Beyond Anti-Psychiatry: Revisiting Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic”

We’ve heard that the “mental illness epidemic” is a major public health crisis in the US, perhaps even globally. The claim is that rates of mental illness have skyrocketed in recent decades, and now as many as 1 in 4 people have a mental disorder. The epidemic is the subject of numerous media publications, books and scientific articles, and public rallying cries. Numerous researchers and advocacy groups point to the “mental illness epidemic” as a major public health crisis. A 2017 WHO report even states that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Drug companies, governments, nonprofits, and laypeople alike use claims of a “mental illness epidemic” in pushing for changes to mental health treatment (expanding care, developing new drugs, challenging stigma, etc.).

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The Paradox in Today’s “Pursuit of Happiness”

In neoliberal society, “mental health” is the ideal state for our minds. We don’t even question the idea that we should be striving to achieve and maintain a state of mental health. But the neoliberal definition of mental health is problematic. It’s not a neutral state, but a hyperpositive one. Neoliberal mental health is essentially a constant state of happiness. Not simply a lack of mental illness, but a lack of negative feeling in general. This means constant surveillance and eradication of an inevitable aspect of selfhood–discarding a whole dimension of experience as pathological and unproductive. We’re supposed to let go of negativity, yet maintain unwavering positivity. But mental states come and go, like clouds passing through the sky. It’s unrealistic to try to push some out of the way, or conversely, to keep other ones in place. I think it’s actually healthier to let all feelings come and go, whether positive or negative. Fixation and obsession with maintaining an artificial mental state creates its own pathologies.

We need to think carefully about the consequences of eradicating all negative feelings. While I’d agree that developing a hypernegative mindset is unhealthy and even dangerous, I think the same can be said for a hyperpositive mindset. Positivity means no room for pause, for the critical distance that makes dissent possible. If we stop listening to negativity, we risk ignoring calls for personal or societal change.

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