Depression affects more children and young people today than in the last few decades. In the United Kingdom alone, over a quarter of UK students (37%) are experiencing their state of mental wellbeing worsening since starting higher education. Why does every other person you know have a mental health problem?


One thing that helped me understand was reading Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, a previous Goldsmiths Visiting Fellow. Fisher outlines his theory of Capitalist realism as the ideology of capitalism from the 1980s onwards. Capitalist realism persuades us that capitalism is the only practical political-economic system and terminating it is an impossible consideration. Capitalist realism naturalises capitalism by normalising crises. We live through crises constantly, which makes any more hopeful reality seem unrealistic. Exploitation and poverty are commonplace, culture is commodified and public space is destroyed through privatisation. Since Capitalist realism cannot pretend the order it establishes is ideal, it demands us to take an ironic distance towards capitalism— it’s unjust, but at least it’s a better alternative to the terror and totalitarianism associated with other ideologies!


This is how neoliberalism became the dominant mode of capitalism in many countries. One example of what capitalist realism looks like in the UK is the education system, which has become a commodity due to neoliberal reforms that focus on student outcomes and employment rather than public good.


How does this relate to mental health? Fisher points to research which found rising mental distress rates in countries that practise a neoliberal model of capitalism. He describes a widespread, unstated feeling among young people in Britain that their circumstances are bad but that there is nothing they can do about it, deeming it ‘reflexive impotence’. Fisher explains this is why British students seem politically disengaged in comparison to those in France, whose situation is not as bad. In Britain, students are weary of the debts they’re bound to face and a lack of meaningful employment options but they have accepted it. Growing up under capitalism, the bleak sentiment that there will be no alternative is deeply embedded.


Fisher sees mental health as political. The fact that it is acceptable that so many people are ill is enough to suggest that capitalism is inherently flawed. Capitalist realism disguises this by treating mental health as a natural fact. Distress is treated as if it is only caused by chemical imbalances in the individual’s brain or their family background, ruling out systemic causes. 


This pathologization eliminates any possibility of politicising the mental health crisis, as the responsibility is put on individuals to solve their own stress. Fisher says depression, the condition most dealt with by the NHS, is affecting people at increasingly younger ages. In fact, so many young students have mental health problems or learning difficulties, Fisher suggests being a teenager in Britain is ‘close to being reclassified as an illness’.


This has also allowed mental health to be privatised. Many students may take medication such as stimulants or antidepressants to help them attend school or university. In their article ‘Breaking Off My Cheminal Romance’, P.E. Moskowitz explains that pharmaceutical companies conduct most of the scientific research about antidepressants, so there is little incentive to question how effective they are. Though the media popularised a narrative that antidepressants correct a chemical imbalance, the theory that mental illness is caused by a chemical brain imbalance remains disputed. Moskowitz also discusses serious possible side effects to antidepressants.


Since Capitalist Realism was published, the mental health problem affecting young people in the UK has gotten increasingly worse. The problem has triggered an increasing discourse about psychological wellbeing in popular psychology and culture and ‘mental health’ has since become a buzzword. However, media discussions still mostly avoid the root of the problem and instead focus on highlighting the experiences of celebrities as examples of what mental illness can look like – a comparison that is unrealistic to the majority of people who don’t have access to the same quality of treatment. The likelihood of someone struggling with mental health problems and the quality of treatment they receive depends on factors like socioeconomic status and systemic oppression. Government Public Health Research found Black and Minority Ethnic groups as a whole are more likely to experience worse outcomes from treatment, while people from black African and Caribbean backgrounds disproportionately receive more harsh or coercive treatments. Mental health issues are more likely to affect groups including women and BAME and LGBTQ+ people.


In education, these dialogues have manifested in some efforts to increase wellbeing support in learning. My high school ran well-intended mental health assemblies where they encouraged students who were struggling to download mindfulness apps. Though these solutions definitely help and comfort those struggling, education institutions are deeply entrenched in processes which reflect capitalist realism.


Finally, Fisher explains that the commonness of learning difficulties among students can also be attributed to late capitalism. In many cases, ADHD could be a consequence of exposure to the constant flow of hypermediated consumerist entertainment, while dyslexia could be explained by young people’s ability to easily process the image-dense data of capital with less need to read. Or maybe, the commonness of learning difficulties might link to neoliberal reforms in education. Many students struggle to learn in these high stakes performance-focussed environments but when they are officially diagnosed, they gain access to support. Clearly, one way the education system must change is to accommodate a wider range of needs.


Fisher leaves us with a bleak picture of Britain, but many things have changed in the 14 years since Capitalist Realism. Systemic problems in education and other areas of culture inch closer to a breaking point, such as today’s precarious political situation and the cost of living crisis. Problems other than mental health which capitalist realism has normalised include systemic racism, poverty and unemployment, are also at the forefront of debate, sparking widespread protest. This is significantly down to many politicised, outspoken young people and students, who bring us closer to the illusion of capitalist realism finally being shattered. 



Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

‘Breaking Off My Cheminal Romance’ by P.E. Moskowitz