Although professionals in psychology have traditionally set the improvement of people’s quality of life as a fundamental objective, the truth is that in today’s world this discipline tends to act in favour of the status quo, and therefore to promote the maintenance of the negative consequences of the “free market”.
Not in vain, the conception of psychology as a corrective arm of modern capitalism is widespread. In order to analyze the extent to which this idea is correct, we should first observe the global economic structure in which mental health is framed today.
Capitalism and Neoliberalism in Today’s Society
We can define capitalism as an economic system centred on the competition for resources , on the primacy of private property over public property and on the decision making of the owners of the means of production more than of the states and, therefore, the citizens. Although capitalism has existed in different forms since the beginning of history, it became the dominant economic model after the Industrial Revolution and became institutionalized worldwide with globalization, a clear consequence of these technical developments.
Critics call “neoliberalism” the ideology that sustains modern capitalism . This term refers to the resurgence of the classical principles of the free market that took place after the decades following World War II, during which the states had applied interventionist policies to minimize social inequalities, which tend to grow without limit within the capitalist framework due to the accumulation of resources by those who have more. These kinds of measures allowed wealth to be redistributed to a certain extent, something almost unheard of in modern history and which put the economic elites on alert.
The key difference with traditional liberalism is that in practice neo-liberalism advocates the (not necessarily democratic) takeover of states and supranational organizations, such as the European Union, to ensure that policies can be implemented that favour those with large amounts of accumulated capital. This is detrimental to the majority of the population, since the reduction of salaries and the dismantling of the public sector make it difficult for the less privileged to access basic services such as education and health.
Neo-liberal ideas and the natural functioning of the capitalist economy itself promote that more and more aspects of life are governed by the logic of monetary profit, focused especially on the short term and on individual enrichment. Unfortunately, this includes the conception of mental health as a commodity, even as a luxury item.
Economic Inequality and Mental Health
The material inequalities promoted by capitalism in turn favour differences in mental health according to socio-economic status. As the number of people with monetary difficulties increases, a particularly marked fact since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the ensuing recession, the prevalence of mental disorders also increases, particularly those related to anxiety and depression.
An increasingly demanding work environment contributes to the generalization of stress, an alteration that is increasingly difficult to avoid and that increases the risk of contracting cardiovascular disorders and other physical diseases. Likewise, the precarization of working conditions generates insecurity and decreases the quality of life of people who depend on their jobs to survive.
On the other hand, the capitalist structure needs a significant percentage of poor people to be able to sustain itself: if everyone could subsist without jobs it would be very difficult for wages to remain as low, and therefore for owners to continue to increase their profit margin. This is why the promoters of the neoliberal ideology reject the reform of a system in which unemployment is not so much a problem as a structural requirement.
Those who fail to fit into society are told that they are not trying hard enough or that they are not good enough; this facilitates the development of depressive disorders related to the inability to achieve their social and professional goals. Depression is one of the main risk factors for suicide , which is also favoured by poverty and unemployment. In Greece, the country most affected by the austerity measures in public investment that the European Union has imposed since the crisis, the number of suicides has increased by approximately 35% since 2010.
Furthermore, with the privatization and progressive destruction of public services, the negative consequences of capitalism on mental health are accentuated. Within the framework of the welfare state there were more people who were able to access psychological therapies that otherwise they could not afford, but the states today invest much less in health, especially in its psychological aspect; this favours the fact that psychotherapy continues to be a luxury for the majority of the population, instead of a fundamental right.
The corrective role of psychology
Not only is clinical psychology difficult to access for a large number of people, but it is also subject to the medicalization of mental health. Although in the long term it is more effective to treat depression or anxiety through psychotherapy , the power of pharmaceutical corporations and the obsession with immediate benefit have formalized worldwide a health model in which psychology is little more than a support for disorders that cannot be “cured” with medication.
In this context not very conducive to the promotion of mental health, psychology functions as a containment valve that, although it can improve well-being in individual cases, does not act on the ultimate causes of the problems that collectively affect societies. Thus, an unemployed person may manage to find a job after going to therapy to overcome their depression, but there will continue to be a high number of unemployed people at risk of depression as long as the working conditions are maintained.
In fact, even the term “disorder” designates a lack of adaptation to the social context or the discomfort produced by it, rather than a fact of a problematic nature in itself. Clearly, psychological disorders are seen as problems because they interfere with the productivity of the sufferer and with the structure of society in a given period, rather than because they harm the individual.
In many cases, especially in areas such as marketing and human resources, the scientific knowledge obtained by psychology is not only not used to increase the well-being of the people who need it most but tends to directly favour the interests of the company and the “system”, making it easier for them to achieve their objectives: to obtain as many benefits as possible and with the least resistance from subordinates or citizens.
From the capitalist model, human development and the achievement of personal well-being are only beneficial insofar as they favour the progress of the economic and political structures that already exist. The non-monetary part of social progress is considered to be of little relevance since it cannot be counted in the gross domestic product (GDP) and other indicators of material wealth designed to favour the competitive accumulation of capital.
The individual against the collective
Today’s psychology has adapted to the social, political and economic system in a way that favours its continuity and the adaptation of people to its rules of operation, even when they have basic faults. In structures that promote individualism and selfishness, psychotherapy is also obliged to do so if it aims to help specific individuals to overcome their difficulties.
A good example is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, a cognitive-behavioral treatment developed over the last few decades. ACT, which is highly supported by research on a large number of disorders, focuses on the person adapting to the conditions of their life and deriving their goals from their personal values, overcoming the temporary discomfort they may feel in the process of achieving these goals.
ACT, like most psychological interventions, has a very evident positive side in terms of its effectiveness, but it also depoliticizes social problems because it focuses on individual responsibility, indirectly minimizing the role of institutions and other macro-social aspects in the emergence of psychological disorders. In the end, the logic behind these therapies is that it is the person who has failed, not society.
Psychology will not be truly effective in increasing the well-being of society as a whole as long as it continues to neglect the primary importance of changing social, economic and political structures and focus almost exclusively on providing individual solutions to problems that are in fact of a collective nature.