How Our Society Breeds Anxiety, Depression and Dysfunction
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Whitaker’s explanation for the epidemic has now, even within mainstream psychiatric institutions, entered into the debate; for example, Whitaker was invited by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to speak at its 2013 annual convention that took place last June. While Whitaker concludes that psychiatry’s drug-based paradigm of care is the primary cause of the epidemic, he does not rule out the possibility that various cultural factors may also be contributing to the increase in the number of mentally ill.
Mental Illness as Rebellion Against Society
The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, is not humanly interesting. . . . In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree. . . . Ultimately such a society produces only two groups of men: the conditioners and the conditioned, the active and passive barbarians. —Lewis Mumford, 1951
Once it was routine for many respected social critics such as Lewis Mumford and Erich Fromm to express concern about the impact of modern civilization on our mental health. But today the idea that the mental illness epidemic is also being caused by a peculiar rebellion against a dehumanizing society has been, for the most part, removed from the mainstream map. When a societal problem grows to become all encompassing, we often no longer even notice it.
We are disengaged from our jobs and our schooling. Young people are pressured to accrue increasingly large student-loan debt so as to acquire the credentials to get a job, in a profession they often have little enthusiasm for. And increasing numbers of people are completely socially isolated.
Returning to that June 2013 Gallup survey, “ The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement,” only 30 percent of workers “were engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.” In contrast to this “actively engaged group,” 50 percent were “not engaged,” simply going through the motions to get a paycheck, while 20 percent were classified as “actively disengaged,” hating going to work and putting energy into undermining their workplace. Those with higher education levels reported more discontent with their workplace.
How engaged are we with our schooling? Another Gallup poll, “ The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year” (released in January 2013), reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in 37 states, and found nearly 80 percent of elementary students reported being engaged with school, but by high school, only 40 percent reported being engaged. As the pollsters point out, “If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.”
Life clearly sucks more than it did a generation ago when it comes to student-loan debt. According to American Student Assistance’s Student Debt Loan Statistics, approximately 37 million Americans have student-loan debt. The majority of borrowers still paying back their loans are in their 30s or older. Approximately two-thirds of students graduate college with some education debt. Nearly 30 percent of college students who take out loans drop out of school, and students who drop out of college before earning a degree struggle most with student loans. As of October 2012, the average amount of student loan debt for the Class of 2011 was $26,600, a 5 percent increase from 2010. Only about 37 percent of federal student-loan borrowers between 2004 and 2009 managed to make timely payments without postponing payments or becoming delinquent.