How understanding inequality explained my mental distress

The following is a poignant and insightful blog from Georgina, about the strong resonances she found when reading The Inner Level, the 2018 book from Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett following on from their acclaimed work The Spirit Level.

When I read The Inner Level I was struck in a way I haven’t felt before when reading a book. I felt that the authors had articulated something I’d been struggling with my whole life. They’d put words to my experiences and the causes of my experiences that no one else had managed to do before.

I’d always been an anxious person and I’ve experienced several of what the current research and the authors call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). But therapists (and I’ve had eight of them – I’m 33 now) could, or would, only focus on my inner experiencing, my feelings and my close relationships. The impact of my culture, my society’s values and its economy and the impacts of these on me as an individual were never looked at. I guess it’s presumed that this is the realm of sociology and economics, not psychology. What my therapists lacked in understanding of my socio-economic context (and therefore couldn’t help me to understand it) meant that I could only make sense of half my own picture.

I came to the book launch of The Inner Level because I wanted to thank Dr. Pickett and Dr. Wilkinson for making sense of the missing pieces of my picture for me – for making my feelings, responses and fears understandable in a way that no therapist has. Reading that a society that is more unequal will lead to people internalising the society’s evaluation of them made complete sense to me and I could think of many, many instances of this happening in me.

Understanding this new concept freed me from feelings of blame that I’d put on myself, for example, by feeling like a failure for not keeping up with my successful older siblings. It made me see that I couldn’t expect to be fully well, flourishing and fully functioning if the society I live in has an illness – an illness it isn’t even aware of. I felt like I’d woken up to what was going on around me in the same way I’d started to wake up when I first started training as a therapist.

We aren’t encouraged to look up from ourselves and to understand, query or contrast our socio-economic situations with other cultures – and the impact that this is having on us is an epidemic of as yet unprecedented proportions. Our society’s mental distress is at an exceptional level and no one other theory can explain and encompass the cause of it like the conclusions in this book and in The Spirit Level.

The Inner Level helped me to realise the importance of psychology and sociology being more combined and shared across disciplines. This is to ensure that therapists (myself included) do not end up tacitly colluding with the inequality inherent in our society by being unaware of it on a macro and micro level. Anyone involved in supporting people in health and social care should read it to ensure a broader and deeper understanding of people and their patients/clients. I now work in the Equality Improvement Department for a national mental health charity and hope that I can bring some of this new understanding with me into my own work.

Georgina – Southend, Essex

Photo: finwal / iStock.

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