How Capitalism Is Helping Fuel Our Mental Health Crisis

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From Psychology Today/Justin Garson, PhD: “I spoke with Dr. James Davies, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Psychology at the University of Roehampton, London, and a practicing psychotherapist. He’s the author of the provocative book Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created our Mental Health Crisis (Atlantic, 2021). It offers nothing less than a fundamental reorientation of our medical thinking about mental illness. Our conversation is below.

. . . JG: A core claim of your book is that capitalism both ‘depoliticizes and commodifies’ our suffering. Could you say a bit more about what it means to depoliticize suffering?

JD: In the book I define ‘depoliticization’ as the process by which suffering is conceptualized in ways that protect the current economy from criticism—namely, as rooted in individual rather than social causes, which means we must favor self over social reform.

One example of depoliticization that I offer in the book concerns the terrible epidemic of farmer suicides that blighted Central India between 2000-2010, about which China Mills has written. At this time, multinational agricultural companies were trying to create new markets in India for their products, and they were doing so by replacing the traditional crops that the farmers had always used with genetically modified plants that didn’t produce any seeds.

This meant that local farmers could no longer save their seeds for next year’s crop (as they’d always done) but now had to buy expensive new plants each year from the multinationals, which put many into crushing debt and poverty. As a result, thousands of farmers were killing themselves under the resulting stress, mostly by drinking toxic pesticide.

But in the face of these terrible suicides, rather than challenge the multinationals, the Indian state sent in teams of psychiatrists and psychologists to tackle what was now being framed as a ‘mental illness epidemic.’ It also launched a campaign, with the World Health Organization, to make antidepressants more freely available to the farmers; a campaign that was also partly funded, it turns out, by these very agricultural companies.

In other words, the solution to the suicide epidemic was psychiatric rather than political. ‘Nowhere was suicide seen as a desperate response to a situation made unbearable by the multinationals,’ as China Mills put it.

This misuse of the mental illness narrative I think illustrates the essence of how depoliticization works: It effectively turns socially caused problems into internal dysfunctions, making the ‘self’ the site of reform and thereby exonerating harmful social, corporate, or political arrangements and so by implication, helping nullify in people the forces that push for social change.”

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