Particularly as youth in a world of climate change, pandemics and social instabilities of every other kind, we may find our surroundings crammed with well-intentioned messages of how we can better address our mental health. We should take a break. Prioritize our rest and peace. Focus on self-care. Stop putting our time and effort towards relationships that aren’t reciprocal. Go to therapy!
Obviously, there is truth and value to all of these strategies. And these are the only suggestions presented by most authority figures in our lives. But taken alone, they are individual-oriented solutions which prevent us from fully understanding the social nature of our health.
Firstly, a “drawing-in” of the self, toward the most critical resources and considerations to the self alone, is not meaningfully possible given the characteristics of our current society. In order to actually take time for ourselves, to focus on our own healing, peace and restoration, we would need to distance ourselves from our social obligations.
But this isn’t possible in a capitalist system. Under capitalism, the individual is literally evaluated based upon their productivity and ability to create commodities for others. This labor is how we’re paid, and money is required to purchase everything we need to survive. It doesn’t matter if we believe we’re more valuable because our very existence, our access to life-critical resources is dependent on our relationship to our production of commodities. If we take time away from work in order to pursue our mental health, we necessarily neglect our own wellbeing in this fundamental way.
Students understand this condition as well as workers do— we’re experiencing burnout at unprecedented rates. But we pursue higher education to access the comfort and stability of middle-class life, rather than having to work in service, retail, manufacturing or another minimum-wage industry. Regardless of how many of us will benefit from this plan, it requires persistence. If we take time off, we’re thrown right back to the conditions we intend to escape through the accreditation of school. We’d either need to pick up an undesirable job, accrue more debt or rely on the support of family— an unsustainable privilege for most. It’s also questionable if these alternatives could actually allow one to “focus on their mental health.”
Treatment itself is commodified. For many, there is a very genuine consideration to be had between the cost of therapy and other basic necessities. If becoming healthy requires distancing ourselves from work, but our relationship to work is the only thing which might allow us to afford therapy, we probably won’t ever heal.
The reality of capitalism is that therapy and most other mental health treatments function to correct us back onto abusive behavioral cycles, including fundamentally hostile work environments and overexertion. We have virtually zero control over our industries, specific jobs, working conditions, hours, pay and supervisors, and we are often entirely alienated from the products of our labor, stripping our work of meaning. This situation is extremely likely to leave us mentally unhealthy, and it wouldn’t be solved even if we did have the means to “take a break.”
I haven’t even discussed yet here the many other social violences in the world from racism, sexism, discrimination against queer people, all forms of xenophobia, violence from war and sanctions, a lack of human rights such as food, water and shelter, damage being done to the ecosystem and more. The fact that our world is wrought with such violences makes health in general whether mental, physical or social a completely distant experience for many.
There’s another characteristic of individual mental-health strategies that dovetails with violent social systems: strategies like therapy, self-care and distancing are often very isolating. They may be useful in correcting a specific unhealthy relationship or commitment of ours, or help us to allocate our resources in a healthier way. But alone, they suggest distancing ourselves from everyone else around us in order to “reflect”, “heal” or another similarly vague goal. They are rarely rooted in the benefit or helping of others around us.
We must view these as survival practices rather than solutions to capitalism, oppression, violence and social conflicts of all kinds in our lives which negatively impact our mental health. To be genuinely healthy, we need politics which oppose oppression and form relationships of love and solidarity. Mental health is an inherently political concept in a violent society, and healing from and overcoming systemic violence will depend on our relationships.
Alternatively, wrapping ourselves in these individualistic models of mental health leads us to associate our health with our worth. If there are a plethora of strategies which we alone, or with the help of a professional, can use to fix our mental health and we’re still struggling, aren’t we doing something wrong? Could there be something inherently wrong or incompatible with us that makes the solutions fail? The burden to be healthy is too much for each of us to bear alone.
In reality, people are given happiness, wellbeing and health through their relationships. There are many relationships which could make us well, but the vast majority of people find the most significant happiness in their friendships, with their families, through their children, or perhaps even through their co-workers if they enjoy their job. Even putting aside the social conflicts I discussed earlier, If you actually want to identify mental health, for this reason, it will be insufficient to do so on the individual level.
As hard this is to do, particularly in a violent world, pursuing mental health will require us to form caring relationships with others, whether these are romantic, personal or political in nature. We need communities in which we can contribute and receive support, where the members reciprocally love each other. We need to form close friendships and bonds with others. We need to practice solidarity, by which we make reciprocal sacrifices with others who are also suffering in order to challenge and replace violent and oppressive social systems. These kinds of relationships are the only way we can expect truly sustainable mental, physical and social health. It’s impossible alone.