Why Can’t You Just Do It?
An Anthropological Study on the Intersection Between Academia and Mental Health
Master Thesis Rome, May 2022 Cultural and Social Anthropology Applied Track
Anita Pesoli Student number: 12774898 E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Supervisor: Dr. Laurens Bakker
1. Introduction 2
1.1 Entry in the Field 4
1.2 Methodology 5
1.4 Personal Considerations 8
2. Theoretical Framework 10
2.1 The Neoliberal Self 10
2.2 Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism 13
2.3 Individualization of Mental health 16
2.4 Focus on Academia\Generational issue 19
3. Why Can’t You Just Do It? 22
3.1 Multiplicity of Choices 23
3.1.1 Falling Behind 23
3.1.2 Generational Factors 26
3.1.3 The Paradox of Choice 29
3.2 Incommunicability 31
3.2.1 Loneliness and Misunderstanding 31
3.2.2 Taboo and Shame 34
3.2.3 Academic Environment 37
3.3 Procrastination 39
3.3.1 Empirical Definition 39
4. Netnography 45
4.1 UvA’s Responsibility 49
5. Conclusion 55
In this anthropological study I look at the experiences of mental distress, specifically anxiety and depression, lived by university’s students. I am interested in everything that does not belong to the private sphere1, such as family history, but plays a role in the creation and perception of mental disorders. I refer to social dynamics, informal discourses or social requirements, which, products of the historical moment in which these manifest themselves, can be considered in imagining a different and parallel etiology to the one strictly adopted by the psychological and psychiatric disciplines, which historically and institutionally deal with mental distress. I observe how these dynamics develop inside the academic environment, which is my field of interest, because the academic one is an environment with which I am wellacquainted and in which, over the years, I have myself felt the anxious undercurrent that characterizes it. Furthermore, I look at how the existence of a taboo around mental health influences the self-perception and the practices of students who deal with anxiety. The research question that, at the end of designing this research, I decided was going to guide my process is:
Which are the social dynamics and discourses that participate in creating anxious and depressive behaviors among young students, and how are these experienced?
The process that this research question went through, has to do with how I originally imagined this research, as I will explain in the Methodology section.
The thesis consists of three chapters. The first one is dedicated to the theoretical debates that I considered relevant in the development of my research question. The second one is an empirical chapter where I discuss the outcome of the interviews, following the topics that emerged as being the most relevant to the participants in the conceptualization and the lived experience of mental distress. The third chapter is dedicated to a netnography of a digital space that I found of particular interest for its function. I will look at how an anonymous Instagram page, originally dedicated to gossip, served for some students as a platform to share their experiences regarding depression and anxiety and how were these received by the other users.
1 Here I intend to investigate the systemic reasons for a phenomenon from the point of view of social
The impossibility that our generation, made of people who are now between 18 and 30 years old, face to have a clear idea of how and when they are going to fit in the labor market, the idea of self-realization and merit, the constant comparison with others made possible by the big amount of information that we have, the feeling that every choice is definitive and there’s no time to change one’s own mind, and at the same time the plethora of possibilities among which choose: these are just some of the thoughts and discourses that have surrounded me and my co-aged, and the psychological background to any choice. Sometimes these ordinary fears that characterize youth, turn into paralyzing thoughts that could result in panic attacks episodes or depressive behaviors. Even though, thankfully, there has been an increasing normalization of psychotherapy, I feel, from my own experience and of the people I know, that the discipline is still very much focused on the individualization of mental diseases, looking for child traumas or family history. While this is of course part of the problem, there is also another part, composed by the social dynamics that influence all of us, in very different ways of course. As Mark Fisher puts it “The pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.” (2009: 85). I would like to know if some forms of (light) mental diseases can be better understood and fought through an anthropological and impersonal framework, as any mental and emotional state develops into a cultural environment. Acknowledging the collective and shared aspects of mental anguish, alongside filling a theoretical gap that exists in the medical and psychiatric approach, as I will later point out, can be a precious instrument to soothe the feeling of guilt and loneliness that often belong to anxious and depressive behaviors.
It is true that all the things that trigger anxiety are generally accepted and embedded in the way academia works worldwide, such as deadlines (which constitute a big emotional obstacle for those who have the tendency to procrastinate, such as anxious people or depressed), and that the obstacle that anxious and depressed people experience as insurmountable, are part of the routine of every student. But exactly for this reason having the perspective of those who did not manage to internalize and adapt to these processes, it is useful to critically place them in an analysis of wider tendencies of the late-capitalistic academic world.
1.1 Entry in the Field
This section will contain a reflection on the difficulties I encountered in accessing the field, having as only possibility to look for practical support from the academic environment, meaning study advisors and student psychologists, in order to forward my call and collect participants for my research. These difficulties concern suspicion and concerns about my qualification to address such a delicate topic, even though I always made clear that my intent was to discuss the social dynamics involved in the creation of anxiety, and not to provide psychological support. The entry “in the field” was more complicated and fluctuating than I imagined beforehand. Surely the fact that a “field” in the traditional sense did not exist because of the pandemic, messed up the whole idea of being “in”. But apart from that, which is a common feature of doing ethnography during a pandemic, I encountered some resistance regarding the topic of my research. If I’d had a physical space, such as the university campus, I would have recruited participants by simply engaging in a conversation or hanging fliers, in an informal way. But since such space was not available, I had to rely on more institutional ways to reach out to participants. I initially recruited the participants through a couple of Facebook groups that gather Uva’s students. A few students contacted me via Facebook, but I immediately noticed that interaction via Facebook’s groups is very dispersive, first of all because these groups comprehend only a small portion of all the Uva students, but also because what is posted via Facebook is likely to appear on one’s homepage for a short period of time or not appear at all, it is a very volatile piece of information. Therefore I had to go through more official ways of reaching students, and I decided to contact the study advisors of several faculties, since they have the whole list of students and respective email addresses, to forward my call to their students. Mental health being the topic of my research, which of course is a sensitive one, many gatekeepers were skeptical about my skills to handle such a topic. This being a research that is conducted in an academic environment, the people who could prodive me access to the field were academics with different backgrounds, and some of them raised doubts about my methodology, which made me question myself and instilled self-doubt. They did not doubt the relevance of the research in itself, but they wandered what I could add with a non-psychological background, to the discourse on mental health. These doubts were expressed by a couple of study advisors, who affirmed that I should have had specific training on the matter before talking to students. On the contrary, some of them were very supportive, especially those with an anthropological background, and really helped me
validating the point of view of Anthropology as a valid one to develop the knowledge on mental distress.
The Covid-19’s Pandemic Impact
This whole research was conducted during the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. This has been a major hindrance to conducting the research. First of all, I had started this Master with a completely different research project, which I had to change following the restrictions that the pandemic situation required. Once I set on this topic, there were still several impediments that would prevent me from doing fieldwork the way I had always imagined I would have done it.
I had returned form the Netherlands to Italy, my country of origin, and the chaos that marked the management of the restrictions, and the general sense of insecurity curbed me from returning to Amsterdam to conduct my fieldwork. However, as the university was mainly closed, I would have had no fieldwork anyway. Therefore, everything in this thesis is the result of online work. This was a condition far from ideal, as it affected both the kind of information that I would collect, meaning that I mainly relied on verbal information, and the whole idea of “being in the field”.
Qualitative Interviews - The aim of the interviews was to grasp the lived experience of students who deal with anxiety and depression. There were no specific requirements to participate, the only one was to be enrolled as a student at the UvA and dealing with anxious and\or depressive concerns. The interviews happened through Zoom during the months of February and March 2021 and were semi structured. I had a list of topics that I wanted everyone to talk about, but most of the time I was just following the hints that the interviewees were giving me. An interview lasted between one hour and an hour and a half. I believe this is the maximum amount of time one can be fully concentrated in front of a computer without taking breaks. In the interview I focused on the ideas on the origin or the determinant factors of such mental states. My main aim was to understand the relationship of students who suffer from anxiety\depressive behaviors with the modalities, times and discourses that are inherent to the academic environment . I also wanted to understand how my participants place themselves and their mental issues within the broader context of being
The informants were twenty students from different faculties, of different ages and situated at different stages of education. Many students were from the Anthropology bachelor programme, some from Sociology, some from Engineering and a couple from Communication and Media. I mainly interviewed women, mainly Europeans (which can barely be considered as a homogeneous, unitary category of people, if it weren’t for the fact that non-Europeans are enrolled at the UvA under different economic and bureaucratic circumstances). Nevertheless, some informants were also non-european students and some were male. Even though there was a heterogeneity regarding both gender and ethnic background of the students, these categories were barely mentioned during the interviews. I did not ask specific questions about these, but, being my questions open-ended, if these would have been brought up by someone, I would have surely steered the conversation in order to better grasp their relevance. Being a student in tertiary education comes with, alongside a certain privilege, the pressure of productivity, time and performance. I think that is useful, for the purpose of the research, to consider as the most relevant analytical category the concept of generation, intended as “[…] a human togetherness that shares a temporally defined technological, cognitive and imaginary formative environment.” (Berardi 2009: 12).
At the same time, I don’t want to neglect the concept of intersectionality, which proved to be an important paradigm of research to look at almost every human condition according to which every life experience comes with difficulties that are situated at the intersection of many identity categories, such as ethnicity, class and gender (McCall 2005), pointing out the limitations of using one single analytical category. Even though this concept has proven to be very effective in describing the standing point from which we cognitively and socially live our experiences, in the preliminary phases of the research I thought that it would have narrowed my field too much and I wanted my categories to be as inclusive as possible.
I feel like underlining one of the downsides of doing remote fieldwork that I found particularly relevant during the interviews: the quasi-total lack of non-verbal information. All the interviews were done with the camera on, so I could see the faces of the people I was talking to, and they could see mine, so I did not miss out on everything regarding facial expression and gestures. However, talking through a screen inevitably enhances the distance between the researcher and the interviewee, and in dealing with such a delicate topic I felt it was overall detrimental.
Observations – Alongside the interviews, I kept a watchful eye on an Instagram profile for UvA students that I discovered accidentally and soon proved to be an interesting and peculiar
source of information. Originally dedicated to gossip alone, later turned into a container of externalization of mental health issues (anonymously). Among the various “confessions”
related to the love life of fresh university students, several comments sharing anxiety or depression, unrelated and unaligned with the page intent, were being posted increasingly.
This was useful in seeing in which unexpected ways people are comfortable with sharing and finding support. The page has now been cancelled, therefore I cannot provide a link to it.
Participatory Action Research - In my research proposal I had structured this as a Participatory Action Research, and I was motivated to create peer-support-groups among students, to share and come up with resources and analytical tools for a better understanding and possibly overcoming anxiety and depression. The research question that supported this idea was: “Can mutual-aid groups, with the aim of ‘politicizing’ anxiety and depressive behaviors, work as a support for students?”. These groups would have had two functions.
Firstly, seeking an externalization of the causes of distress, an academic research-oriented approach towards the socio-anthropological-economic dynamics that trigger feelings of anxiety and their related dysfunctionalities. I imagined these moments as interactive
“lessons”, maybe based on lectures or readings coming from the various disciplines that could have a say on the matter. Secondly, these groups would have been safe spaces where the sharing of personal experiences is accompanied by trust and active listening, maybe led by a psychologist used to collective analysis methods.
In practice, this was more difficult than I thought it would be. I have come up with two reasons why this did not work out. Firstly, I think that, as much as the digital environment can be a reasonable substitute for some things, it is very complicated when it comes to sensitive issues building the reciprocal trust that is the basis for sharing personal experiences.
This is true especially when there are more than two people participating in the conversation.
Moreover, now that a lot of our professional existence revolves around a computer screen, people are less keen on spending more time than necessary for productive tasks in front of a computer. These are two circumstantial reasons. I definitely have to add to these two, that I was not prepared enough to lead group discussions, and the timing and resources from the UvA could not provide any support. As much as I believed I should not have had that role, wanting the groups to be without a lead, the participants were expecting that leading role that I naively thought I could avoid. For this reason, I soon realized that the group dynamic was
not really working and that one-to-one interviews were a better choice given the circumstances.
1.4 Personal Considerations
I think that the main difficulty of this research, apart from the one mentioned above, has been my personal involvement in the topic of my research; a lack of distance from the field and from the object of my observations. I should have thought more thoroughly about the pros and cons of being so sensitive on such delicate matters. Being a person who suffers from panic attacks and everything that comes along with it, and being a student in the university also, I could easily have been on the position of the interviewee instead on the one of the interviewer. Yet this surely also was of crucial help in establishing a good sympathetic contact with the participants. They were talking to someone who understands physically what they are referring to and it made me capable of really grasping something that someone else could not. At the same time, my fear is that I brought too much of myself in there, projecting things onto others and not being able to distinguish what is mine and what is not. This generally added stress to an already stressful situation. But I also imagine that the exact reason why I decided to research this, is that I felt the need to make this a topic, for everyone who felt alone in dealing with it.
2. Theoretical Framework
Here I will outline how the relations between transformations in capitalism, acceleration of the information flux and the individualization of distress, concur in creating desires, expectations and fears that constitute a fertile ground for an anxious and depressive mental atmosphere.
2.1 The Neoliberal Self
Even though the concept of neoliberalism was first and foremost coined to describe an economic model, it is now widespread way beyond the economic sphere, and it has become hegemonic not only in articulating the market dynamics, but also in shaping the socio-cultural environment, with a pervasive effect in framing meanings and desires.
Neoliberalism can be defined in the first instance as “A theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade”(Harvey 2005:2). However, hegemonic and widespread way beyond the economic sphere, the multifaceted concept of neoliberalism can be analyzed in relation to its capacity to shape the idea of the “self”, in its cultural form.
Part of this process involves applying the economic grid to social phenomena (Foucault 2004/2008), designing the conduct of the self towards consistency and competition, incorporating every experience as an asset, following a market rationality. As Jim McGuigan (2014:223) understands the expression, the neoliberal self can be framed as “the preferred form of life in the economic, political and cultural circumstances of present-day developed and developing capitalism”. In the post-Fordist way of organizing labor (that has influence even before entering the labor market, as these patterns are also identifiable in the academic environment, or at least form part of an imaginary to which we are subjected), the alienation from work gives way to the identification with work. “The enterprise schema involves acting so that the individual, to use the classical and fashionable terminology of their time, is not alienated from his work environment, from the time of his life, from his household, his family, and from the natural environment.” (Foucault 2004/2008: 242).
During the industrial phase of capitalism, the labor largely consisted of manually repeated
from their work/jobs, as Marx theorized. In the post-industrial phase of capitalism, or the neoliberal phase, where the implemented mode of production is mainly immaterial and non- physical, the relation of production, previously based on exploitative dynamics between the capitalist and the workers, has faded into a more subtle form of exploitation, transforming workers in entrepreneurs. In the second book of “the capital”, Marx distinguishes between time of labor and time of production, where the first is just a portion of the more ductile and pervasive second one, and the second one being a time dedicated to learning. This time of production is inevitably carried out outside the circumscribed time of proper work, it is a surplus unraveled into every form of socialization which adds value to the work completed in the place of production (time of labor). To be really productive and well integrated in the market, the skills and the knowledge requested are simultaneously way more specific and widespread than the ones that can be acquired on the place of production. (Virno 2013) These skills include aesthetic tastes, ethic positions, a good knowledge of social networks (both the virtual and the tangible ones), languages. All these things contribute to the profile of a professionally able worker. The concept of professionality in itself is descriptive of this mechanism: it is not attributable to any profession, and yet is required in any profession, and it is exactly the “experience of world’s dynamics”. In this context characterized by the widening of the time of production, every aspect of human life can be put at the service of productive dynamics.
All these shifts can be summarized by defining this new historical phase as Cognitive Capitalism. It has to be specified that the definition of cognitive labor does not only refer to an élite of intellectuals, but rather it is a broader term that explains the involvement of the human intellect in general, and not of a specific set of knowledge, into the means of production. It must not be intended as specialization, but instead it comprehends a series of general aptitudes, memory, empathy, learning, that characterize the human intellect. As David Hill (2015:12) defined it: “Cognitive labour marks a shift in productivity from the body to the soul of the worker, expropriating mental energies as well as putting to work the subjectivity of the worker. It is argued that this is not confined to creative or knowledge work but is instead identifiable in all labour that is communicational, relational or affective”. Even though these capacities fall outside from the economic categories, they constitute the core of the surplus value during this phase of capitalism defined as cognitive. Productivity is not confined to the “work hours”, since one does not stop thinking about those hours: “you are
what you do”, and “ what you do” means how you are employable, and that every activity can be considered productive and a carrier of market value.
In the era of cognitive labor, the source of value is with difficulty detached from the individual, exactly because of the identification between time of production and time of life.
Since production is permeating and embraces every aspect of life, thus inevitably life acquires aspects that pertain to the work environment, such as careerism and competition:
“This kind of self is a neoliberal self, figuring a competitive individual who is exceptionally self-reliant and rather indifferent to the fact that his or her predicament is shared with others – and, therefore, incapable of organizing as a group to do anything about it.” (Mc Guigan 2014:236). This identification of the self with labour and its competitive features, has as consequence that social validation occurs through the paradigm of success, since the value of the single person is difficult to detach from its performance at work, “[...]the I is now subjugating itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization.”(Han 2017: 1).
In this way, in the name of achievement and personal success, the laborers auto-exploits themselves, since thinking is not confined to traditional work-hours. According to Han (2017), cognitive capitalism marks the transition from an allo-exploitative one, based on the disciplinarian Should, into an auto-exploitative one, based on freedom, on Can. The emphasis on the possibilities of auto-realization put the accent on self-production, which is a virtually unlimited enterprise, ultimately making everyone an “auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise.”(ibid.: 4) . This auto-exploitation is possible since everyone owns the means of production, namely their cognitive capacities, being production immaterial. This blurred line between exploited and exploiters, and the accent put on personal capacities and willpower, creates the illusion of freedom. Free market, free competition, despite giving the idea of infinite and deregulated possibilities , are in fact efficient systems for exploiting freedom, with the complicity of the exploited, while the only thing that really remains free is capital. Power relations are interiorized so that exploitation, submission and freedom are all hazed by the much more efficient concept of self-optimization, that perfectly suits the neoliberal system. “These ways of regulating and dominating the workforce are founded on initiative more than on mechanical obedience. A sense of responsibility, the ability to evolve and to create projects, motivation, flexibility: these qualities delineate a new managerial liturgy” (Ehrenberg 1998: 199). Consequently, the responsibility of success or failure, weighs
entirely on the individual. Those who “fail”, did so as a consequence of an incapability to take advantage (or exploit) their freedom, their possibilities.
As this paragraph explains, some features of contemporary subjectivities are shaped by the neoliberal context in which they are immersed and developed. What is crucial to retain from this paragraph, is the importance that this economic phase that was defined as Cognitive Capitalism puts on individuality, trespassing the limits of labor time and incorporating every aspect of life into the productivity paradigm towards the idea of success. All this is conveyed through the idea of freedom, thus virtually clouding all those obstacles to self-realization other than willpower. Even though this paragraph concentrated only on the labour market, the students, which are my research focus, are perfectly embedded in this discourse, since the time spent learning, is in fact part of the time of production which has enlarged under Cognitive Capitalism. As Rosalind Gill concludes in her essay “Academia represents an excellent example of the neoliberalization of the workplace and academics are, in many ways, model neoliberal subjects, with their endless self-monitoring, flexibility, creativity and internalization of new forms of auditing and calculating.”(2016: 52). How Academia, and therefore students, fits into the argument developed so far, will be analyzed further on in this chapter.
2.2 Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism
As the cognitive and emotional sphere are involved in the modes of production, they are as well influenced by it. Since every aspect of life is subject to the imperative of productivity, and cognitive capacities are essential productive resources, the mind is subject to constant attention and consequently to pressure and overwhelming stress. The central source of production is not the body anymore; productivity largely relies on mental processes, the main productive force is the psyche (Han 2017). This subsumption of the mind in the process of creating value, implies a construction of meanings in a semiotic system that shapes the social psyche (Berardi 2009). Cultural theorist and philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his book aptly titled The Burnout Society deals with the debilitating effects on the collective psyche exerted by the mantra of productivity and performance at all costs. Indeed, according to his analysis, modern society’s paradigm does not assume a disciplinary dimension (here intended in relation to written laws); its focus is rather on the concept of free self-realization. Han posits that the absence of clear external imperatives make it possible for “freedom and constriction
to coincide”. This sort of paradigm shift makes it possible for western capitalism to be even more efficient as production and productivity are ramped up albeit in exchange for widespread mental distress . Han writes on this: “[...]the achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom—that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. [...] Such self-referentiality produces a paradoxical freedom that abruptly switches over into violence because of the compulsive structures dwelling within it. The psychic indispositions of achievement society [like burnout] are pathological manifestations of such a paradoxical freedom.” (Han 2017: 86).
The imperative to succeed forces us to achieve more and more performances, so that the reassuring stage of gratification never seems reached. The achievement subject lives in a constant feeling of missing out and dissatisfaction: since, in the end, they are the competitor of themselves, they try to outrun themselves until they collapse. The neoliberal imperative to expand and reinvent, to be flexible and open to everything, provides the individual with a plethora of possible identities, the only difference between these possibilities lies in the subject’s willingness to become one of them. The motto “Just do it” is paramount in understanding the psychopathologies emerging from Cognitive capitalism, which banks on freedom (Berardi 2010). This system of self-exploitation disguised as self-realization, typical of the achievement society, can be pushed to the limit of mental collapse, called burnout, which often gives rise to depressive episodes (Han 2017).
Alongside the embodiment of the neoliberal paradigm of competition and achievement into our minds, another factor that is crucial for its influence in impacting the psycho-sphere, is the constant and enormous amount of information to which we have access, thanks to the employment of digital technologies on a massive scale (Berardi 2008). Market dynamics create meanings and desires following the paradigm of economic competition, inside a constant acceleration of information. Combined together, the diktat of competition and achievement with the ever growing and ever present mass of information, necessitate a permanent and widespread attention to be able to navigate the social world of labour. Franco Berardi provides us with a useful concept to define this interaction: the info-sphere: “The info-sphere is the interface between the media system and the mind that receives the signals, the mental ecosphere, that immaterial sphere in which semiotic fluxes interact with the reception antennae of the minds scattered on the planet”(2009: 39). It is where the mind- shaping happens. Of course this is not to be intended as a one-way flux, on the contrary,
minds participate in the continuous evolution of the media-scape. The problematic crux of this interaction between the info-sphere and the psycho-sphere, defined as the “Field where the recording and the psychical elaboration of the info-stimuli occurs” (Berardi 2009:148) , lies in the different functional paradigms of the two. The info-sphere evolves at a much faster speed than the psycho-sphere, being the last one based on the organic matter of the human brain. It is impossible for our minds to consciously handle the huge amount of information available and spread through the media (intended in its broadest sense of medium). At the same time, being able to process this flux of information seems crucial to be efficient and competitive since “Under the immaterial mode of production that now prevails, more information and more communication mean more productivity, acceleration and growth”
(Han 201: 9). This discrepancy requires a high level of attention that is never satisfactory.
The result is the constant feeling of missing out on something important in order to be efficient and successful and not knowing where to find it: more information, less meaning.
Too many signs require our attention and interpretation, but grasping meaning by trying to hold everything together is draining. As Deleuze and Guattari write: “Nothing is more distressing than a thought that escapes itself, than ideas that fly off, that disappear hardly formed, already eroded by forgetfulness or precipitated into others that we no longer master.
These are infinite variabilities, the appearing and disappearing of which coincide.” (1996:
201). The feeling of needing to be connected with everything simultaneously and the physical impossibility to do so, drain psychic energies and result in an overwhelming panic-state that can take the form of anxiety or depression (Berardi 2013). Even though these two pathologies are formally distinguished and treated differently, as the cause of anxiety can be found in an overload of stimuli, while the one of depression in disinvestment, there is a strong link of causality between the two, with a comorbidity rate around the 75%, especially in young subjects (Demyttenaere K, Heirman E, 2012), and “If we want to explain the epidemic explosion of violence at the dawn of our new millennium we have to recognize their connection. A frustrated hyper-excitement leads to a disinvestment of libidinal energy that we call depression.” (Berardi 2009:116). This is clear if we consider the cognitive model of depression that tends to personalize and self-criticize, up to the point where “I’m a failure”
appears as the only possible reaction (Beck, 2008). On this matter, Han also postulates that
“The complaint of the depressive individual, ‘Nothing is possible’ can only occur in a society that thinks, ‘Nothing is impossible’.” (Han 2015:11). Such a slogan is evident when the dogma of competition, here meant not only as between individuals but first and foremost as
the tendency to outdo oneself, is ever-present and absolute. The consequence is an exhausting depression. It would be reductive to relegate anxiety and depression as only side effects of the neoliberal approach, in fact they are the obvious consequence of a forced competitive individualism that has been internalized and naturalized according to the rationale of neoliberalism (Fisher 2009).
All the changes I have highlighted in these first two paragraphs are economic and technological changes, affecting the world of work and the relationship with information. But as they have been analyzed in their ability to create meanings and expectations, they can be considered the cultural background in trying to bring a less clinical perspective to the understanding of mental anguish. The next section will focus on how cultural background is considered in the mainstream clinical approach.
2.3 Individualization of Mental health
Alongside the reasons that can be identified as participants in creating mental distress, it has to be considered what is the discourse around this same mental distress made of, and what is the experience of it. Even though, as I have argued, there is a strong link between the socio- cultural context and mental distress, the tendency has been one of individualization of the latter (Fisher 2009). The distresses expressed through anxiety and depression are not experienced nor treated as a collective issue, on the contrary, they are considered as a private problem. From psychotherapy and psychiatry, there is still the tendency to look at mental health as a very private matter in its substance and origin, therefore focusing mainly on childhood and familiar dynamics in the therapeutic analysis (Fisher 2009). Thanks to the privatization of stress, as Mark Fisher defined this process, competitive individualism and cognitive overload are ignored as the possible cause of distress. The influence that society has on minds is omitted, and instead, a great emphasis is put on domestic relations, private issues or on the will power of the single individual, through self-help practices and behavioral therapy (Smail 2009). The focus on the individual roots of suffering, puts the weight only on the individual, as well as the solution, creating a wicked belief according to which we are the masters of our own destiny, which the radical therapist David Smail calls magical voluntarism: “with the expert help of your therapist or counselor, you can change the world you are in the last analysis responsible for, so that it no longer causes you distress” (Smail 2009:7 emphasis in the original).
The propagation of this psychic entrepreneurialism is perfectly fitting with the logics that successfully sustain the neoliberal ideology, assuring that the limitations to our wellbeing, and therefore our productive potential, depend entirely on us, as accordingly does the possibility to succeed, “It creates outsiders or losers who do not hold out in the rat race, enforced out of work and have problems with self-respect and self-esteem.” (Kolstad 2018:31). Both mainstream psychotherapy and mainstream psychiatry, with their biomedical discourse, fill the void of discontent by providing explanation through diagnoses that in the end are self-referential, based on something perceived as immutable as genes or brain structure, defining difficulties as sickness and maintaining the atomization of distress (Kolstad 2018).
A cultural and social understanding of people, and thus of their psychology, emphasizes that joys and problems are sociocultural conditional or mediated and cannot be teared off from but must be understood in a cultural context (Kolstad 2018). There have been attempts from psychotherapy to consider the cultural context of mental states, as we can see from the evolution of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of mental disorders, which is the reference book for psychological diagnosis across the world. In its latest version the DSM-5, following a series of debates on the ethnocentricity of the fourth edition, tried to include a more dynamic concept of culture, following “Current anthropological views” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) in the attempt to not assume a definition of culture as a mere bounded ethnic group (Bredström 2019). The reviewed conceptualization of culture, or the Cultural Formulation, as it is called, takes place in a dedicated section of the new manual, namely “Emerging Measures and Models” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This new definition deals with concepts indubitably familiar to the anthropological approach, such as “language, religion and spirituality, family structures, life-cycle stages, ceremonial rituals, and customs, as well as moral and legal systems.” (American Psychiatric Association 2013:
749) and it further specifies that “Cultures are open, dynamic systems that undergo continuous change over time” (ibid.)
However there is an asymmetry between this conception elaborated in an assigned digression, and the Section II of the Manual - “Diagnostic Criteria and Codes”, where the criteria of all disorders can be found. When it comes to specific disorders, it is not elaborated how culture can affect the diagnostic procedures and, besides few exceptions, the concept of culture still recalls the definition of practices that pertain to an ethnocultural group, usually “other”
cultures: “Despite the attempts, the core problem remains – that is, the DSM-disorders themselves are not subjected to the cultural critique and cultural aspects are still presented as relevant only for “other” cultures.” (Bredström 2019:357). Besides the critique of being ethnocentric, which still holds, the main issue regarding this attempt to culturally ground mental distress, is that it relies on a symptoms-descriptive approach, without investigating the socio-cultural causes of it, but only its cultural symptoms. The etiology of disorders is never investigated as arising from a socio-cultural context. The result of these mixed messages presented in the DSM-5, is a worldwide spread reference text that acknowledges that every disorder is culturally constructed, but fails to identify its cultural origin, and only presents some symptoms as contextualized. And similarly, it defines culture as dynamic and nevertheless it treats it as static in the diagnostic approach, identifying “other” cultures as having culturally-specific symptoms, neglecting to be auto-reflexive. Being auto-reflexive would mean to consider that also Cognitive Capitalism in its capacities to collectively shape the psychos-sphere, can be looked at as a cultural background.
Diagnoses and psychotherapeutic approaches play an important role in defining how mental states are understood and lived (Bredström 2019), thus acknowledging the social roots of mental distress, could draw attention to the shared aspect of mental anguish, instead of just focusing on individual manifestation. The DSM-5 and its controversies can be taken as an example of production of knowledge coming from the Psychological discipline, capable as such of influencing both social perception and individual experience. The limits here underlined however are not to be understood as a critique to the whole discipline, but matter in pointing out what is missing, and what could be of support towards a more comprehensive understanding of mental distress. Personal history, individual issues, and personal manifestation of anguish, which have been the center of psychological and psychiatric knowledge, are as important as the cultural and social aspects, and what would be desirable is an integrated and interdisciplinary approach.
The individualization of mental distress, and the resulting creation of a taboo, result in an enhanced feeling of loneliness and in the impossibility to create a collective discourse that targets the social origin of it. “This individualizing discourse devours us like a flesh-eating bacterium, producing its own toxic waste – shame: I’m a fraud, I’m useless, I’m nothing”
(Gill,R. 2016: 15). The fragility of the psycho-sphere never reaches a public discourse and remains an atomized issue, losing its political potency.
2.4 Focus on Academia\Generational issue
I will use the framework outlined so far as a lens to approach the fieldwork. I chose to concentrate my attention on students and the academic environment, which is included in, but is not an exhaustive example of, what was previously defined as cognitive labor. However, the cognitive aspect is particularly embittered, being an institution that by nature has to do with intellectual matters and intellectual creativity. Academia is the launching pad for the labor market, therefore it is an essential component of the time of production and a prominent example of the aforementioned enlargement of such time.
Universities were not exempted from the same neoliberal processes I have described so far, and underwent managerial reforms that increased the focus on individual performativity and output (Waring 2013). Both staff and students live under the pressure of performing well, of increasing the amount of “experiences”, and as Bal et al. say in their essay about the neoliberalization of Dutch university: “The neoliberal ideal of free and responsible individuals creates a competitive environment without regard for circumstantial or structural differences between students” (2013: 62). Here again, the idea that “everyone can excel”, permeates many steps of the educational path, to find its peak in entering higher education institutions. The competition surely revolves around grades and academic performance, as it is understandable being a meritocratic institution. In addition to that, consistently with the idea of neoliberal self-management, there exists the pressure to engage in extracurricular activities for the purpose of gaining “experience” and “skills” : “the term ‘experience’ can present and justify specific notions about higher education to interlocutors oriented to think of education in terms of return on investment, highlighting elements of education that can be segmented and (up to a point) assessed under regimes of audit”(Urcioli 2018: 4).
“Experience” is perceived as a moral improvement, is part of the self-optimization process, and is a judgment on the person itself whose value can be acquired, possessed and numbered through the “experiences'', with the ultimate goal of excellence (Bal et al. 2014). From the very beginning, the process of selection that precedes the admission into the university, especially for master students, insists on the concept of excellence, valued through the lens of experience. Notwithstanding the similarities that the corporate and the academic discourse have in common, students and workers are neoliberally imagined with some differences.
Mainly, the separation consists in the fact that students are not in the labor market yet. Even if both are evaluated and perceive themselves as “skills bundles” (Urcioli 2018), the
presentation of students’ skills and experience is a performance of subjectivity to be assessed, rather than an estimation of the practical skills. While for the workers the skills acquired reenter in the cycle of production, thus in the time of labor, and are related to a specific job, students are still students, and skills are part of a larger process regarding the time of production, but not yet employable, they are basically résumé items (Urcioli 2018: 5).
Another reason why the academic environment is relevant, is that it allows to develop a discourse that can be framed as a generational one, as regarding young people. Generation can be a vague term, but with this concept I refer to humans who share a cognitive sphere, an imaginary environment and a temporally defined technological status (Berardi 2009). The psychopathologies of cognitive capitalism, as were described so far, do not concern only young people. However, the condition of being young in this historical moment exacerbates the pressure and makes them more vulnerable to the aforementioned distress in the form of anxiety and depression. One reason for this, is that the minds of those that now are young, are the firsts to be born and developed inside this phase of massive information flows, cognitive capitalism and technological advancement: “At this point we no longer identify the concept of generations with simply a biological phenomenon, but rather a technological and cognitive phenomenon, the trans-subjective self-constitution of a common horizon of conscious and experiential possibility.” (Berardi 2009: 15). Moreover, youth is usually the moment in life where such psychopathologies are more present, with an incidence three times superior among 18 and 29 years old then in any other age range (Castonguay, L. G., Oltmanns, T. F., Sica, C. 2016) and this must be related to a moment in life when the main question is “Who am I?”. This exact question, and its possible answers, right now is influenced by and constructed through the neoliberal paradigm, as are the related psychopathologies.
If one wants to understand the complexity behind the anxiety and depression afflicting young students, one must approach the neoliberal framework in its cultural manifestation: “Patterns of ideas and their material manifestations in institutions and practices” (Adams et al, 2019:
191). Specifically, in the next chapter, it will emerge how all the concepts of competition and freedom and self-actualization, stemming from the neoliberal management logic of the individual, impact the lives of young students by intertwining with the dynamics of the academic institution.
3. Why Can’t You Just Do It?
In this chapter I’ll discuss the outcome of the interviews, articulating the discourse around the crucial issues that emerged from the conversations I had. I will articulate the discourse around three main points, following the prevalence with which these have emerged from the interviews. It seems that the first diriment factor that contributes to the creation of anxiety is the multiplicity of possibilities concerning potential life’s paths and ways of professional self- realization. This is partly a true perception, due to the increased fluidity in the labor market, and partly a toxic residual narrative that pairs with the neoliberal “you can be whoever you want” discourse. This is certainly enhanced by the plethora of comparisons that can be made thanks to social media. Here certainly comes into play also the generational component.
Another aspect that transpired as crucial from the interviews is a direct consequence of an anxious or depressive attitude that impacts the day to day life of students and their expected productivity: procrastination. It has been described throughout the interviews as a state of impossibility to function in a given moment due to anxious thoughts, that triggers a vicious circle that in the end exacerbates anxiety by not doing what has to be done, which is again postponed and so on.
To be added to these two, the feelings and difficulties that derive from the taboos that surround matters of mental health are surely the third concern that I’ll delve into. Even though it is true, and recognized by the people experiencing it, that the discourses around mental health are taking increasingly more space inside the academia, especially following the massive shock caused by the pandemic, it seems that it is not addressed in the proper way.
Generally, the experience of anxiety or depression is accompanied by a great sense of loneliness and incomprehension.
My intention during this fieldwork was not to work toward a representative sample, rather I wanted to bring up a specific issue that certainly affects a portion of the students. I do not know in general terms how many students would feel represented by these testimonies, and in seeking participants, although my intention was to reach out to as many as possible, it was not possible to reach out to every department of the University. I cannot therefore affirm that this is a commonly held perspective among students, partly because of the silence surrounding these experiences. However, I believe that in different intensities, those
than I have been able to talk to recognize as familiar the external pressures to constancy, timing and steady growth. I decided to not use any personal information of the people I’ve spoken to, for reason of anonymity. As I stated in the introduction, the analytical category I am considering the most here, is the one of generation. If other information of the speaker was relevant, such as the precise age, the gender, or the stage of education, I would have mentioned it.
3.1 Multiplicity of Choices
“I can do anything I want to, you know, which is great on one side, but very scary.”
Notwithstanding an observed homogeneity of opinions in respect to the influence that the multiplicity of possible choices to be made about one’s future have on anxiety, the topic is addressed with different implications. Every discourse about this particular feature of anxiety was articulated around different dimensions: the generational aspect, the question of comparison and performance, and punctuality with respect to one’s life path. The first was often expressed through a comparison with the previous generation, the parents, who lived in a less globalized world in terms of possibilities. Concerning the issue of comparison and performance, social media were attributed an important role by constantly suggesting models of life that seem perfect. The concept of choice, is perfectly integrated into the self- exploitative idea of freedom that distinguishes the neoliberal individual, and the weight given to choices is a direct consequence of the purely individual responsibility for success or failure (Han 2017; Adams et al. 2019). It has to be said that all these considerations were often followed by an appreciation of the fact of being able to have choices, acknowledging the privilege entailed.
3.1.1 Falling Behind
One of the traits that emerged most clearly from the participants' speeches had to do with the idea of falling behind and the psychic manifestations that this entails. In general, one of the themes that recurs most persistently in the interviews is precisely that of delay, a procedural delay that is measured solely on a defined timetable defined and judged by society.
“I think there's this whole expectation ‘you have to do this by this age’,
‘you have to do your Master's in two years’, and I'm like ‘I can't do it’, stuff like that. I feel like a lot of these things… it’s not that anybody is coming specifically to me and saying it , but I feel it's just what it is.”
The underlying idea (and related concerns) is clearly expressed by this sentence: it seems that there must necessarily be a one-to-one relationship between anagraphic milestones and publicly observable goals. This fact is subjectively experienced as an expectation that other flesh-and-blood people have of us, and at the same time one feels unable to say for sure whether there is actually someone who is the bearer of these expectations. In other words, a disorienting factor consists precisely in the feeling of dealing with expectations that are shared but not expressed by anyone in particular. Perhaps this is a mechanism that involves all episodes of introjection of social dictates, at once widespread but never localizable, paradoxically in the heads of everyone and no one.
In any case, a cross-cutting result of my interviews concerns an alteration in subjective temporality, that is, in the way subjects experience the time of their lives, independent of the time marked by clocks. The widespread feeling is that of not being able to keep up with the appointments set by the social standard. Delays in college careers almost take on a moral connotation, cloaking themselves in an aura of failure and disappointment. Of course, this time distortion is accompanied by an enormous amount of pressure and insecurity. All ingredients present in the words of the interviewees. Here is one example:
“I didn’t realize how I subconsciously had a lot of pressure, and I feel like in the last year when I wrote my BA thesis I kind of crumbled a bit. I had a bit of... study delays, half a year longer than scheduled, and that kind of brought me in a phase of anxiety and panic attacks, because I felt I lost track. I was always very good at catching up, and I suddenly fell off the mainstream and I felt like I was imperfect, you know? I felt like I needed to be on track and I wasn't and that made me really insecure, self-conscious, you know, and it's still influencing how I think about university right now.”
This mechanism triggers feedback loops in which noticing a slight, initially negligible, delay on the schedule causes anxiety and apprehension, which, in turn, contribute to the conditions for paralysis to occur and an increase in academic delay.
“I had to take an extra year to finish my Bachelor. Not a semester, a year!
Because I had such bad anxiety about writing, feeling that I did not belong there.”
It is important to note that, as this excerpt shows, falling behind first and foremost causes a sense of not-belonging in respect to the university institution. In addition, the sense of isolation and institutional alienation also affects the sense of belonging vis-à-vis student communities.
The way this kind of malaise is expressed is actually very simple: it is in fact expressed in the form of a judgment brought upon oneself. The judgment is often retrospective, relentless and rarely made explicitly:
“Oh, I failed, and now I have to do it, you know, that, like, I'm already behind. And it's just, I think, a combination of what happened to me. And the voice in your head, just saying, ‘You're already behind’, telling you're already doing things wrong, that constantly, basically.”
The constant undercurrent that has accompanied the college and noncollege life of many of the respondents is this self-evaluation of the person that stems precisely from the realization of lateness. Lagging compared to whom? Compared to others, whoever they may be.
"Others" as a social function to which one should equate oneself in order to measure one's worth as a person. Finally, this stark judgment becomes so deeply rooted that it takes on the air of an unappealable judgment concerning an unchangeable and incontrovertible situation.
Some of the participants, despite their young age, look back and identify their past choices as self-inflicted condemnation:
“By now, I'm like, so many years behind, because I'm in my fifth year of anthropology, you know, and then before anthropology, I had like, four. I'm 26 now. So in the end, like my depression and anxiety cost me like, five years or something? Yeah. Now it's way easier to put that into perspective.
But when ..every time, like, for me, every year was such a pressure. I was just so ready to study like, you know, to have done my masters by 22.”
Moreover, it clearly emerges how the anxiety and depressive episodes that played a decisive role in the delay acquired are attributed enormous costs. Costs that again are measured in
terms of "lost time", time taken away from the career, collateral time. At the same time, just acknowledging the distress and difficulty that result from anxious and depressive behaviors can alleviate guilt and self blaming. Being acknowledged, or recognizing oneself, in mental distress, helps justify the feeling of being " behind " in respect to one's life program.
“And then, of course, like these mental labels of depression and anxiety, and like, being super sensitive, they sort of, for me, gave me mental peace, basically, about being behind. So I think I made peace with it. But it's still, I wish it would have been different. And I am unsure if I want to do a Master's. I am. So like, when I look back on it, I'm like, ‘fine, that happened’. But now I'm still anxious about what I will do. Because I'm just afraid to go. Start a new challenge, basically. Because I'm like, Oh, yeah, I totally didn't expect this to happen when I was younger, or like, I always thought that I could do stuff. And now I'm like, I really have to be careful with what I challenge myself with.”
However, there is an ambivalence of emotions and thoughts regarding the recognition of mental distress, often closely related to the diagnosis process, which triggers various issues related to social taboo regarding mental health. I will explore these issues later in Chapter 3.1.
Through this paragraph here were reported accounts of the emotions of anxiety that characterize the feeling of not being "on track" with one's life, of not being investing well in oneself. This anxiety builds on freedom, “The freedom to act in line with one’s essential qualities or defining aspirations, without restrictions of time and place, fosters an entrepreneurial self as a project of ongoing development.” (Adams et al. 2019: 194).
Whenever this project-of-the-self becomes overwhelming because of the infinite possibility it has of coming to realization, anxiety sets in and reinforces the impasse.
3.1.2 Generational Factors
Another facet relates to the moment in history where these choices are being made: the present. It has not been a long time since the world looks so big and accessible in terms of things to do and places to do them. Those who now are young are the first generation that was born and lived in a deeply globalized world.
“Our times are so… fluid. We're living such fluid times that everything is kind of possible, you just don't know… sometimes you don't even find the path cause people say ‘Go down that road and you'll find something’ but I don't even find the road that I wanna take.”
The expectations young people try to live up to, are often created based on a standard of living and an idea of the world that does not belong to them. This factor makes the comparison with previous generations, often represented by parents, discouraging and frustrating:
“I feel like my parents put that on me: ‘you have to choose to do whatever you want you should be happy about it’ it kind of makes me feel bad, because yes, I did pick something I love but also, when you wake up everyday thinking ‘am I doing the right thing, I could be doing this or that’.
Yes, I had the choice but I'd rather have a menu of ten dishes than a menu of ten pages. My parents didn't even get the choice, they were pushed into things and dealt with it. But for us it is like ‘here's a ten page menu’, and then you order a dish and you're like ‘What if I had that one instead?’. You never know. and this is another thing that is scary.”
The cited fluidity is not a downside per se, but it becomes such when accompanied by precarity, which is something previous generations often did not experience in the same way:
“I don't have the security or the aim of what I wanna do. The self- actualization that you have something that you like, and you know what you wanna do. Some people like my parents and grandparents had a very stable life. ‘I was doing this , I became this, and then I continued doing that’.”
The preceding excerpt as much as the excerpt that follows testify to a surprising fact:
most interview participants manifested a fair degree of awareness, sometimes implicit, with respect to the generational nature of the kind of "hardships" they face.
Indeed, this is not a physiological stage, also faced at the time by parents. This kind of generational self-consciousness consists precisely in the tacit awareness that they are experiencing a condition at once unprecedented and common to all peers:
“They also say that they didn't have as many opportunities and choices as we do right now. And not that much input from others, you know, if they were like, ‘Well, I like working in health care’, then they could just write to someone and they could go work in health care, you know, it's just, yeah, less that you have to impress everyone.”
At a stage of determination such as the end of studies can be, seeking professional security in the midst of unpredictable global changes adds an additional aspect of precariousness.
“When you read the news and you see how the world is rapidly changing, all the technological development, and climate change and political developments, populism, there are so many different things that are so unpredictable, that you don't' really know what's going to happen, so having the security that at least you job is kinda safe, that your profession is something you can do in the future as well, gives you that sort of comfort that you feel a bit more at ease. I don't know... does it make sense?”
The global scenario characterized by rapid change and potential threat is experienced subjectively by those in the position of having to study and understand it as something unapproachable, even if necessarily diriment. Media coverage is also part of the sense of information overwhelming. The level of multiplicity of choices and consequent stress is even found in having to choose reliable sources of information.
“Yeah, well, I'm sure it has to do with being young, you know, there's so many choices that have to be made. And, and I think that this stress, also really, you know, is a part of what exacerbates it. And I also think that in this generation, you know, you have to be available at any time. And you know, I may struggle with just reading about everything that's going on in the world.”
All these features of the difficulty of finding one's way in a world, was recognized with some degree of awareness as a hallmark of their generation of belonging, and not just a physiological stage of being young.
“So yeah, I'm sure that this is just something that's always maybe more prevalent with people our age, through any generation, but I also think that
maybe this generation, you know, choice and, you know, you can form your own life, we have every opportunity, I can do anything I want to, which is great on one side, but very scary.”
This last sentence summarizes the contradiction inherent to this origin of anxiety.
3.1.3 The Paradox of Choice
The source of this blockage also depends on the nature of the studies chosen, in this case the participant, a humanities student, is personally involved and cannot perform the work mechanically. In particular, the focus on writing highlights how the academic environment, in the more general context of the cognitive labor market, is a fertile place for the process of identification as Byung Chul Han (2017) understands it as it requires ideas and creativity:
“And sometimes I get the idea that other studies are easier, because they are more like, you learn something, like, more like high school way, you know, you learn and you put it on the exam, and writing, like essays, it's the essay that like, completely just kills me, you know?[...] I have this tendency to be anxious, but written exams with questions, I have no problem with, because I can learn and then I can just write it. But the whole perfectionism really comes into play when I have to write something because I have all the time, I have all the topics to choose. Like, there's so many directions to go in. And that kind of makes me like... that perfectionism just makes me ..Yeah, limits me, puts the brakes on things, because you have to put a little bit more of yourself in there. Instead of just, you know, putting knowledge in, you have to elaborate something that comes from you.”
In some ways, it also seems to be reassuring to be able to change and not bind oneself inextricably to something. The awareness often found in participants, with respect to the privilege of choice, underscores a dimension of paradoxicality experienced, created between settling on the possibility of change, and the anxiety of not choosing well by not being able to retrace one's steps.
“I know that my anxiety feel make me feel like I'm stuck and put all myself to finish… but at the end of the day, you know the fact that there are so many options, it is scary because you don't know what's right, but at least