They Made The People Happy
22nd December 2016
Last week ‘Origins Of Happiness’ – a study by Lord Layard and a team of researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) – reported that the government needs to focus on providing better healthcare to deal with mental health issues. This is something to be welcomed – isn’t it?
Not having read the report, I would be tentative in leaping to conclusions about its findings. But, a sentence prominent in the reporting felt very troubling. Layard was quoted (in the Guardian) as saying that “tackling depression and anxiety would be four times as effective as tackling poverty. It would also pay for itself”.
On face value, the idea that we tackle depression and anxiety seems like common sense. But a worrying aspect of the report is that it seems to be suggesting no more than a weak connection between mental illness and poverty. Those in the frontline of mental healthcare would regard this as preposterous.
In response to the story, Psychologists Against Austerity (PAA) drew attention to the significant evidence proving that social factors such as poverty and inequality are powerfully related to mental health issues – countering any suggestion within the the OoH report that mental health issues or poverty could be treated as separate entities.
The title of the study fits within a contemporary preoccupation with happiness and wellbeing, of which Layard has been a key figure. As we have seen before in this movement there are real dangers. Making mental health issues a responsibility of the individual ignores the social, political and economic contexts and causes of suffering.
Anybody can be affected by mental health issues but poverty is a huge risk factor for mental health problems, akin to the connection between smoking and lung cancer. A person in poverty is much more likely to suffer with issues around mental health. To suggest poverty is not something to attend to in this context is dangerous nonsense.
For the people who suffer the most, it can be disheartening in the extreme to be delivered into distress by a neoliberal, austerity economics that demonises the poorer sections of society only to then have this distress compounded by the reframing of this suffering as residing somewhere other than as the predictable result of inequitable, austerity-driven policy-making by the governing powers.
The policies of a government which fails to redress the widening inequalities in society, that demonises rather than supports those most in need, that continues to suffocate spending on mental health services and, it was revealed this week, oversees significant increases in rates of homelessness will create ever-deepening numbers of depressed and anxious people.
Something simple is being missed. The reason that so many people are depressed or anxious is because their life is depressing or anxiety-inducing. It’s not a mystery. Over and again, there is a presumption that there is a weakness in the people who are depressed or anxious and the individual must improve within whatever circumstances he finds himself. This ethos is unrealistic and doomed to failure.
The call from an economics perspective for increased investment in mental health services and consideration of wellbeing in governmental policy-making is welcome if its ideas are clear, robust and humane. For this to happen, it needs voices from other discplines, psychotherapy among them, to find the best approach.
However, if the report, the book to follow, and the policy-making it will inform largely positions mental illness as something that occurs in the individual it will be oppressive and damaging. Divorcing mental health from its social, political and economic contexts compounds the issues that beset mental healthcare rather than alleviating them.