The Ubiquity of Mental Illness

In a recent Grantland piece, Chuck Klosterman wrote about the strange saga of Royce White, a first round NBA draft pick out of Iowa State University. White has been in the news because he has been diagnosed with a mental illness that, amongst other things, causes him extreme anxiety when flying. His illness is one of the many factors feeding into his ongoing contractual dispute with the Houston Rockets; White wants an independent doctor to be assigned to him who will determine when he is and is not mentally fit to play. Klosterman writes:

However, there’s a much larger issue at play here, and it’s unrelated to the game of basketball. It has to do with White’s wider view on how mental illness — both his own, and those of others — is destroying the fabric of modern living. He’s obsessed with the idea that no one wants to accept the “reality” of a profound social crisis he sees everywhere, infiltrating every aspect of culture and killing us softly.

“At the end of the day, we don’t associate mental health disorders with having severe health risks. And they do,” he explains. “In that Real Sports piece, they only touched on the addictive traits and the suicidal and homicidal behaviors [associated with mental illness]. But there are other elements that no one wants to talk about. Stress is one of the number-one killers of human beings. Stress hardens your arteries. And that’s scary for a lot of humans, so they don’t want to talk about it. It’s like — what is the pollution in the air really doing to us? We’d rather just tiptoe around that idea and argue that it’s the food that’s killing us. But the reality is that stress is a killer of humans, and if we don’t support mental health in the right way, the nature of the illness causes people to become overly stressed. And that’s serious.”

White develops some of his thoughts further in an interview, arguing, rather surprisingly, that most Americans have a mental illness:

Do you believe 26 percent of the league is dealing with a mental illness, or does mental illness prompt those dealing with it to self-select themselves out of the pool? Are you the rare exception who got drafted?

The amount of NBA players with mental health disorders is way over 26 percent. My suggestion would be to ask David Stern how many players in the league he thinks have a marijuana problem. Whatever number he gives you, that’s the number with mental illness. A chemical imbalance is a mental illness.

So, wait … if somebody has a drinking problem, is that —

That’s a mental illness. A gambling addiction is a mental illness. Addiction is a mental illness.

Well, then what’s the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?

The reality is that you can’t black-and-white it, no matter how much you want to. You have to be OK with it being gray. There is no end or beginning. It’s more individualistic. If someone tears a ligament, there is a grade for its severity. But there’s no grade with mental illness. It all has to do with the person and their environment and how they are affected by that environment.

OK, I get that. But you classify a gambling addiction as a mental illness. Gambling is incredibly common among hypercompetitive people. The NBA is filled with hypercompetitive people. So wouldn’t this mean that —

Here’s an even tougher thing that we’re just starting to uncover: How many people don’t have a mental illness? But that’s what we don’t want to talk about.

Why wouldn’t we want to talk about that?

Because that would mean the majority is mentally ill, and that we should base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill. Because they’re the majority of people. But if we keep thinking of them as a minority, we can say, “You stay over there and deal with your problems over there.”

OK, just so I get this right: You’re arguing that most Americans have a mental illness.

Exactly. That’s definitely correct.

But — if that’s true — wouldn’t that mean “mental illness” is just a normative condition? That it’s just how people are?

That doesn’t make it normal. This is based on science. If there was a flu epidemic, and 60 percent of the country had the flu, it wouldn’t make it normal … the problem is growing, and it’s growing because there’s a subtle war — in America, and in the world — between business and health. It’s no secret that 2 percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the 2 percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.

Having read Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right when it first came out a couple years ago, I couldn’t help thinking of that book as I read more of White’s argument. There’s one sense in which this seems a fairly straightforward case–a young man used to having the world revolve around him is unhappy that he’s finally being told “no.” And I think there’s some of that here. But there’s more to it than just that. In a very real way, White is simply taking Marx’s thought and applying it to the issue of mental health.

Anyway, Eagleton:

As we shall see shortly, labour for Marx concerns a great deal more than the economic. It involves a whole anthropology–a theory of Nature and human agency, the body and its needs, the nature of the senses, ideas of social cooperation, and individual self-fulfillment. This is not economics as the Wall Street Journal knows it. You do not read much about human-species-being in the Financial Times. Labour also involves gender, kinship and sexuality. There is the question of how labourers are produced in the first place, and of how they are materially sustained and spiritual replenished. Production is carried on within specific forms of life, and is thus suffused with social meaning. Because labour always signifies, humans being significant (literally sign-making) animals, it can never be simply a technical or a material affair. You may see it as a way of praising God, glorifying the Fatherland or acquiring your beer money. The economic, in short, always presupposes a lot more than itself. It is not just a matter of how the markets are behaving. It concerns the way we become human beings, not just the way we become stockbrokers.

If I’m understanding Royce White correctly in the interview, he’s saying something that flows out of this basic argument: Human beings are not made to perform tasks of “alienated labor” in which they only perform the task because of an outside coercive influence. White is simply expanding the point by saying, “And when massive amounts of human beings are forced to spend much of their lives doing unsatisfying work, it’s only natural that there would be negative consequences.”

As I already said, it’d be easy to dismiss White as a spoiled kid brought up in an overly-therapeutic generation who is throwing a fit now that someone is finally expecting something difficult of him. And there’s probably a lot that could be said about Royce White as the poster-child of an entitled, privileged generation used to be able to bend life circumstances to suit his highly-specific, demanding needs. But even if that is a fair critique of White’s specific situation, his broader point about the ubiquity of mental illness and his theory about its cause is something Christians ought to discuss.

One question to ask is whether the common work of our generation is any more alienating than the work of previous generations. Conservatives will be apt to say “no,” while pointing out the strenuous, hard labor that defined previous generations. But that doesn’t mean we’ve reached the ideal either. 65% of Americans report feeling unsatisfied with their jobs, it’s increasingly difficult to find work that actually pays a living wage, and that even “cushy” office jobs usually involve working in a surprisingly unhealthy environment.

I’m not sure I have an answer to all of this. Actually, I’m sure I don’t. There’s a wide variety of factors feeding into our current relationship with work and its effects on our physical and mental health. But I was surprised by how sympathetic to White’s broad argument I am, even while I feel very annoyed by his over-the-top demands and sense of entitlement. There is one thing, however, that I feel confident saying about these particular issues: Even if White is right about the American work culture’s effect on mental health, I think his solution is bass-ackwards. We don’t fix a bureaucratic, technocratic culture of disease by adopting more rules, procedures, and protocols. The changes must be far more radical and fundamental than that if we are to find a more healthy work culture. And, of course, some of those changes may not even directly address our work culture, but instead address the increasingly frail psyche that defines so many Americans.

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