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Endemic misery is pushing the UK towards a civilisational catastrophe

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I used to believe, like many people, that Britain’s mental health epidemic is merely the symptom of a snowflake society. That is until I heard about the mysterious phenomenon of cowboys driving their trucks off the mountains in the American frontier. In my curiosity, I travelled to Natrona County, Wyoming. 

Nobody has a definitive answer to why so many Wyomingites are struggling with their mental health. But what seemed to be behind so many of the tragic stories I encountered were grand life expectations that had crumbled in contact with life’s harsh realities. I spoke with mothers whose perfect sons had entered the adult world armed with prom-king looks and entrepreneurial animal spirits, only to suffer breakdowns when their businesses ran into trouble or they lost a job or a house. 

I even spoke with the father of a 17-year-old boy whose life fell apart after he lost his driving licence and he was dumped by his red-haired girlfriend. (“Here was his hope. He was going to get married to this young lady, they were going to have kids, all of them were going to have red hair. Life was going to go down this little path.”) 

One cannot know for sure, but I left Wyoming with the impression that it is a place where expectations of life and reality have become alarmingly divergent. On the one hand, it is the cradle of the American Dream, with its pristine towns lined with cowboy boot and botox boutiques, double-garage bungalows and snow-capped peaks drenched in the remorseless optimism of the spring sun. But it is also one of America’s most stagnant states, battling poor growth, job losses, and outmigration, as more prosperous neighbours like Colorado pull away. 

It is a place of broken and stubborn dreams. That much is clear in the proliferation of foreclosure signs staked into the grounds of collapsing ranches; and the Uber drivers clocking on after work to pay off their Mercedes SUVs. 

All this got me wondering whether Britain – a country flailing in the wreckage of its own broken and stubborn dreams – may indeed be in the grips of an epochal mental health epidemic itself. Rishi Sunak’s bid to clamp down on “sick note” Britain is understandable. But it does rather gloss over the possibility that the crisis is all too severe, particularly for the young. 

While the UK thankfully does not suffer suicide rates comparable with Wyoming, it is a place where one in four are believed to be affected by mental illness. Our country is also tortured by its own spin on the American Dream, a diabolical lie that ours is a compassionate, kind, “fair-play” society in which even someone who coasts along can expect a quaintly comfortable life. These days, this myth is instilled from childhood through various practices – from the trend of teachers marking homework in “neutral” colours rather than red pen, to non-competitive sports days where it is the “taking part that counts”. 

In fact, Britain is a rampantly competitive society. The story goes that we have evolved from an aristocratic dystopia built on slavery to a civilised democracy with a welfare state. Britain might be more accurately described as a proletarian nation overseen by a cosmopolitan elite. 

Decently paid manufacturing jobs have been replaced with cashier and call assistant roles. Degrees no longer function as certificates of education, but rather elite passports – with only those bearing the stamp of the most outstanding institutions gaining passage to the interview rooms of the top firms. Economic stagnation is making things worse. The availability of entry-level roles and their average attached wage has shrunk since Covid. So, too, the number of middle income openings. 

Hyper-competitiveness is not just baked into the economy but into every aspect of life for the young. Take dating, where the app-based Disneyfication of romantic expectation intersects with cutthroat algorithms aimed at subscriber retention. This has created a deranged world where the delusionally desperate endlessly chase after the delusionally fussy, who endlessly chase after an elite who strictly date within their own pool of perfect specimens. On Tinder, it has been estimated that the bottom 80 per cent of men chase the top 20 per cent of women, while the top 80 per cent of women chase the top 20 per cent of men. 

There are physical signs that the struggle between the ideal and the real is resulting in disturbing behaviours. Take the outbreak of “bigorexia” in the gyms of South Wales, as insecure young men with limited future prospects pump themselves with steroids, and fall into a spiral of body dysmorphia. Or the incels who are sinking into a dangerous kind of entitled self-loathing, as they succumb not only to suicidal ideation and self-harm, but an extremist ideology that teaches that women who refuse to sleep with men are committing “reverse rape”. 

If my theory is correct, the question is what you do about this civilisational catastrophe. Suicide prevention workers in Wyoming believe that we need to supplement traditional Western coping philosophies like stoicism and rugged self-reliance with an emphasis on resilience – subtly distinct, with its focus on inculcating a capacity to adapt to adverse and volatile circumstances, rather than merely endure them. I suspect they are right. 

Should bad mental health come to be as prolific as the common cold, meanwhile, we may also just have to find a way to live with it, with an emphasis on preventative measures and helping people work through rough patches. The PM might rail against “sick note Britain” but it may be that “burnout” will eventually replace minor physical ailments like flu, coughs and headaches as the primary reason employees call in sick. 

Living with a mass mental health crisis would, of course, be easier to do if – as some heretical medics argue contrary to the clinical orthodoxy – some of the conditions we are seeing, including cases of depression, are one-off episodes, rather than recurring, chronic and lifelong illnesses. But more research is required. 

An even more basic take is that, if misery springs from a disconnect between expectations and reality, then logically it follows that either expectations must be lowered or reality must be improved. Either we ban tax-hiking politicians from using the word “aspiration”, replace non-competitive sports days with brutal Squid Game-style tournaments and add Grimm’s Complete Fairytales to the curriculum as a corrective to Disney idealism. Or we goddamn do what has to be done to unleash economic growth.

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