Capitalism Hits Home: Mental Health in a Profit-Driven, Isolated Society

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In this episode of Capitalism Hits Home, Dr. Fraad continues her discussion of mental health. She argues that we need to do away with the medical model of mental health that diagnoses depression as a brain disease and seeks to treat it exclusively with medication rather than acknowledging the societal and systemic conditions which lead to this chronic unhappiness. Fraad contends that human misery stems from a lack of meaningful connections to others, society and the world. Capitalism keeps people isolated and often unable to satisfy basic human needs. To truly address the mental health crisis the US faces, we need to create a system built on collective resources, collaboration, and connection.

*Disclaimer: d@w does not provide medical advice of any nature, specific or general, nor the suggestion of any diagnosis or treatment, nor the endorsement of any physician or medical facility mentioned herein. Nothing in this podcast is intended to or should serve as a substitute for medical advice or diagnoses rendered to you by your individual doctor or other health care provider. Only a licensed physician should evaluate your situation, provide a diagnosis, or render other medical advice to you, and you should act only upon the advice of such physician.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Hello. This is Dr Harriet Fraad, back again with my show, Capitalism Hits Home, a show about the interaction of the society, the economy, the politics, with our personal lives.

In the last show, I talked about the four horsemen of the apocalypse of mental health care in the United States. And I want to end that discussion for the moment on a more positive note, on what would constitute mental health and how we could get there. Because we're coming from a really bad place which started, as I said in the last show, in the 1980s, when capitalism was reigning supreme, and humans and most everything else were commodified, and there was a real political investment in changing human unhappiness into a brain disease. Because human unhappiness comes from the environment, the interactions, the workplaces, the society, all the social influences and economic influences in people's lives. Whereas if you have a brain disease it's – you know, forget it – you’ve got measles. It has nothing to do with a rapacious capitalist system that sees you as nothing but a cipher in a ledger. That during a pandemic calls you essential and then after the pandemic says you're unskilled, you're worth very little, and tries to profit from giving you a low salary and poor working conditions.

As a parenthetical, I want to say that women are the most prone to take psych meds. They admit their unhappiness more readily, ask for help and often get unfairly medicated. Women are also the poorest paid people in the United States. The majority of black women in the United States make either $15, or less, as a wage. All women together, forty percent of American women, all women together, make $15 or less an hour. And many of them are single mothers, living on poverty wages. That's why there isn't a city state or county in this entire United States where two people working full-time at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. So, we're talking about people living lives that economically are immiserated and have all sorts of psychological problems on trying to make ends meet, trying to get their kids to have the commodities that they see on TV that other kids have, trying to feel at ease trying not to worry about bills piling up, including medical bills, which are one of the reasons for bankruptcy in the United States, one of the top reasons. Elizabeth Warren and her daughter (I forget her first name - her last name is tyagi - t-y-a-g-i) wrote a very good book on the causes of bankruptcy. And they were, the top four included medical bills. Wow. So here, and of course now, it would be credit card bills, for college and other educational opportunities.

But that takes us off our topic which is looking at the effect of human misery that comes from the society. It isn’t a brain disease. It comes from unhappy lives, unhappy families, and unhappy adolescents, unhappy college years, or young adulthood, and unhappy middle age, and old age. And ascribing those things to disease is very convenient if you don't want to help people. If you don't want to recognize that the capitalist society we live in has a lot to do with people's unhappiness. And it's no accident that it's women who are prescribed the most psych drugs, because it's women who are the poorest people in the society. Not that men get off that easily. Mostly it's men who have a greater rate of suicide and homicide and jailing and other very unpleasant experiences in the society. But I think it's very important for us to look at. Okay, let's look at human misery here, and what we can do about it. And here Democracy at Work has a lot of wonderful insights and publications. Go to www.democracyatwork.com and look at all the things that there are there if you want to explore this.

But what I'd like to do now is to talk about – okay – we're doing the wrong thing here in the United States. People are miserable, among the most unhappy in the world, in the most expensive health system in the world, and so, um something's definitely wrong. And it's not a brain disease, and it's not going to be cured by medications that have side effects and that are not effective in any case, in anything except side effects, and for a while the illusion that one is getting better. So, what would, what would we have to do to make ourselves happier people? Because the UN has a world happiness index, the United States is not at the top, believe me. Among the wealthier countries we’re 17th there. Whoa. So, here we are. That's out of the 30 most wealthy countries. We’re the 17th, even though we pay much more for our health care than any of the other countries. So, what's going on? What could we do about it? Well, in the first place, the idea of capitalism is that you get people to work for you, to earn the most they can, and you give them the least pay. And you see your workers as human resources, cogs in the wheel of your own profiteering. That really doesn't spur kindness between people. And what does? I mean, what is mental health? We should really say that, before we continue.

Mental health consists of the four legs of a mental health table. One of them is connection that is intimate and personal, very close between people. And they can be with lovers or husbands and wives. They could be with best friends. They could be with relatives, but people with whom you could say anything, and to whom you could say anything, and know that you would get a compassionate hearing. So, that's one. The second leg of the table is another set of connections. And all of these, of course, have been frayed by the pandemic, where people have been more isolated. But the second leg of that table is people with whom one is friendly, people you work together with. They could be people that are co-workers at your job. They could be people on a team, if you're on a darts team, or a soccer team, or a bowling league. They could be people on a drive together, like a blood drive or a registration drive, or working for a candidate. They could be people in a political organization with whom you feel you have a shared goal. So, that's the second tier. The third tier is a connection to your society where you feel, I am a part of things, I am an important part of things, I am heard. And you can get that if you have a government system that actually asks the constituents what they want. If you have political organizations in your area that push what you want, what you think, and where you contribute with other people. And the fourth leg is a sense of connection to the world where you feel I am a human being among other human beings. The United States is rather weak on most of those. The connections in families are breaking down. Most marriages end in separation or divorce, and that doesn't even count all those people who just split. Children are in trouble. More children are suicidal and depressed than has ever been before. And the family used to be, and still is, one of the important focuses of our emotional connection. Because connection is really important.

If you read about the shooters who are very active in the United States at the moment. There's one mass shooting, at least, every week. They always say he was a loner. Because it's males who do this, who have the least emotional permission to be needful, to be sorrowful, to connect on a deep emotional level with their friends. They usually say he was a loner or they were an ostracized, these shooters. Because people need connection that badly. They go mad without it. Mental health problems have zoomed with violence in the pandemic because it's harder to connect with other people in the pandemic. So, one of the things we can do is not be capitalists. Because we don't want to see each other as means to our own wealth.

Another thing is sharing, connection through sharing, not only through building socialism and a kinder way of treating each other. Or democratic and connected workplaces, like co-ops, where people decide together, what they want to produce, how they want to produce it. What kind of percentage they'll take for themselves collectively, and what kind they will give over to investing in further machinery or sales. Another thing is shared housing. You know after World War II, in the United States, in the late 1940s, there were two ideas about housing. One was to build large apartment complexes that were reasonably priced where people shared. An example is Stuyvesant Town, built in 1947, where there are 12 story apartments of ugly, tall, brick apartment buildings, and where there's shared laundry facilities, shared recycling facilities, shared playgrounds, shared parental meeting places, shared party spaces, shared books. There are book deposit boxes all over Sty Town, where you put books you're finished reading or children's books, where they're finished reading, and you pick up other ones. Every building has a shelf where people can put things that they don't want and others can take them if they like. There's a lot of sharing. Also, there's the sharing of the 80 acres of green around these apartments, in which there are 12 playgrounds, but just lots of green space, places, benches where people can sit and talk.

Well, in the 1950s, part of the anti-communist movement was led by Joseph McCarthy. Senator McCarthy, who became the head of the Housing Committee, and decided that shared facilities and apartments were communist and we should not allow that. And we should invest our housing money in big developments of individual houses like Levittown. There were many rules. You had to buy your own appliances. No sharing there. You had to buy them from GE, which was very active in his career, McCarthy's career. You had to only you couldn't have more than two children because everybody had to be the same. You had to be married. You had to have a stay-at-home wife and a working husband who worked usually in the city. You could not have a mixed race couple because you couldn't share with another race, your company, your child's friendship, etc. And, unfortunately, in the anti-communist mood of the 1950s in the United States that went out, and Levitt benefited enormously, by no accident, and built thousands and thousands of individual little homes, with individual little garages separate from everybody else. They were not, they were segregated, and later they built ones just for black people to keep separated and segregated, but apart. I think the Roosevelt complex is one of those. So that we no longer shared in the casual way you share when you live together, when you share outdoor space, when you share the laundry room, when you share book exchange boxes, where you have a green, where you can sit around.

In Stuyvesant Town you can sit around the fountain in the sun, where you have beautiful planting and everybody can come and sit down, sit there, and you end up having conversations. Where you have shared little tables, that are made of concrete, that have boards where you can play chess/checkers, they have space on the table that's filled in, so you can play with squares, so you can play chess or checkers, or any other game, together, there's seats enough for several people. That kind of housing is far healthier because you connect with people. You connect when you're walking around the 80 acres walking your dog, when you're picking up your doggy bag to discard your dog's feces. Where you do your laundry and so on. It's lonely not to share. Human beings are social animals. We never would have survived if we weren't. We're not the fastest. We don't have the best eyesight. We don't have the best hearing. We aren't the strongest, but we could cooperate. A group of cave people could make huge noises driving, excuse me, an enormous beast into a hole they collectively dug and then divided it up so that everybody got a share. So, the first thousands of years of human habitation were communal because that's how we survived. Capitalism takes away that communality in housing and other essential things. One of them is child care. We have privatized child care, expensive privatized child care which is a burden on parents, particularly parents where both parents are working, or single mothers. And it's a burden on children who need one another. And they also need expert instruction. They need play areas. They need lots of toys. They need socialization and sharing all of which are robbed when children are isolated. And, of course, what it means for poor children, whose parents can't afford the tuition, is that they're stuck in substandard housing crowded together, wet in their diapers watching television, exactly what you don't need for brain development. We need shared child care. We need shared elder care where older people are in the kind of buildings that were very successfully developed as experiments in New York. Where they took these single room occupancy hotels that were in terrible shape, refurbished them, and made small clean rooms with small facilities, small kitchens and a big communal kitchen where people cook together and where they could see big communal spaces where they had films, where they had games. And they found with that experiment that people's medical needs dropped precipitously, their Medicare bills. They were happy. They were connected and happiness is very, very dependent on connection. We need subsidized guaranteed healthy food so that people can come together and shop and get healthful food. These are basic needs and we need to know that we need to sustain each other. We need housing quality. You know in a city like Vienna, although it's not much publicized in the United States, at least 25 percent of the housing can't be more than a quarter of your earnings. It's subsidized because they feel that, like we all do, housing and control over-freezing and over-heating, is a basic need, and it should be provided collectively.

It's interesting to me that in New York City as our mayor is trying to close down the homeless encampments all over the city. Out of the two hundred encampments they tried to close only five people volunteered to go with their plan for shelter because the shelters were so dangerous and frightening and they felt more protected sleeping outside subjecting themselves to external temperature in encampments. That's really sad. So, safe housing is something that we all need and we could do collectively. Safe sleep and restorative rest which means you're not sleeping in a dangerous place like many shelters are, you're also not sleeping outside where you could be a victim and people from the encampments that were recently shut down by Mayor Adams, when they were interviewed about: Why are you here? Why don't you go into a shelter? They said they felt unsafe and they felt a community in their shelter. They felt connected to the people there who would protect them. So that they could have safe and restorative speech – not speech – sleep. And their speech was moving, when you ask them. They had a safe environment, and one of the things that the United States doesn't have is safe housing and a safe environment.

Neighborhoods of desperately poor people tend to be more unsafe. The Bronx, which is the poorest borough in New York City – and I talk a lot about New York City because I live here – also has the most crime, the most violence, because people are driven mad, and they feel, excuse me, that if they're going to get anything they have to get it by force, or steal it, and they're very angry and become violent. And if we need connection, which we sure do, and if we want to improve our status among nations, with happy people without misery, we need to go towards socialist societies.

The societies that are happiest are more socialist. There are places like New Zealand, that has a socialist labor party leader Jacinda Ardern who shepherded her people through Covid with such minimal loss. Or safe places like the Netherlands, in which child rearing is communal, housing is subsidized, health care, child care, elder care, after-school care, are subsidized. Or, all the Scandinavian countries that have all of those things. We need collective, quality facilities here, where people could connect and where children could connect in a safe environment.

And we'd certainly have to do away with the medical model for unhappiness that claims they're curing a brain disease when there is absolutely no evidence that that's the case. You can look in any of the literature that exposes this, and it is extensive. And if you want something more extensive they’ll send it to you. But if you want a great summary there's this book called, “Cracked,” by James Davies which summarizes all the studies. Also, you could look it up on google and find thousands of studies showing that there is no proof that it’s diseases of the brain that cause misery. And what we need for mental health is connection with each other, a sense of being people together, not people who are trying to make a buck off each other, or people who are seen as just vehicles for someone else's profit. That makes people callous. And in this pandemic where this richest country in the world has failed its people, where we have the most deaths in the world per population. Because that's a collective thing helping us through. We need to do something different. And there's ways in which mental health care and the diagnostics, this statistical manual that pigeonholes people into diagnosable “diseases” that could be medicated, has to be rejected for social and political changes that make people feel comfortable, and connected with each other, and protected.

Thank you very much. This is Dr Harriet Fraad with my program, Capitalism Hits Home. Thank you so much for listening and thanks for telling people about it so that they can listen. Thank you particularly to our Patreon subscribers who send us money. We understand not everybody can, but we're grateful that some do, of course, because it allows us to exist. And we want everyone, if they like this, react to it, send your reactions into Capitalism Hits Home. I'll always respond to you. And to take a look at Democracy at Work and see all the opportunities you have to learn about the society in an honest and nurturing way. Thanks again. I hope you tune in next time. Bye Bye.

Transcript by Alyssa Bonilla 

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Books referenced by Dr. Fraad in this podcast:

  • Cracked by K.M. Walton
  • The Two-Income Trap by Amelia Warren Tyagi and Elizabeth Warren

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