The cost of Mental Health
Darian Leader, today in the Guardian, looks at the ‘cost’ of anxiety. Anxiety can be a profoundly unpleasant, even excruciating sense of dread that can pervade our experience. Anxiety however as Leader points out is an important emotion both developmentally and existentially. Leader considers anxiety in relation to the trend of reducing mental and emotional distress to economic terms. This reduction to an ‘economic cost’, in this case £10bn a year, of something that we would rather live without often gives a sense of urgency to a problem that we can ‘afford’ to live without – especially in such difficult economic times.
Leader relates the quick thinking around trying to rid ourselves of such unpleasant emotions through a ‘mental hygiene’ approach, the desire to remove such unhelpful emotions. This desire for a hygienic mental life is certainly not isolated to anxiety. The ‘Depression Report’ (CEPMHPG 2006), takes a similar view on depression another emotion that many of us would rather live without and as with anxiety its costs (£11bn) mean that it is seen as increasingly unacceptable.
Where does this drive to mental hygiene, to be free from unpleasant feelings, emerge and whilst it is understandable is it achievable? There is something very seductive in the pursuit of happiness and increasingly it seems we are expected to enjoy ourselves regardless of any mental distress. Indeed given the focus upon mental hygiene and what has been called the ‘happiness industry’ (Ferguson, 1997) there can be no good reason to suffer unless we choose to. This of course grossly oversimplifies peoples lives. We exist in a socio-economic system that relies on our enjoyment, there is a psychological injunction to enjoy (Žižek 2007) and through social media increasingly it seems that we should exhibit our enjoyment for all to see. Regardless of what we do it often seems impossible to enjoy enough, as appearances fail to live up to our expectations; especially relative to what we imagine others are doing.
The happiness industry is perhaps so seductive because it taps into our desires that emerge in our phantasy worlds. We imagine somewhere that someone is always happy. In fact it appears there is, a Buddhist monk, but he is rarely the one we think of. More typically we think of sports people, movie stars and billionaires; which is perhaps why we can often find it difficult to feel sympathy for them when they err.
Mental illness, depression and anxiety can be incredibly debilitating and yet they often signal to us, they tell us that something is wrong and that a part of us is reacting and changing. It is often through such experiences that people find new ways to exist; although listening and learning from oneself can be a very painful experience. My clinical experience tells me that happiness often has its correlate in sadness.
CEPMHPG (2006), The Depression Report: a New Deal for Depression and Anxiety Disorders(Centre efor Economic Performance’s Mental Health Policy Group, LSE).
Ferguson, I. (1997) ‘Neoliberalism, happiness and wellbeing’, International Socialism: Neoliberalism, happiness and wellbeing, 117. <available from: http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=400>
Žižek, S. (2007) How to Read Lacan <available from: http://www.lacan.com/zizraphael.htm>