US capitalism is bad for your mental health

Research proves it. And I know it – because I’ve lived it.

Vanessa Ward arrives to attend the funeral for Brianna Grier at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, the US.
Outside the funeral for Brianna Grier at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 11 August 2022. Grier, a Black woman and a mother, died after falling from a moving Hancock County Sheriff's Office patrol vehicle, after being detained during a 'mental health crisis' [EPA-EFE/ERIK S LESSER]

When I was in high school in Texas in the late 1990s, running myself ragged with academic and extracurricular activities, I began suffering from acute panic attacks.

The first round lasted for six months, during which I experienced continuous shortness of breath, a berserk heart rate and the feeling that I had been wrenched out of reality and placed in a parallel and terrifying universe, where I was entirely alone and where no one would help me.

Having been raised in the ruthless system known as United States capitalism — in which the need for individual success had been hardwired into my brain — my terror was exacerbated by the assumption that I was dying or otherwise failing miserably at existence.

When the panic attacks resurfaced a few years later in college in New York, where hyperventilating in the bathroom quickly proved incompatible with attendance at lectures, I underwent a professional psychological evaluation. The doctor needed just 90 seconds before prescribing heavy-duty anxiety medication.

So it was that I briefly joined the ranks of Americans medicated to deal with mental health issues caused by, well, the US.

Although I couldn’t articulate at the time why it was that my own country creeped me out so much, my post-college abandonment of the US in favour of international wandering taught me that the world didn’t have to be such a hostile and alienating place.

Whether I was being given a ride while hitchhiking in Lebanon or a place to sleep by peasant farmers in Colombia, an invigorating sense of human community came to supplant the toxic culture of competition and soul-crushing consumerism that passes for life in the US. I ditched the anxiety meds.

Obviously, other countries have issues, too, and most people don’t have the massive privilege of sorting themselves out psychologically by gallivanting around the globe.

But as we mark World Mental Health Day on October 10, it’s worth reflecting on the mental health dangers posed by the US’s increasingly globalised brand of neoliberal capitalism.

According to a White House fact sheet released in March 2022, the country faces an “unprecedented mental health crisis among people of all ages”, with two out of every five adults reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety. The national mental health landscape has deteriorated considerably on account of the coronavirus pandemic, although the pre-pandemic situation was already bad enough. In 2019, for example, one out of three high school students and a full 50 percent of female students reported experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”. The fact sheet noted that “Black and Brown communities are disproportionately undertreated” even as their rates of mental illnesses rise which pretty much sounds like business as usual in the supposedly egalitarian “land of the free”. To be sure, institutionalised discrimination and mass racial incarceration aren’t exactly great for mental health either.

Regarding the pernicious mental effects of social media, meanwhile, the White House stressed that online platforms should “be required to prioritise and ensure the health, safety and well-being of children and young people above profit and revenue”.

Which brings us to the following conundrum: The capitalist system to which the US government is inextricably wedded not only prioritises profit over human health and wellbeing, it actively thrives on the extraction of corporate revenue from human malaise and torment. Just ask the pharmaceutical industry.

The formula is simple. Neoliberalism breeds psychological distress by working to obliterate solidarity, the very essence of humanity, while converting the right to physical and mental health care into an exclusive and costly endeavour – an arrangement that only aggravates mental health stressors for those of lesser socioeconomic means.

This is not to say that rich people don’t struggle with psychiatric disorders. Various studies have found that CEOs are disproportionately likely to be psychopaths.

And while depression, anxiety and despair are completely rational reactions to an inhuman environment – and a world that capitalism is rapidly propelling towards ecological annihilation – US drug companies have pushed pathologising psychological turmoil as an individual defect rather than a result of societal context.

Relatedly, the arms industry, another pillar of US capitalism, perpetuates its own vicious cycle of lucrative catastrophe, devastating communities at home and abroad as it wages war on human empathy.

In a 2021 peer-reviewed research paper, Baltimore-based psychiatrist Anna Zeira wrote about the disturbing mental health repercussions of neoliberal capitalism in the US, characterised by severe inequality and the “disempowerment of workers”. She noted that recent years have witnessed “dramatic rises” in suicides as well as deaths from alcoholism and drug overdoses. Indeed, between 1991 and 2017, there was a 73 percent increase in suicide attempts among Black adolescents.

Zeira recalled how Black men demanding racial justice during the Civil Rights era were described by certain American doctors as “delusional and paranoid”. Her point: People upset by the “status quo” are often “labeled as mentally ill”.

This October 10, as capitalism proceeds to wreak havoc on mental health across the US and beyond, it’s critical to acknowledge that the status quo is not only abnormal, it’s downright sick.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.