“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted in a profoundly sick society” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
It’s one of the most revealing ironies of our time, namely, the obsession with health and wellbeing while we, in wealthy nations, have never been so sick. Soul sick. There’s nothing new about this. James Hillman in his 1993 book, We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy, and the world’s getting worse, noted the proliferation of psy-complex experts – psychotherapists, psychiatrists, assorted counsellors, healers, therapists etc – plying their trade in rich nations weighed down by social misery. Hillman was particularly scathing about mainstream psy-professions for their apparent failure to grasp the deep origins of societal anguish, arguing that the focus on fixing individual emotional problems was in most instances, destined to fail.
Hillman encouraged us to “wake up to the insanity of how we have structured ourselves” through an adherence to material values and disconnection from nature, each other and ourselves. He urged a “growing down” into a reconnection with the earth and the rituals and myths that sustain human life. The “exaggeration of me in our psyches”, said Hillman, has removed us from the sources of contentment that make life worthwhile.
The Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich was equally familiar with this problem, observing that many diagnoses, taxonomic categorisations and treatments of mental disorders invariably missed the point about the societal conditions that lead to emotional and spiritual malaise. Quick fixes in the form of pharmaceuticals or problem-solving therapies, Illich argued, obviated the capacity of individuals to work within their social and community networks to address the complex causes of human misery.
More recently, James Davies in Sedated: How modern capitalism created the mental health crisis, makes the point that while the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which now groans with over 800 ill-defined conditions (opening the door to Big Pharma super profits), there’s no subduing the soul crisis. Indeed, as Davies notes in an earlier book, Cracked: The unhappy truth about psychiatry, it appears that the more pharmaceuticals are administered to the wretched of modern capitalism, the worse they seem to get. No matter, as long as money circulates and corporate profits boom – which they do.
So, what’s behind all this? Davies points to the rampant individualism, fragmentation of communities, hyper consumerism, lust for money and toxic work cultures that so characterise the neoliberal order, an ideological regime promulgated in the early 1980s by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan backed by dour ‘free market’ economists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
The upshot has been, as Johan Hari points out in Lost connections, the creation of societies riven with loneliness and despair in which the fundamental bonds of human connection have been eroded by material values, weakened communities and the faux promise of hyperconnectivity. If the dominant credo of a neoliberal ideology has been ‘greed is good’, ‘there’s no such thing as society’ and so forth, is it any wonder where this might lead?
Remember, the vast majority of young people have known nothing other than neoliberal capitalism, a system that has propelled them into debt, isolation and loneliness. It’s not only young people who struggle. Evidence of human misery is everywhere, in the escalating rates of depression and anxiety, the use of antidepressants (one in four Australian adults) and opioids, rising rates of suicide, and numerous whatever-gets-you-through-the-night addictions. It’s a scenario made worse by the Covid pandemic and more recently, the so-called ‘cost of living’ crisis (a crisis fuelled in large part by corporate profiteering).
While there’s evidence that some people in lockdown enjoyed a temporary reprieve from soul-destroying workplaces and bullshit jobs, others felt cut-off from social contact and therefore became more despondent. The profit-price spiral and high levels of indebtedness, made worse by interest rate hikes, have made the everyday lives of ‘ordinary families’ far more difficult, putting the brakes on the very activities that made life bearable.
Young people view all this with a sense of bewilderment and dread – especially when it comes to the climate emergency. It’s one thing not being able to buy a house or pay off a student loan, but another entirely if, as looks likely, we’re being catapulted toward self-destruction. As one climate school strike banner read: “The climate emergency is worse than homework”. While some nations are making increasingly vain attempts to reduce greenhouse gasses, its nowhere near enough. Toxic pollutants are on the rise, and fossil fuel extraction continues on a grand scale, with plans for 116 new coal, gas and oil projects in Australia alone. Like the rest of us, or at least for those who care, young people have borne witness to all this and led the resistance to reckless governments and corporations seemingly hellbent on sending us over the precipice. They view the failed global efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses with justifiable rage. Its why growing numbers of young people are now choosing to join more radical direct-action activist groups who, with all the moral justification in the world, are focused on ending the aberrant practices that are killing the planet. For many young people, fear of what the future holds has fused with as sense of being locked out of opportunities afforded to previous generations. Precarious work, indebtedness and the absence of social supports has made life barely tolerable. They feel let down and angry, stuck in the in-between of dashed hopes and an uncertain future.
Empirical findings on mental health ‘disorders’ only scrape the surface of the soul crisis. Data produced in 2021 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show escalating rates of “psychological distress” among young people, with one in five experiencing “high or very high levels of psychological distress”, around one in five with a mental health disorder, and suicides of those aged 15- 24 on the rise. Climate trauma has compounded an already troubling picture. According to a study in April of this year by Mission Australia, Origen, along with the University of Melbourne, one in four Australians aged 15 to 19 are “very or extremely concerned” about climate change, with 3 in 5 experiencing “high psychological distress”. Witnessing extreme weather events around the world – now a daily occurrence – has only raised anxiety levels.
A recent national poll of 2000 Australians conducted by the Climate Council, also reported pervasive climate trauma across communities, with over 80 percent of Australians having experienced an extreme weather event resulting, in many cases, in acute mental health problems, a situation more evident in rural and regional areas and particularly acute among young people.
Such findings, repeated over and over again, are the telltale signs of a society in deep crisis. For growing numbers of young people, the tired modernist stories of certainty, growth and progress no longer hold. The idea of the good life is viewed with disdain. The ravaging of the earth by cannibal capitalists tells of a system of selfishness, moral betrayal and nihilism that utterly repels. Young people now have to face the world as it is, and the future as it is likely to unfold. As Jem Bendell points out in his latest book, Breaking together – A freedom loving response to collapse, the old stories of wealth accumulation, endless expansion and extraction are terminally fractured, to be replaced, one hopes, with Indigenous-inspired narratives of reconnection and regeneration. Reaching out to others, building solidarities, relearning skills for survival and cooperation, sharing thoughts and feelings, being still and contemplative rather than dashing into action, all this and more will be needed as we confront the realities of climate nihilism.
Young people, like the rest of us, are soul sick for a reason. Its origins can be found in the greed and heartlessness of a system that is eagerly consuming itself.