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.).
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.
One topic that’s been particularly interesting to me since I started studying critical theory is the mental health system we have in the US, meaning methods of diagnosis and treatment for mental illness, products like medications or mood tracking apps, and the institutions and industries that provide these things.
As a survivor of years of ineffective psychiatric treatments, this topic is unavoidably personal. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16 I thought my fate was sealed, that I was too unstable to ever function normally in society. I was told it was a lifelong illness and I’d have to stay on toxic, life-threatening medications forever. I started taking lithium, and then an antipsychotic, and the list kept growing after that. Abilify, Adderall, Ativan, so on and so forth. I believed bipolar disorder was the primary fact of my identity—something I’d always have to live through and negotiate with. I thought I’d always have to rely on doctors to explain what was wrong with me, and pharmacists to refill my necessary prescriptions every month, lest I descend further into insanity. I was told 20% people with my condition would commit suicide, and I really believed I’d spend my life struggling with that possibility.