CN: Psychosis, schizophrenia,
Yesterday I was sat in a foyer of a Cambridge University department waiting for a job interview. I looked up from my stall at a screen mounted on the wall which displayed a welcome to the department, the time and date, and a pleasant picture of some trees alongside one of the most bizarre mental health posters of ever seen, which read: “We’re all different. Accept and be proud of who you are rather than wishing you were more like someone else.”
Straightaway I took a photo of this to make sure I had a record of the banality and absurdity of such a milquetoast message of mental health support. Underneath the bold statement was a giant orange smiley face, a basic reminder that the essential thing we must do as human beings is to signal to others that we’re happy.
I’ve been in higher education for four years now, and one of the things I’ve noticed in my time here is how the dialogue around mental health has shifted. As with most things radical, this started with mentally ill people saying “what the fuck is wrong with you, stop punishing people for their disabilities” to corporations politely saying “what the fuck is wrong with you, please take your allotted 15 minute self-care break so you can resume being a productive worker.”
I’ve no doubt that having more conversations about mental health has reduced some of the “stigma” that everyone talks about—but it has also left us in a place now where everyone is talking about mental health, and 90% of the time talking about it badly. Part of this problem is that we spend such massive amounts of time talking about talking about mental health, and fixating on individual anecdotes of our suffering or how we have been failed by the people and systems who should be caring for us.
Disability activism has always been built from the ground up, with disabled people grouping together, saying “this is bullshit”, and chaining their bodies and wheelchairs to something until change is made (this is a real thing). However, as with any kind of activism, progress is turned to platitude as soon as this process is de-radicalised and moved away from liberation and anti-capitalism towards checkmarks and schemes. “Corporate” mental health is always about wellness, prevention, and management, and never about eliminating the causes of mental health issues, providing monetary aid for those who can’t “get better”, or being reflexive of the ways they are actually creating mental health issues in their employees.
“‘Corporate’ mental health is always about wellness, prevention, and management, and never about eliminating the causes of mental health issues”
One of the thorniest parts of this whole discourse is that a corporate approach to mental health is, essentially, trying to eradicate the otherness of those with mental health issues, and mould them into productive members of society. The anti-psychiatry movement has for decades been discussing how the medical model is not a solution to the wider systemic problems of “madness”, but one of the worst parts of being mad is that sometimes it just outright sucks. I believe that my disability doesn’t make me a lesser or worse person (nor does it make me an inspiration), but I also take medication because being mad and disabled is sometimes just too much, and that can be a complicated feeling sometimes when being disabled is part of who you are.
Of course, I do believe that most of the people who are writing and carrying out these mental health schemes in colleges, schools, universities, charities, and businesses are doing it because they care about other people, and because they want to reduce the amount of “harm” in the world by choosing a particular issue and working at it. But my criticism is that by selecting one part of the issue (the “sufferer”) and placing the responsibility of wellness on them you produce a pretty good recipe for increased suffering.
The recent plastic straw debate is a great example of how corporate attempts at ethics will always fail when they don’t see past profit margins, and don’t examine the ways they contribute to the issue. While changing plastic straws to paper may reduce the number of plastic in the sea by 0.000000001%, it also makes life a complete hassle for people who need to use plastic straws to drink, and introduces a bizarre ethical component to something as simple as taking a sip of coffee.
This mentality extends to the way the businesses and schools address mental health issues among their staff and students. They see mental health as a linear measurement which can build up to breaking point and tip over, but which can be reduced by mindfulness and branded yoga mats. Their solution to this is then to bring in a masseuse, or pay for everyone to go on away days, which likely does reduce the stress levels for some people, but ignores the fact that it is their systems of work that can cause illness. Corporations would rather give all their employees bicycles for the relaxation of a cycle to work rather than consider a four hour day, or set a limit on the expansion of their business, the ever-churning and ever-expanding nature of the capitalist success story being the rock to the Sisyphus of the worker.
“Violence and subjugation are necessary in a system built on exploitation, and being exploited does not particularly do wonders for one’s health.”
The issue also lies with the whole way that “popular” mental health is conceptualised, and indeed this may be a problem with “health” being in the title. In the popular mental health, “anxiety” means “very serious stress” and “depression” means “super-duper sadness”. There is a bit of a mix up here of cause and effect, believing anxiety to be caused by stress and depression caused by unhappiness, rather than them being manifestations of a person’s mental health issue. Anxiety and depression, or the “big two” of mental health are then the prime targets for the barrage of schemes to stay happy and go for long walks, and never is borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia mentioned, because how could someone with those kinds of things ever thrive in this kind of environment?
When I ask “when is the end of mental health?” I don’t mean “when can we stop telling people to meditate”, I mean when will we stop treating mental health problems as something that can be schemed away, and instead see it as a side effect of living under capitalism? Violence and subjugation are necessary in a system built on exploitation, and being exploited does not particularly do wonders for one’s health.
I’m not sure I agree that being mad is a rational thing in a mad world, but I do believe that as long as we paint individuals as the cause of their own madness, that our madness is not going anywhere.
- Florence Oulds is former Disabled Students’ Officer at Cambridge University Students’ Union.