Takeaway: There are so many things that influence our mental health: our family history, our personal life experience, our culture, and even our economy. In this post, I’ll break down the ways that mental health and capitalism are connected. Plus, I share my top suggestions for what you can actually do to cope.
Capitalism is our current political and economic system. It is characterized by production-based profit, not the needs of the people. Its survival hinges on getting as much productivity out of workers as possible, despite its devastating effects on physical and mental health.
Capitalism's history is wrought with destruction, brutalization, and violence. Wars are fought, lands stolen, resources extracted, and people reduced to numbers in service of capitalism. This continues to happen today.
Under capitalism, your value is based on your relationship to labor, land ownership, and the means of production. This means that the more you own, the more power you have.
For example: are you a landowner or business owner? You have power and value. If you rent your residence or are employed by a boss, your value is lower.
Capitalism and mental health are inextricably linked. While mental illness has always existed, capitalism uniquely exacerbates symptoms. From negligent, for-profit care to the policing/punishing of those with mental illness, the negative impact of capitalism is undeniable.
The quality of life for the working class, disabled, and elderly is worsened at every turn under capitalism. It literally lowers our life expectancy.
Breaking down the connections between mental health and capitalism is no small feat and cannot be covered in just one blog post, but we all need to start somewhere!
In this post, I'll break down 10 ways in which capitalism effects our mental health, and how caring for yourself and others can be a revolutionary act.
Understanding the history of capitalism and mental health
Capitalism has a way of projecting itself into the past, as if it has always existed. In reality, capitalism is only about 500 years old. So why is it that we feel capitalism is our only, permanent choice? Let's begin by debunking claims of capitalism's legitimacy and permanence.
Capitalist society as we know it began its development in Europe. Its predecessor was feudalism, a system in which people were given land and protection by those of higher rank, in exchange for work and services.
Think Game of Thrones: the Stark family owned the lands in the Kingdom of the North, and protected its residents in exchange for taxes, work and fealty.
Many societal changes brought on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, including the plague, which caused the deaths of millions of Europe's working class.
The transition from feudalism to capitalism was not natural; it was bloody and violent. Wealthy elites (or the ruling class) saw the potential for loss of power and began the development of a system that could favor merchants over the masses.
The colonization of North and South America were direct results of capitalist expansion. 90-95% of indigenous peoples were murdered in the hopes of extracting the wealth and resources of this "new world".
The trans-Atlantic slave's role in forming the global economy was capitalist.
Contrary to what we learn in history class, the American Revolution was fought so that landowning whites could maintain their power and control without interference from the England, which was shockingly more progressive.
The human nature argument often cites the history of the United States to elevate the legitimacy of capitalism. "Human nature" blatantly ignores the direct result of division of groups to gain power.
The practice of dehumanizing one group to gain allegiance of another group is a marker of capitalism, and it is as American as apple pie.
The concept of "race" in the US was created in an effort to keep freed former slaves from finding solidarity with their European peers. Instead of divisions of ethnicity (German, Irish or French), it became race—"white."
Recently, we've seen radical right groups giving a voice to poor/working class white Americans in an attempt to keep them from finding common ground with BIPOC members of their class.
The US has indeed been a "great experiment" in that it was a global power formed out of the practices of extraction, exploitation, and commodification. It was born out of capitalism.
10 ways that mental health and capitalism are linked
Now that we know the history of capitalism, it's easier to understand that our mental health struggles are exacerbated by it and do not exist in a vacuum.
Let's explore some ways that capitalism and mental health are linked.
Loneliness is an epidemic. We live with and around each other, but we have never felt more alone.
We struggle to rely on community and relationships the way we used to. Our increased accessibility makes work/life balance difficult to find. This can take us out of the moment when we are with friends, family, and community.
Our stress level reaches the point where being around others is more taxing that relieving.
Capitalism makes us too tired to seek out support, and to offer support to others. We enter in a cycle where we work and decompress in isolation, depriving us of more fulfilling engagement with each other.
As social creatures, regularly being deprived of community can cause us great harm.
2. Internalization of systemic issues
Every day, we are exposed to systems that cause us harm. These systems include healthcare, criminal justice, education, law enforcement, etc.
For example, the law enforcement system. Law enforcement in the US has always served the needs of capitalists, land owners, and the wealthy. The construct of "crime" was invented to elicit control over the lower classes. This is why most criminal offenses are considered "property crimes" or crimes committed out of some economic need. The modern police system was literally invented to catch runaway slaves. Individuals who commit these "crimes" are heavily penalized by our criminal justice systems. They are disparaged in their communities. They are imprisoned, their lives are ruined, and their labor exploited. All under the false label of "rehabilitation."
But what happens when a member of the capitalist class commits a crime? What if a small business owner commits wage theft? What if a corporation commits fraud and steals ideas of it's workers? The US military has accelerated climate change, how do they pay for it? As we have seen, outside of fines, the wealthy and the powerful do not pay for their crimes. Essentially, the poor are punished for not having their needs met, and the rich are protected when they steal from, or harm, the poor.
How can we expect each other to thrive under such conditions?
Your relationship with these systems may vary, and it typically depends on your health status, class, or identity.
When systems meant to "help" you do the opposite, you internalize it.
This leads to worsening mental health problems, isolation, and a poor self-image.
3. For-profit health care
Under our for-profit healthcare system, we are treated more like customers than patients.
Treatments are inaccessible and expensive. 1 in 10 adults in the US have medical debt, with millions owing more than $10,000.
Because of this, many choose to put off going to the doctors until symptoms make life unlivable. Some never make it.
Mental health services are also extremely expensive. Affordable mental health care is often behind the paywall of insurance, or by a clinician willing to offer services pro bono or at a sliding scale.
Doctors, mental health professionals, and other care workers struggle between making their own ends meet and providing affordable services.
When your care is exorbitantly expensive, and the type of care is dictated by your insurance, how are you supposed to feel?
Long term exposure to our healthcare system can leave you feeling either too poor or too sick to be worthy of care.
4. Classism is not addressed
Class consciousness poses a great danger to capitalism.
Capitalism values patriotism and nationalism over class solidarity. For example, to keep working class Americans from finding unity with workers from another country, patriotism will be elevated.
We have seen this in every war fought over the past 100 years: workers fighting workers from other countries in the battles of the wealthy.
Thankfully, "class struggle" has become a popular phrase in the last few years. As more and more Americans understand that they have more in common with their fellow workers than their bosses, class consciousness is developing.
But why has it taken so long? Why is it easy for the media and politicians to talk about race, gender, and sexuality but not class? Because the unity of the working class is a threat to the status quo, and could bring an end to capitalist society.
Even in liberal spaces where the importance of anti-racism and eradication of transphobia and misogyny are addressed, there is no mention of classism. This creates a system wherein we can find solidarity within our specific groups, so long as we have a "respectable" job, status and other markers of success under capitalism.
The poor are left behind, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or ability. Lower classes, including the working class, are made to feel that they are not good enough to be liberated. This brings about internalized ideas of low worth.
5. Extremely high cost of living
Anywhere you go, you can hear an exasperated American comment on the high cost of groceries, rent, gas, electricity, etc.
Regulation is antithetical to capitalism. Profit must be made. This means that the cost of living will not meet a ceiling.
The average age of a first time home buyer is 36, compared to 29 in the 1980s. Adjusted for inflation, rent has increased four times more than wages. For millennials and Gen Zs that are able to own a home, they are paying 100% more when purchasing a home. We are paying almost 400% more for food. College is also criminally expensive, and 43.5 million Americans are saddled with student loan debt. You might not be shocked to learn that the price of a four-year public college has increased by 310%.
Anyone who says "money can't buy happiness" has never been hungry, unhoused, or without basic needs met. The financial burden of living in a capitalist society causes stress, which can lead to more serious mental health problems.
6. Unable to hit milestones like previous generations
Buying a home has been a pillar of the American dream for decades, at least for middle class white Americans.
As stated above, folks who are able to buy a home are doing so later in life compared to older generations.
Many millennials and Gen Zs are choosing to put off having children, or not having them at all.
Many of us know that retirement may not come at 65, if it ever even does.
Considering the high value placed on meeting these life milestones, judgement from older generations (or judgment internalized by ourselves) can make finding happiness and self-worth difficult.
7. Degree inflation
When someone without a college degree retires but the same job now requires a college degree for whomever is hired, we call this degree inflation.
As baby boomers retire and Gen X enters their final decade of working, millennials and Gen Zs are slowly filling their roles.
Degree inflation is causing many people in younger generations to go needlessly into debt in order to fill these roles.
This can be incredibly frustrating, and another reminder that younger generations face more barriers to a high quality of life than previous generations.
There is nothing like working towards a seemingly unattainable goal that we saw our parents and caregivers reach with more ease. When we continue to run into these barriers, we can feel discouraged, frustrated, and hopeless.
8. Politically manufactured divisiveness
As mentioned above, divisiveness has been used a tool for repression of the lower and working classes since the inception of the United States.
In 2023, trans rights have been used as a manufactured moral panic to distract the general population from their real material struggles. In 2020, the target was critical race theory.
Donald Trump's presidential legacy was targeting, alienating, and enraging poor white Americans. This brought on increased hate crimes.
When we are divided, we are less of a threat to the status quo.
The US currently has a two party system. Both parties defend the interests of the wealthy elites, who are their perspective members. Liberal and conservative elites show time and time again that they do not care about the needs of the poor, disabled, and working class.
We are made to believe that the only real political power we have is to vote. It leaves us feeling hopeless, helpless, and alone.
9. Eco anxiety due to climate change
Signs of climate change are all around us. Floods, droughts, wildfires, air pollution, and even seasonal instability tell us that we are all effected.
Corporations and their media pundits have worked hard to convince us that climate change is an individual problem and can therefore be fixed on an individual level. Thankfully, more and more of us are coming to the realization that the fault of climate change is corporate greed and US imperialism.
We hear horror stories about massive migrations in the global south, we read terrifying predictions of what the next 50 years will be like and we are met with news about billionaires planning their abandonment of this planet and its habitants.
Much like trauma from harmful systems, our eco anxiety and climate change are completely avoidable problems. But we live under capitalism, a system that recognizes changes can be made, but refuses to make them.
Despair, anxiety and depression are difficult states to escape from when staring directly at the problem of climate change.
10. Jobs don’t align with values
Living under capitalism, we often take jobs that do not align with our values in order to survive. Our values speak to experiences, relationships, and choices that have shaped us. They can keep us on a track towards happiness and fulfillment while allowing us to honor lessons we've learned.
When we are forced to work against our own values, we may experience a crisis in identity. This means that we could have a hard time knowing ourselves, and subsequently a harder time interacting with the world around us.
Engineers who want to design sustainable, creative structures may find themselves working for firms destroying the environment. Social workers serving the public may feel limited by the barrier of insurance.
It may be easy to dismiss this experience, saying something like "just get a new job." (This is also an anti-union argument—"If things are so bad, just get a new job.") Not only is this an absurdly priviledged statement to make, "just getting another job" is not an option for most people. We know that competitiveness and increased demand for productivity under late stage capitalism creates stressful, low wage jobs.
Not to mention that monopoly capitalism has made it so most companies are subsidiaries under parent companies. With this knowledge, you could work at several different jobs but find yourself still working for the same, exploitative parent company.
It can leave us feeling helpless, guilty, and at times, leads to a neglecting of our values in the long term.
Coping with capitalism’s effect on your mental health
As dismal as much of this sounds, joy can be found while living under capitalism.
Throughout capitalism's brief history, people have resisted, finding happiness and fulfillment through their own efforts. Your psychological well being can be bolstered with both internal and external work. Let's talk about improving mental health under capitalism.
Ways to address poor mental health under capitalism
First, engage in community organizing. Talk to your neighbors and find out what your shared issues are. Problems can be solved more easily with teamwork and an organized community. Suffering together beats suffering alone.
Second, find a routine that serves you. Routine offers us safety through predictability and control. Take a walk at the same time every day or call a friend every evening.
Third, setting boundaries in social relationships can make you feel more in control. Say no when you want to. Do things because you want to do them. Spend your time how you'd like and with who you like.
Fourth, listen to your body. What is it telling you? Can you be gentler with your body and your limits? Your body may be sending you clues that you're ignoring.
Fifth, live sustainably. Living more simply and more sustainably can take away stressors that you didn't know where there. Try to engage in consumerism less by buying when you need to, not when you feel compelled to. You may notice less anxiety.
And finally, practice loving kindness. The fostering of loving kindness is essential in Buddhism, where it is more of a state of being or attitude, achieved and grown with practice. When we practice loving kindness, we are wishing, hoping, sending, and literally vibing peace, happiness, and love towards those we come into contact with. It is an opportunity to resist defensiveness, internalized dislike, and negative judgment. Loving kindness is a chance to practice curiosity and spread love into spaces that may need it.
Find a therapist who gets the connection between capitalism and mental health.
You probably hear the phrase "they need to see a therapist" a lot lately. Statements like this make it hard to remember that the system is the problem—not us.
Living under late stage capitalism, we are dehumanized, divided, and asked to show up to work with a smile. The support of family, friends, providers and a good therapist can make this life not only a little more bearable, but happy.
As a socialist therapist, I work diligently for my patients through an anti-capitalist lens. I reject the idea that systematic abuses can be healed with superficial self-care, and healing can only be found through community revitalization and the raising of class consciousness.
In addition to therapy in Pennsylvania and life coaching internationally, I also offer therapist business coaching for clinicians who are tired of the exploitative side of the therapy world. We did not learn business practices in grad school. We definitely didn't learn how to identify and avoid predatory therapy practices.