Over a century before Princess Diana died at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, the physician Jean-Martin Charcot attracted toute la ville to his live demonstrations of neurological disorders on its premises. Charcot’s particular interest was hysteria, that mysterious, uniquely female complex—literally, “of the womb”—that seemed to afflict so many women of his day. His Tuesday lectures, featuring patients of the hospital on full display, were high spectacle, attended, according to one account, by “a multi-colored audience, drawn from all of Paris: authors, doctors, leading actors and actresses, fashionable demimondaines, all full of morbid curiosity.” Among them was Sigmund Freud, whose own deranged analysis of “the great neurosis” also made him famous.
There are certain symmetries in history that lend the impression that all has been foretold, when in fact it’s just a matter of human foolishness doomed to repeat itself. But it seems fitting that the Salpêtrière was the final destination of the most famously unhappy woman of her time—and that her son should turn his grief into a mental health grift.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, styled the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, fled to US shores at the beginning of the pandemic, when the whinings of the well-to-do were being eclipsed by the worries of the unwashed. There wasn’t time to care about an unemployed adult man whose falling-out with his family had forced him to quarantine in a $15 million home. But not for long. The Sussexes reinvented themselves as warriors for the oppressed, cashing in on their privilege by disavowing it loudly to anyone who would listen: Oprah, Dax Shepard, etc. Pitching themselves as refugees from the (inarguably oppressive) British monarchy and the (inarguably racist) tabloid press, they’ve made mental health projects into a kind of radical chic. Their search for well-being may not include fighting for universal health care, but an adoring public gets to see them thrive through gauzy photo shoots, expensive clothes, and multimillion-dollar Netflix deals. Harry has even become an influencer—pardon, the “chief impact officer”—for an app-based “coaching” company. Far from seeking a life less public, they’ve capitalized on the US media’s willingness to amplify their struggle without scrutiny and to frame their “advocacy” as somehow raw and brave.
That myth-making is antithetical to the actual work of psychotherapy, which is an intensely private experience. The Sussexes’ performance, meanwhile, is calculated to drive eyeballs, clicks, and consumption. They’re in good company, now that social media’s hegemony has made the appearance of living well into a spectator sport, arguably resulting in the recent massive and quantifiable uptick in generalized depression.
A July study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed a century’s worth of Google Books data for instances of language reflecting negative ways of thinking called “cognitive distortions,” which are commonly associated with psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety. It found a spike in the early aughts, then an increase to unprecedented levels between 2007 and the present day. That timeline just happens to coincide with the rise of Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), and Instagram (2010), leading researchers to theorize that “the widespread adoption of communication technologies such as the internet, the World Wide Web, and social media may have driven greater societal and political polarization at a global level.” They connect the polarization to cognitive distortions such as “us-vs.-them thinking (labeling and mislabeling) [i.e., a reliance on simplistic good/bad categories], dichotomous reasoning, mindreading [assuming one knows what others are thinking], overgeneralizing, emotional reasoning, and catastrophizing.” All of this helps explain the increasing prevalence of depression—and in turn the explosion of the wellness industry.
Instagram in particular—that aspirational portal—is linked directly to increasing rates of depression among teenage girls. A September Wall Street Journal exposé revealed that Instagram’s own research found that over 40 percent of teenagers who said they felt “unattractive,” and roughly 25 percent who felt “not good enough,” reported that those feelings began while using the app. (For more on the recent Facebook revelations, see Jeet Heer’s column.) Teens with existing mental health issues were unequivocal that using Instagram made things worse, but they struggled in their efforts to log off, for fear of missing out. Gazing incessantly at other people’s carefully curated lives does not, in fact, help emerging adults cultivate a healthy sense of self. It’s a huge market, though: 40 percent of Instagram’s users are under 22 years old. The other 60 percent include all manner of snake oil salesmen, as well as scheming royals who’ve been banished from Buckingham Palace for attempting to monetize their titles to 10 million followers.
Nevertheless, Meghan is writing a guaranteed best seller about “wellness” with Prince Harry as part of a $20 million four-book deal. This does not surprise Natalia Petrzela, a history professor at the New School who’s written about the hijacking of the wellness movement, which originated in the counterculture of the 1960s as a response to a medical establishment that failed women and Black patients (as it still does); their physical and mental well-being was and is routinely disregarded and their afflictions attributed to individual dysfunction rather than systemic failure. (Think Charcot’s and Freud’s pathologizing of women as “hysterics.”) “Mental health today is such an inchoate, capacious concept that it’s ripe for manipulation and exploitation by people who use that term to perhaps sell dubious products, services, or experiences to vulnerable people,” Petrzela explains. “It’s very hard to verify whether an app or a retreat, or a crystal or a self-help book, is really supporting mental health, but there’s really no barrier to billing it as such.”
Clearly not. There’s just something particularly nefarious about hawking mental health as part of the broader spectacle that’s destroying it on a grand scale.