Britain finds itself in a mental health crisis. For some time now, this argument has loomed large in public debates. Thus, a summary report published online by the BBC in late 2018 states that severe mental illness has been on the rise since the 1990s, that mental problems tend to start early in life, and that public mental health care services are severely underfunded. The mental health crisis, media accounts suggest, engulfs a range of social groups. There are, for example, reports of a very high likelihood of burnout and an “alarming mental health crisis” among doctors, of a severe mental health crisis among students and among young people in general, and of endemic stress among both teachers and students.
Among the institutional responses to this mental health crisis, mindfulness looms large. For instance, the NHS promotes mindfulness as a response to stress, anxiety and depression, while numerous British universities run mindfulness programs and offer mindfulness sessions to both students and staff (see, for example here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). David Brazier, a psychotherapist and Buddhist priest who has long been active in its popularization, defines mindfulness as follows:
‘Mindfulness, as the term is now used, refers to a set of techniques in which one gives deliberate sustained attention to presently occurring ambient, somatic or subjective phenomena. […] It seems that modern people have commonly lost touch with their bodies and need teaching to pay attention to sensations, thoughts and feelings as they occur and to do so in a less judgemental manner.’ (Brazier, 2013, p. 117)
On this basis, proponents of mindfulness have developed an array of meditative techniques that have become widely popular, both within different organisational settings and in the form of popular psychological self-help, in the form of self-help books, websites, online videos, and a range of other media.
The popularization of mindfulness cannot just be understood as a recent response to public perceptions of a mental health crisis. Rather, it is the result of developments in academic psychology, in its clinical uses in psychotherapy, and in its growing commercial exploitation from the 1980s onwards. The meditative and therapeutic techniques that in the UK are grouped under the label ‘mindfulness’ have emerged from certain strands of Buddhist theology and philosophy. From the early 1980s onwards, these have been systematically incorporated into Western academic psychology and psychotherapy, by scholars such as the American Jon Kabat Zinn, an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and director of its Center for Mindfulness.
Importantly, scholarship and clinical applications of mindfulness have consistently been tied into their commercial exploitation. For example, Jon Kabat Zinn is also the author of a range of widely read self-help books and other popular psychological media, and he has long operated his own online shop. Other leading proponents of mindfulness have equally combined their academic and clinical work with entrepreneurial activities. It is this combination of scholarship, clinical practice and business interests that laid the groundwork for mindfulness to become a popular psychological fad in the context of the post-2008 crisis of British society. However, the apparently sudden success of these claims in the early 2010s is likely due to mindfulness advocates ‘piggybacking’ their claims on ascendant concern with happiness and wellbeing, and the latter’s fostering of widening and increased concern with mental health.
The popularisation of mindfulness is just one example of the broader success of popular psychology, which did not slow down post-crisis. Indeed, as we discuss below, advocacy for greater individualised supports became even more prominent in a climate characterised by austerity. The consumption of self-help books is just one indicator of this success, as the following table illustrates:
Sales of self-help books in the United Kingdom, 2012 – 2015
|Year||Number of |
|Sales value, GBP||Share of self-help books |
in the book market
Source: Nielsen BookScan, personal correspondence.
As the table shows, the demand for self-help books remained consistently large in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and during the initial years of austerity, with more than 8 million self-help books sold and the sales of these books consistently amounting for more than 4 percent of the British book market.
However, it would be incorrect to posit a straightforward causal relationship between economic crisis and austerity on the one hand and consumption of popular psychology paraphernalia on the other. Rather, in a climate of growing expenditure cuts, lobby groups made increasingly alarmist claims about threats to mental health. For instance, in 2012 the NUS claimed that 23 percent of students experienced mental health problems, a figure they cite as being in line with national statistics for British adults in general. They also cited as a problem that many students do not seek help from formal university counselling services instead relying on existing social networks. However, just three years later the NUS released a new survey claiming that nearly 80 percent of students suffered from mental health problems. While not mentioned in the media, this increase was achieved by broadening the criteria surveyors considered ‘mental health problems,’ most notably to include ‘stress.’ While advocates claimed that high numbers of students with mental health problems were at least partially caused by cuts to education funding, they focused not on reducing fees (a campaign that arguably failed in 2010 with policymakers ignoring the claims of Milbank protesters), but rather on increased mental health support.
It appears likely therefore that claims about mental health ramped up in the aftermath of austerity, reflecting the squeezed rhetorical milieu within which claims-makers vied for greater funding in a climate of austerity. The effect however has been the increased privatisation of public issues and the transformation of collective action campaigns into campaigns focusing on individual troubles, to be addressed through professional therapy and a variety of ad hoc self-help and professional interventions.
These trends are indicative of the success of the psychology, which treats social issues as internal psychological problems, in furnishing British society with a vocabulary in whose terms social problems may be understood and addressed. At the same time, it may be read as an indicator of the declining public significance of the sociological imagination, which attempts to link private troubles to larger public issues and problems. While sociology has arguably had its historical moments, such as the period of social unrest in Western Europe and North America in the late 1960s, it seems to be much less prominent in the early 21st century.
These arguments, to be sure, should not be read as an undifferentiated critique of psychology – an academic discipline which, in the form of fields such as critical psychology – is deeply immersed in the critical interrogation of the forms of knowledge it produces. Rather, this short piece is meant to draw attention to the diminishing role which the sociological imagination seems to play in public discourses of social relationships and social problems in Britain today.
Note: This piece draws on the chapter ‘Mindfulness and the sociological imagination’, by Daniel Nehring and Ashley Frawley, in the Handbook of Global Therapeutic Cultures (Routledge, forthcoming).