green New Deal would directly improve the mental health of our citizenry.
In short, the very structure of American society needs to change to address our mental health crisis and prevent its spread. Time will tell whether these structural changes can coexist with capitalism, or whether the American economic complex must shift further to the left to ensure the mental health of its citizenry.