Mental Health in Our Capitalist Construct
By Nam Woon Kim (he/him)
Mental health, especially the issue of men’s mental health, is a topic that seems to regularly rotate into popular conversation without ever reaching any kind of breakthrough. We nod and agree that the status quo isn’t good enough, that we need to tell men it’s okay to speak about their feelings, it’s okay to cry, and so on. Mental health is hardly the only issue that comes and goes without resolution – you could even say this about every issue – but it’s becoming more frustrating seeing the conversation stop at these soundbites. We need to be more ambitious. Poor mental health and its consequences are preventable if we look at the issue as a societal problem.
Let’s consider first when and where mental health conversations can even actually happen. This may seem like a pedantic place to start but I want to start from the ground up to shift our understanding of mental health away from being an issue that millions of individuals experience. In other words, if our physical environment has an impact on our physical health, then it must affect our mental health too. We need to acknowledge that our way of living today isn’t a good fit for producing spaces where we can be vulnerable and heal, it’s very much the opposite.
For most of us, our time and energy revolves around labour that isn’t meaningful to us in settings where conventional wisdom suggests to us not to make friends, for better or for worse. We also often have to commit ourselves to work that leaves us physically and emotionally exhausted where the last thing we may want or be able to do after is navigate sensitive topics and perform the often intense work that is unpacking our mental health. (This isn’t even getting into how jobs themselves are a source of poor mental health.)
We can also consider this on a literal, physical level with how we’re organised on the land. I’m a fan of a term urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg uses called the thirdplace, which describes the spaces separate from home and work where community-building happens. Poor city planning and suburban sprawl erase these places. If you’re not spending money, places to just hang out are hard to come by. If we want ‘opening up’ to be normalised, we need to envision and physically create a world where this is possible. Historically, this isn’t a hot take, nor is it even slightly toasty for indigeneous communities.
A quote that lives rent-free in my head is by American sociologist Dr. Neil Smelser who, when describing responses to trauma and mental health in the 20th century, said that “they never questioned that it [the external world/reality] might itself be a source of evil or something to which you could not adapt without compromise without suffering or without exploiting yourself in some way.” I found this quote through the docu-series Century of the Self. It’s by no means a comprehensive or definitive history, but it’s worth checking out because it helped me broaden my perspective on mental health, among other things, as well as offering an ambitious look into the intersection of psychoanalysis, politics and capitalism.
This quote resonates with me because it accurately describes our philosophy today. All of our solutions are overwhelmingly tailored to what we as individuals can do for ourselves. I’ve always been an advocate for doing the things within your means to help your mental health by taking care of your mental hygiene. Delete your social media if they drain your energy and damage your self-esteem. Give therapy a try even if you’re not at your lowest. Exercise regularly, eat healthy etc. But, these tools shouldn’t be where the mental health discussion begins and ends. Much like how telling socio-economically disadvantaged people to simply work harder and be a bit more frugal is an inadequate solution, applying the same approach to mental health is a harmful waste of time. Lack of self-worth is a common thread in mental health, so putting the onus solely on ourselves is troubling.
Returning to Century of the Self, one of the subplots feature Anna Freud’s attempts at helping people with her hypothesis that people would be happier and more resilient if they were forced to fit into the normative structure of society, which at the time was, and still is, the middle class rhythms of a nuclear family. Spoiler alert: she was wrong. Of course therapy has since advanced from the 1970s but this insistence that it’s the people, not the world, that needs to be changed has never gone away.
I began by examining the tangible elements of our environment which obstruct mental health, and I want to end by touching on another element which was meant to be the original theme of this piece until I realised we needed more context and setup. The piece was going to be men’s mental health can’t be resolved without dismantling the patriarchy, or something along those lines.
If we accept the premise that there is a mental health crisis and that there’s this thing we call ‘toxic masculinity’ responsible for making men miserable, then it shouldn’t be a stretch to dig a little deeper and examine how pervasive masculinity itself is. It’s the elephant in the room whenever ‘men’s mental health’ is invoked and it’s tricky because words like 'the patriarchy' are a loaded term among many men. Even so, it’s important to do this work and unpack things like gender norms and performance because these put the ‘men’ in the ‘men’s mental health’ discourse. If there's toxic masculinity, what are healthy masculinities and just how healthy are they? And what are we achieving when we juxtapose this against ‘femininity?’ Why do we continue to model ourselves upon expectations along gender lines and then wonder why people become unhappy when they don’t fit in with being ‘one of the boys’. The real hot take is that the lens of ‘male mental health’ is created by a gender binary we need to let go of. Left unaddressed, I don’t see any genuine solutions.
Mental health has become a dark abstract cloud over our heads and until we connect the dots between it and the world around us, it’ll remain a problem that seems too challenging to overcome. In reality, our unhappiness is a reflection of a world built to keep us unhappy and wanting. I don’t believe it’s an issue of not being kind enough to each other – the issue is living in a world that incentivises unkindness.