Chemical or Financial Imbalances? Mental Health, Income Inequality & American Culture

As societies become more unequal, the prevalence of all forms of mental illness increase—in part—due to the perception of extreme differences in status. The rise of mood disorders is caused by our social immersion in a digital culture—built and shaped via individualistic values—which is the financial machine for perpetuating income inequality. 

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Psychiatry is reliant on a decontextualized, ahistorical, brain-based understanding of mental disorders to garner wide-spread acceptance of biological solutions (i.e., psychotropic medication). Psychological disorder however, may manifest via financial and social imbalances rather than chemical or neurological alterations alone. Here, I discuss the historical disruptions in United States financial markets and their relationships with income inequality and mental health.

In American culture, the inherent values are winner-take-all, hyper-competitive strategies to benefit the ostensibly transcendent individual (i.e., the so-called “American dream”). Material well-being is the avenue to satisfaction. However, when resources are not dispersed evenly, as prominent psychologist Csikszentmihalyi states, “people evaluate their possessions not in terms of what they need to live in comfort, but in comparison with those who have the most (p. 823).”[1] Compared to the very top, the affluent feel financially poor.[1] A constant, comparative focus on the self, paired with an unattainable prospect for an ideal future self is the essence of depressive despair.

Modern society has the highest rates of anxiety, depression and chronic loneliness in human history.[2] The prevalence of mood disorders (e.g., depression) is correlated with increased income inequality in modern countries.[3] The U.S. has the highest rate of income inequality and prevalence of mood disorders.[2] The U.S. culture is uniquely hyper-individualistic and is situated within online financial markets. I suggest, a new digital melting pot is creating psychological despair: immersion in a digital market space that reinforces individuality is causing higher rates of mood disorders as a direct result of American corporate value systems. So, how did it get this way?

A Brief History of Income Inequality & Market Volatility

In 1928, the top 1% of the U.S. retained 23% of the income.[4] The economy was on the verge of The Great Depression as the stock market crashed in 1929. The inequality in wealth leveled off in our country after World War II and the economy was stable. In the 1970’s, major free market economic changes were rolled out (exhibited by international free trade agreements, income and wealth polarization, stock price inflation and corporate mergers).[5] The 1980’s saw increased investment in the stock market that fueled technological investment, increased profits and higher stock prices with a loss of employment, wages and an increasingly widening gap between the rich and poor.[5]

Globalization permitted self-regulating markets at the detriment of social supports and community.[6] Financial markets demand frenetic, creative multitaskers with unlimited, future-focused energy. This form of the human condition—characterized by hyper-productivity—became the ideal in many professional realms at the end of the 20thcentury.[5] As the century closed, Csikszentmihalyi (1999) noted: “the disparity in incomes between the top percentage and the rest is getting wider; this does not bode well for the future happiness of the population (p. 823).”[1] The 21stcentury began in the U.S. with income inequality at a new edifice as mood disorder prevalence breached the 10% mark.[6] The stock market crash in 2008 came one year after income inequality met its historic height.[4] How is our mood affected as we become increasingly tethered to volatile markets?

Citizens Divided

By 2010, the U.S. had bailed out Wall Street, corporations were citizens and people began to manage their digital lives as if they were a company. We have become public relations officers of our own personhood via LinkedIn, Myspace and Facebook. The financialization of the person continued as the individual seemed to “be made up of a collection of assets, as if she were the proprietor of herself as a stock portfolio.[6]

The rebounding economy echoed the history of wealth inequality. The U.S. top 1% grabbed 85% of the total income growth between 2009 and 2013.[7] The average income of the top 1% was 25 times the rate of the bottom 99% (0.7% growth).[7] Currently, the U.S. has the highest rate of income inequality and prevalence of mood disorders in the world.[2][3][8] The two data points cannot be divorced. The trade-off of prosperity via hyper-economic competition is social isolation.[3] As societies become more unequal, the prevalence of all forms of mental illness increase—in part—due to the perception of extreme differences in status.[8] The rise of mood disorders is caused by our social immersion in a digital culture—built and shaped via individualistic values—which is the financial machine for perpetuating income inequality.

Hyper-connection & Psychological Detachment Incorporated

Our current digital environment perpetuates the myth of status transcendence. We are psychologically immersed in the global flows of commerce, but the real danger is that these economic channels reinforce hyper- individualism and the false notion of “self” as the ultimate, prized, human resource. Research confirms this: elevated rates of smartphone activity for the newest generation of teenagers is correlated with skyrocketing increases in materialism, anxiety, depression, and suicide.[9] The fixation on extrinsic goals (money, status and physical appearance) comes at a cost of deemphasizing psychologically protective, intrinsic goals (social relationships, community and mastery).[3][9]

The digital selves we now inhabit are embedded into financial fabrics worn by corporate monopolies. Ego-centric practices (i.e., likes, favorites, preferences, etc.) are commodified—bought and sold—to the corporation with the highest bid. The virtual corporate landscapes camouflage the increased social threat and erosion of social cohesion.[3] As we narcotically update our fractal of digital profiles and browse news feeds, we increasingly merge our social and therefore biological experience with financial markets. The digital omnipresence of our capitalistic climate generates a “threat to one’s status, security, and future” from somewhere and nowhere at the same time.[10]

Swallow Big Pill

As affluence, urbanization and wealth increase, so does depression and suicide rates.[2] A person in the U.S. with an income of less than $20,000 per year is twice as likely to become depressed than a person who makes $70,000 or more.[8] Depression is not a biochemical imbalance. Depression is a socio-economic inequality. But, America wants a pill. If I were prescribing something for the U.S. to swallow, it would be a universal basic income to raise the psychological floor for the bottom 99%.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Andrew Archer, LICSW 100 Warren Street, Suite 304, Mankato, Minnesota. Email:

[1]Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren't we happy? American Psychologist, 54(10), 821-827. DOI:

[2]Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On homecoming and belonging. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

[3]Hidaka, B. (2012). Depression as a disease of modernity: Explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of Affective Disorders.140(3), 205–214. DOI:

[4]Inequality for All (2013). Documentary film:

[5]Martin, E. (2000). Mind/body problems.American Ethnologist27, 569–590. DOI:

[6]Martin, E. (2007).Bipolar expeditions: Mania and depression in American culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[7]Economic Policy Institute.

[8]Hari, J. (2018). Lost connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression—and the unexpected solutions. New York: Bloomsbury.

[9]Twenge, J. M. (2017).iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for adulthood. New York: Atria Books.

[10]Watters, E. (2010).  Crazy like us. The globalization of the American psyche.  New York: Free Press/Simon Schuster