Capital vs Caring; building a mental health offer that actually works

“In a lot of schools, it felt as though their attention went very rapidly to the most disadvantaged children, into making food parcels, going out visiting... They put a great deal of attention into the children with greatest difficulties which is admirable, but in some cases that probably got prioritised – certainly last summer, the summer of 2020 – which may have meant that they did not have the capacity left to make sure there was some kind of education offer for all children.” [1]

The above quote is from Amanda Spielman, who heads up the education inspection body Ofsted. These comments were offered at an Institute for Government event in response to a question about the advantage that private schools had with regards to remote learning. 

Spielman’s comment has stuck in my mind in the months since it was offered, as it is a prime example of the incentives that schools and colleges are measured against, how inapplicable these are during a time of upheaval and crisis, as well as being a clear example of not addressing the key issue in favour of a narrower focus on performance outcomes. 

I also propose that the approach their comment laid out is endemic to student mental health. By focusing on narrow criteria and a fixed, centrally decided schema of inspection and enforcement of school and college decision making, the education system is being driven to limited interventions that aren’t going to help students with the increasing challenges their mental health present.

The pressures of living through a global pandemic, and the cleaving of ourselves from ‘normal’ life has created mental pressures that may not manifest for years to come. It is beholden on us as educators to address this burgeoning crisis and help our young people with the tools to meet the future, whatever form that will take.

The government has acknowledged that additional support for mental health provision is needed. The department for Education website lists several links to other agencies that can support with mental health training and support, as well as making funding;

‘available to offer a grant to around a third of all state-funded schools and colleges in England in the 2021 to 2022 financial year, and a waitlist will be created for grants beyond this period’ [2]

This falls entirely short of any reasonable level of support for young people who have seen their lives disrupted, and who may have lost loved ones to the pandemic.

This fits into the wider schema of treating Mental Health as a privatised and isolated issue, that a market can find the most efficient solution to the problems created in part by living and working in a market-driven society. In my previous essay I outlined how a ‘business ontology’  had infected education. Here in the field of mental health we have  another example of how the wider background of capitalist realism has led to what Fisher writes about in their essay ‘The Privatisation of Stress’;

‘it is hardly surprising that people who live in such conditions,- where their hours and pay can always be increased or decreased, and their terms of employment are extremely tenuous- should experience anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.’ [3]

This is the situation during the ‘normal’ operation of the market, these pressures have only been made greater during the economic and societal disruption of the Great Unpleasantness of the pandemic. If workers are facing these challenges, then students will be facing similar challenges as their guardians are pressured, or they themselves see the challenges the labour market will present them with. Is it no wonder we have an increasing generation of so called ‘Doomers?’

‘The privatisation of stress is a perfect capture system, elegant in its brutal efficiency. Capital makes the worker ill; then multinational pharmaceutical companies sell them the drug to make them better’ [4,5]

Market problems require market solutions! How perfect! Creating an environment of mental ill health that creates a demand for cures in an endless ouroboros. This is entirely in keeping with the neoliberal approach to ‘managing’ those seen as less productive (those who live with disabilities or long term physical/mental health conditions) and driving them back into the ‘productive’ workforce, regardless of the suitability of this approach. This is of course assuming an individual can access the mental health services they deserve, which varies by locality and the characteristics of those accessing the service [6].

The recent focus on therapies such as mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are the latest products from the wellness market that are being offered [7]. These solutions are attractive as they reinforce a focus on the individual as the source of their own solution. Fisher writes;

‘radical therapist David Small argues that Margaret Thatcher’s view that there’s ‘no such thing as society’ only individuals and their families finds an ‘unacknowledged echo in almost all approaches to therapy’. Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapies combine a focus on early life a kind of psychoanalysis lite with self-help doctrine that individuals can become masters of their own destiny’ [8]

Indeed, underpinning our approach to mental health, and shown by Spielman’s comments that opened this essay, is a desire to create people as units of economic production, rather than addressing root causes, focus on teaching rather than pupil’s material needs.  A quick monthly session on mindfulness fulfils a mental health requirement in the school, college, or workplace. A pill is cheaper and quicker than looking at the wider landscape of Capitalist Realism. 

What is to be done?

We need to push against the Capitalist Realism that dominates our moment, and realise that mental health is intrinsically linked to anxieties around housing, food, income, and workplace pressures. The pandemic has only made these issues worse, and has piled additional pressure on our young people who have missed out on nearly 2 years of opportunities, friendships and experiences that have been denied to them. 

In their excellent work Infinitely Full of Hope, Fatherhood, and the future in an age of crisis and disaster, Tom Whyman outlines an approach that can help shape our thinking. If we are to create a future that is more mentally healthy for people, we must be able to articulate a hopeful vision in order to create achievable steps toward this.

‘as the ‘citizens of the wrong world’ we are not just the sort of people to whom the right things to do is likely to show up. Perhaps then the most immediate practical step that we can take – to overcome the contemporary crisis of agency, to equip ourselves to be able to do what needs to be done- is to attempt to cultivate certain value in ourselves…to  become, in short, the sort of people who are able to work, less blindly than before, towards genuinely effective strategies and solutions for the – hopefully not too distant – future.’ [9]

Whyman lists their ‘hopeful virtues’ such as ‘charity, solidarity and modesty, that we can start to hope better today’. [10]

It is not, as Speilman has, berating schools for looking after the material needs of their students, but in charitably creating environments and contexts where individuals have the space and time to be listened to, to stand in solidarity with and support those experiencing hardships that are impacting on their wellbeing, and be modest in our aspirations of how we can achieve this. We will not demolish Capitalist Realism overnight, but we can affect meaningful and impactful change in our own communities.

AGH October 2021

Writing in a personal capacity.

Twitter: @agladheight

Feature Image: Colorful Hands 2 of 3 / George Fox students Annabelle Wombacher, Jared Mar, Sierra Ratcliff and Benjamin Cahoon collaborated on the mural. Image by Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

  1. ofsted-head-schools-focus-food-parcels-may-have-hit-learning
  2. mental-health-and-wellbeing-support-in-schools-and-colleges
  3. Fisher, ‘The Privatisation of Stress’, k-punk, The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2018) p461
  4. Ibid, p467
  5. Author disclosure: I write this as a person who currently relies on medication to manage their own mental health 
  6. Perceived barriers to accessing mental health services among black and minority ethnic (BME) communities: a qualitative study in Southeast England
  7. With respect, I critique these approaches in relation to their relationship to the wider challenges of living through Capitalist Realism. I have found certain techniques of these therapies useful and do not wish to detract from those who have found them useful too. 
  8. Ibid p467
  9. Whyman, Infinitely Full of Hope, Fatherhood, and the Future in an age of crisis and disaster, 2021 p182
  10. Ibid p192