Inequality breeds anxious, boastful depressives, conference hears
Psychological consequences of material differences impact the poor most
UK research which found that 74 per cent of people had, in the previous year, felt so depressed and unable to cope that they had entertained suicidal thoughts, Richard Wilkinson told Tasc.
Stress, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness are higher among the less well-off when compared with the more prosperous, according to the British social epidemiologist and author Richard Wilkinson.
Speaking to the left-leaning think tank Tasc, Mr Wilkinson cited UK research which found that 74 per cent of people had, in the previous year, felt so depressed and unable to cope that they had entertained suicidal thoughts.
“There is something wrong with the suggestion that we are living better than before,” he told Tasc, which seeks to promote the case for social change and more equitable wealth distribution.
Mr Wilkinson is co-author of The Spirit Level an acclaimed examination of the effects of inequality and has now co-authored The Inner Level, which examines the mental health issues raised by inequality.
People living in societies “where the people at the top are valued very highly and the people at the bottom are not” are being powerfully told that they are are “worthless”.
The evidence gathered for his new book suggests that self-esteem and anxiety issues are more widespread among poorer sections of society and they are also felt more acutely.
Less equal societies are more violent because of inequality, he argued. In such societies, depression and schizophrenia were more prevalent that more equal societies.
Psychosocial factors behind societal and individual problems have turned out to be very much more important than people recognised 20 years or so ago, he said.
“Violence is triggered by people feeling looked down on, humiliated, [by] loss of face. ‘There is one way I can make you respect me if everything else fails,’,” he said.
Homicide rates differ hugely across the United States and more equal Canadian provinces, while higher anxiety levels are illustrated by the number of people working in security in poorer parts of the US, Mexico or South Africa.
Meanwhile, debt causes “an extraordinarily sad picture, not only because of the misery it causes and the tension it causes, but it is what locks us into a consumerist society”.
People react to inequality in one of two ways, he said. Either they withdraw into themselves, and away from social engagement and community involvement because they feel that they are worth less than others, or they become narcissistic and bragging, displaying disruptive behaviour and mania linked to an inflated self-perception and a focus on social dominance.
In societies with pronounced inequality, people rated themselves more highly than those around them, were more boastful and tended to drink more and consumer other stimulants.
More equal societies cannot be created by wealth redistribution alone, he said, citing the influence of strong trade unions, workers’ representation on company boards, progressive taxes and strong measures to curb tax avoidance.