Society must play its part addressing mental health
And it all starts with politicians who must try and bring people together for the good of the country
Published 20/05/2014 | 02:30
POLITICIANS are out in force these days, canvassing votes for local council elections, for the European Parliament and for one by-election.
On the doorsteps there is huge hostility to the political system and according to reports from canvassers and in the media, the public is engulfed in a maelstrom of dismay and anger at the party political system.
Mistrust and disillusionment abound, according to the pundits. For many this may seem like a game to be observed and enjoyed from outside. Indeed the Irish are great politician watchers and as a result, perhaps, we regard the woes of our politicians with gleeful detachment without considering the wider impact this has on society.
The fact that people are disconnected from the political system may seem to be irrelevant in the broader scheme of things and of interest only to the political parties and the politicians at the receiving end.
Increasingly it is recognised that engagement in civic society, of which voting is a core attribute, is linked to mental health.
As early as 1900, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the French sociologist, was writing about the power that society exerted on individuals. He argued that the beliefs, ideals, goals and dependence that people had on each other made up a collective consciousness that was called "society".
People felt part of society and they accepted a responsibility to its members, even those who were not directly known to one another. The bond created by members of the culture resulted in social integration and it held people together who acted for the good of themselves and each other.
Societies that lacked these features were described as anomic or socially fragmented.
One of the key elements of a functioning society is engagement in the political system, expressed by voting. This is because a decision to vote reflects our aspiration for a particular kind of society. For each individual this ideal is different; the key is that the ideal exists and it gives us direction in how we see ourselves and others in society. For several decades engagement in the electoral process has been one of the measures of social and civic involvement.
Socially fragmented societies characteristically show low voter turnout at election time associated with feelings of low self-efficacy or poor control over events.
Some aspects of mental health are affected by the kind of society in which the person lives – those living in anomic, fragmented societies or subcultures within a community are at particular risk of mental illness.
Take suicide for example. Researchers working to combat this tragedy examine it at two levels. At an individual level we know that mental illness is the most commonly identified factor in its causation. But this doesn't tell us why rates of suicide fluctuate over time in any single country.
For trends and changes over time we turn to examining factors within society that influence this.
And anomie was one of the key social factors that Durkheim described as associated with higher suicide rates in comparison to well integrated societies where the rates were low. So too with depression; individuals living in marginalised, socially fragmented areas are at higher risk than those in cohesive areas. It is possible that those living in fragmented, societies cope less well with stressful situations than their counterparts in better integrated societies or subcultures; hence the high rates of depression described even in some districts within individual cities.
The role of society and its level of stability in generating mental illness is an area that is increasingly being studied across the world with specific studies in Japan, New York and Helsinki.
The current antipathy to politicians in Ireland may be a blip as a result of a particular set of financial and party political circumstances.
It is likely to influence voter turnout in the elections later this week. However, if this trend continues and trust is not re-established, than prolonged political disengagement might continue and ultimately cause widespread disenfranchisement.
This would not be good for society and Ireland might truly become another fragmented, anomic society with all the associated mental health problems, including a further spiralling of our suicide rate.
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