Millions of workers have had their lives radically altered by COVID-19. But now health experts are warning that a new crisis is in the making: a mental health pandemic. 

In the decade following the 2008 recession, the rate of mental health related issues skyrocketed, while at the same time governments cut mental health services. This situation is now being exacerbated  by unprecedented levels of unemployment, increased exploitation of those still employed and bleak prospects for a recovery. The truth is plain to see: capitalism is causing a mental health pandemic.

COVID-19, capitalism and mental health 

The World Health Organization has recognised depression as one of the leading causes of death and disability worldwide. Mental illness now affects over 250 million people globally, and rates of depression and anxiety have risen 18 percent in the last decade alone. Suicide rates amongst youth have reached unprecedented levels with a 56 percent increase in suicides among youth in just a decade, making suicide one of the leading cause of death amongst young people, second only to accidental deaths. 

This crisis has been deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the economic crisis. The Canadian Association for Mental Health has stated that 50 percent of Canadians are reporting declining mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. A poll conducted by Morneau Shepell reported that 80 percent of Canadian workers had reported worsening mental health. The University of Toronto estimates that the suicide numbers for 2020-2021 would add an additional 2,114 suicides on top of the current rate. Suicide crisis lines have saw a 30-50 percent increase in calls during the first few months of the pandemic. 

These increases in mental distress and suicide risks can be attributed to a number of factors arising from the pandemic: increased social isolation during lock-down, mass unemployment and economic uncertainly, intensified exploitation and pressure for essential workers, the potential and fear many working class and poor families have of losing everything they have, the threat of evictions, fear of the devastating impacts of contracting the virus and of the potential loss of loved ones, and the hopelessness and despair all of this gives rise to. With proper handling of the pandemic early on, the social, medical and mental health consequences we are seeing could have been largely avoided and minimized. Instead governments around the world have botched the handling of the pandemic, largely as the result of the preceding period of cuts and privatizations. 

On Bell’s “Let’s Talk” Day this year, Ontario Premier Doug Ford released a video, acknowledging that “approximately 30 percent of Ontarians will experience mental health and addiction issues at some point in their lives,” and concluding that he would make mental health a priority for his government. In one sense this is true – he made it a pretty big priority to cut $2.1 billion dollars over 4 years in planned spending on mental health upon entering office. Since these cuts, wait times for mental health services have more than doubled in Ontario, with 28,000 youth waiting anywhere between 67 and up to 92 days for help. It would only cost $150 million dollars to hire about 1,400 workers which would cut the wait times in half. While one in five youths in Ontario will experience mental health issues, only 18 percent of them have access to help. 

There is a clear class divide in who suffers the most in the mental health crisis. For example, being unemployed is likely to increase your chance of developing a mental health problem by 15 percent. Housing insecurity increases it by nearly 20 percent. These problems will only intensify for working people in the coming period. In a survey conducted by the Canadian Psychological Association, they found that 80 percent of respondents stated that they were lower-income. Of those who earn $40,000 or less, 86 percent said that paying for mental health treatment is not an option. If your job does not cover psychological services, which is the case for many workers, the cost for just an hour session of therapy can be anywhere between $125-240, and the cost for medication in Ontario, for example, can vary from $30-200 a month.

The current crisis is exposing all the faultlines of the capitalist system, which has for years been undermining all the necessary infrastructure to tackle this crisis through cuts and privatisation. The ruling class is now seeking to put the burden for this crisis entirely on the shoulders of the working class. This burden lies heaviest on essential workers, who are being sacrificed for the profits of the capitalists. Amidst the pandemic, these workers face another shadow pandemic of mental health problems. 

The quiet murder of frontline workers 

Frontline workers are often compared to soldiers in the battle against COVID-19. If this is the case, it is a very peculiar war, where the troops are sent to the frontline without the equipment needed to win. The capitalists treat frontline workers like cannon fodder, sending millions into unsafe work environments, not caring who lives or dies. To provide their “troops” with the equipment they need would be an expensive and unprofitable investment for the capitalists. As an emergency responder in New York said: “No one really cares about our safety, no one really cares whether we get sick or not.”

According to the UN, 47 percent of healthcare workers in Canada reported that they need psychological support. Healthcare workers from Italy, Spain, China, and Iran are reporting similarly high, or even higher, levels of distress. Health experts predict that those working in COVID-19 hotspots such as hospitals and long-term care facilities have a 20-25 percent risk of developing PTSD. 

For decades, the ruling classes have been tightening the budgets on healthcare services, leaving hospitals under-equipped, under-staffed and underfunded even before the pandemic. Hospitals in Canada already had problems with chronic overcapacity. The pandemic is adding even more pressure to an already weak healthcare system, and it is healthcare workers that have to bear the brunt of it. 

One particular story that caught public attention was the suicide of Carolina Breen at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, where her death followed days after the suicide of another colleague at the hospital who could not cope with the stress of being an emergency responder. Breen had no history of mental illness, but after weeks of seeing so many deaths, working long hours with no compensation, and unable to cope with the nightmarish conditions of the hospital, she took her own life. 

Anna Podolanczuk, a colleague of Breen who worked alongside her at the ER, stated after Breens death that “The ER felt like a battlefield. A living nightmare. Let’s remember that many frontline workers will keep reliving this nightmare long after this is over,” and finished by saying, “COVID-19 kills in many ways.”  

Her story is the same as so many other nurses who have taken their lives the past months due to the crisis in the hospitals. Seth Norrholm, an associate psychiatry professor at a university in Michigan, explains that the lack of equipment for medical staff to tackle the crisis is responsible for the rise in suicides, 

“If they know they did everything they could, everything they needed to, it helps mitigate guilt and helps them process the situation properly… but if you’re robbing them of that confidence and competence by not providing adequate [PPE] and support, it opens the door for guilt and it opens the door for doubt and second-guessing.”

A Florida nurse also committed what is suspected to be suicide by drug overdose last week for similar reasons. In some of his last text messages to friends he wrote, 

“We are running out of gowns. We are having people make makeshift face shields that end up snapping…”

These conditions were entirely preventable, but the capitalist onslaught against the working class in the past period and their criminal mismanagement of the pandemic made them inevitable. In a rational society, nurses would have never been forced to use makeshift PPE or ration it out, having to choose between protecting themselves, other staff, or patients. It would not be necessary to have to make the choice between who lives and who dies because of a lack of ventilators. Long-term care workers would not have had to sit by and watch as patients die due to a lack of resources. In a rational society, all resources would have been mobilised to the point of attack against the disease, and ensured that essential services were strong enough to tackle the pandemic. But we do not live in a rational society where resources are planned according to need, but in a deeply irrational and anarchic society, where the profits of a few come before the needs of the many. 

Healthcare workers experienced higher rates of mental health problems and suicide even before COVID-19. The nightmare conditions inside the hospitals are pouring gasoline on this already existing fire, and this shadow pandemic will reach new heights. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health estimates, based on data from the SARS outbreak, that the psychological trauma endured during the pandemic can linger for 3 years afterwards. As the scale of this pandemic is much wider than SARS, the psychological outcome for healthcare workers will likely be even deeper. 

As in a real war, the troops on the frontline are currently being upheld by the capitalists as heroes performing their duty. They will receive praise, applause, and words of support during the war. But the second the war is over and the capitalists no longer have any use for them, they will be tossed aside and left with no support or assistance to deal with the physical and psychological toll of the war, in an even worse condition than before. 

Socialism: The fight for our lives 

The media has portrayed the rise in mental health problems since the beginning of the pandemic purely as a product of COVID-19. However, it is not COVID-19 that has created this crisis. Canada was already experiencing a mental health crisis long before COVID-19, and it is capitalism that has created it. 

Before the pandemic, 85 percent of Canadians agreed that mental health services were underfunded, with 53 percent agreeing that we were in a mental health epidemic. The money exists to fully fund and develop our mental health services and our healthcare system more broadly: The government is running a deficit of over $343 billion to provide the capitalists with life support. More broadly, the Canadian capitalists are sitting on over $1 trillion of uninvested money. This is more than enough money to provide for the needs of society during the pandemic. However, capitalism at its core is a system based on profit, not need. The capitalists must make a return on every penny they invest, and if they cannot, then the money will sit stored away in banks and collect dust. To them, it is not important whether or not these investments could save thousands of lives: The only thing sacred to the capitalists is their own profits. 

We must demand a fully-funded and publicly owned mental health service integrated into the healthcare system. COVID-19 has shown what a catastrophe for public well-being capitalism really is. Only by taking our health system out of the hands of the capitalists and putting it under democratic control can we really take control over our collective well-being. 

A fully-funded mental health system is a prerequisite for solving the mental health crisis, but it is not sufficient. We must grasp the issue at the root. The mental health crisis is ultimately a product of the crisis of capitalism. A feeling of security, control over one’s life, and meaningful, social activity are all vital conditions for mental well-being. A system based on exploitation, alienation, precarity and competition cannot provide those conditions for the vast majority of people. 

Capitalism is a system in decay that can offer working people no hope and no future. Hundreds of thousands of workers are currently unemployed, with very bleak job prospects ahead. Those who are still employed face increased exploitation and worsening working conditions. While jobs and wages are going down, rent, utilities and debts are staying the same. This generation of young people is the most educated generation ever, yet they are met with a mountain of debt and forced to take on worse and worse jobs. Not only is there no economic future for many workers, but the very future of the planet itself is at stake, which is a source of deep demoralisation, depression and anxiety. Why study and work for a future you will not have? While the suffering and misery of the working class gets worse and worse, the capitalists get richer and richer. A mental health pandemic is a rational response to a deeply irrational system that has become an active fetter to the fulfillment of humanity’s most basic physical and psychological needs. A sick system naturally produces sick people. 

This new wave of mental health issues has become a shadow pandemic to COVID-19. It is capitalism that has ultimately given rise to both, and to solve these two complementary pandemics, a systemic overhaul is required. Only with a socialist planned economy can the working class take control of their own lives and run the economy for the needs of the many, not the profits of a few parasites profiting off of our increased misery. Hundreds of billions of dollars would not have been used to bail the capitalists out, and a trillion dollars would not sit idly in banks, but instead could be used to fight the pandemic and provide for the needs of society. The wealth and resources that the capitalists privately own could go towards the transformation and improvement of society needed to provide a future worth living in for the working class and eliminating the material basis at the root of the mental health crisis. 

Capitalism is killing us. Whether we look at the mismanagement of the pandemic, the climate crisis, or the economic crisis that pushes people into miserable and unbearable conditions that can lead to suicide, what we are witnessing is what Engels termed “social murder”, not murder by an individual, but murder carried out by a system so illogical and blind to human need that it causes thousands of workers to die preventable deaths as a result. Our health and our lives are far too important to be left to the mercy of the market: The fight for socialism is the fight for our lives.