When I was in high school in Texas in the late 1990s, struggling with academic and extracurricular activities, I began to suffer from acute panic attacks.
The first round lasted six months, during which I experienced continuous shortness of breath, a racing heartbeat, and the feeling of having been torn from reality and placed in a terrifying parallel universe, where I was entirely alone and where no one would help me.
Having been raised in the ruthless system known as American capitalism – in which the need for individual achievement had been hardwired into my brain – my terror was heightened by the assumption that I was dying or failing miserably. to existence.
When the panic attacks resurfaced a few years later at New York University, where hyperventilating in the bathroom quickly proved incompatible with class attendance, I underwent a professional psychological evaluation. The doctor only needed 90 seconds before prescribing a powerful anxiolytic.
This is how I briefly joined the ranks of medicated Americans to deal with mental health issues caused by, well, the United States.
Although I could not explain at the time why my own country frightened me so much, my post-college abandonment of the United States in favor of international wandering taught me that the world did not have to be so hostile and alienating place.
Whether being hitchhiked in Lebanon or sleeping with Colombian peasants, an invigorating sense of human community has come to supplant the toxic culture of competition and overwhelming consumerism that passes for life in the United States. . I gave up the anxiolytics.
Of course, other countries have problems too, and most people don’t have the enormous privilege of psychologically coping with traveling around the world.
But as we mark World Mental Health Day on October 10, it is worth reflecting on the dangers to mental health posed by America’s increasingly globalized form of neoliberal capitalism.
According to a White House fact sheet released in March 2022, the country is facing an “unprecedented mental health crisis among people of all ages”, with two in five adults reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety. . The national mental health landscape has deteriorated significantly due to the coronavirus pandemic, even though the pre-pandemic situation was bad enough. In 2019, for example, one in three high school students and 50% of female students reported experiencing “lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” The fact sheet noted that ‘black and brown communities are disproportionately underserved’, even as their rates of mental illness rise. – which roughly resembles the status quo in the supposedly egalitarian “Land of the Free.” Granted, institutionalized discrimination and mass racial incarceration aren’t exactly good for mental health either.
Regarding the pernicious mental effects of social media, the White House stressed that online platforms should “be required to prioritize and ensure the health, safety and well-being of children and young people above profits. and income”.
Which brings us to the next conundrum: The capitalist system to which the U.S. government is inextricably bound not only prioritizes profit over human health and well-being, but actively thrives on revenue extraction. companies of uneasiness and human torment. Ask the pharmaceutical industry.
The formula is simple. Neoliberalism engenders psychological distress by striving to erase solidarity, the very essence of humanity, while converting the right to physical and mental health care into an exclusive and costly enterprise – an arrangement that only does worsen mental health stressors for those of lower socio-economic means.
That’s not to say the wealthy don’t struggle with psychiatric disorders. Various studies have shown that CEOs are disproportionately likely to be psychopaths.
And while depression, anxiety and hopelessness are completely rational reactions to an inhuman environment – and a world that capitalism is rapidly propelling towards ecological annihilation – American pharmaceutical companies have pushed pathologizing psychological disorders as a default. individual rather than as the result of a societal context.
Along the same lines, the arms industry, another pillar of American capitalism, perpetuates its own vicious circle of lucrative disasters, devastating communities at home and abroad as it wages war on human empathy.
In a 2021 peer-reviewed research paper, Baltimore-based psychiatrist Anna Zeira wrote about the disturbing mental health impacts of neoliberal capitalism in the United States, characterized by severe inequality and the “disempowerment of workers.” She noted that recent years have seen “dramatic increases” in suicides as well as deaths from alcoholism and drug overdoses. Indeed, between 1991 and 2017, there was a 73% increase in suicide attempts among black teens.
Zeira recalled how black men demanding racial justice during the civil rights era were described by some American doctors as “delusional and paranoid”. His take: People upset by the “status quo” are often “labeled as mentally ill.”
This October 10, as capitalism continues to wreak havoc on mental health in the United States and beyond, it is essential to recognize that the status quo is not only abnormal, it is downright sick.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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