The weaponisation of mental distress

I think victim-blaming of the twenty-five percent of citizens who suffer mental distress has gone on for long enough.  It is time we started blaming the real culprits: those who have distorted maximal democracy for their personal and financial benefit.  And in so doing, it really is time we acted in consequence. – Mil Williams, Sunday 7th January 2018

There’s a brilliant, apposite, fascinating and utterly cogent extract from Johann Hari’s latest book, published in the Guardian today.  I retweeted his tweet thus:

Hari doesn’t care, is wise not to, is probably right as well, to go so far as to accuse someone, some institution, some hazy cabal, of having created the conditions allowing the situations he describes to come about.

I would like to tread that road, though.  A thought experiment, if you like.  I think my assertions, though drawn from my own experience of being wrongly diagnosed (in my judgement) as paranoid schizophrenic, would be applicable to many other contexts of supposed mental disorder.

Last year, whilst studying my MA in International Criminal Justice at LJMU, I stumbled across the difference between mental ill-health, sourced in the individual, and mental distress, sourced in the environment.  If the latter is more the case than the former, solutions to such distress are not easily going to be found in treating the individual.  Yet we continue, largely, to victim-blame individuals for their conditions of mental distress.

Hari is talking about the same things: when we fall ill through environmental factors, it should not be ourselves who are treated but the environment – if, that is, our doctors, societies and politicians are interested in finding a solution.  The question Hari does not pose, I do not think, but I do, is whether a solution is actually being sought, or is actively being rejected.  I would argue that there is evidence for the latter.

Some reading to back up my ideas.  Firstly, something I quote often is the statistical analysis carried out by Torija in this paper.  Over the forty-odd years since the 1970s, the major political parties in OECD countries, both left and right, have reduced their representative nature to the top five percentiles of voters and their interests.  The democratic deficit has journeyed hand-in-hand with the household.  This is clear evidence that the environment in which citizens have to operate has become objectively aggressive to their personal economies.

But we run the risk of becoming just one more of the many members of the Mad Hatter Society of Conspiracies, if we are then to continue the argument by saying: “Conspiracy by the elites, for the elites, against the increasing numbers of poor.”

Some more reading, then.  Colin Crouch is a fabulous philosopher, though I don’t think he is described too often in such a way.  But take it from me: philosopher he is.  In a number of papers and articles over the years he has described a post-democratic state: a state in retreat from the post-World War II condition of maximal democracy which – according to Crouch – we only enjoyed fully in the middle, perhaps also some of the second half, of the 20th century.  For me, Crouch’s grand contribution to this debate lies in conceptualising a way for conspiracies to take place without necessarily being voiced – ie for the result of conspiracy to be apparent without requiring dark un-minuted meetings of dry old white upper-middle-aged and upper-middle-class males at international conferences of the most elitist sorts.

In Crouch’s world of postdemocracy, the common interests of the clearly, indubitably well resourced and organised wealthy take greater and greater control of Western liberal democracy’s agendas.  Conspiracy of the kind I describe as not actually happening might, after all, take place – see Trump and the recent US presidential elections as one fairly obvious accusation – but mechanisms exist to explain why, without dark meetings, the poorer are becoming consistently poorer, and why representative democracy reverts to representing the top five percentiles only, in the face of little effective protest from anyone.

Where this all ties into mental distress versus mental ill-health, and the weaponisation of the former as a tool to hurt citizens and control societies, is in Oliver James’s theses on selfish capitalism and its effect on mental wellbeing.  The environments he describes in his 2008 Guardian article on the matter are both physical and socioeconomic.  In both cases, the difference (which might not still hold a decade later, as globalising economies appear to be following more and more the Anglo-Saxon model) of English-speaking versus non-English-speaking societies is the difference between rates of mental distress* of twenty-five percent versus perhaps only twelve percent.  The difference as described in 2008 is notable: it is challenging to believe that human beings are so equally different in Germany, France and Spain compared to the UK, US, Canada and Australia.  Surely, as James does argue, there is an environmental factor of deep significance operating here: in particular, socioeconomic.

If Torija can be taken as read, re democracy’s tendency – or ability – to represent smaller and smaller groups to the detriment of the interests of the majority, and if Crouch provides the mechanism for the appearance and effects of such a conspiracy to take place without a word being spoken**, and James then gives us its result, one may finally have the right to begin to suggest further research is needed to establish whether mental distress*** has been dressed up as mental ill-health, at the same time as either being tacitly allowed to grow or being actively promoted.

My own contribution to the debate led me to write an auto-ethnographic piece of work during last year’s MA, on the process that in 2003 accompanied my own diagnosis – I have come to believe both planned, deliberate, and falsely so – of paranoid schizophrenia.  I even invented a method of analysis called schizophrenality.  This involves examining how mental-health legislation in many areas – as it is designed, configured, and legislated – makes it much easier to effect Criminal Justice process and outcomes: again, I would argue, deliberately so, and particularly on behalf of and to the advantage of the powerful.

Trumpism is perhaps the killer application which should really make us think twice about resisting the argument of long-term conspiracy: we only have to remember the structured gaming of social networks by enemy and home security-agencies, and private-sector companies working directly for the Brexit campaigners and Trump himself; the mass massaging of public opinion over recent times by elites; the historic abuses by traditional mass media of the information they have had in their possession, of the means they have used to obtain such information, and of the privileged positions they have held and exerted when deciding what information to distribute, to whom, and how – whilst due process has emerged, blinking mole-like, into these new post-democratic environments of evermore controlled outcomes.

Myself, I would love to be involved in the research I have already suggested might be needed.  We need to understand why what has been happening, has happened.  We need to know because it needs to be stopped.  I think victim-blaming of the twenty-five percent of citizens who suffer mental distress has gone on for long enough.  It is time we started blaming the real culprits: those who have distorted maximal democracy for their personal and financial benefit.  And in so doing, it really is time we acted in consequence.


* Most doctors and politicians would, I assume, still subscribe more to the concept of mental ill-health – ie located in the individual, not the outside – as politically and medically more useful to their ends, even as if intellectually it might not always stand up as it should.

** I would use the analogy of birds flocking here: the coordination is astonishing, and whilst words clearly do not exist to act as coordinators of behaviours, something is coordinating something.

*** Here I mean mental distress resulting from environments which at the very least have been allowed to come into being – if not necessarily deliberately, or overtly, configured.

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