Mental health is a social, not just personal issue

Society can never aim to be perfect but it should at least strive to be more just, more inclusive, and better prepared to help people who need professional and structural support

Recent statistics estimate that as many as 17% currently suffer from depression and anxiety
Recent statistics estimate that as many as 17% currently suffer from depression and anxiety

In recent years Malta has made great strides in pulling down barriers to social inclusion. Some barriers are however harder to pull down than others. One of these is mental health, which has traditionally been stigmatised more than any other disability or impairment. For this reason alone, it is often difficult to acknowledge even the existence of the problem: still less its extent.

Recent statistics estimate that as many as 17% currently suffer from depression and anxiety, and nearly a third of the population will suffer from depression and anxiety at some point in their lives. There are also studies which indicate that such cases rise in both number and intensity during Christmastime. This is borne out by the experience of Psychiatrist Anton Grech, who observes that: “It is not the festivities that bring about depression and anxiety in those already dealing with mental health issues but Christmas amplifies existing symptoms.”

Moreover, there are indications that the problem is intensifying over time. This is admittedly hard to ascertain, in the absence of reliable statistics from past decades and centuries. But just as the prevalence of festivity at this time of year is a recognised catalyst for depression, so too is the increased pace of 21st century lifestyle. There can be little doubt that anxiety and stress are on the rise, and that individuals are increasingly finding it harder to cope.

In this, the current global economic model has much to answer for. Hard work should be rewarded on principle; but we must also find a way to reclaim time, free time, to enjoy life and not spend a lifetime (or a career) chasing materialistic dreams. It would be a lot easier to address the increasing rate of depression if we had to admit that our consumer society makes us unhappy. 

Society is also developing in a way that is at once both intensely voyeuristic and increasingly lonely. The social media have created a mirror universe in which selective parts of one’s life are hung out on permanent public display. These distorted images tend to have the same effect as a permanent Christmas season: they amplify the illusion of an artificial happiness, which only exacerbates the lack of happiness in reality.

Advances in media communications have also radically increased public awareness of the state of the world: which, as 2016 draws to a close, is not in a very healthy condition at all. Disparity of wealth, war, instability and misery are among the previously ignored realities that now swim into our everyday field of vision. 

Globalisation and interconnectivity have also affected the way societies interact with themselves. Loneliness and social exclusion have always been problems, but the closer connections of earlier times made real human contact a more everyday occurrence than it is in today’s digital world.

Such phenomena can be now recognised and quantified. A recent Caritas study revealed the reality of people living in solitude in the town of Dingli. “More than half of the elderly people surveyed who live by themselves told us that they experience solitude problems,” Caritas director Leonid McKay told a press conference. “Such problems don’t often show from the outside, but they kept emerging throughout this study.”

On a broader level, the relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption not only encourages parasitism, but it has also caused indisputable damage to planet earth. This gives rise to a certain fatalism which in turn fuels despair.

Economic disparity must also be addressed. There is a pressing need to find an alternative to the current system which robs people of their time and control over their relatively short lives. We need an alternative by which people reclaim time for their own wellbeing and that of others. Long working hours is a major cause of mental ill health, and a 2015 study linked long working hours with an increased risk of stroke and heart disease.

Failing to acknowledge these realities will only perpetuate a vicious cycle. Social problems cause mental health issues, which in turn could foster unemployment, dependency on social welfare, poverty, violence and criminality. The circle is very difficult to break.

It wouldn’t harm us to shelve the delusion that we can preserve a development model based on a fabricated expansion of individual consumption, which in turn depletes our planet’s resources and causes unhappiness: especially among those who are unprepared or cannot understand the consequences of growing inequality and greed in this turbo consumerist society.

Inclusivity could well be the biggest political challenge of the 21st century. Society should first and foremost realise that happiness is far more important than economic growth, and that austerity is a far better tool at achieving this than wasteful consumption.

The flipside to this is that we must also recognise that unhappiness and loneliness are just as much part of life as happiness and companionship. Society can never aim to be perfect – even because attempts to create ‘the perfect society’ are inherently doomed to fail. But society should at least strive to be more just, more inclusive, and better prepared to help people who need professional and structural support.