The current discussion is focussed upon mental ill-health caused by COVID-19. The focus is always upon the individual narrative. Radio and TV programs and newsreels constantly offer Vox-Pops of personal statements expressing feelings, focussing upon emotionality.
There’s much that is political propaganda in this. Immediately, I’m cursed for “reducing” or “denying” the serious impacts of pandemic related disease, sickness, bereavement, Lockdown claustrophobia, financial stress and debt, homelessness, domestic violence, social rage and deepening alienation.
Nope, mine is not a reductionist rant. It’s been months since I’ve felt able to write, the Summer offering some solace from gardening and cautious meet-ups post-Lockdown, but my stress and anxiety levels have been high, and I know I’m far from being alone in feeling alone and powerless. I am not one to minimise mental distress.
The problem with the focus upon the rise in mental ill-health is the dominant quasi-scientific approach of “biomedical psychology”. As my compatriot, Iain Ferguson identifies, there’s nothing wrong or abnormal with a response of anxiety to pandemic conditions – such emotions must be usual and collective human reactions to such stressful circumstances.
Yet the Capitalist propaganda machine identifies “Health”, mental and physical, as our personal and individual responsibility, even though viruses clearly require societal collective responses for mutual safety – masks, hygiene, sanitation, public refuse collection and decontamination, hospitals, ventilators, vaccines – little of which can be reduced to the level of individual production.
The response has to be societal. The current dominant cultural demands of neoliberal individualism and consumerism force us to believe we are at fault if we live in damp rented accommodation, its our fault if we can’t afford a low-fat low-sugar diet, its up to us to beat obesity by running each day, checking our steps and heartbeat on our Apple Watches.
The most scant and blurred check of personal and household income in Britain quickly proves that a huge proportion of us lack any choice in our living conditions, living in various degrees of poverty. Indeed, with the economic crisis stemming not only from COVID-19 but from the long oil-slick of the 2008 banking crash, around 4 million of our children live in poverty and over 1 million households rely upon charitable food banks.
That’s the stuff of stress and anxiety. Its not you. Levels of mental distress were high in this country well before COVID hit. Isolation, inequality, poverty, women’s oppression and racism are all structurally endemic in Capitalist society and each ensures fluctuating degrees of distress response.
The System, based upon judging people on their workability, condemns millions to lack of access, lack of choice, and resulting mental ill health, mostly encapsulating self-blame and self-hatred. It’s such ideology, and the corresponding media propaganda, that condones the cuts to mental health services to minimal levels.
One aspect of the current focus on mental health is now labelled “moral distress”, suddenly exposed and espoused by media from BBC 4’s Women’s Hour to “long-reads” in Guardian. I find it a fascinating revision of any consideration of political dissonance from the ruling ideas of the Capitalist Class.
Without seeking to clearly define this category of mental ill-health, it’s worth referring the outline concept to my friends, colleagues and comrades in the Climate Movement. The more we read the Science, we witness the extreme weather events and their aftermath for swathes of humanity (not to mention the mental anguish generated every time we project forward a few years in our imagination), the more “moral distress” appears to overwhelm us.
The moral distress of ecological and climate destruction leads us to the same self-blame and self-hatred borne of the powerlessness felt in other contexts. Such individualisation of the challenge, promoted by adverts from British Petroleum, The Sun “newspaper”, Prime Minister Johnson and those cleverly distorted journalists précis’ of Attenborough programmes, drives many activists into ever more alienated and pointless, self-denying activities.
It is claimed, falsely, that it is your plastic-use, your method of home heating, cooking, diet, attire, even breathing, that is the root of the problem. All this, despite the fact that you have little control over any of them (air pollution being a case in point).
In short, unless you’re an oil business billionaire (massive land-owner, corporate farmer or arms manufacturer), it’s not your fault! You didn’t create Capitalism. COVID-19 is a collective challenge and requires a collective, societal, pro-humanity response. So is Global Heating. Focus upon the methods of production that create deadly pandemics and emissions. Turn your pent-up emotions outwards, join together, and tear-down the System!