Our relationship with mental health and mental health issues have had a uniquely formative power over our lives. The way that mental health has been seen throughout history has informed so many of the narratives we tell ourselves about why we act the way we are, the things that drive our worst and best decisions. At our worst, mental health is the unrelenting and inescapable force constantly bearing down from behind us, always threatening to engulf and consume. At our best, is often the enemy we have conquered or the inescapable maw we run from as we achieve superhuman feats.
Whilst always acknowledged either through narrative or explicitly, the tidal pull mental health has had on the formation of human history has often been placed in the category of the other, an external force that causes action rather than the action itself. The truth of mental health and mental health issues, like all stories of our past that have been simplified, is much more complex. Mental health often forms a chaotic and un-analysable fractural dance with our identities that drills down forever, each layer of human expression being produced and in turn supported by another layer of experiential phenomenon. A recent ideological coup by a younger and more socially engage generation has enabled mental health to enter the cultural mind space in a way previously unimaginable. It is possible that this responsibility of bringing mental health issues into the fore has been forced on these generations as mental health issues have become much more pronounced, prevalent, and obvious, especially in recent years with retcons on famous figures from our childhood as these people are increasingly framed in a mental health context. Gen Z and millennials probably would have produced this nascent narrative irrespective, but for a generation that grew up in the shadow of an economic disaster entirely fuelled by greed, (and the subsequent financial insecurity is incurred), a war on terrorism and drugs that not only failed in both cases, but has appeared to exacerbate both and a ramping sense of indescribable existential dread of absolute species annihilation by climate catastrophe that will cause unprecedented suffering and death, it is hard to see this generation being able, or even willing to brush mental health under the carpet like so many before them.
The Shadow Pandemic
You probably noticed I didn’t mention COVID-19 as a source of the un-ending trauma that can be the modern experience.
It is probably worth a word of its own. Really, nothing probably embodied the mental health destroying effects of modern life like the COVID-19 pandemic. Where before we were isolated and alienated by the grind of capitalism and endless 9-5, we were then isolated and alienated by the shadow of an utterly foreign threat that we’d never imagined before, turning the 9-5 into the 24-hour horror slide show. Where before we watched the ultra-rich accumulate capital in volumes and quantities that bellied imagination, we watched as this somehow accelerated during the pandemic, even as our workplaces laid us off and our work dried up. Now, even as the recovery begins, the gap widens. It is hard to describe the surreal experience that the COVID-19 lockdowns were, the utterly bizarre experience of watching the world flatten and grind to a halt, as the 100s of other headlines of the pandemic fluttered benignly down the side columns of papers and blogs and infection numbers which initially, meaning something, finally dissolved into utter incomprehension, fatigued and defeated, our mental health waned, already weakened by so many decades of global capitalism.
The term, Shadow Pandemic is inaccurate, another failure of ideology setters to point out that mental health isn’t ancillaryto its source.
As humans, these things are inextricably linked. Mental health issues are tied to the core functions that cause and are caused by disaster, suffering, inequality, oppression, and every other negative form of human experience possible. Separating the effects from the causes reinforces the conditions that cause this experience. The mental health issues that accompany disaster and catastrophe aren’t some shadow of the issue, they are the final issue.
Whilst the COVID-19 Pandemic provided a critically observable method of seeing the way that events interact with mental health issues, with a 25% increase in depression and anxiety being recorded, with women and the young being disproportionality affected, it is also important to remember that COVID and its interactions with mental health aren’tunique. COVID-19 opened many cracks that had been accumulating across the face of society; inequality, domestic violence and the lack of support for its victims, the vast differences with different classes of society in being resourced in dealing with disasters (as evidenced by double fatality rates in those in low-income communities with this study observing, “poverty and wide spread inequality increases vulnerability to crises”). Mental health issues, in particular anxiety and depression, have been on the rise, consistently from the 1930s to the 1990s, with rates being extremely unpredictably in recently times. Increasingly, an eye glass has being cast over the elementary fissures in society that are producing these spiking and unpredictable mental health issues levels. One of the mental health battle grounds that is being openedin is the increasingly high suicide rates in men. Although some internet groups claim that these rates are increasing as “men’s value is constantly being downgraded in society”, this is a red herring. Yes, traditionally toxic masculine traits of hyper-aggression, hyper-misogyny, domination and severe and damaging hierarchical organising are losing their cultural and social value. Frankly, it would be a disturbing revelation that men needed these traits to feel needed and mentally healthy, but there’s plenty of ways toxic masculinity damages men’s mental health too. Luckily, this is not what is going on with men’s mental health. Yes, some sense of displacement is happening here. The historical role of men in society is undergoing a vast, comprehensive, and complex shift (not to mention necessary). This is obviously going to cause some inherent mental abrasions as men pivot to understand their place in the world. But a complex litany of factors has lead us here; masculine culture that dictates men do not share their mind and engage their actual emotions, men not needing to typically connect with their emotions (due to social structure providing the absolute correctness to male traits), being able to hide their past trauma/current mental health issues in toxic masculinity, the shifting landscape of identity, the existential dread of being de-seated as the unchallenged top of the social pyramid. Masculinity is not toxic. Any thing can become toxic if taken to its social and ideological extreme and almost all ideologies and social structures are healthy and in fact, required in a well-functioning society. If we are going to building a more socially conscious and psychologically empathetic system, we need to acknowledge that mental health issues are not just caused by their associations, that often they form a death spiral with the association. It will be necessary, going forward, to acknowledge and give critical validity to its victims, on both ends to ensure we build a better, safer and more robust society.
Beyond Blue has been providing supports and services to people in Australia for 20 years. They are Australia’s most well-known and visited mental health organisation, focused on supporting people affected by anxiety, depression and suicide. The organisation actively connects people with evidence-based products and services to support improvements in mental health literacy, greater knowledge of prevention and management techniques, and increased confidence to act when they need to. If you are able to make a contribution, click here to donate.
If you or anyone you know need support call the 13 11 14 help line, for free, anonymous and confidential Support Services. Open 24/7 for everyone in Australia.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE SOCIAL CAUSE
Therapy for Balck Girls- Session 271 Being Mindful About How We Use Mental Health Terminology
Black Dog Institute- Repetitive Negative Thinking. Expert Insights for Health Professionals
Black Dog Institute- Understanding youth wellbeing during COVID-19
Black Dog Institute- Trauma and mental health