‘What is wrong with her?’ They asked.
Not ‘what is wrong with her environment?’
It’s a vitally important question and one that we too often overlook. When it comes to mental health and physical health alike we’re too quick to focus on the individual who is suffering and far too unwilling to consider the context.
Poverty, work stress and insecurity make people ill. We know this. The evidence exists. Poverty equates to poor diets, lack of access to green spaces and other insufficiencies that undermine the health of the body and the mind. We know that it is lack of control over your situation that causes the most stress and the most damage. We know this is why people in insecure jobs, zero hour contracts, short term contracts and at high risk of debt suffer from stress and all the illness stress causes. We know, but when people break, we make it personal, individual, specific.
We also know that people are happier and healthier when they have access to green spaces. We’ve seen this around lockdowns. The evidence was there before 2020 from studies from all over the world. Without access to green spaces, our health suffers. And yet, if we get ill for lack of time outdoors, this won’t be part of the discussion we have with our doctors, or the welfare system.
When children can’t cope with sitting for long periods at school, we ask what is wrong with the child, not what is wrong with how we approach education. When people aren’t especially productive in the workplace, we ascribe it to things that are wrong with them, and not to the workplace. When people don’t engage with each other socially, we blame them, and their relationship with screens. We don’t ask what’s creating the pressure to behave that way in the first place.
The environments in which we exist, work and attempt to live are not inevitable. They are co-created. They are often dictated by those with the most power and forced upon those with the least. But even so, they can be changed. We need change. In the meantime, resist the temptation to blame individuals for things that are done to them. Look for the collective in both the problems and the solutions. Support other people where you can, share resources. Resist the culture that says any of this can be fixed through hard work – this is a lie. Resist the culture that says suffering is good, or necessary – this is a lie designed to keep the many placid as we work for the benefit of the few.
Health – for the body and the mind, are very basic needs and essential for human flourishing. We need to live in environments that support human health, not spaces that undermine it.