When did our country lose grip of its senses? Some will argue that we never had any in the first place, but others find a sharp contrast between the edgy, neurotic, angry, irrational country we find ourselves living in now and a Britain that was, not that long ago, vaguely commonsensical and, at base level, fundamentally civilised.
Researching my new novel, which focuses on the period between millennium eve and the financial crash of 2008, I was left in very little doubt about when it all started. Although I touch on trends in economics, immigration, property (my protagonist is an estate agent) and much besides, many of the forces I discovered were technological – but found their expression psychologically. In short, I believe this is when Britain embarked on its journey towards a full-blown nervous breakdown.
Like all epochal developments, the significance of these changes was not at the time fully understood
Like all epochal developments, the significance of these changes was not at the time fully understood, even though – and perhaps because – this revolution was happening on a number of interlinked but separate fronts. Most significantly there was the sudden growth of the internet, the unleashing of social media, and the accompanying change in our consciousness, which had at least as many negative effects as it had positive ones – because in technology at least, the remarkable changes that took place during that period were largely seen as superficial and positive, simply an opportunity to extend the amount of fun and convenience in society.
On arrival, the earliest camera phones – the first one I could find a record of was the Sharp JSH04, which appeared in 2000 – just seemed to be enjoyable gimmicks that were met with a certain amount of scepticism about their potential (they were expensive for a start, at around £500). The idea that camera phones actually provided the seed for the rise of sites such as Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat, which have arguably led to a corresponding increase in mental health problems and reduction in attention spans (largely, but by no means solely, among adolescents) could not have been predicted.
The miniaturisation of personal, transportable computing – beginning effectively with the BlackBerry in 2002 and culminating in the arrival of the seminal iPhone in 2007 – was met with equal optimism. But if we are today living in our own personal techno-bunkers, a prerequisite of the age of siege mentality, and the rise of conspiracy theories and fake news, the early 2000s was certainly the time when those bunkers were constructed – and furnished by the arrival and mass popularisation of Facebook and Twitter. These influential innovations were the delivery mechanism for lightning-speed exchanges of information that touched, inevitably, on the deeper rifts that were appearing in society. Instead of having a national conversation, we began to indulge in mass national bickering and mudslinging – in real time.
The irony is that just as we were showing signs of collective derangement, our understanding of mental health was growing exponentially. The taboos around mental illness were beginning to lift. When I wrote The Scent of Dried Roses, about the suicide of my mother, in 1996, mental illness was a taboo subject. However by the early 00s, the appearance of mental health narratives such as Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Lit by Mary Karr, Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs indicated a seismic shift was taking place in the way we understood the mind and its workings.
In 2003, the Sun headline “Bonkers Bruno locked up” was greeted largely with outrage – a response the editors cannot have anticipated, strongly suggesting that views on mental health issues had been quietly evolving while the popular media were looking the other way.
Around the same time the arrival of Facebook and Twitter were changing what one might call the psycho-substrate of Britain (and the world). On Facebook the pernicious myth of the “perfect life” was beginning. Pictures of our friends enjoying endless parties and holidays and happy children began to seep into our envious consciousnesses. A powerful new dream-world was being constructed, more seductive and unrealistic than anything the longer established advertising and marketing businesses could contrive, while our real lives seemed to be becoming meaner and less prosperous, certainly after the crash of 2008.
This was the perhaps the beginning of the end of the hopes that had arisen from the positive psychology movement established in the 1950s by Abraham Maslow and carried on by Martin Seligman, among others, that, as individuals, we might be becoming more mature, integrated and secure. Mental health, while it was losing its outsider status and becoming part of the mainstream conversation, was at the same time either becoming a problem running out of control; or if one wanted to be an “optimist”, merely being identified more effectively, as long-standing problems that had been suppressed or denied were acknowledged.
This was a supply as well as demand matter. Anecdotally, during this period I knew at least half a dozen friends (mostly women) who had given up their careers to retrain as therapists or counsellors. On a writing course I recently taught, five of the 16 participants were therapists. The British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapy membership during the noughties doubled to more than 30,000 practitioners by 2010 (it’s now around 50,000), tracking a precipitous growth in mental health problems.
How much these problems are linked to the growth of social media, including the seismic arrival of YouTube in 2005, cannot be proven, but it is hard to doubt that a mass alteration in consciousness was taking place – and while it was driving a new recognition and acceptance of mental health pathology, it was at the same time enlarging the problem that new armies of therapists were queuing up to try to solve. People were beginning to live online lives – and such a life was unlike any that had ever been experienced in human history.
How all this is going to end, nobody knows, but it is fairly clear that it began in the first decade of the 21st century. At that time, many thought we were going to see the start of a brave new world of more evolved human consciousness as well as a growth in democracy, openness and rational exchange of information. In 2019, to continue to believe in that new world one would have to be … well, impossibly detached from reality.
• Tim Lott is a journalist and author. His latest novel, When We Were Rich, is published by Scribner