We've Got The Mental Health Crisis All Wrong

What's wrong with us, really?

Man sitting alone.

I'll never forget the night my father-in-law asked a server to sing for him. He spent most of the meal teasing and flirting with her. At one point, he asked her if he looked like Brad Pitt. She was going to do it, too.

She was going to sing for him.

We shut that down.

We left a big tip.

He'll never understand what he was doing. He was abusing this poor woman. He was tormenting her, seeing how far he could push her boundaries, and how much she would degrade herself for money. He was so caught up in his own charm, he didn't even think about how it looked.

He was doing it with a smile.

As you might already know, we live in a deeply unhealthy, passive-aggressive society. The average person thinks they can do whatever they want as long as they cover it up with a thin veneer of politeness and a few kind words. They use compliments and advice as vehicles for harassment. They use words like "civility" as a weapon to silence actual debate. It's no accident that phrases like "bless your heart" are meant as expressions of contempt.

And we wonder why we people are sad?

It should be obvious.

You hear it all the time now: "We've got a mental health crisis." Politicians and media outlets are quick to blame social media. Influencers and opinion columnists talk about how lonely everyone feels. Social media bristles with aphorisms and platitudes about reaching out and connecting.

That's not the real problem.

Most people don't really know what the phrase "mental health" even means. They think they do. They think it boils down to smiling around everyone and keeping your negative thoughts to yourself. You're supposed to perform emotions like gratitude and hope, even if you don't feel them.

Psychologists have a name for that.

It's called surface acting.

Our jobs place enormous demands on us to fake attitudes and emotions that align with social norms, no matter what we're actually feeling on the inside. It's bad for everyone. The lower your place in the hierarchy, the worse it gets. Clients and customers are allowed to act however they want. They can make all kinds of unreasonable requests. They can complain.

Your supervisors can yell at you. They can demean you. They can insult you. So can your managers, and so can their managers.

They can act rude.

You can't.

Some of the deans and vice chancellors at my university made a habit of delivering loud, incoherent rants during meetings. They called people incompetent to their faces. They questioned their integrity.

They called people names.

This culture of abuse persists at workplaces around the world. We're conditioned to tolerate and even applaud politicians and CEOs for throwing tantrums. Earlier this year, Axios ran a story on Joe Biden's "private fury," detailing how he berates, curses, and yells at aides. It's so bad that "some aides try to avoid meeting alone with him. Some take a colleague..."

If you're not a senator or a CEO, you aren't allowed to express your anger. You're not even allowed to express sadness.

You're expected to hide it.

This culture of surface acting extends to our family and social lives. Our friends expect us to make them feel good. We're supposed to listen to their stories and their problems. If we say anything, it has to meet a rigid set of criteria. It has to be interesting or funny. It has to be positive.

It has to satisfy a short attention span.

You can't talk about certain things.

They're off limits.

You can't talk about heat waves or hurricanes. You can't talk about Palestine. You can't talk about any viruses or other diseases, or even how to protect yourself from them. If you do, you have to say something dismissive about them. Ultimately, you have to endorse the idea that it's more important to shop, travel, and socialize at the expense of everyone's future.

If you can't conform to the social norms and perform to everyone's expectations, that's when they bring up your mental health. They're not talking about your mental health at all, though.

That's just the word they use.

It's a shorthand.

These days, the phrase "mental health" refers to your ability to engage in surface acting. It has very little to do with your actual emotions or sense of wellness. It has everything to do with how well you can continue fitting in with a group and how much you can contribute to the economy.

All of this surface acting has devastating consequences for our mental health. It increases your sense of emotional dissonance. It widens the disconnect between how you feel and how you think you should feel. It leads to more depression, more anxiety, and a deeper sense of alienation. It can drive people to engage in more coping behaviors, like excessive drinking.

What happens when you finally listen to all of those internet aphorisms about reaching out to someone for help?

It makes your friends and family uncomfortable. They reach for more aphorisms. They offer superficial reassurances, like "Everything's going to be okay." They make a vain effort to cheer you up. They minimize and trivialize your concerns, and then they leave as soon as possible.

It's not exactly their fault.

That's how they've learned to deal with their own negative emotions. Nobody has ever offered them any tools or frameworks for sitting with more uncomfortable feelings. Most of them have only read a few books by some new thought or prosperity gospel grifter. They believe the only way to address anxiety or depression is to completely ignore it. They don't know how to help you. They can only coach you on your surface acting.

So next, you try a therapist.

These days, a therapist is likely to tell you to stop reading reading books and articles that make you feel sad. According to them, the answer lies in making yourself less informed about the world. Once again, they're really trying to help you conform to dominant social expectations. Many of them won't help you deal with unpleasant knowledge.

They'll help you forget it.

If that doesn't work, they'll recommend workbooks. And if those don't work, they'll prescribe you some pills.

There's one last resort for a deeply unhappy person, and it's retail therapy. If all else fails, you can console yourself by shopping. The entire process of shopping releases a steady stream of dopamine in your brain. It makes you feel good to browse for things. It makes you feel good to order stuff. It makes you feel good to anticipate a package. It makes you feel good to unbox it. It also makes you feel good to watch other people unbox things.

Our mental health crisis fuels the economy. All the CEOs and marketers know this. They may be greedy, but they're not stupid.

They cultivate mental illness.

Mental illness drives the fast fashion industry. The more unhappy people are, the more they buy. It also drives the self-help industry. If you've ever been to a self-help convention, you see what they've turned into. They're one giant commercial for supplements and audiobooks. They encourage their attendees to go into debt so they can pay for all the goodies sold there.

Dozens of industries have turned mental health into a personal endeavor, an opportunity to generate endless profit.

Almost everything in our culture attempts to convince us that mental health is a personal responsibility, a performance we owe to society, not the result of a society where we take care of each other.

That's the problem.

Plenty of things would improve our mental health. A living wage would help. So would universal childcare and parental leave. It would help a lot to stop destroying the planet and pumping it full of poison. It would help to improve the indoor air quality so we don't get sick all the time. It would help to pass laws that protect our children from mass shooters.

We aren't going to fix anyone's mental health by taking their phones away and throwing them a bottle of pills. We aren't going to fix it by forcing them to engage in superficial social activities to drive the economy.

We aren't going to fix it with more catchy slogans.

We aren't going to spend our way out of it.

We tried that, and it didn't work.

There's only one way to deal with our mental health crisis. We have to face reality. We have to acknowledge our problems.

We have to talk about them.

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