The mental health crisis could be tackled by reintroducing spirituality instead of focusing on material gain

Our aversion to religion and spirituality has led to a society pathologically materialistic, which is partly to blame for the rising numbers of mental health issues in young people

Theresa May spoke to helpline advisers at Young Minds to get to the bottom of the mental health crisis, but missed a crucial point
Theresa May spoke to helpline advisers at Young Minds to get to the bottom of the mental health crisis, but missed a crucial point

Britain is in the grip of a mental health crisis. Millions are beset with anxiety and despair which statistics can confirm in depressing detail. Although the reasons for our inner turmoil are complicated, the Tory Manifesto which identified mental health as a burning injustice overlooks a key contributing factor: our spiritual vacuum and insatiable materialism.

Given our intemperate secularism, the British appetite for worship is waning. Not only has our culture written God’s obituary but we are slighted by the very thought of religions pontificating about our excesses and are more self-indulgent today than at any other period in history. In a Unicef report commissioned by the Department for Education, a cycle of “compulsive consumerism” was cited as a major contributing factor to the onset of mental illness and breakdown of the family structure.

Furthermore, studies indicate causation between materialism and poor psychological health and research suggests materialistic individuals are more susceptible to marital discord and fractured friendships. Nonetheless, reminding someone that they are not the sum of their possessions is a tall order in a society where so many live for instant gratification and find it difficult to attach existential meaning stretching beyond the fancy car, lavish abode and that much deserved job promotion.

As someone who identifies with religion, I feel there’s an untapped spirituality which Britons can draw upon to inoculate themselves against the destructive lure of materialism. Although the Prime Minister has pledged the biggest shake up of mental health provision in 30 years by training school teachers to identify signs of depression and pledging more NHS staff to combat the crisis, she seems to be oblivious to how the rat race – that self-destructive and high octane style of living which we misguidedly fashioned for ourselves – is eating Britons from within.

Andrew Flintoff: Mental health can be a struggle but is not a stigma

In fact, so inebriated are we by the rat race and its empty promise of grandeur, that we find ourselves quickly salivating for another material helping to compensate for the much anticipated but short lived satiation. And while I’ll be accused of spiritual snobbery, it’s my humble submission that we are relentlessly pursuing wealth and riches because deep down inside, there’s a genuine yearning for a higher calling which we are desperately seeking to fill.

Whether you identify with religion or not, there is a brutal honesty underlying the wisdom of faith-based communities when highlighting the dangerous attachment to the world’s fleeting pleasures.

Consumerism is not the only culprit. The education system must also be held to account. I can vouch for the anecdotal evidence linking mental health problems with exam stress having taught GCSE and A Level for several years. From experience, the emotional resilience of our children takes a battering given the gross corporatisation of academia. Obsessing over the ordering of league tables and promoting narrow visions of growth which equates achievement with success and underachievement with failure only exacerbates this trend of mutual rivalry, chipping away at the self-esteem of our children.

In all my years of teaching, seldom have I come across students who learn for intrinsic purposes, such as personal enlightenment. The motivating factors are often competing with peers to achieve good grades or gaining admission to a prestigious university so they can be rewarded with a well-paid job. There’s nothing wrong with this on the surface but dig a little deeper and you’ll realise the rat race is running its course from childhood.

If educators and parents embody lifestyles saying we exist only to survive and reproduce, children will naturally inherit the same automated formula and animal existence by reducing themselves to a mere cog in the wheel of the economic machine. Why doesn’t our education system foster a sense of personal fulfilment through positive community engagement? Why don’t our schools invest as much time and money to pastoral care as they do with convoluted action plans, just to satisfy the unrealistic demands of Ofsted?

It’s not just the educational watchdog which is guilty of forcing a superficial criterion for success. Social media is equally complicit in committing our generation to a narcissistic lifestyle disconnected from meaning. We’re so emotionally invested in the epidemic of selfies and posturing of riches, inviting not only revulsion from others but also exposing our profound fear of failure. From Snapchat beauty filters to swaggering biodatas, this is more than simply digital oversharing. Our virtual presentations are intended to project abundance but are saturated with despair, as noted by psychologist Dr. Golumb in her book Trapped in the Mirror, which really gets to the heart of the self-mutilation and imposed on us by social expectations.

Obsessive materialism generates a perverse sense of unfairness because it heightens our desire for growth simply to avoid the stigma of not “keeping up with the Joneses”. A spirituality which reinforces that we are more than what we accumulate offers a way out of this dehumanising routine and allows us to breach the impenetrable walls we’ve artificially created to finally grow out of this playground mentality.

Unless politicians can admit to the self-destruction perpetuated by this spiritual neglect and culture of one-upmanship, the government’s decision to increase the budget for child and adolescent mental health services will be addressing the symptoms but not the cause.

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