Victim-blaming is rife in today’s world. Claiming benefits? You’re called a scrounger. Fleeing war? You’ll be criticised for spoiling someone’s holiday. Suffer from mental health problems? Maybe you’re just selfish. To use the intersectionalist term, there are many ‘axes of oppression’. The demonisation of immigrants and the poor are important issues, and they rightly receive a lot of attention, but the impact of victim-blaming on the mentally ill – and indeed the role it plays in causing mental illness – is discussed far less often, despite the fact that mental health issues affect around a quarter of people in what Oliver James calls ‘Selfish Capitalist’ nations.
Like its physical counterparts, rates of mental illness correlate strongly with poverty, particularly in developed nations. Most people could probably predict this, but the mechanisms by which being poor in a rich country contributes to mental illness are less clear, or at least less ubiquitous. A recent University of Oxford study hints at these mechanisms, making the valuable – if fairly obvious – point that the ever present stress of poverty puts people at risk.
That same stress is also present, often at a greater intensity, in the lives of those living in abject poverty in developing countries. Yet poverty alone does not tend to correlate with the alarming rates of mood disorders we see in the developed world, and recovery rates for mental illness – such as schizophrenia – are often significantly better outside of the west. Of course, factors such as greater willingness to self-report symptoms, and better access to health care, may inflate the figures for rich nations. But the fact remains that, in material terms, a New Yorker on minimum wage, or a Londoner collecting Jobseekers’ Allowance, is significantly richer than a Kenyan farmer. So why are they at such high risk of mental illness?
The social corrosiveness of late capitalism plays a role of course; we live increasingly atomised lives, devoid of meaningful relationships – consumed by our drive to consume. But this does not fully explain the disparity in mental illness rates between the middle and working classes. The distinguishing factor may be something less concrete than immediate concerns about food and shelter, or even the erosion of our relationships to each other; the Oxford study’s authors found that the UK’s poor are often “stereotyped as lacking warmth and competence” which leads to “contempt, [and] harmful behaviours…and belief that poverty results from personal failings.” These perceptions “affect how people see themselves” and lead to “negative physical and psychological health consequences, along with reduced educational and professional attainment.”
In short, mental illness is often a product of relative – rather than absolute – poverty, and the stigma that comes with it. With this tendency to internalise negative tropes about ourselves we co-author our own victim-blaming narratives. But we know that mental health stigma – and victim-blaming generally – is widespread, what’s harder to understand is exactly why. Particularly why we tend to direct such vitriol at ourselves.
Our language indicates that we’re pretty staunch believers in some vague form of universal justice, after all ‘what goes around comes around’, and ‘you reap what you sow’. Even the (mis)understanding of ‘karma’ that’s fairly common in the west tells us that bad things happen to bad people. This attitude is formally know as the Just World Hypothesis, and let me be clear: it’s nonsense. We’re all familiar with Just World: it means sexual assault survivors being questioned on their clothing and past sexual habits, people of colour being incarcerated at alarming rates with little sympathy from wider society, and the unemployed being denigrated for their supposed lack of initiative. It’s a worldview that justifies, implicitly, a vast array of preventable human suffering in the world.
In 1966 a pair of psychologists called Lerner and Simmons, taking inspiration from Milgram’s famous study on obedience,showed a group of subjects what they claimed was live footage of a woman taking a memory test, and suffering increasingly intense electric shocks when she performed badly. Given the option to do so, most of the subjects stopped the punishment. But something interesting happened when they were forced to simply sit and watch; instead of feeling sympathy for the victim, the subjects devalued her in their own minds “in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character”, as Lerner put it.
Psychologists, like all of us, are subject to the cultural biases of our age. There’s been a lot of unhelpful musing about the causes of the Just World Hypothesis: could it have some survival advantage, encouraging us to associate ourselves with the hunter that downed the boar, and shun the one who comes home empty handed? Evolutionary psychologists think so. But the supposed evolutionary basis of Just World falls apart when we look at different demographics; African Americans show the lowest adherence to the bias of any racial group, and countries with lower levels of individualism also tend to seethe world as less just.
We can safely say then that living in relative privilege in a western liberal democracy increases your susceptibility to the Just World Hypothesis. This seems to make sense. After all, the rugged individualism of the American Dream – mirrored throughout late capitalist countries – takes Just World as dogma; a pseudo-sacred myth used to vindicate the glaring iniquities of the western world. Don’t like it? Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
At the risk of invoking reactionary chants of ‘conspiracy theorist’, Just World serves a vital role in the ruling class’s propaganda. America’s war on drugs, Britain’s war on benefit ‘cheats’, the ubiquity of politicians’ ‘tough on crime’ messages – which often translate to obscenely harsh sentences, particularly for black and minority ethnic people – all serve to paint society’s victims as somehow complicit in their own suffering, and to make them complicit in their own stigmatisation. What better way to quell dissent than by fomenting self-loathing in the oppressed? “Economics are the method,” said Margaret Thatcher. “The object is to change the heart and soul.”