Mental distress as the individual’s response to society’s dysfunction
I’ve been a psychotherapist for nearly twenty years and the longer I practice the more I recognise the foundational cause of human distress and disturbance tends not to be an isolated failing in the individual, nor defect or deficit, not a pathology, nor an inherent lack. In my experience the majority of the mentally distressed patients I’ve seen are simply responding to various forms of immoral, insane, manipulative, coercive, corrupt or unjust practices in the world that are tolerated as ‘normal’ in the family, partnership, school, workplace, institution, or government. Individual troubles of such origin more broadly arise from a cultural decline in the ways our world is operating and their reciprocating stress effects upon us both collectively and individually to the point of the individual becoming overwhelmed beyond his or her ability to cope.
Specifically, those institutions, beliefs and practices that we have permitted ourselves to tolerate as ‘normal’, but which, on closer inspection, are difficult to consider normal by any standard of moral or mental health. As a complex of unhealthy cultural forces, they contribute to the overwhelm required to force individuals to buckle under the weight of their own troubles as we are no longer able to shape, manage and regulate our lives according to an attunement to our natural world, its natural simplicity and the moral clarity required to do so.
Whilst the centre of responsibility for one’s mental health ultimately lies within the individual, it becomes apparent that there is a division of responsibilities between the individual and the society within which he or she is expected to function. If such a society is inherently dysfunctional, as I would suggest, then a proportion of responsibility for the causes of mental distress must lie with society and its members. The question is, then, can a conscientious individual who participates in and lives under the endless influence of morally fragmented systems that continually destroy the natural world and that erodes our shared moral values avoid expressing these fragmenting influences upon his or her own mental health? Does individual psychotherapy adequately address the value instability of inauthentic contexts – inauthentic relationships, families, school, workplace, institution, government – when considering the patient’s expression of mental distress?
Necessary Illusions: Everyone’s Fine Except You
The people who have come to see me over the past two decades have tended to be those who have been adversely impacted by the world around them to the point where something gives within them. The emotional weight of this culture plus the weight of a toxic partner, an unsupportive family, the factory-farm style of schooling, the permissive favouritism or bullying of the workplace, the false social group, the military or police operations that go against our initial moral objections to joining, online social networks that put us up one minute and down the next, degrading prison environments, the torments of unnecessary poverty, the dragging burden of unnecessary ill-health, the lostness of unemployment, or the pain and injustices felt by victims of crime or abuse. These individuals feel the impacts upon themselves of cultural norms that tolerate injustice, and are expressing these impacts in some way, and have had enough awareness and personal conscience to seek help to find a resolution and new skills for coping with the rat race. Because people, particularly those who have a developed social conscience and moral intelligence, know instinctively when there is something wrong.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”
There must be something wrong with me
However, the majority of these people, as sensitive as many of them are as individuals, also tend to assume – due to the nature of our society’s conceptualisation of mental illness as a problem that lies inside of us – that there is something wrong with them, stopping only tentatively to question whether there might possibly be something fundamentally dysfunctional or ‘insane’ with the systems of the world in which they are trying to function. Sometimes, patients are acting or thinking in ways that could use some examination, reflection and refinement in respect to their own personal, habitual ways of negotiating their way through the world. Often, they are reacting to the personal impact upon their minds and emotions of accepted and impersonal forms of complex madness around them: from small to large measures of insanity that are typically considered ‘normal’ qua status quo: standardised lifestyles, social structures, group behaviours, unjust institutions, the economic and political systems that all directly impact our lives for good or ill but remain beyond the influence of the individual. Examined as dysfunctional societal forces acting upon the individual and demanding the individual’s compliance, I would suggest that each of these could rightly be considered forms of normalised insanity.
“Politics is an insane attempt at human organization and it does not matter which philosophy, which concept or idea politicians follow.”
Dr Mark Sircus, “Listening is the Key”
Insanity as Moral and Sensory Denial
What I mean by normalised insanity in this instance is the disjunction between one’s personal contributions to a system, and the individual’s compartmentalised concern and refusal to look at the impact of his or her contribution on the overall state of affairs.
and what we know to be right and wrong within the system. What we call ‘normality’ in contemporary society has become a morally relativistic confusion of endless shifting, externally imposed policies comprised of declaring one thing and doing another; of seeing and hearing something, and believing it to be something else, of inviting the individual to give up his or her common sense, intuition and moral compass, in favour of the oxymorons of ‘politically correct’ morality, bureaucratic and political morality. It is far more insidious than the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, which under scrutiny, turns out to be a hallmark of mainstream media propaganda rather than the mischievousness of alternative media we are invited to believe. It is more than isolated instances of criminal or immoral acts by a rogue minority as is often suggested to us via the mainstream media in its State-sponsored management of public narrative. It is, in my view, a system-wide conflict between the appearance of things and our finer sense of an underlying, contradictory reality that has led to divisions in the community and the social zeitgeist that renders society inauthentic by definition (bar the positions of a rare few authentic individuals acting against it).
Moral relativism is then accepted as ‘normal’ by default, not by veracity or virtue, but simply because it is deemed to be acceptable by a largely complacent statistical majority acting in concert under the democratic illusion of the system being a fair expression of majority consent. The ‘say one thing, do another’ ethos exemplified by authorities and institutions who govern (rather than representing our collective interests as they should) this majority reinforces and endorses cultural divisions and normative standards between saying right, and doing wrong. This commonly tolerated and often condoned moral inauthenticity can be seen in the following common examples:
- The love of money: individuals who place more value in money and the means of making money than they do in the health of the biosphere: the welfare and wellbeing of others, animals and the environment
- Vanity: individuals who place more value in their own appearance, ambitions, reputation and social status than they do in the welfare and wellbeing of others
Inauthenticity and Moral Nihilism
Both of these social phenomena now exist as accepted, dominant norms in our world. Yet most individuals who might wish themselves to be seen to be decent human beings would tend to reject them as morally bankrupt in their community and familial value. Thus, we experience a cultural schizoidal division in moral terms between:
- what we are told is right and wrong (prevaling policy and legislation alleging to be morally grounded)
- what we know to be right and wrong (personal and religious morality)
- perpetual double standards of right and wrong exercised by authorities making policy declarations of right and wrong (corruption, institutional hypocrisy and criminal activity)
- permissive double standards of right and wrong exercised by individuals (personal hypocrisy and inauthenticity)
- the denial of double standards and personal responsibility (inauthenticity)
- the ‘politically correct movement’s’ claims that right and wrong are completely arbitrary moral positions in an amoral universe (naturalism)
The flexibility of making up moral rights and wrongs to suit our capricious purposes is the consequence of moral nihilism: a denial of the importance of moral cohesion between people and a promotion of the idea that morality is whatever the individual, institution or government decides it is. This results in a disintegration of society, of relationship bonds in families and the community, as the every man for himself morality prevails.
*The above video criticises Capitalism’s contribution to mental distress. However, I would argue that Socialism and Communism have also been misused against the majority. The essential problem, as with religion, the mis-application of ideas by authoritarian self-interest. The video maker’s solution is Libertarianism.
If we can begin to recognise that the current structures of society are adversely affecting our wellbeing, mentally, physically, environmentally, then we can start changing things. Blaming the individual for his/her response to our collective insanity has gone on too long
Normalised Immorality and Inauthenticity
The following are some examples of well-trodden morally inauthentic behaviours as expressions of these two principles in our societal systems. If observed in the individual they would, I suggest, attract a psychiatric diagnosis of ‘mental illness’. When combined, these norms of contemporary society present the individual with an overwhelming complexity – that increase in society by the year – of foundational sources of stress, worry, anxiety, moral conflict and contradiction, inchoate collusion, traumatic experiences, normative standards of destructive behaviour, inauthenticity, and curtailments to freedom that have a collective and cumulative impact upon a moral individual’s sense of control, wellbeing and optimism. Indeed, with no stable sense of right and wrong, we can only assume that it is the amoral individual who could best thrive in a system that functions according to some of the following traits:
- the inherently corrupt and parasitic nature of the banking, monetary, stock market, and financial systems, all of which directly influence and limit the freedom, quality and direction of our individual lives e.g. (Video 1, Video 2, Video 3)
- self-serving alliances between our political representatives (employed as public servants but typically acting as an elite class of executive directors) and private corporations, foreign governments and private interests
- the evidence of functioning psychopathy and malignant narcissism in corporations and governments
- our default and de facto support of immoral and illegal invasions and illegal activities against sovereign nations by our governments and their allies, financed by tax payers and undertaken in our name e.g. Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, 9/11
- the steady erosion of civil liberties that silence criticism of and criminalise legitimate attempts to boycott immoral behaviours e.g. Israeli Apartheid and ethnic cleansing, denying free speech, controlling or refusing peaceful public protest
- the well-established, system-wide willingness of employees of corporations, governments, military and scientific enterprise to undertake immoral, criminal and inhumane acts against fellow human beings (including colleagues) in return for money and position
- The normalisation of industrial scale and individual acts of cruelty towards sentient beings (animals) in the form of factory farming, animal agriculture, laboratory experiments and vivisection, the dairy industry, deliberate torture of animals for ‘food’ such as cats and dogs in Asian countries. Multiple examples can be viewed in Earthlings (Video)
- The systematic usurping, destruction and cultural separation from nature and the natural world. This ‘ecocide’ results in increased reliance upon technology and technocratic thinking to solve problems created by the profiteering destruction of the planet, including the technocratic reduction of human beings to the status of objects. The result is an increase in ontological and existential insecurity for the human species and a loss of grounding for us in our natural context.
- The overt and covert use of mainstream media and government-backed institutions and operations to dishonestly manipulate the public narrative e.g. ISIS, Integrity Initiative, United Nations Agenda 21, Common Purpose, Operation Mockingbird, The White Helmets
- the unashamed supply (by our politicians and corporations) of arms, munitions and money to oppressive regimes that commit human rights abuses against innocent human beings, including murder, starvation and torture e.g. USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel
- the implementation of so-called ‘Austerity policies’ in the context of priviledges afforded those in authority by a contemporary claim to ‘divine right’ whilst the sick, infirm, disabled and elderly are robbed of subsistence level welfare entitlements e.g. the Monarchy versus actions of the DWP against vulnerable members of our society e.g. Austerity as social murder
- growing evidence of widespread, long-term systemic paedophilia that forms part of the establishment identity, including the ruling classes (additional video 1, video 2)
- the widespread public rewarding of narcissistic self-interest as a form of society-wide co-dependence. And the reciprocal dependence on authorities to confer validation and value upon us i.e. the maintenance, in mature adults, of an infantilised position via a child-parent subserviance dynamic
- the accepted and routine exploitation of the poor and working people by businesses, purely in the interests of profit for the few e.g. Amazon, Nestle, Walmart et al
- the government-driven stigmatisation and culture of suspicion deliberately created against the sick, infirm, disabled, poor and elderly who claim welfare benefits
- unprecedented levels of surveillance and profiling by governments and corporations and the contribution to mistrust, hypervigilance, fear and anxiety in the population
- systemic tolerance of widespread social injustices and the maintenance of an extreme poverty gap
- geopolitical fragmentation of communities via employment dispersement, exploitation of slave labour, and manipulation of population movements to fragment family and community solidarity and cohesion
- the adoption and promotion of moral relativism and moral nihilism by individuals, institutions and authorities as a means of serving political and economic agendas
- the corruption – internally and externally – of spiritual institutions and the promotion of incredulous fairytale definitions of ‘God’ and ‘Faith’, thus usurping a morality-centred Creator authority by politically-motivated authorities
- worship of celebrity and material and financial excess in a world that continues to tolerate and create famine, malnutrition, dispossession and homelessness
- the maintenance of a hidden underclass, brutally oppressed or subjected to genocidal policies, in settler colonial cultures e.g Australia (Video), USA (Video), Canada (Video), South Africa (Video), Israel (Video) etc
- the democratic delusion that the majority are correct and the minority incorrect and the use of a ‘mob rule/ divide and rule’ construct in managing dissent e.g. Manufacturing Consent (Video)
- tolerance and normalisation of images of violence, cruelty, and the degradation of human beings as accepted features of mainstream entertainment
- Social tolerance of body and aesthetic manipulation, setting unrealistic or unattainable standards of ‘beauty’
- acceptance, support and promotion of a system that renders the survival of human beings absolutely dependent upon money
- acceptance of governments with a proven history of the routine use of torture, traumatisation, illegal military and intelligence operations, murder, funding of oppressive regimes, surveillance of its citizens, and other forms of brutality whilst maintaining the illusion of operating for the good e.g. CIA (Video 1, Video 2), Israel (Video)
- the public education of our children to accept, conform, and contribute to the maintenance of an immoral, corrupt system by, for example, presenting it as a meritocracy, “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7)
- Our inescapable support – even against personally declared morals – of all of the above by consent, compliance, payment of taxes, and other means of active enablement
When presented by individuals within a psychiatric setting, the above tolerated social behaviours would be considered evidence of severe mental illness with psychopathic, sociopathic, narcissistic and forensic features of malignant personality disorder. Yet we have normalised such prevalent behaviours by our adaptation to the pace of their escalation and a societal dynamic of child-parent, citizen-authority subservience. If as it appears, our culture is indeed sick, then how can we reasonably expect the sensitive individual subjected to its toxic influence to remain healthy?
“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which the flower grows, not the flower”
~Alexander Den Heijer
This list could, of course, go on as long as your arm and sceptics need only undertake modest research to find a maelstrom of evidence and examples to support these observations. The history and nature of the acquisition and hoarding of wealth alone is a contextual source of so much physical and mental hardship, stress, worry, struggle, criminal activity, violence and the more debasing features of business that we see undertaken in the name of profit: dishonesty, deception and acts of parasitic profiteering evident in exploitative business practices that the law still continues to deem ‘legal’. It is to my mind worth considering these features of our collective money- and vanity-oriented culture as contextual factors in the expression of distress and disturbance in individual mental distress particularly, but not exclusively, in conscientious individuals who try to maintain their moral sanity in an essentially insane, morally vacuous cultural context. It is by virtue of the conscientious individual’s unwillingness to routinely bend him or herself in compliance to cultural pathology that renders him or her vulnerable in such a culture.
Quasi-sanity as Conformity
The denial of our culture’s sickness is a function of its maintenance as an unexamined normative environment for individual’s troubled by their place in it. Society’s routine acceptance and promotion of double-standards and moral nihilism are I would suggest, symptoms of a real and pervasive level of insanity born of moral detachment from one’s conscience that is undeniable to any honest or enquiring mind. En masse this creates a milieu of heightened fear, anger, disturbed conscience and anxiety that invariably affects many of us to varying degrees, either by our congruence or incongruence to it. I point to their significance here, not so much as political, but as existential. Namely, that the individual who lives and functions in a society that operates in these ways cannot escape its toxic influence upon his or her psyche and the collective mindset in which he or she plays a part. In response we increasing through up our hands and declare ‘there’s nothing we can do about it!’, thus worsening the collective and individual denial of responsibility in a state of learned helplessness. To deny the corrosive effects of this state of affairs upon the individual psyche would be like expecting to remain unaffected whilst living in a family plagued by alcoholism, child abuse or domestic violence. Or expecting good health whilst breathing car exhaust fumes and eating toxic waste every day of our lives. Only those well adjusted to and profiting from such toxic conditions could fail to complain or be adversely affected by them.
“The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” – George Orwell
Likewise, all but the empathically numb clearly recognise the harrowing effects upon animals of depriving them of their freedoms, of confinement in close quarters, of the inhumane practices of factory farming. Yet do we realistically expect our children to function in similar educational and, later, work environments under the perpetual stress of subservience to managerial representatives of exploitative companies, blind obedience to corporate feudal policy, of making money under pressure to survive, with no ill effects upon them?
How Individuals Contribute to Collective Inauthenticity
When we aren’t able to address trauma and difficult experiences we tend to compartmentalise them, which then results in problems of dissociation, anxiety and abreaction, for example. Why would this be any less true as members of a society routinely subjected to similar influences? Yet as toxic and repugnant as they are to our better nature as conscientious individuals, and as in conflict with a historical narrative that implores us to heed moral imperatives and cultivate awareness that would have us be better informed on such matters, we have nevertheless allowed the existentially toxic nature of our world to go unchecked by compromising our personal authenticity and power to change our situation as individuals in the following ways:
- selective inattention (or elective ignorance)
- the illusions of meritocracy, romanticism, and mainstream media ‘truth’
- pretending that we have no power to change the society of which we are a part
- denial of uncomfortable truths and the evidence before us
- amoral and aggressive self-justification
- unjustified fear or admiration of authority
- avoidance of honest, direct, non-violent communication and the widespread use on the internet of destructive and toxic behaviours often expressed anonymously
- avoiding and denying personal responsibility for our contribution in time, money and energy to the maintenance of a system that creates unnecessary hardship for the majority
- focussing on the pre-eminence of concern for individual comfort, security and pleasure with little to no regard for humanity as a whole
Individual and Epidemic Distress as an Expression of Dysfunctional Society
As a result, sensitive and conscientious people become the direct and indirect victims of a world that permits, promotes and models socially and psychologically toxic behaviours, ending up pathologised as ‘mentally ill’ by isolating widespread societal pathologies in the individual who finds him or herself incongruent to them. The medical model of physical disease used upon a predominantly social and existential phenomenon then serves to focus the mind on the individual as a pathologised aberration rather than the reacting agent to a sick system, never contextualising any enquiry with consideration to ‘symptoms of dysfuntional society’. Thus globally we see the following epidemiological manifestations at unprecedented levels:
- depression and despair
- uncontrollable anxiety or violence
- anxiety-related secondary problems
- uncontrollable moods
- trauma and trauma-related problems
- eating disorders and self-harming behaviour
- pervasive obsessions with control
- body dysmorphia
- psychotic and paranoic experiences
- alcohol and substance misuse and related problems
- personality problems
- chronic difficulties with fear and insecurity
- low self-esteem
- identity disorders and crises
- derealisation, dissociation and personal inauthenticity
The Oroborus Effect
For the sake of being succinct I’ve focussed primarily on problems with which I might be presented as a psychotherapist. We could, of course, create more extensive lists for the creation of physical illnesses and forensic behaviours. In each case, the dysfunctional systems that create these problems typically seek dysfunctional ways of managing them, thereby resulting in their perpetuation and maintenance. It is the snake that swallows its own tail. For example:
- routine use of highly profitable corporate pharmaceuticals to subdue unwanted behaviours and to manage symptoms (drugs produced by corporations with abysmal track records of criminal and unethical behaviour e.g. Bayer)
- the promotion of psychological and social paradigms that pathologise individuals rather than collectives or systems, using pseudo- and quasi-medical models of individual ‘illness’ and ‘abnormal psychology’
- accepted use of ‘therapies’ that pathologise and ‘treat’ individuals, or that only focus on symptoms, and that merely help individuals adjust themselves back into a dysfunctional system
- the accepted practice of diagnosing and labelling individuals as isolated cases of dysfunction in groups or institutions whose functional health remains unquestioned e.g. workplace stress, operational PTSD in the military and related fields, harassment and bullying
- the maintenance of a culture that views mental health issues as a form of class division between ‘healthy’ professional and ‘unhealthy’ patient thereby stigmatising non-conformity
Individual Authenticity and Responsibility
It is important for any conscientious person in today’s society to clarify for themselves, within the parameters of their own moral awareness and intelligence, the unique relationship they create between the choices they make, the ways in which they conduct themselves, and the impact their conduct has on the good and the ills of the world. Few, however, do so, and we are not educated to do so beyond the requirements ensuring our conformity as well-behaved citizens. Is it not then all the more important for those providing care to disturbed and distressed individuals to not only question the internal functions of their distress, but to also question the contextual, external causes and influences upon them that may have brought about their suffering?
Professional Authenticity and Responsibility
On offering help I am of the opinion that it is good ethical practice for a psychotherapist to carefully examine the socio-economic, political and moral context within which a patient lives and breathes, rather than simply looking at treating bothersome symptoms as though they were isolated aberrations emerging from a prima facie context of cultural mental health. This is not to suggest that it is solely the world that is to blame for our troubles. Many of our problems do arise from our playing our part in the societal sickness described above and in other personal choices. But it is to suggest that it may be important to be vigilant to the effects upon the individual of a deeply troubled and mentally unhealthy social world and his or her contribution to it, helping him or her differentiate between expression, context and division of responsibility. Such differentiation is crucial if we are to recover any meaningful state of personal authenticity, personal responsibility and real ‘mental health’ beyond simply fitting back into the madhouse. Otherwise, as professionals we become agents of social control and conformity. And as patients, we risk permitting ourselves to be subjugated to the normative effects of helping professions that simply assist us in maintaining the delusion that our distresses are our fault, our weakness, our defect, or negativity, our limited intelligence, our illness, our ‘brain chemical imbalance’, without once questioning whether the real illness lies in the world around us.
Related [the author does not necessarily endorse any or all of the views conveyed in the following related items. They are simply listed as points of departure for further thought]:
- Suicide Rates, Even Amongst Children, Are Rising Dramatically
- Political Ponerology
- Dysfunctional Societies
- Richard Wilkinson – How economic inequality harms societies
- Bullying and Corporate Psychopaths at Work
- The World’s Moral Insanity
- Dysfunctional societies simplified
- Collective Insanity
- The Revolt Against the Masses
- The Truth Behind Common Purpose
- Collective Guilt
- The psychopathy of The Corporation