Our mental health obsession has fuelled the politics of Donald Trump and Brexit

Though therapy culture was storied as a helpful solution to the problem, its models of the self were partly responsible for the current mental health epidemic. Mainstream psychology was and is neoliberalism’s great enabler

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The Independent Online

To understand the current anti-authoritarian political crises, from Brexit to the Trump vote, we need to look back at the activism that took place from the 1960s to mid-1970s, and ask what went wrong.

1960s social justice movements changed our relation to the establishment forever. Yes, there had been anti-authoritarian movements before, but never had so many of the disaffected risen to demand change. From the American civil rights movement, to campaigns for women’s rights, gay liberation, nuclear disarmament, and so on, discontent appeared to foster both rage and hope that a better world was possible.

By the mid-1970s, the mass social justice movements began to be drained of their radicalism, a shift that can be attributed to the rise of a certain atomised individualism. The usual suspect for this turn is neoliberalism. But this ideology could only develop hand in hand with the rise of therapy culture.

Psychological ideas as a tool of regulation and self-audit had begun to permeate general culture in the 1950s, with psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s much loved radio programme guiding citizens on how to parent. But it gained a new currency in the 1960s with the rise of abnormal psychology, and the human potential movement which spread like wildfire to mould subjectivities.

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An example? Encounter groups . These meetings were an attempt to help individuals work together to tackle internalised oppression. However this kind of collective work soon became co-opted by ideas such as self-actualisation. The inner world was to be explored now not for the collective endeavour, but in the pursuit of individual happiness. Mass activism began to wane as the sale of self-help books mushroomed, carrying within their pages the message that responsibility for growth and happiness rested firmly in the individual. Why, after all, go to a feminist encounter group, when the tools for enlightenment lay in a self-help book one could peruse at home?

The side effect of the rise of therapy culture was a de-politicised understanding of embodied distress, and a certain navel gazing. The causes of anger and anxiety were located solely in individual’s childhoods or, as the 21st century beckoned, genes. Consideration of power relations and the structural causes of inequalities became a lefty side project, getting in the way of developing “brand me”, or a side note at the end of academic articles. Alternative ideas of the self received a special kind of ridicule – a phenomenon we see in the reaction to Corbynism today. Alternative ideas within psychology got sidelined.

Consequentially, the divisions between political parties became blunted, in both America and the UK, as any ideas of interdependency clashed so deeply with the internalised market-driven requirements of modern selfhood. Mainstream psychology here served neoliberalism’s ideals perfectly – making individuals feel responsibility for governing their own behaviour through proffering techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy through which the individual could, supposedly, carve out personality traits which did not fit the market ideals, and develop “the right kind of effect”. An ever expanding number of mood conditions – from anger to anxiety – began to be framed as mental disorders rather than understandable reactions to impossible environments.

Yet the idea of the self as atomised that neoliberalism proffered and which psychology helped produce is deeply flawed. Our inner worlds are predominantly a product of the discursive and material environments that we inhabit, the opportunities open to us and barred from us. Hopelessness, poverty, isolation, discrimination and lower social rank, for instance, are key predictors of mental stress. Though therapy culture was storied as a helpful solution to the problem, its models of the self were partly responsible for the current mental health epidemic. Mainstream psychology was and is neoliberalism’s great enabler.

Psychocentrism in society has led to people voting for change agents who support the ragged individualism we have been socialised into, even when such votes only serve to reinforce the conditions of oppression citizens think they are rejecting. Rather than rush to psychology gurus now who sell an idea that they can help individuals cope, we must use this moment to return to this critical point of atomisation in the 20th century, and wonder instead what alternative ways of thinking about embodied distress might look like. “Brand Me” was a false prophet that psychology profited from. We must develop, instead, “Brand Us”.

Dr Jay Watts is a clinicial psychologist and an honorary senior research fellow at the British Psychological Society