Do Corbyn and Cameron agree on Policing the human mind?
Did anyone notice that we now have a shadow minister for mental health? Until recently we just had ministers for health concerned with the provision of medical services and social welfare. Indeed Labour's new allegedly anti-establishment leader chose to use his limited time at Prime Minister's Questions to address the perceived shortage of mental health services in the NHS. If you substitute the word psychiatry for mental health, you will soon understand where I'm coming from. Let's be under no illusions, when awareness-raising lobbyists talk of mental health (theoretically a positive term as we all aspire to good health in all aspects of our lives), they mean psychiatry, the notion that any deviation from some arbitrary definition of sanity merits medical treatment, intrusive monitoring and potentially hospitalisation. Indeed Mr Corbyn specifically bemoaned the lack of hospital beds for mental health patients, when in reality NHS spending on so-called mental health services has continued to rise year on year, with direct state intervention supplemented by a growing third sector. The problem is increased spending fails to meet spiralling demand, so the real question is why do so many people fail to cope emotionally?
Jeremy Corbyn comes across as extremely sincere. I shared many of his views 30 years ago and still agree with his consistent opposition to neo-imperialist faux-humanitarian wars. I rejoiced as Labour activists voted against the careerist heirs to Tony Blair and endorsed a rebel MP. Should Jeremy Corbyn wear a neatly ironed tailored suit or sing a national anthem that hails from Great Britain's colonial past? Should he acquire a modish sense of humour or feign interest in popular spectator sports? Personally, I like his apparent authenticity and prefer people to be themselves rather than try to emulate media personalities, which leads me back to the creepy mental health agenda.
This subject seems to find its way into speeches and stage-managed debates in all mainstream political parties from the Liberal Democrats to the Tories, from New Labour to the SNP, now the governing party in Scotland. Concern about mental health services is always billed as progressive and caring, yet few question the underlying authoritarian roots of the latest attempt to rebrand psychiatry.
Many human behaviours seem irrational and some are either evil or simply self-destructive. In antiquity, long before modern medicine and social welfare, dysfunctional behaviour would be rewarded only with social exclusion and procreational failure. By definition functional behaviour serves the best interests of oneself and one's immediate family and community, while dysfunctional behaviour may satisfy temporary desires, but destroys livelihoods. However, who may define insanity and gain the right to intervene in the lives of those who exhibit signs of madness? The answer to this question goes to the very heart of our concept of personal freedom and collective responsibility. If I want to run around naked in my back garden, do I not have the freedom to do so? Some would consider this an obscene act of madness and others a harmless and perfectly natural pastime on a sunny afternoon. The apparent insanity of such an act depends very much on its social acceptability. Not all actions are entirely logical. Many serve functions other than mere physical survival. We need to nurture not only our body, but also our soul and social bonds. We gain pleasure not just from essential life-sustaining deeds such as breathing, drinking, eating and keeping fit, but from our relentless quest for greater connectedness with the outside world and above all with other human beings. We live not just for the sake of life itself, but to play, learn, communicate, explore and experience. Over the millennia we have developed an almost endless variety of rituals and pursuits to fulfil our emotional or spiritual needs. Sometimes such adventurous creativity led us to discover new techniques and thus allow our species to colonise new habitats and dedicate more time to leisure and learning than mundane survival tasks. However, we have always grappled with two competing impulses. On the one hand we may seek greater social approval and integration, a tendency we call conformism. On the other, we have a natural drive to learn new tricks and engage in new experiences. We may call this latter inquisitive impulse, non-conformism, or when expressed as a rebellion against orthodoxy, as anti-conformism.
Is Society Insane?
As a rule illogical, non-productive and/or dysfunctional behaviours are fine as long they meet social approval. In modern Britain, all sorts of very antisocial destructive antics are justified as mere drunken larks. Many seemingly irrational deeds are not just socially acceptable, but are actively promoted by advertising and social media. Obsessive gambling, intensive video-gaming and all night drug-addled raves are now fairly mainstream, advertised in digital media and glorified by celebrities. Such activities carry mere warnings, yet have the power to blind us to reality or prevent us from leading productive lives. We have become obsessed with fame and publicity. If rock stars can lead lavish lifestyles high on heroin or crack cocaine, why should I not emulate them?
By contrast many harmless non-conformist acts are simply judged mad, or in modern parlance, mental health issues. If you have just re-mortgaged your house to bet on a horse who may not win, that may be slightly unwise, but just the kind of wild things people do these days. However, if you are fixated with media lies and refuse to believe hijacked jet planes could cause the collapse of New York's famous Twin Towers in 2001, many will consider you a conspiracy theorist. It doesn't matter that historically governments have repeatedly lied to their people. If you doubt your mainstream media today, you are probably afflicted by some sort of paranoid delusion.
Mental ill-health criteria depend not so much on illogical dysfunctional behaviour, but on people management and social integration. If someone deviates from societal norms and behaves in a challenging way that affects social order, it is much easier for myriad social workers and psychologists to view the problem as a neurological disorder rather than a wider societal problem. While we all like to pretend we care about each other, all too often we seize on some of other people's most superficial imperfections to justify exclusion and discriminatory treatment. More investment in the mental health sector inevitably leads more people to be diagnosed with spurious personality disorders. Once labelled, a person begins to view life's challenges mainly in terms of their new psychiatric identity rather than as a complex set of psychological reactions to a divisive social rat race. The more we diagnose people with one mental health condition or another, the more we need to invest in treatment for such conditions. Worse still such conditions are increasingly seen as natural genetic variations that have always existed.
The powerful pro-psychiatry lobby has meanwhile coopted the language of the radical left. People diagnosed with personality disorders are now seen as victims of stigma against their labels, rather than victims of psychiatry and of a wider society unwilling to understand why they behave as they do. They claim to defend the rights of the vulnerable, yet absolve the society that caused their emotional problems.
By equating physical health with mental health, we reduce complex human thoughts and feelings to mere physiological organs that respond to medical treatment. Some people do have genuine neurological deficits or brain damage. Our brains are amazingly versatile and adaptive. Some have coped incredibly well even after losing half their brain. These conditions are rightly the realm of neurologists, but most sufferers of depression, OCD, anorexia or psychosis do not have any discernible neurological defects that predate their first exposure to psychoactive drugs and a very large proportion of those who suffered psychosis had been regular users of recreational drugs, even of allegedly soft drugs like cannabis.
Awareness raisers will endlessly recycle the statistic that 1 in 4 adults will suffer a mental health issue. In Jeremy Corbyn's words this means everyone has a close friend or relative who has experienced a mental health crisis (which we used to call a nervous breakdown). The corollary is we need to invest in public healthcare and welfare to help such people. In other words we need more psychiatrists, social workers and welfare dependence rather than more tolerant and accommodating workplaces and less insane social competition. If someone finds it hard to meet and keep friends, is it necessarily their fault? Do we only act if social exclusion can be attributed to racism, sexism or homophobia? Why the hell do we all have to act cool and feign interest in shallow junk culture just to be popular among our peers? Why do we measure ourselves against movie stars, rather just look after our natural bodies? Can we not just be ourselves?
Lastly where do we draw the line between normality and mental ill-health, between sadness and depression or between audacity and insanity? These lines have been steadily blurring for over 20 years to encompass a widening cross-section of society. By normalising mental health labels, we're walking down a slippery slope to a Brave New World, in which everyone is classified by their neurological traits and all aspects of our lives are monitored for the greater social good.
The only irony is the media has already begun to explain away Corbyn's views on foreign affairs, wars and monarchy in condescending psychiatric terms. Yet expanding the surveillance state has been as much part of the elite agenda as waging destabilising wars in the Middle East. Corbyn will have little impact on any policies that are effectively devolved to NATO, the EU or global banks, but on mental health he is at one with Cameron.