When I was in high school in Texas in the late ’90s, managing myself full of academic and extracurricular activities, I started having severe panic attacks.
The first round lasted for six months, during which I suffered from persistent shortness of breath, a raging heart rate and a feeling that I had been pulled out of reality and placed in a parallel and terrifying world, where I was completely alone and where no one was. will help me.
Having grown up in the cruel system known as US capitalism – where the need for individual success was so ingrained in my mind – my horror was exacerbated by the assumption that I was dying or miserably failing to exist.
When my panic attacks resurfaced after a few years in college in New York, where rapid breathing in a bathroom proved incompatible with attending lectures, I underwent a specialist psychiatric evaluation. The doctor needed only 90 seconds before prescribing medication for severe anxiety.
So I briefly joined the ranks of American therapists to deal with mental health issues caused by, well, the United States.
Although at the time I could not articulate why my country had to sneak abroad so much, my abandonment of the United States after college in favor of international wanderlust taught me that the world did not have to be hostile in the place of alienation.
Whether picnicking in Lebanon or a sleepover by peasant peasants in Colombia, an energetic sense of human community has come to replace the toxic culture of competition and life-shattering consumerism in the United States. I got rid of the anxiety meds.
Other countries obviously have issues too, and most people don’t have the enormous privilege of sorting themselves out psychologically by hanging out all over the world.
But as we celebrate World Mental Health Day on October 10, it is worth thinking about the mental health risks posed by the increasingly globalized American brand of neoliberal capitalism.
According to the White House fact sheet released in March 2022, the country is facing an “unprecedented mental health crisis among people of all ages,” with two out of five adults reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety. The national mental health landscape has deteriorated dramatically due to the coronavirus pandemic, even though the pre-pandemic situation was already bad enough. In 2019, for example, one in three high school students and 50 percent of female students reported experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” The fact sheet noted that “black and brown communities receive disproportionate treatment” even as they have high rates of mental illness. – Which pretty much feels like business as usual in the supposedly egalitarian “land of freedom.” Certainly, institutional discrimination and mass racial incarceration aren’t exactly great for mental health either.
Regarding the harmful mental effects of social media, meanwhile, the White House stressed that online platforms “should be required to prioritize ensuring the health, safety and well-being of children and young people above profits and revenues.”
Which brings us to the next conundrum: The capitalist system with which the US government is closely related not only prioritizes profit over human health and well-being, but also thrives on extracting corporate revenue from human malaise and torment. Just ask the pharmaceutical industry.
The formula is simple. Neoliberalism generates psychological distress by working to obliterate solidarity, the essence of humanity, while turning the right to physical and mental health care into an exclusive and costly endeavor—an arrangement that only exacerbates the mental health stresses of those with fewer social and economic means.
This does not mean that the rich do not suffer from mental disorders. Various studies have found that CEOs are disproportionately likely to be psychopaths.
While depression, anxiety, and despair are perfectly rational responses to an inhumane environment—and a world that capitalism is rapidly pushing toward ecogenocide—American pharmaceutical companies have pushed psychopathology as an individual flaw rather than a consequence of a societal context.
Relatedly, the arms industry, another pillar of American capitalism, perpetuates its own vicious cycle of lucrative catastrophe, ravaging societies at home and abroad while waging a war on human sympathy.
In a peer-reviewed paper in 2021, psychiatrist Anna Zira of Baltimore writes about the disturbing mental health implications of neoliberal capitalism in the United States, characterized by extreme inequality and the “disempowerment of workers.” She noted that recent years have seen “significant increases” in suicides as well as deaths from alcoholism and drug abuse. In fact, between 1991 and 2017, there was a 73 percent increase in suicide attempts among black teens.
Zira recalls how some American doctors described black men who advocated racial justice during the civil rights era as “delusional and paranoid.” Her view: “People who are discontented with the ‘status quo’ are often categorized as mentally ill.”
This coming October 10th, with capitalism continuing to wreak havoc on mental health across the United States and beyond, it is critical to acknowledge that the status quo is not only abnormal, it is downright sick.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.