Maybe it’s the system: Capitalism is killing us and telling us the problem is our brains

The proliferation of mental illnesses points to a necessity to change the system

Professionally-dressed woman in black and white visibly struggling with mental health
We’re failing to tackle the root causes of mental illnesses. Photo: Jonadan Cheun / The Peak

By Meera Eragoda, Features Editor

One in three Canadians are likely to experience a mental illness in their lifetime. In 2020, pre-pandemic, The Tyee reported one-third of Canadians had been diagnosed with anxiety. Additionally, one-third had been prescribed antidepressants. Since the pandemic, CBC reported 54% of Canadians felt their mental health has worsened. Given the scale of the problem, when do we recognize it’s not an individual but a systemic problem? 

There are many reasons why your depression and anxiety may not just be your problem. As mental health provider Madeleine Ritts writes for Jacobin, declining mental health is the inevitable outcome of an exploitative capitalist system. Case in point, a 2022 report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that climate change negatively affects mental health, with impacts being felt disproportionately depending on intersecting vulnerabilities, like race and class. 

If you can’t afford to rent or buy food or live or barely make ends meet, doesn’t it make sense you would feel anxious and depressed? If there’s a war going on in your country or you’re targeted by state forces, doesn’t it make sense you would be anxious and depressed? If you’re living through climate disaster after climate disaster, doesn’t it make sense you would be anxious and depressed? Instead of us being sold the idea that we need therapy or we need to medicate, perhaps the real solution is to stop war, to give people basic needs, address multiple isms, and to ensure we will all have a world to live in?

Capitalism and colonialism’s cycles of extraction and oppression are sending us hurtling over the cliff’s edge of climate destruction, all while we’re being told there is something wrong with us. We need to recognize what we’re being told may not be the whole story and to hold leaders of every institution accountable to make wide-scale changes.

Now, I’m not saying that mental illnesses are not real (they are) but perhaps the scale at which they are proliferating is indicative of something beyond individual issues. I’m not saying we should stop advocating for low-cost access to counselling, medicine, and other supports. After all, we still have to live under late-stage capitalism and its intensifying series of crises — most recently, climate change and COVID-19 — which affect certain communities disproportionately. But while we advocate for these, we should also recognize that a capitalist system will demonize and dismiss anything that goes against its ability to extract and profit to create the illusion that it is not the problem.

The late Marxist blogger Mark Fisher explained that capitalism creates a problem, offsets that onto individuals, and sells them the solution. Fisher suggested capitalism causes instability and oppression that people can’t cope with. As a result, Fisher argued capitalism prompts people to believe there’s something wrong with their neurochemistry. He added they can solve it by paying pharmaceutical companies and therapists. Fisher explained that because of this, “any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.” All of this prevents examination of the wider systemic causes of the problem and maintains the status quo for those in power.

While we should continue to fight to lower barriers to accessing mental healthcare, we equally need to fight against the systems that cause such high levels of stress to our mental health. This fight starts in our communities — whether at home, at school, or in our workplaces. As sci-fi author Ursula LeGuin famously said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”