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Too Much Focus on Mental Health?

Is our fixation on wellbeing making us miserable?

“We have to deal with the cancer that is mental health.” So tweeted former presidential nominee Nikki Haley back in January. Most people knew what she meant, which was that we have to take mental health seriously and do our best to foster positive mental health. From the way she phrased it, though, you’re tempted to think that “mental health” itself is, well, what she said it is: a “cancer.”

The emphasis on mental health and therapy is widespread. In many ways, it is good and proper to encourage people to be more open about their mental struggles and to get help for what they’re going through. The amount of trauma, abuse, and other mental disorders that people hide is much greater than we might expect. There should be no shame for victims and strugglers to seek understanding and acceptance. However, has the mental health movement begun to proffer more harm than good in some cases? Do we use “mental health” as an excuse to disregard our work responsibilities and appeal to “boundaries” and “space” in order to escape interpersonal relationships? Some social commentators think so.

Theodore Dalrymple brazenly wrote a piece for The Spectator titled “It’s time to eliminate the concept of ‘mental health.'” For Dalrymple, the term no longer has evident meaning. Everything from morbid depression to a general sense of unhappiness counts towards mental health issues. This is because that anything below an ideal and perfectly calm state of mind is now considered a diagnosis in the making. What do I have, doc, and where is the pill I need to take for it? He writes,

The ever-expanding gamut of psychiatric diagnosis encourages the belief that all departure from a desired state of mind is a medical condition susceptible to medical or some other technical solution. This results in a propensity to hypochondria of the mind, with people taking their mental temperatures, as it were, as hypochondriacs take their blood pressure.

-Theodore Dalrymple, It’s time to eliminate the concept of ‘mental health’ | The Spectator

Of course, it is nigh impossible to deny that anxiety and depression rates are genuinely rising among Gen Z. Jonathan Haidt has repeatedly pointed this out in his own research on kids and social media. Starting around 2012, something happened, and kids began reporting more mental health problems. Some have claimed that this is merely because mental illness is not as stigmatized as it was in the past, so people feel more comfortable talking about it. However, this doesn’t explain why suicide rates among teens are on the rise, or why young people seem so much more fragile and lacking in resilience these days. If mental illness was no longer stigmatized, and more kids are talking about, why are they still so miserable?

Abigal Shrier, author of the new book Bad Therapy, argues that parents are too quick to hand off their own kids to therapists who prematurely diagnose them with dire mental health problems. “We’re treating the well, not the sick,” she said in an interview. The truly sick need the intervention of a doctor, or else they will die. However, going to the emergency room for a bruise, Shrier notes, could merely make the injury worse.

I wonder how the ideology of materialism has impacted this problem. If we are reducible to chemicals in our brains, then it would make sense to appeal solely to medication or therapy to address those mental health issues. However, if we are more than mere bodies (and can maintain the importance of caring for our bodies and brain chemistry) and are embodied souls, then we can expand our understanding of human nature and how we can respond to the complex problems of anxiety and depression. The Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote that happiness entails the pursuit of meaning over all else. What are we doing to advocate a life of meaning, connection, and transcendence for this over-medicated, fragile generation?

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

Too Much Focus on Mental Health?