“Just write it,” I tell myself, my hands hovering over my keyboard. I feel as if a physical force has grabbed hold of my wrists, stilling them every time I try to type a sentence. But there’s another force there, too – something intangible, digging its roots deep into my brain and poisoning my thoughts.
As soon as an idea pops into my head, a voice whispers that it won’t work. Tells me not to bother. Tells me to start erasing what little I’ve already written.
This is a problem I have lived with for a long time and one that many other people struggle with. That voice in my head is anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
For those who don’t know, anxiety is a mental illness characterized by excessive fear regarding simple tasks or situations. Fear is considered anxiety if it is persistent and interferes with your ability to function. It can come in different forms and different severities, but it all boils down to the same thing: The mundane becomes frightening and difficult.
There are a variety of perspectives on what causes mental illnesses like anxiety. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (hereafter referred to as DSM-5) posits that some individuals possess traits that predispose them to developing disorders such as social. Psychologists also say that certain personalities types or traits create a predisposition toward developing anxiety. Similarly, some argue that anxiety is influenced by genetics and strongly hereditary. This can all be related to the biological position on anxiety, which describes anxiety as the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that leads to unusual responses to perceived danger. This set of perspectives falls into the “born with it” stance on anxiety.
Some also take the position that anxiety is a response to traumatic experiences. The DSM-5 states that anxiety can develop after traumatic or humiliating experiences. One example of this is the belief that the way a child is raised can lead to or allow for the development of anxiety. Traumatic events can also cause individuals to develop mental conditions. It is worth noting that both these examples end up looping back into some elements of the hereditary or biological perspectives. Upbringing can allow a child to develop anxiety by aggravating a predisposition, and when discussing anxiety caused by trauma psychologists often refer to changes in the brain.
Marxism and the Holocaust
My understanding of mental illness is somewhat related to the trauma perspective. However, rather than basing the argument entirely on individual circumstances, this position looks at how those situations come to be as a result of broader societal structures.
In Dr. Roland David Chrisjohn, Shaunessy M. McKay, and Andrea O. Smith’s new book, Dying to Please You: Indigenous Suicide in Contemporary Canada, the authors analyze patterns of mental illness, addiction, and suicide within indigenous communities. Drawing on Marxist theory, they argue that overarching structures of oppression are the principle cause of such illnesses – and that illness, in fact, is a misnomer.
In the authors’ words, “the most dangerous line of thinking adopted by professionals engaged in suicidology [the study of suicide and its causes] is the presumption that the individual person … is the locus both of understanding the problem of indigenous suicide and intervening with it.” To put it more plainly: By calling anxiety, depression, addiction, etc. “illnesses”, we are placing the blame for these problems on the individuals who suffer with them. This ideological perspective is called methodological individualism.
Even the second perspective I outlined previously tends to fall into this trap by applying a methodological individualist perspective to understanding the consequences of abuse and trauma. It is focused on how personal circumstances result in changes to the internal workings of the victim’s mind or play on predispositions. Correspondingly, intervention and treatment is typically practiced at the individual level.
Instead, Chrisjohn, McKay, and Smith argue that suicide, anxiety, depression, etc. are best understood by examining the material conditions of the society within which such problems are occurring. Using the dramatically elevated suicide rates of Jewish people during World War II as an example, they argue that the people who actually acted to eliminate the oppressive conditions under which Jewish people suffered were the ones who were successful in solving the problem. Anyone who attempted to explain the Jewish suicide rate in individualistic terms would be blatantly ignoring the obvious factor of the Holocaust.
Simply put: That which we call mental illness stems from abuses, yes, but we have to look beyond the individual circumstances of that abuse in order to truly comprehend and address the issue.
Mainstream Education as an Anxiety Breeding Machine
When I started grade one, I didn’t know how to read. Kindergarten and pre-school weren’t mandatory at the time, and my parents couldn’t afford to send me, so I was somewhat behind my classmates when I did start school. My teacher had taught my sister previously and knew my family, so she was already aware that first grade was literally my first time in school.
The thing is, I wasn’t behind my classmates – once I decided I wanted to read, I just started reading. My teacher quickly realized that I was a fast learner and wanted to push me to be a perfect student.
A “perfect student”, as it turns out, does not make mistakes. I was constantly being held in for recess and belittled in front of my peers for the littlest mistakes or for not working fast enough. Even colouring outside the lines was a punishable offense.
I hated school. I had no friends and was bullied by many of my classmates. I became obsessed with perfection and was wracked with anxiety.
Obviously, my experience with anxiety can be understood in very individualistic terms. I was bullied by a respected authority figure and endured frequent humiliation in front of my peers, leading to perfectionism, distrust of new people, a strong tendency toward avoidance and maladaptive daydreaming, and overall anxiety.
There is, however, a bigger picture to consider.
A major issue in my situation was that it was possible to conceive of a “perfect student” in the first place. This was only possible because the education system quantifies learning and expects students to proceed according to a rigid curriculum and timeline. In other words, you have to learn assigned material within an assigned timeframe and teachers will assess how successful you are in doing so through percentages. (Thus my teacher’s emphasis on no errors and speedy completion of work.)
I could write an entire, separate analysis on why the education system is structured this way, but the key point for now is this: Such a strict system makes no room for individual needs and places enormous stress on young children. It means that those who learn differently (i.e. outside the confines of this narrow system) will inevitably stand out, and this difference can easily become a target for bullies – both in the form of cruel classmates and teachers fighting to streamline students.
Note that this problem is not exclusive to those who struggle or fall behind in the system, though that is certainly of significant concern. Even someone like me, who always excelled in school, was subject to ridicule and exclusion. The system does not allow for outliers – but people are not made to fit in narrow, regimented boxes.
In essence, my experience in first grade would never have happened if our education system operated differently. Therefore, it is a broken and damaging institution that is to blame, not my individual experience in a specific classroom in a specific school under the care of a specific teacher.
(For those interested, Dave Brown from the Youtube channel boyinaband has an excellent video on this subject called, You don’t legally have to go to school. Jarring title, I know, but well worth a watch.)
What Do We Take From This?
First, let me make it clear that there are definitely experiences with anxiety, depression, and other conditions that don’t fit within this model. Discussing how and why someone’s struggle might not fit within this framework, however, is a topic for another time.
I am by no means trying to argue that we should not recognize or respond to the individual circumstances that occur within these broken institutions. People’s personal experiences and struggles are valid and should be heard, and people suffering from conditions like anxiety should feel no fear or shame in seeking help. Rather, what I am trying to bring light to is the need for non-individualistic approach alongside these interventions.
If we want to see a significant, long-term reduction in the number of people suffering from anxiety, depression, addiction, etc., then we need to change the broken institutions that have been hurting us. Only then can we move toward a healthier future for everyone.
American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
Chrisjohn, Roland David, Shaunessy M. McKay, and Andrea O. Smith. 2017. Dying to Please You: Indigenous Suicide in Contemporary Canada. Canada: Theytus Books, Limited.
Mayer, Diane Peters and John DeRosalia. 2005. The Everything Health Guide to Controlling Anxiety: Professional Advice to Get You Through Any Situation. Avon, MA: F+W Publications, Inc.
Wehrenberg, Margaret. 2015. The 10 Best Anxiety Busters: Simple Strategies to Take Control of Your Worry. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.