Mental health issues have been rife lately. Not surprising, really: it’s been a tough year. Covid-19, with its lockdowns, job insecurity and financial pillaging, had a terrible effect on our collective mental health. Almost no one had a good year. Mental health referrals amongst young people doubled in England. But this widespread feeling of fragility in the wake of the pandemic has shone a spotlight on mental health — and that’s a good thing.

A mental health pandemic

Mental health issues were on the rise even before the pandemic, with suicide being one of the leading causes of death in the UK amongst males and females aged 20 to 34. It’s time that the Left (broadly speaking) made mental health a battleground to fight and win.

Naomi Osaka pulling out of the French Open. Simone Biles temporarily withdrawing from the Olympics. And of course, Meghan Markle splitting from the Royal Family. What do all these stories have in common? They were decisions made, explicitly, on the grounds of mental health. As a result, they’ve garnered widespread media attention. This is brilliant, as it’s helping reduce the stigma for those struggling with mental health issues. But the media frequently jumps to facile conclusions when discussing mental health, and there are already typical tropes when writing about it. Reasons for struggling with mental health issues include, but are not limited to; social media, genetic make-up, family history, being ‘snowflakes’, the loosening of the ‘stiff upper lip’, etc. A columnist gets to pick and choose which particular reason fits a given case, depending on their worldview.

Too often, articles treat these stories as if they’re isolated instances. They aren’t. Mental illness is endemic, especially among the young. One startling study shows that the proportion of young people having a mental health condition has risen sixfold over two decades. Indeed, it’s nearly the case that being young in Britain today should be reclassified as an illness. This is a matter of perception: it’s hard to get your head around a crisis that’s unfolding slowly. But the reality is that we are in the grips of a very slow, serious pandemic. Framed in these starker terms, you start to realise how serious and widespread mental illness really is. And it’s this realisation that should spur the politicization of the mental health crisis.

Mental Health as a Mirror

Mental health shouldn’t be discussed using individualistic frames of reference, such as genetic dispositions or social media addictions. Instead, the Left should make a broader, more potent point: an individual’s mental health reflects society’s mental health. If an increasing number of people are struggling with their mental health, it is because there is something very wrong with the way our society is currently structured. Our country today still runs on a Thatcherite project of dismantling the postwar consensus, summed up neatly by her famous:

‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families’.

The idea of a common good, a general will, even the idea of a public — which isn’t reducible to the sum of individuals — has been intellectually attacked and practically destroyed. The result is that we’re living in a ruthlessly competitive society where even love is reduced to a reality TV show (yes, I’m talking about Love Island). More emphasis is placed on bettering your CV than what people are going to say about you at your funeral. It comes as no surprise then that we’re less trusting than previous generations, more fractured, and angrier. Little wonder that the West in particular has seen a rise in populist and nationalist politics; we’re more geared for that way of living.

Regaining the Spirit of Solidarity

Mental health is a profoundly political issue. But, for now, its political power remains latent. The Left must assert that the mental health crisis is the result of a country that has structured itself on competition, and start pointing to a better way. It should also show the public how the mental health crisis is a symptom of capitalism’s failings.

The pandemic has demonstrated how dependent we all are on each other and the kindness of strangers. Covid-19 has been the rupturing event that was needed to show us a different kind of future. One in which the Left can invoke the renewal of such principles as solidarity, community, a common good, a public, and a general will. Contrary to popular belief, the pandemic has shown us that we are capable, as a society, of acts of kindness. We have seen that we can and do care for each other.

This spirit of solidarity can become an earnest political project of trying to restructure society towards cooperation rather than competition. The mental health crisis acts as a lens through which the faults of our current modus operandi are clearly visible. It’s time the Left fought back against the medicated individualism of the current crisis. The mental health pandemic is a societal and structural problem — not a private one. A person’s mental health shouldn’t be seen as their individual burden, but as everyone’s burden and society’s potential asset.

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