“it is significant that during WW2 the amount of mental illness plummeted” – an acquaintance, in an email exchange yesterday.
We hadn’t been in touch for months – not for the whole duration of my horrible depression – but since we were debating welfare, I was open about how my recent experiences had challenged my perspective and made me more compassionate towards others. The observation about WWII was his response. It rankled.
Whether or not it was true (for a given value of “true” – how do we define mental illness now compared with how we defined it in the 1940s? How was it recorded then? How is it recorded now?), it plays to the idea that depression is a malaise of the privileged, that all we really need to do is pull our socks up, show some backbone, and imbibe a bit of the ‘Blitz spirit’.
Sure, in some ways, there is privilege involved in addressing mental health issues: when you have to struggle every day for physical subsistence, mental and emotional and spiritual needs are pushed back. Although the poorest and most vulnerable in our society suffer from mental illnesses, most of them have at least some basic provision for food and housing, creating time and space for them to tend to their other illnesses.
This does not, however, mean that we should ignore any problem that is not immediately life-threatening (and depression can be life-threatening). Nor does it mean that a state of war causes a reduction in mental illnesses (the acquaintance in question failed to provide any sources to back up the claim about WWII, but after a little digging I found that the assumption was questionable at best).
The ‘Blitz spirit’ might have helped – having a good support network or a sense of cameraderie and common purpose can help a great deal in preventing or recovering from depression. But what this really tells us is that we need more than just our physical needs to be met: we need community and connection, work which is meaningful to us and valued by others. And why should this be more readily available in wartime than in peace?
If more and more of us are struggling with poor mental health, it is not because we are growing a nation of ‘soft’ or ‘entitled’ people, unable to cope with the demands placed on previous generations; it is because we are privileged to live in a time when we actually have a chance to heal these chronic, life-destroying illnesses, instead of hiding them or pushing them aside to deal with natural and man-made disasters. If I owe my wartime ancestors anything, it is self-care, the self-care they were denied. And that self-care finds its fullest expression in creating a better world – the sustainable, cooperative communities and ecologies so derided by people who hark back to the ‘Blitz spirit’ as some golden age of Britishness, but which grow from the same seeds of camaraderie and common purpose.
So put that in your wartime pipe and smoke it.