We are a deeply sick society.
Mental health has become something of a cause célébre of late, with politicians of various persuasions chomping at the bit to add their voice to calls for increased funding for mental health care.
The crisis is very real. The annual health survey for England this week revealed that 26% of those questioned had been diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lives. Half of these diagnoses occurred in the last twelve months alone. As you might expect, depression emerged as the most commonly diagnosed illness. Women emerged more likely to suffer from depression, with 24% of respondents having experienced the condition, compared with 13% of men. 7% of women also reported having attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
Why the gender disparity? The inclusion of post-natal depression aside, men undoubtedly suffer from outdated, unrealistic interpretations of 'masculinity'. The 'man up!' culture that pervades our society leads to untold thousands of men suffering in silence instead of seeking the help they so desperately need. We don't need an International Men's Day to resolve this. What we need is a rethink of how we operate.
21st-Century Britain is a ticking mental health time bomb. Our schools are heaving under the weight of a mental health crisis among young people. In May 2015, the NSPCC reported a 200% increase in students seeking counselling specifically for exam stress. The pressure to meet artificially conceived targets in subjects they may have no personal interest in is causing very real damage to the mental health of our children. What's more, the lack of meaningful, statutory health education means that young people all too often do not understand mental illness, let alone know how to articulate their difficulties or seek advice or treatment. It's a well-worn saying but it's true: prevention is better than cure.
Of course, the educational straitjacket we place students in is a result of a Conservative ideological obsession with replacing any semblance of individuality and creativity with a generation of conveyor-belt units of economic activity. As in all areas of life, schools are merely microcosms of wider society. What we need is long-term, fundamental, organic change to the way our society functions.
At the root of our very serious mental health crisis is an unhealthy obsession with work, and a warped interpretation of its purpose and value. On average, British people work more hours per week than in many other EU countries. With the Trade Union Bill currently making its way through parliament, the government seeks to quash any attempt at countering the 'workhorse' culture they need to maintain their positions of authority at the top of the neoliberal hierarchy. All this despite the proven fact that working longer hours decreases productivity.
Although this is certainly not a new phenomenon, the 'hardworking families' narrative of the last five years has undoubtedly exacerbated the decline in our nation's mental health; zero hour contracts, the DWP's wholesale demonisation of those too ill to work, the ongoing assault on the pay, pensions and conditions of public sector workers. The message is unequivocal; work defines you; work is the key to your status as a responsible citizen. Work longer hours, work until you're 67, for less pay and a depleted pension. Why? Because a financial crisis caused by those who will never have to worry about such trivial matters makes it so. The irony of the fact that those whipping our country into slavish submission have never worked a 9 to 5 job in their lives is not lost on me, nor on many others.
There is, however, an idea coming up on the rails with the potential to revolutionise how we perceive 'work' and its place in society; Basic Income. Fundamentally, BI is the notion that each citizen is awarded a regular, unconditional sum of money in addition to any other income. Replacing the unwieldy, administratively expensive welfare systems in place, BI gives people the means to establish a healthier work/life balance, rewards voluntary work and stay-at-home parents, promotes creativity and entrepreneurship and ultimately, could be the driving force behind a mental health revolution.
The idea of Basic Income has adherents on the left and right alike. Several prominent economists have thrown their weight behind the concept and pilot projects and feasibility studies have been run or are under way in the Netherlands, India, Canada, Finland, France, even in parts of the USA. In Namibia, a 2008-9 local pilot found that the introduction of BI increased economic activity, through the launch of more small businesses and a boost in individual households' buying power fuelling the local market.
Basic Income could unleash an unprecedented wave of creativity, giving people the wherewithal to pursue their ambitions and aspirations, to make a meaningful contribution to the economy, and to their community, while improving their mental wellbeing. Combined with a more progressive system of taxation favouring SMEs over corporations and the super-wealthy 1%, this could be the revolution we have been so impatiently waiting for.
Is Basic Income a radical idea? Absolutely. Nonetheless, it is precisely in desperate times such as these that radical solutions are needed. At a time when the UN is investigating the British government over the DWP's treatment of disabled people, when our nation's mental health is increasingly fragile as a result of a 'hardworking vs. scrounger' narrative propped up by a right-wing media, thinking outside of the box has never been a more pressing concern.