The social roots of youth alienation


In July, the suicide of a 14-year-old girl brought attention to an appallingly under-reported issue — mental health among young people and youth suicide.

This is not because youth suicide itself is big news, but because she was the fourth student from the same school, Western Heights College in Geelong, to commit suicide in a six-month period.

Yet the lack of reporting is not a coincidence. The media deliberately avoid the issue, as an August 10 ABC Online report made clear: "Most suicides in Australia go unreported by the media, because of concerns the publicity could lead to further deaths."

Apparently, the media fears suicide could be "contagious".

In a July 23 Daily Telegraph article, child and adolescent psychologist Andrew Fuller said: "Especially among vulnerable people, feelings are contagious. We have to make sure that hopefulness gets around and the despair doesn't."

However, the seemingly good intentions behind this "black out" of reporting are undone by its consequences.

Not reporting or publicly discussing suicide means the issues behind suicide get neglected, meaning governments don't have to deal with it.

Although official suicide rates have shown a decline in the past decade, on April 29, ABC Online said suicide rates in Australia are probably underestimated.

The director of Australia's Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, Dr Diego De Leo, said there has also been a "big spike in the number of deaths classified in accidental and undefined deaths, and some of these may have been due to suicide".

But even if the rate of youth suicides has dropped, the mental health of young Australians has not improved. Professor Ian Hickie from University of Sydney told Lateline on June 8: "We've just had a national survey of mental health in Australia, rates of illness are as high as they ever were."

More than 12 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were filed in Australia in 2005/06. In the US, the figure in 2008 was about 164 million. The vast majority (about 75%) of diagnosed mental health problems occur before the age of 25.

Mental health problems, including depression, play a major factor in a decision to commit suicide.

"When people are depressed they are not in their right mind", child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg told the Telegraph. "Depression distorts moods, it destroys the capacity of rational thought and it erodes the desire to live."

Support for youth mental health does not get anywhere near the amount of funding necessary to deal with the mental health problems of young people.

An increase in funding would be welcome. However, this alone won't address the fundamental reasons why depression and social anxiety are at such high level in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

And it is not isolated to Australia. It is a general experience found in the rich developed countries in the First World. Clearly, poor mental health is also a social phenomenon, not just an individual or psychological problem.

How can it be explained? Partly by the nature of work itself in the cruel and oppressive system we live under — capitalism.

Under capitalism, workers sell their labour power to a boss in return for a wage. This, in practice, means that it is the worker's time that is sold to an employer. During the whole period of work, the employer dictates what will and won't be done with this time. Everything produced is claimed by the employer and sold.

Is it any wonder people feel alienated, when a large part of their waking hours is not their own time?

Alienation extends beyond work-time. Leisure and recreation itself has become commercialised, leading to the "alienation of the consumer". The Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel explained this idea in a 1970 article, "The Causes of Alienation".

"On the one hand", he said, "each capitalist entrepreneur tries to limit the human needs of his own wage earners as much as possible by paying as little wages as possible. Otherwise he would not make enough profit to accumulate.

"On the other hand, each capitalist sees in the work force of all the other capitalists not wage earners but potential consumers. S/he would therefore like to expand the capacity of consumption of these other wage earners to the limit or otherwise s/he cannot increase production and sell what her/his own workers produce. Thus capitalism has a tendency to constantly extend the needs of people."

Capitalism stimulates artificial needs, convincing people they really need certain things when in fact they don't.

We're told we need possessions, social status, property. More so, these artificial needs are extended way beyond the ability of most wage earners to fulfil.

So instead we have a state of permanent dissatisfaction, because people's needs — both real and manufactured — aren't and cannot be fulfilled.

Among the most vulnerable in this commercial drive to alienate, deprive and control are young people.

Youth suicide is not about "cyber-bullying" or copycat suicides. The huge pressure felt by any high school student, university student or young workers to achieve the unachievable set by capitalism, as well as creating the conditions in which we simply cannot relate to each other, is what drives mental illness, depression and suicide.

Mental health must be widely recognised and acknowledged and funding must be rapidly expanded. But the reason why depression and suicide is so common is ultimately that we live in a sick system. That system must also be dealt with.