The American Dream: Is it Worth Our Mental Health?

Ann Brody

Modern Atlas- by Leila Panjvani

Modern Atlas- by Leila Panjvani

“Achievement of your happiness…is the only moral purpose of your life.”

This iconic quote by Ayn Rand speaks to the prolific North American Dream: living in a nice house, driving a nice car, landing that dream job and being in the most rewarding relationship with that special someone. Yet, how do we get there? More importantly, do we sacrifice our mental well-being to get there?  Whether you realize it or not, we have a cultural prescription of success here in North America: neoliberalism. The basic definition of neoliberalism is often applied to economics (referring to the economic liberalizations, free tradeopen marketsprivatizationderegulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society – see Wikipedia) but did you know, we also live a neoliberal lifestyle? For example, are you reading this article now while thinking about the ten other things that you have to do by tomorrow? Are you constantly finding yourself taking your coffee on the go, unable to just sit down, observe the atmosphere, relax and enjoy it? Then maybe it’s time we woke up and smelled the actual coffee! This short little clip from the creators of South Park will not only make you giggle, it will effectively describe what the neoliberal lifestyle is all about:

http://www.upworthy.com/from-the-creators-of-south-park-one-lesson-schools-dont-teach?c=o98

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“Neoliberalism is one particular stage of capitalism” Image from Wiki Commons

Ever think about how you are just letting your life pass by expecting to be rewarded with something great? What you are essentially practicing is something that you have been socialized into from an early age known as ‘delayed gratification’. For example, do you recall your parents telling you “no T.V before you finish your homework?” This is an example of delayed gratification and it is namely this principle that is so integral to this neoliberal lifestyle.

Delayed gratification is namely responsible for explaining why we are constantly trading off our social life, why we stay up at night finishing a paper, and why we sometimes even cry when life gets a little too demanding.

For example, a few days ago I asked a friend if she wanted to meet me for a drink. The response I got from her was what I assumed it would be from a full-time university student. “I have stuff due”. It’s not that I wasn’t as busy as her with my own studies (interesting how I am compelled to justify this), it’s just that the deeper I entered into this achievement seeking enterprise, the more I felt like I was losing my own sense of self and most importantly my drive. I needed human contact and I started to notice that getting it was becoming increasingly difficult because no one was willing to make the time. The whole achievement seeking enterprise was weakening the bonds with my family and friends. It seems like I was letting my own life pass by in the exchange for achieving something that I might not even get to enjoy; after all, who knows what tomorrow might bring? I realized that stopping to smell the flowers was just something that was not easily going to happen as I submerged myself deeper into my university career and eventually (hopefully) the workforce. This compelled me to start being more observant to how neoliberal culture was impacting the life of university students on an everyday basis. You know when someone asks, “how are you doing?” and you smile and say “I’m fine” but in your head you feel like you are dying? It’s little things like that, which get me thinking why is it that our culture discourages from talking about our problems openly. The fact that we carry this fear of invading someone’s personal space says so much about who we are.

Social networks might be bringing people together, networks like Facebook can also be seen as a double-edged sword.

For example, as much as they link us to our former friends, relatives etc. they just as much can isolate us from each other in the sense that Facebook creates a kind of ‘convenient space’ that discourages people from making the time to maintain relationships outside of the virtual space. This as a result weakens our bonds we have with our close ones, leaving us to ponder who can we approach from our circle to talk to about our problems? Perhaps, a better question to ask is whether people are even willing to listen if everyone is in such a constant rush to get somewhere? For this reason alone, we might as well ‘friend’ our therapists on Facebook. Before I delve deeper into this subject matter, I would like to clarify that I am not trying to reproduce any ableist thinking about mental health but rather asking how a certain aspect of neoliberalism is responsible for impacting our mental well-being.

The initial idea of neoliberalism is that it guarantees us the sovereignty to pursue our dreams, promising us the good life of liberty and abundance. But if neoliberalism is supposed to be all about “being happy” then why does it all of a sudden turn into the sour narrative of insomnia, stress, anxiety, and depression? We are constantly biting our nails, questioning where we are going and dreading any failure we might encounter along the way.

All these thoughts float in our head while we are under the immense pressure to perform our best. We constantly tell ourselves that giving up is not an option and that we must fight our way through for the very least of having a sense of respect for our own selves. Such expectations can leave us tired, frustrated and at the worst times burned out, where no cup of java is able to fix the great damage that is bestowed upon our mental health.

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“The neoliberal lifestyles go hand in glove with anxiety and depression” Image from Wiki Commons

Perhaps it is time we stopped shifting the blame on ourselves and came to the realization that the conditions upon which we are required to operate within (namely on our own) are unreasonable. We need to stop beating ourselves and instead shift our focus to our mental well-being. If we don’t start looking after our mental health now then there isn’t much point of perusing our dream if we will arrive at them stressed and jaded, right? If we choose not to admit that mental health is an important issue that needs to be dealt with now, then what ends up happening is we reinforce the very standards that neoliberalism produces. Moreover, we also reinforce the stigma that is attached to mental health, which is the main concern in this blog.

We are so used to doing everything on our own because of the way we are socialized in our early childhood. Even our language, as objective as we may think of it to be, embeds neoliberal thinking. For example, the rhetoric of “getting help” itself comes off as relatively pejorative within the North American context, conveying a sign of weakness, or as my friend said “drawing in the white flag”. This is understandable, considering that being seen as weak is just not something that is commonly accepted in this fast-paced society we live in. But why is that? Getting help can seem to promote feelings of inferiority, of not being good enough for this environment in which we are expected compete. Even more important to remember is that “getting help” is also commonly perceived when there is “something wrong with you”. Both the former and the latter project a kind of ableist attitude we carry about people who receive mental care, ultimately producing a stigma that is attached towards receiving help. The stigma is further exacerbated by the titles we sometimes attribute to individuals receiving help (i.e. “crazy” or “insane”) as the wording itself serves to paint a picture of such individuals are irrational and/or senseless. What this does as a result is it indirectly produces a consciousness that determines who is and who isn’t suited to compete in the demanding neoliberal lifestyle.

While survival of the fittest may work in evolutionary sciences, to perceive that concept on a societal level is to oversimplify human reality and its many truths.

Many people with mental illnesses as a matter of fact are quite rational and competent. The false consciousness that exists towards people suffering from mental illnesses or receiving some sort of counseling can largely be attributed to the mainstream mediums that misrepresent such individuals by portraying them through the so-called “Lunatic” archetype. For more on the misrepresentation of people with mental illness see Adam’s article. We have to exercise a kind of diligence in the way we use our words, for even they are capable of making someone reluctant towards pursuing mental health, especially in the case when they might really need it. Moreover, we see that our choice of words can also reinforce the neoliberal standards that colour our perceptions of how we are expected to operate within society – doing everything on our own. This “getting help” as a result produces a double conundrum; first, labeling someone as crazy/insane means we enter the dangerous territory of producing ableism thinking and second, by perceiving “getting help” as a sign of weakness rather than strength, we are accepting the lies that neoliberalism feeds to us about having the freedom to pursue our dreams (last time I checked, isolation and chronic insomnia was not on my list of happiness). In other words, the culture that creates the stress in the first place also derides our attempt to relieve the stress by making us feel ashamed to seek therapy.

If you see how problematic this is, then you probably agree that to fix it, we need a new paradigm shift that views mental health in a positive light in order to stop the stigma. This can be done by breaking down this culture of silence we have in regards to receiving counseling and other mental health related subjects. What I mean by that is we don’t emphasize the importance of taking care of our mental health enough. Take for example the role that physical health and education play within school institutions. What if we integrated some kind of curriculum into our schools that allowed us to learn how to take care of our mental health better? Did you know that University of Toronto students get 20 free session of mental counseling services on campus? Surprised? I know I was. Interesting to note how this is not something that is widely broadcasted in contrast to all the other advertisements that encourage us to stay physically fit to perform our best.

People, let’s take the time (yes, you know that thing that we rarely get to do anymore) and think about how neoliberalism has affected our lives. Are you constantly rushing from one class to another, wishing you could delve deeper into an interesting article but are unable to because your workload doesn’t allow you to? Are you constantly doing two things at once because you feel like it’s the only way to keep up? Hate to break it to you, but did you know that recent studies in psychology have shown that humans are NOT more productive when they multi-task? (http://lifehacker.com/5922453/what-multitasking-does-to-our-brains)

I ask you then, why are we constantly going against our human nature? Isolating ourselves from our close ones, eating meals on the go, and most importantly lacking sleep? Funny story: when I first wrote the first draft for this blog while attempting to meet three other deadlines, I was commented by my editor team how my draft seemed rushed. We all thought it was hilarious how the very thing which I argue against creeped into my article. If you can relate to a similar case, then perhaps you might agree that the true principle of neoliberalism has been skewed, instead placing us into some sort of labyrinth, where we as mice are left to scurry towards that piece of cheese before that timer runs out. I wish I could talk more about this important issue regarding mental health but I am increasingly growing concerned about the exams that are soon approaching as the semester ends (sigh!).

I don’t necessarily blame you for living in this space, after all, how often do we really get the time to just question how our actions are actually influenced by a larger cultural system at work? We always think that culture is something far and highly exotic, but culture is actually happening right here and right now and we, as westerners are by no means except from it. For this reason, I urge you to stay mindful and question people’s actions and reactions. Don’t be afraid to challenge them if you think that they might be producing an ableist understanding towards mental health.

If we really want to break down the stigma then we have to raise the awareness that our culture creates a double standard; causing us to feel overwhelmed while discouraging us from doing anything about it.

Next time someone calls you a “whiner” or a “slacker”, question it. Ask yourself (or the person who called you) whether their choice of words exemplifies the neoliberal mentality that encourages us to conform to certain lifestyle expectations. Moreover, question whether the choice of words is potent enough to deter someone from getting help or escaping from this lifestyle itself. To conclude I leave you with these thoughts by a wise woman I know in regards to the so-called “American dream”.

“While there are numerous things wrong about this socially constructed neoliberal lifestyle, I think one of the results is the growing isolation we have from each other, and its ‘un-naturalness’. We, historically, come from a tribe or clan. Looking at this current movement to grow food locally, support your local community, etc. is our internal instinct. We need to belong to a bigger group outside our 4 walls.”

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