The mental costs of cost cutting in Spain

Falling tree branches and other hazards facing austerity-afflicted Spaniards.

The Spanish government's approach to mental affliction is to drug the population, writes Fernandez [Reuters]
The Spanish government's approach to mental affliction is to drug the population, writes Fernandez [Reuters]

This summer, various Madrid residents met their demise in a rather unusual fashion: They were killed when rotten tree branches fell on top of them.

In June, a 38-year-old man was wiped out while visiting Retiro park with his two young children. A 72-year-old man was the victim of a falling branch in September. As Spain’s English-language publication The Local notes, the period in between these two incidents played host to “20 other tree-related accidents that have injured Madrid residents in central city streets – including a seven-year-old girl … and [have] smashed cars, terraces and other property”.

The article mentions that Madrid’s right-wing mayor Ana Botella had come under fire from opponents “for slashing public spending on street and park maintenance”, although the fatalities have prompted a different kind of cuts: Botella has now dispatched “a team of specialists and foresters to chop down ‘suspicious’ trees in Madrid’s emblematic [Retiro] park”.

Of course, tree branches are far from the only existential hazard facing the inhabitants of austerity-afflicted Spain. Pervasive public spending cuts have spelt acute insecurity for the non-elite – a typical byproduct of the process of securing countries for foreign capital.

Soaring unemployment levels – over 55 percent among youth – and home evictions are also mainstays of the new landscape. The BBC News Magazine reported earlier this year that “[a]cross Spain … some 350,000 families have been forced out of their homes since the property market crashed in 2008″.

And while tumbling tree branches may emphasise the physical perils of neoliberal austerity, the less visible ones contain even graver implications for the nation’s future.

The mental toll

A study appearing in a 2013 issue of the European Journal of Public Health, titled “The mental health risks of economic crisis in Spain: evidence from primary care centres, 2006 and 2010,” found that the crisis produced a substantial increase in mood, anxiety, somatoform, and alcohol-related disorders.

While tumbling tree branches may emphasise the physical perils of neoliberal austerity, the less visible ones contain even graver implications for the nation’s future.

Researchers detected a “significantly elevated risk of major depression associated with mortgage repayment difficulties … and evictions”, while “[t]he fear and insecurity generated by the anticipation of unemployment is also associated with poor physical and mental health, in some cases even more than with actual job loss”.

Furthermore, unemployment was found to have negative psychiatric effects not only on the jobless but also on other family and community members. The study warns that, despite the clear need for amplified mental health services, essential services have already been curtailed thanks to spending cuts aimed at “inspir[ing] investor confidence”.

One manifestation of the mental toll of recession and austerity is the spike in the suicide rate among Spaniards. This past January, The Local published the most recent statistics on deaths in Spain, pertaining to the year 2012. According to the figures, there had been an 11.3 percent increase in suicides between 2011 and 2012 alone.

But the problem is likely greater than the incidence of successful suicides suggests. The European Journal of Public Health study cites an estimate, based on data from Sweden, that “each suicide corresponds to about 10 failed suicide attempts and between 100 and 1,000 cases of major depressive disorder”.

As can only be expected from any dedicated neoliberal entity, the Spanish government’s approach to mental affliction is straightforward: drug the population. Lluis Isern, a Barcelona-based psychoanalyst and member of International Psychoanalytical Association, recently explained to me that the approach boils down to a “medicalisation of social malaise” – with the process of diagnosis, pathologisation, and treatment of said malaise falling to the very system that created it in the first place.

Writing in CounterPunch last year, Isern outlined the phenomenon as follows: “Any notion of mental suffering as a natural response to a social problem is medicalised and thus dismissed because discussing it as such would entail questioning the very foundations, values and ethics of society.”

Imagine for one second that you have a man with a hose who is spraying water into the open window of a car. Would you ever try to resolve the issue of the wet car without addressing the matter of the man with the hose? Would you believe the man if he told you he could rectify the wetness by intensifying his behaviour?

Probably not. And yet this is what neoliberalism purports to do.

Magical neoliberalism?

In the words of Isern, the neoliberal world functions according to “sociopathic” and “demented” principles – a fair characterisation, no doubt, of a system in which collective wellbeing and solidarity are brutally and perpetually assaulted in the interest of selective prosperity.

Counting the Cost – Spain: The social cost of austerity

The market-oriented solution for anxiety, despair, and other normal human reactions to isolating and anti-human oppression is to convert them into mental illness, and then prescribe apparent palliatives that translate into massive profits for the pharmaceutical industry.

Isern points out that in the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia in 2012 there were no less than 15.6 million prescriptions for anti-depressants – “an average of more than two per person” – thanks in part to the fact that pharmaceutical companies “finance clinical guides suggesting that depressions are under-diagnosed”.

And what better antidote to healthcare cuts and diminishing services than the quick-and-easy over-prescription of drugs?

But although there are many reasons to be depressed about Spain these days, there are also encouraging developments. A new grassroots movement called Guanyem (“Let’s win”) Barcelona, for example, is premised on the need for social justice. Among the movement’s priorities is a basic income, which would presumably do a better job of easing Spanish anxiety given the obvious correlation between financial and mental security.

Cofounded by Ada Colau, the popular anti-eviction pioneer, Guanyem also enjoys the collaboration of Isern and other colleagues interested in promoting alternative approaches to mental health.

But the movement itself, it seems, has already done much to boost spirits and counteract general malaise, and Isern describes a sense of excitement and cooperation in the streets. The mere act of banding together for positive change constitutes a therapeutic affront to the neoliberal wrecking ball that has been unleashed on society, dismantling community bonds and replacing them with solitude and despair.

Perhaps the Spanish politico-psychiatric establishment should declare solidarity and human empathy a new form of mental illness – in which case we can only hope the disease is acutely contagious, and that it helps spawn a remedy to a profitably infirm system.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

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