Capitalism Can't Heal Us | Opinion

There is a "mass" event every single day in America. Lately, we've been immersed in a mixture of mass shootings, mass layoffs, mass housing shortages, mass food and economic insecurity, and mass legislation attacking the rights of Black folks, Native Americans, women, and LGBTQ+ folks.

Something that's also happening right now is mass mental health struggles. The 2022 State of Mental Health in America report from Mental Health America showed that more Americans are feeling suicidal when compared to recent years, 10 percent of young people are depressed, over half of the children and adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, and the rates of substance abuse is climbing. Reports from other organizations, such as The Trevor Project, have found that a lack of access to mental health care, depression, anxiety, and suicidality disproportionally affect LGBTQ+ folks, communities of color, and other populations of people who are minoritized and marginalized.

Although there was briefly some newfound interest in mental health from the Biden administration a few months ago, it seems like much of the proposed solution from the government is to just keep sending thoughts and prayers while simultaneously tinkering and tweaking public policy for bonus points in the midterms, and the solution from the private sector is to keep funneling billions of dollars into digital mental health and teletherapy startups.

The reason we don't have any actual root-cause solutions for this mass distribution of inequity, injustice, and trauma is because perpetuating all of it is actually quite profitable. As a result of COVID-19, the digital health and teletherapy space has grown rapidly recently due to their "innovative" and "game-changing" ways to "make medical and mental health care more accessible." In reality, all of this is really just a less pretentious way to say that these companies are finding creative ways to profit from health insurers and exploit people's medical and mental health struggles for short-term profit gains.

In the first three months of 2022 alone, mental health and teletherapy startups raised more than $1 billion in venture capital. In 2021, digital health startups raised over $29 billion. Mind you, this doesn't even include the amount of revenue these companies generated from patients. Despite all of this cashflow, several of the biggest players in teletherapy and mental health announced massive layoffs in the past few weeks, with hospitals across the country also cutting key patient care and leadership roles. At the same time, health insurance companies are realizing big spikes in profit, large hospital systems are raking in record-setting profits, and the American Hospital Association is raising alarm about a shortage of health care workers. Many of these health care systems and professional associations, such as the American Hospital Association, simultaneously donate hundreds of millions of dollars to politicians and political committees that, in one way or another, financially benefit from Americans struggling with mental health and wellness.

If you're scratching your head and thinking, "this doesn't make any sense," you're not alone. To me, the math isn't mathing. If we have more companies addressing our mental health and wellness, why are more people struggling with their mental health now when compared to recent years? And if all of these startups and health care companies claim to be addressing access to mental health care, why does it seem like more people than ever are struggling to find access to mental health care?

The culmination of everything happening in the health care space and venture capital world is the foremost indicator that the noxious strain of capitalism that has infected the health care industry cannot simultaneously function as the cure for the very problems that are subsequent to its existence.

Detailed view of an American flag
Detailed view of an American flag. Rob Carr/Getty Images

We need to start asking ourselves why we need so much therapy, self-help, medication, and health care to begin with. It's not because we're inherently weak-minded and lack discipline, because millennials and Gen Z are "soft," because we need more research, or because we need more nutrition supplements, fitness programs, and a strict meditation practice. Granted, nutrition, fitness, and mind-body practices might help us in the near-term.

Rather, it's because we have a critical deficiency of affordable, accessible, and culturally-appropriate support systems, community, care, and resources. It's because we have a major surplus of sociopolitical, environmental, cultural, and industrial insults that are relentlessly attacking our minds and bodies. It's because we're all vulnerable to the consequences of relying on systems, institutions, and industries—all of which were initially designed with the so-called purpose of supporting us—that are mismanaged and have become an over-politicized, wildly dysfunctional, deeply corrupt, and incestuous quagmire of conflicting and profit-driven interests.

We cannot expect venture capital backed mental health startups and the for-profit health care and wellness industrial complexes to repair the damage that was, and continues to be, the byproduct of these very same systems and industries that necessitate the existence of these services in the first place.

In the same way, we cannot keep expecting mental health professionals, social workers, educators, and health care clinicians to be individually responsible for offsetting the downstream effects of the trauma, insecurity, inequity, and injustice that results from unconscionable and oppressive legislation, inequitable policy positions, misappropriated funding, intentionally underfunded social and community health programming, institutional violence, systemic, and social injustice.

Just as the antidote to a poison can't be more of the poison, we can't silence the reverberations of capitalism with more capitalism. And when we're talking about our physical health and psychological well-being, we can't rely on the systems and forces that make it so hard for us to be healthy and well in the first place to heal us.

We need wide-sweeping policy, legislative, and social change that eliminates the barriers and directly addresses the historical and cultural underpinnings of America that cause us to need so much mental health care in the first place.

If we don't start actually addressing all of that, then America is going to continue to struggle with mental health and wellness.

Tim Frie is a mental health and health equity activist, educator, social entrepreneur, and advocate for inclusive and trauma-informed care and public policy.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.