I ended up at this video when I was trying to find out more about the plane crash that occurred in the French Alps last week.
I still don’t pretend to know much about what happened there, and it’s not primarily what I wanted to talk about. Though, the reports I have seen surrounding this event have left me with many questions, such as: If the pilot had been a Muslim, would the media have gone to any effort at all to learn the individual’s mental health history? I would not be surprised if, had that been the situation, Fox News implied religious motivation before even making the effort to look into the individual’s background. “Terrorist” would probably be used to refer to the individual before they even learned their name. I don’t know. But given that every snippet of their show I’ve been unfortunate enough to witness is gag-worthy in the obviousness of its capitalist-extolling, racism- and sexism- and homophobia- and transphobia- promoting, ‘otherness’-shaming, fear-inducing agenda….again, I would not be surprised.
Media outlets like Fox News don’t care about people, and they don’t care about what actually happened. They care about giving viewers someone to blame so that, as Russell said, the corporate elite (who control major media outlets) can “keep things the way they are”. They tell people that “it’s individuals that malfunction, not societies, cultures, financial systems”, etc., because any effort to reform the way society functions would require redistributing power back to the people. Calling attention to the fact that individuals don’t necessarily just “go nutty” – that there are so many external factors in all of our lives which potentially effect our emotional well-being – is a direct threat to an individualistic culture which places the blame on each individual for all of their problems. We are expected to take the blame for every single bad thing that happens to us, because once we don’t – once we decide that it’s not our fault and that we want to work against the forces which are working against us – we are a threat to everyone currently sitting comfortably in power.
This applies to so many struggles people in the United States (and probably other places) face every day. This is a place where we are told not to extend compassion to those in poverty, because they are lazy and they deserve what they are experiencing. This is a place where we are told to value the “rights” of businesses over the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination. This is a place where we are told that the lives of those in authority are worth more than the lives of the people they abuse.
We are raised in a country that claims to be the ultimate defender of “liberty and justice for all”, while it also says that corporations are people, is in constant denial about the systemic forces which have always been at work here against people of color (and which are to blame for their rates of poverty, unemployment, imprisonment, etc.), treats new immigrants like unwanted trash and rationalizes their expulsion using faulty economic theory, continues to condemn women who think they can define themselves, shames people of non-heterosexual orientation for being who they are, refuses to acknowledge the identities of those who do not identify with gender norms, wages wars in the interests of the wealthy corporate elite while dishonestly attempting to rationalize its atrocities to its own people and the rest of the world…….and so on.
Of COURSE rates of anxiety and depression are high (I know anxiety is an emotion and a broader category of mental illness, rather than a specific one, and that depression is characterized as a mood disorder – I’ll talk more about that later). The society we live in offers up enough injustices to trigger negative emotions every day, along with very few moral victories to give us any form of closure. We’re expected to see others suffering and do nothing. We are expected to blame them for their own problems and not to challenge the system which condemns them to their situations. We are expected to follow the trails of blame and distraction cast out by media and authority figures rather than trust ourselves to spot the roots of our society’s problems. We’re expected to expect no help from anyone else. When we get upset by all the parts of society that are pushing us down – the parts we are trained never to think directly about – we are expected to distract ourselves again…work harder…buy something to make us feel better. It doesn’t work. But if we realize it’s not working, what are we left with? We can try to talk to other people in our lives about what we are experiencing, but the language to express dissatisfaction with the way things are has been carefully distanced from our vocabulary. Even if we manage to express our dissatisfaction, what if there is no hope to be found? What if those around us don’t believe it can get any better? What if they just ask us ‘not to think about it’ and try to move along, with the same pattern over and over again: distract ourselves…work harder…buy something that makes us feel better.
Now, I realize that in some cases, emotions such as anxiety and sadness may occur in extents and patterns which do not lead to the diagnosis of a mental illness such as generalized anxiety disorder (an anxiety disorder) or depression (a mood disorder). But HOW, in the case of a person whose genetics give them the POTENTIAL to develop certain patterns or higher levels of such emotions, are these societal influences frequently NOT recognized as MAJOR TRIGGERING FACTORS? Why do we always look for a particular event, or the behaviors of a particular family member which may have influenced our chemical emotional reactions and processes, rather than noting the abundant reasons to be sad or anxious or angry that we are all potentially exposed to every single day? Why do we focus so much attention and blame on the actions of the individual and their closest people, rather than the broader cultural environment which surrounds us constantly and continues to fuel negative emotions? Why do we often seek to treat mental illnesses by completely isolating the individual from the environment which has contributed to how they feel, and try to get them to remember, assign a simple tag to, and mentally undo every negative thought they have had, as if the negative emotion contributing to that thought and the reasons that have triggered that emotion can be undone? How is that supposed to be effective when they will be exposed to the same environment and the same realities of injustice, distraction, and the painful attitudes of individualism we are expected to hold every single day?
I’m not saying that talking to someone about our negative emotions can’t sometimes help, just for the benefit of being able to speak to someone about them without immediately being considered “whiny” or “self-centered”. Nor am I saying that societal factors alone bring on mental illness. Studies of our brains and bodies have suggested that those who develop certain extents or patterns of emotions may have certain structural or chemical qualities, particularly involving the brain (on a small scale) in common, and there may be certain genetic factors contributing to these chemical or structural patterns which make the occurrence of certain levels or patterns of emotions to be possible. But just because one has the potential to develop what we have decided qualifies as a mental illness does not mean that one is biologically guaranteed to do so. Our genetics are under constant influence from our environment, which may be capable of providing certain triggering factors. Even mental illnesses which are not characterized as anxiety disorders or mood disorders – such as schizophrenia/psychotic disorders – are suggested to involve genetic factors potentially triggered into onset by an environment that brings about negative emotions such as anxiety.
Our society presents us with plenty of potential triggers for negative emotions. For some, these emotions may not necessarily develop into what is currently considered a mental illness by medical standards. But I think we should all be more aware and open about the ways society puts us down, because it might help us to understand that many of those who are struggling are experiencing the same emotions we are – maybe even brought about by similar circumstances – even if they experience those emotions in different levels and patterns. Even if they express them in different ways. We are all victims of many of the same pressures and injustices and harmful forces in our society. But we can help ourselves and each other at once if we refuse to let ourselves be distracted and told who to blame, if we stop letting those in power tell us how to respond to things, if we stop letting people tell us that our emotions are things we have little or no reason to be feeling…if we extend compassion to all those around us and refuse to blame ourselves or those who are also struggling at the hands of those in power…we can make things better.
I would also like to say that I do not believe societal factors are the only contributing factors to mental illnesses and that working against these factors may not necessarily be all it takes to combat every individual’s mental illness. Medication is not something to be stigmatized or to be condemned as a method for the weak. That mindset just goes along with the same individual-blaming attitude that we are expected to have. We should recognize that for those with a genetic potentiality for a medically defined mental illness, and for those who have developed what is medically considered a mental illness, medication may be helpful in its influence on biological mechanisms and may make someone feel better in some way. Recognizing that change needs to be made on a societal level does not mean that individuals should be denied the opportunity to pursue any method that makes them feel subjectively better, and we should not in any way attempt to devalue that decision. We should continue to ask for further research into the mechanisms of our brains and bodies, potentially in order to work towards medications which can help people feel the way they want to feel and live the way they want to live. We must place accountability on society and on those working with medicine to make these advances responsibly, compassionately, and safely. And we should all continue to treat each other with compassion and to value each other’s happiness.
I think that’s about all I have to say today.:) Thanks for reading!