The virtues of a stiff upper lip took a bashing in the lead up to the London Marathon, with the House of Windsor Millennials extolling the greater virtues of opening up about your feelings.
Personally, I’m all for droning on about me to the couple of poor sods whom I’ve learned will let me get away with it. I’m equally happy to listen: Despite too much casual judging of people that I don’t really know, when eyeball-to-eyeball with another human being I’m all ears.
Bob Hoskins was right all those years ago: It’s good to talk.
What I’m less certain about is consigning a growing share of our emotional life to mental health professionals. I won’t be depositing the most awkward parts of my mental life in the sickness account. Naturally, some of those that choose to do so — before or after the Heads Together campaign — may claim that their experiences are more disabling than mine. But that is a stubbornly complex claim.
Our biological life loaned the word ‘health’ to our mental life long before now. But as recently as the second half of the last century, leading left intellectuals dedicated their energy to deconstructing the role of mental illness as an establishment weapon, rather than to expanding its scope. Mental illness was, the likes of Foucault opined, a device for marginalising people, ideas, and behaviours that the state deemed undesirable — marginalising, very often, by way of incarceration.
Modern democracies marginalise people, ideas, and behaviours, on an arguably unprecedented scale — only in more subtle ways than incarceration. Subtle ways that might, indeed, benefit from increasingly subtle notions of mental illness. Powerful systems, particularly systems of power, adapt well to public demands, often granting them as a smokescreen for widening their own remit.
Care workers that spend their working lives assisting the most difficult autistic clients, or violent schizophrenics, may cite good cause to reject the theory that mental illness is fundamentally a myth. But it remains compelling that explanations for more common seemingly pathological emotions and behaviours — from stress, anxiety and depression, to alcoholism and suicide — might be less energetically sought from the individual, and more from the society we live in.
Mental health science relies in large part on the assumption of a certain ‘biological ~ psychological’ equivalence. It’s assumed, widely without challenge, that both might be understood in similar terms, and described in similar language; that both might be either healthy, or unhealthy, and — when the latter — treated in the same or similar institutions. It’s an assumption that is in the DNA of the political rhetoric in lobbying efforts for changes in public policy: in particular, for the expansion of public service provisions for mental health issues.
On the face of it, this is a progressive agenda. But the expansion of public services must not be mistaken as a discrete benefit that can be won without a cost. Beyond simply new fiscal implications, every benefit won brings an additional part of our life into the realm of public policy.
The state response to health issues has long been cross-departmental. Policy relative to smoking-related diseases is not limited to funding treatment: it extends to product-specific excise duty to regulate consumer choice; regulation of the advertising industry; regulation of behaviour in public and private spaces; information campaigns, and broader deployment of soft power to influence public life.
Many of us may agree that this is an example that has served the greater good. But it is important not to sleepwalk through the lesson that in the wake of our new entitlements, we are subject to new regulations. New provisions are woven into public policy, extending government reach, insidiously; irreversibly; in perpetuity.
In the wider context of many government departments — including the Department of Health — being granted the right to request UK citizens’ web browsing history, the state has already leveraged technological and legislative tools to gain unprecedented access to our psychological life. In our pursuit of mental health entitlement spending, we seem more likely to secure a Faustian pact than a more progressive social policy.
Our liberation from the morally and emotionally constipated sensibilities of our Victorian forefathers is a triumph for society that warrants a public holiday. Perniciously pathologising our thought processes, however, threatens rather than crystallises that liberation.
The current generation’s willingness, or otherwise, to endure with a stiff upper lip might have significant implications on the reach of the state into our children’s psychological world. Chaos theory’s butterfly wings flap particularly vigorously across generations of lawmakers.