It has been more than a month since the demonstrations in New York began, and protests have spread to cities across the country. Occupy Wall Street started as a movement about economic inequality in the country, with the demonstrators’ common refrain, “We are the 99 percent,” referring to the gap between the top one percent, who control about 40 percent of the United States’ wealth, and the rest of the population. The movement speaks of themes of unemployment, inadequate health insurance and the quest for a living wage.
The Occupy Wall Street group has seemed to tap into a common frustration and despair among Americans. According to Mental Health America, nearly half of Americans are stressed by finances, and 32 percent of Americans also report employment issues as a source of stress. And as anxiety levels increase, other mental health indicators are impacted, including depression and sleep disturbances.
Lessons to be learned
So what can the movement teach us?
First, it’s important to underscore what the National Alliance on Mental Illness makes clear:
“Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing.”
However, according to The Equality Trust (an independent, evidence-based campaign located in the United Kingdom), the bigger the gap between a nation’s rich and poor populations, the greater is the dysfunction in that nation’s society. Utilizing mental health studies culled from the World Health Organization, it appears that different societies have very different levels of mental illness. In some countries only five or 10 percent of the adult population have suffered from any mental illness in the past year, but in the U.S., more than 25 percent have. Mental illness is much more common in more unequal countries, not to mention in richer countries as well.
What the Occupy Wall Street movement serves to teach us, regardless of our stance on the intentions of the group, is that there is power in being part of a group process, and there is power in learning how to speak about our experiences.
Strength in numbers
In a sense, the therapeutic value in announcing something which has been stigmatized, such as your mental illness or lack of wealth, is akin to exposure therapy. As a society not accustomed to sharing privileged information such as our bank account or personal narratives, being a part of a movement which asks you to do just that can be a way to face and control fears that are not often addressed.
Being a part of a group with a shared goal can be a powerful experience. The commonality of the members of the Occupy Wall Street contingent can be seen through the sea of signs announcing their discontent or shared experiences of poverty and disenfranchisement. Similarly, being a part of a group in a mental health setting can bring up feelings of peer support and a greater sense of normalcy. Many people feel as though they are struggling with solitary experience, and it can be cathartic to realize that you are not the only one grappling with a particular issue. Group psychotherapy serves to create a container for people, as they begin to shed their feelings of isolation. The same could be said for political rallies and movements.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the Occupy Wall Street movement has continued is that people no longer feel so alone. Members of the movement have seen a unity that bonds them together. Might the same be said for people fighting the stigma of mental health?
More and more, people are clamoring to speak up about their struggles with poverty and the inextricable links to depression and anxiety. The shame of sharing continues to be alleviated, as evidenced by the growing movement. Even if you are not marching in the streets yourself, it’s hard to deny the importance of bearing witness to people finding freedom in speaking their truth.