Mental Health, Activism and Resistance

Posted: 30th Jul 2018 in Uncategorised
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The Catcher in the Rye & Ginger and Rosa

Ginger and Rosa & Catcher in the Rye

Following on from my previous post on existentialism, I’ve been interested in the concept of paranoia and have been questioning our individual purpose and sense of duty in society. Something which has attracted me in particular is a rising notion of fear amongst our youth, this can manifest in many different ways. It could be a fear of a political leader – or the system that encompasses it – , a more precise sort of fear like a phobia, a wide-ranging fear like depression and anxiety or a fleeting but powerful fear that can be easily triggered by our environment such as the fear of loneliness in our social media age. This is not an exhaustive list of fears that exist but it covers the fears I have either witnessed or encountered at some point during my working, academic and personal life.

I believe that many of these fears have been stimulated by a renowned sense of political duty amongst our youth. This can be interpreted as a sort reawakening of social purpose and responsibility, something which is not unprecedented if we look at rebellious nature of the 60s and 70s but can be relatively startling to “babyboomers”, people in their 40s and 50s or those who are more withdrawn to political protest and debate. It is admirable that important subjects are now on the front-line of policy-making decisions and that controversial topics like the extension of LGBT rights, freedom of speech and immigration are now firmly on the political agenda. These debates may not always be articulated diplomatically or even fairly, but we should appreciate the courage it has taken to bring these difficult topics to the surface. My concern, is that we are possibly burdening our youngsters with such challenging topics about the world, to the point in which they end up questioning their position in society and thus begin to undermine their influence on the world. I imagine this in a scenario where a person encounters a interesting subject, is fascinated by it, attempts to challenge the injustices surrounding the subject, experiences failure in their quest for justice and then begins to feel a sense of eternal frustration at not being able to change the world but still with an ever growing desire to make a positive influence on the world around them. I do not believe that we should isolate our children an teenagers from the harsh realities of the world as I believe that an exposure to political debate helps to develop a sense of individualism and creative thinking – characteristics that are so easily lost in this regimented world. However, I do believe we run the risk of our youth feeling like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, this is especially important with the rapid development of social media and the constant bombardment of sensationalism and fake news. When you consider how social media technologies are designed to echo the sort of news and information that one responds passionately to, its easy to understand how one can be surrounded with negativity and confusion, given the tendency for new agencies to exaggerate and promote stories of division and chaos. This whole process thus generates a sense of paranoia and insecurity, feelings that could be particularly harmful for those who are still dealing with the psychological pressures of adolescence and puberty.

Ginger and Rosa[Film] – Politics, Paranoia and Puberty

The Movie Ginger and Rosa, captures this conflict between personal turmoil and political division very neatly. Although, set before the digital age, it tells a contemporary story set in 1960s London about the psychological effects of the Cold War on children.

The synopsis is as follows

London, 1962. Two teenage girls – GINGER & ROSA – are inseparable. They skip school together, talk about love, religion and politics and dream of lives bigger than their mothers’ domesticity. But the growing threat of nuclear war casts a shadow over their lives. Ginger is drawn to poetry and protest, while Rosa shows Ginger how to smoke cigarettes, kiss boys and pray. Both rebel against their mothers: Rosa’s single mum, Anoushka , and Ginger’s frustrated painter mother, Natalie . Meanwhile, Ginger’s pacifist father, Roland seems a romantic, bohemian figure to the girls. He encourages Ginger’s ‘Ban-the-Bomb’ activism, while Rosa starts to take a very different interest in him. As Ginger’s parents fight and fall apart, Ginger finds emotional sanctuary with a gay couple, both named Mark, and their American friend, the poet Bella . Finally, as the Cuban Missile Crisis escalates – and it seems the world itself may come to an end – the lifelong friendship of the two girls is shattered. Ginger clutches at one hope; if she can help save the world from extinction, perhaps she too will survive this moment of personal devastation.

While it is easy to acknowledge the exceptionalism of Ginger’s story, I feel it reveals some of the common depths to which mental illness can bury itself. Ginger’s devotion to “Ban-The-Bomb” is seen as admirable to many of her adult figures, although as her relationship to her friend Rosa and her parents begin to breakdown, she decides to seeks salvation in political protest and rebellion. Instead of the maternal/paternal protection that should be offered to her, Ginger finds surrogacy in the noble but unstable political mob. It is no wonder that Ginger descends in to a state of anxiety, as she cries out ‘that the world is going to end, but no one seems to care’. Ginger’s paranoia about the world ending is just a subconscious metaphor for the derailment of her own personal life. The political world that Ginger is exposed too, begins as a useful distraction from her problematic private world, but it soon transforms in to a dangerous occupation of Ginger’s mind as she fails not only to rescue what little sense of family she has, but she fails to recognize the lack of influence that the movement of nuclear disarmament is achieving.

How can we stop politicians and ‘politics’ exploiting our youth?

Ginger’s mental breakdown can thus be attributed largely to the hostile environment in which she resides. Although her mental illness is not chronic we can use our 21st century scientific perspectives to recognize that she is suffering from a form of Anxiety. But its important to understand that during the 1960s, the public perceptions around mental illnesses were considerably misunderstood.

Many people considered mental illnesses to be a mainly ‘private’ matter and that it was down to the local community to provide their own sort of treatment (religious groups and the wider Christian infrastructure within each community offered their own methods with varying (and unreliable) degrees of success . This dis-institutionalized system of mental health care in Britain often meant that the public at large were simply not aware of people with mental illness. Diagnosis from medical professionals was a rarity and so recognition and support from the public was all but non-existent. Due to the popular demand for extended human rights in the 1960s, hospitalization of mental health patients was hailed as a progressive moral necessity. But in the 1970s, the stories of ill treatment towards mentally ill patients illustrated the ignorance and incompetence that doctors and medical practitioners had held about the field of mental health. Therefore, the failure of many of the adults in the movie to recognize the deterioration in Ginger’s mental state is somewhat part of a larger societal problem about the perception of mental health.

The Catcher in the Rye[novel] – Emotional Repression & Fighting Societal Oppression

The Catcher in the Rye also displays themes of societal rebelliousness and paranoia but in a much more overt way. The story operates as a coming of age novel, but also acts as a cautionary tale in regards to adolescence and isolation. The summary of the novel is as follows

Holden Caulfield is a seventeen- year-old dropout who has just been kicked out of his fourth school. Navigating his way through the challenges of growing up, Holden dissects the ‘phony’ aspects of society, and the ‘phonies’ themselves: the headmaster whose affability depends on the wealth of the parents, his roommate who scores with girls using sickly-sweet affection.

Set largely during 1950s New York and Pennsylvania, the story is driven from a first person perspective that attempts to portray the protagonist having an adventure but without the journey that often comes with it. Holden does experience something of a spiritual exploration in which he understands the freedom and the strength of his own individual will, but he soon recognizes that ‘phoniness’ around him is too deeply ingrained in the institutions and people that he engages with; including his friends and family and with strangers on the street.

Is Holden’s cynicism evocative of our youth today?

Holden is not an activist in the strictest sense, but he spends much of the novel on a mission to probe and challenge the ‘defective’ norms in society, his struggles and failures do not arise from a fierce institutionalized resistance that Ginger encounters when she marches for ‘Nuclear Disarmament’, but from a repressed trauma during Holden’s childhood. The death of his little brother and his inability to grieve for him makes Holden deeply sympathetic for the weak and vulnerable in society (mainly children) and thus Holden’s desire to question the entrenched values in his world is part of a subconscious (and somewhat existential) attempt to create a better world for the generation that will follow him. Holden’s ‘activism’, whilst direct and purposeful, slowly begins to eat away at his psyche because of his unresolved inner turmoil.

Holden is very much a product of a conservative, prosperous and rising upper middle class in post-war America, but like the 1960s of Ginger and Rosa, Holden suffers from being in a world that does not properly understand what it means to be mentally ill. Towards the end of World War 2, America was overwhelmed with the amount of soldiers with varying degrees of mental health problems, this required a greater deal of investment and legislation towards treatment. The 1946 Mental Health Act was first real law to address mental health But the methods of treatment still contained the ignorance and misunderstanding of previous decades, as lobotomies and electric shock therapies were still considered to be legitimate ways of tackling mental health problems. Nevertheless, Catcher in the Rye makes a poignant statement about the symptoms of suppressed trauma and how ‘teenagehood’ can offer a path of exploration, but exploration with a sense of isolation and alienation can lead to devastating effects for ones own psyche.

What about the youth of today?

Although Catcher in the Rye and Ginger & Rosa are both ‘historical stories’, they are not trapped within their time. They provide a subtle understanding as to how the positive intentions of trying to make the world can often be too much for a young generation that is coupled with their own difficult personal affairs. Political and social activism can often be too much to bear for some people even though their heart may be in the right place. The lack of investment in regards to the mental health of our citizens is deemed as a national crisis and we are often told how roughly one in four of us will suffer from a mental health illness during our lifetime. If we combine these facts with the reality of an energized and politicized youth, it does not bode well for psychological development of the next generation. Social media is often blamed for disturbing the minds of our youngsters, but as the stories of Holden and Ginger demonstrate, Mental illnesses can strike anybody regardless of their ‘connection’ to the outside world. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that it is our responsibility to build an environment which allows for free expression and resistance but offers more protection to the mentally unstable within our youth.

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