THIS WEEK THE World Health Organisation told us that mental depression and general anxiety disorders are costing the global economy nearly a trillion dollars a year in terms of 'lost productivity'. This loss for the owners of capital is, apparently, extremely important.
The WHO study, published in The Lancet, estimated that roughly 10 per cent of the world’s population, or about 740 million people, is affected by common mental health problems. This, says WHO, is costing the global capitalist economy US$925 billion a year.
One of the chief overseers of that global economy, the World Bank, backed the WHO study. In a press release it said:
“Despite hundreds of millions of people around the world living with mental disorders, mental health has remained in the shadows. This is not just a public health issue — it’s a development issue. We need to act now because the lost productivity is something the global economy simply cannot afford.”
It couldn't of been made much clearer - capitalism cannot afford sick people. As Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO commented, the treatment of anxiety and depression "makes sound economic sense".
And what is the solution? How can this intolerable economic burden be lifted from the shoulders of capitalism? The answer, says WHO, is ramping up the treatment for depression and general mental difficulties, both in terms of counselling and medication. The world needs more counsellors and more depressed people taking more drugs. This, at least, is good news for the counselling and drug industries.
The impact that depressed people are having on profit margins made the headlines throughout the mainstream media. But there was little real discussion about the real causes of mental ill-health.
Newstalk's ZB's Rachel Smalley had a go at identifying the 'root cause' of the problem.
The last time I wrote about Smalley, she had been defending the right of the rich to get even richer. Given her supportive and benevolent attitude toward the beneficiaries of capitalism, the fact that the black dog of depression continues to run amok around the world has left her in a quandary. How can this be? After all, we've never had it so good. According to Smalley:
"Our laws are increasingly supportive of work-life balance - we now have four weeks leave a year. Flexible working hours are on the table. And so in theory, the infrastructure is there to support a better way of living. And yet more of us are reaching for Xanax or Prozac or a myriad of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs."
Unable to recognise - or concede - that the economic system that she lauds might be 'the root cause' she is searching for, she ends up pointing her finger at one of the visible symptoms of the malaise of modern capitalism:
"I think part of the problem is the sheer madness of life - the busyness of it, the never-ending demands, the to-do lists that grow by the day, the sleep-deprivation, the fact that we can never really switch off because technology means we're essentially online 24 hours a day. And when life is so shambolic, it's easy to lose sight of any light at the end of the tunnel."
But what does WHO itself say about the causes of depression and anxiety disorders? On its website we read:
Depression results from a complex interaction of social, psychological and biological factors. People who have gone through adverse life events (unemployment, bereavement, psychological trauma) are more likely to develop depression. Depression can, in turn, lead to more stress and dysfunction and worsen the affected person’s life situation and depression itself.
Although WHO suggest there are 'social' reasons for depression, it is not ideologically disposed to say that capitalism might just be a problem. So it ends up advocating individual solutions to prevent depression:
Prevention programmes have been shown to reduce depression. Effective community approaches to prevent depression include school-based programmes to enhance a pattern of positive thinking in children and adolescents. Interventions for parents of children with behavioural problems may reduce parental depressive symptoms and improve outcomes for their children. Exercise programmes for the elderly can also be effective in depression prevention.
The suggestion is that depression and general mental health disorders are simply the result of an individuals 'inability' to fit into society 'properly'. Since eliminating capitalism is not an option the focus is simply or improving the ability of individuals to live under capitalism.
Many years ago, in my political 'formative' years I once asked one of my university lecturers whether it was possible for anyone to be 'normal'. My lecturer, of a Marxist persuasion, put it simply: 'How can anyone be normal in an abnormal world?' I had no answer to that.
This is the same point that Dr Susan Rosenthal makes. She writes:
Capitalism has transformed the entire world into a factory for producing capital. Every human need that stands in the way is treated as an obstacle to be removed. “Lean production” pushes workers to their physical and emotional limits. Those who succumb are discarded and replaced.
It is impossible to be mentally healthy under capitalism. Growing daily misery is compounded by the horror of perpetual war and environmental destruction. If you open your mind to the barbarism of capitalism, you are traumatised. If you close your mind to it, you lose your humanity.
Again, the real choice lies before us all - socialism or barbarism. This is indeed a liberating message because they win when we start blaming ourselves or other people. When we resign ourselves to 'that's just the way world is', they win. When we despair, they win.
In the end, as Susan Rosenthal so rightly says:
We build mental health in the process of fighting for better working and living conditions. We build mental health in the process of building class solidarity, laying the foundation for a socialist society that will strive to engage everyone’s abilities and meet everyone’s needs.