How Our Place in History Affects Mental Health

I began working as a mental health therapist four years ago. It was a time when the great recession, which began in a blinding crash in 2008, was still winding its poison tendrils through our community. Today, the effects of that worldwide financial crisis are still dramatically affecting our lives. This has been a time when food banks have had to double services and then double them again, when many people have lost housing either through foreclosure, job loss or rent increases. It is a time when people in their fifties and sixties, who in decades past would be ready, willing and able to retire, have had to continue to work, or find second or third jobs to make ends meet, send kids to college, or save for a possible retirement in their seventies or eighties. This then, has narrowed the job market for young people just entering adulthood or leaving college. Unemployment and under-employment are widespread and figures reported by the government ignore millions who don’t have enough work, work full time and are still at the poverty line, and those who have given up looking for work entirely.

We live in a time when expansion of the economy and an increased standard of living, that were expectations since the industrial revolution, have screeched to a halt for most people. Those of us born in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are likely the first generations in our country’s history to be facing a lower standard of living than their parents! Even those who lived through the depression did not face this prospect, as World War II provided an economic driver that helped many recover and even prosper.

What does all of this have to do with mental health? As it turns out, our place in history and thus the environment we live in with its challenges and opportunities has a profound impact on well-being, motivation, meaning and fulfillment, the essential features of mental health.

Unfortunately, in our culture many of us are taught that we have the power to shape our own destiny with nothing but hard work, perseverance and grit. Those things do matter, but not as much as we are led to believe. When we are born, to whom we are born, and the forces of politics, history and the economy that shape our world, often play a larger role in the trajectory of our lives than our own will and industry.

Over the last few years I have had sessions with many clients who come to my office demoralized, ashamed and depressed about what they perceive as their own failure to succeed. They talk about graduating from college and being unable to find a job, about bankruptcy, homes in foreclosure, extended unemployment, even homelessness. And, invariably they place the blame for these problems on themselves. They really believe that if they were just smarter, more educated, better with their finances, or had chosen a more lucrative profession, the problems they have would not exist. Rarely do they realize that all of us have been caught up in a powerful sweep of history that changed the rules of the game in the middle of play.

It is often one of my first tasks with these clients to help them separate what really is their responsibility, what they could do more effectively, from what is beyond their ability to control. We often talk a lot about radical acceptance and how difficult it is to have peace when we don’t accept what is. I tell them about the origin of the word radical, which comes from the Latin root radi (think of radish) and like a radish, radical acceptance must come from a deeply rooted place, the place of wisdom within each of us.

We also talk about change and how often to change something, we must first accept it. For example, I needed to accept that I would not be retiring at an age typical in the past, before I could embrace a new profession that now brings meaning to my life. Change can come in the form of protest, political action, service to others, or a shift in priority and expectation. But before all those possibilities, is acceptance.

If we believe we “should” have achieved certain things and we haven’t, it makes it much more difficult to appreciate what we do have, what we have achieved and to be grateful. It is also true that when we blame ourselves for the state of our lives and don’t factor in the impact of our place in history, we may lose the motivation to be involved with the political process, to engage in improving our community and to take care of others in need. We may think to ourselves, “If it’s my fault, it must also be their fault. So they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

We may need to grieve the things we’ll never have, the places we may never go, the sense of security we can’t enjoy, as we navigate this difficult cultural, economic and political moment in which we are living. And, if we can grieve, we can accept and if we can accept we can, perhaps, build a life worth living in this new paradigm of uncertainty and challenge.

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