A group of Hopkins students and administrators have gotten together to raise awareness about mental health.The result is Hopkins Speaks Up, a campaign that seeks to reduce the stigma attached to mental health. I participated. A few years ago the National Institute of Mental Health conducted a survey of college students and found that over 30% of them were so depressed they couldn’t effectively function during the previous year.
I’m glad they asked me. But people should understand that anxiety and depression in general are not simply mental health issues, they are also politically produced. Indeed some argue that the dominant reactive affect to the contemporary condition is anxiety.
Excessive anxiety and stress are a public secret. When discussed at all, they are understood as individual psychological problems, often blamed on faulty thought patterns or poor adaptation.
Indeed, the dominant public narrative suggests that we need more stress, so as to keep us “safe” (through securitisation) and “competitive” (through performance management). Each moral panic, each new crackdown or new round of repressive laws, adds to the cumulative weight of anxiety and stress arising from general over-regulation. Real, human insecurity is channelled into fuelling securitisation. This is a vicious circle, because securitisation increases the very conditions (disposability, surveillance, intensive regulation) which cause the initial anxiety. In effect, the security of the Homeland is used as a vicarious substitute for security of the Self. Again, this has precedents: the use of national greatness as vicarious compensation for misery, and the use of global war as a channel for frustration arising from boredom.
Anxiety is also channelled downwards. People’s lack of control over their lives leads to an obsessive struggle to reclaim control by micro-managing whatever one can control. Parental management techniques, for example, are advertised as ways to reduce parents’ anxiety by providing a definite script they can follow. On a wider, social level, latent anxieties arising from precarity fuel obsessive projects of social regulation and social control. This latent anxiety is increasingly projected onto minorities.
We should continue to create the space needed for individuals to deal with depression and anxiety. Part of that work though has to be political. This isn’t something I expect Hopkins to do. This is, however, something I believe students, faculty, and some administrators can do.