Mental health and the workers

30 September, 2021

mental health

France will reimburse mental health appointments; in Spain a law is being prepared pledging to establish and equip a care system that today offers little more than waiting lists and drugs in the midst of an epidemic causing more than 200 suicide attempts daily and in a context in which 2 million people are on daily anxiolytics. But no law is going to stop the grinder into which living and working conditions have turned. Only collective organization and struggle can achieve that.

Table of Contents

A mental health problem or a labor relations problem?

Yannick Sansonetti committed suicide by hanging himself in the cold storage room of the Lidl where he worked. His mental health was a victim of workplace bullying and work rhythms.
Yannick Sansonetti committed suicide by hanging himself in the cold storage room of the Lidl where he worked. His mental health was a victim of workplace bullying and work rhythms.

In recent weeks a trial against Lidl for its involvement in the suicide of a female worker has been stirring the French media. It is not the first such lawsuit faced by the company. The supermarket chain had already been condemned last year, after Yannick Sansonetti, a maintenance technician, hanged himself, as the judges found an “inexcusable fault” in the “safety” that should be guaranteed by the company.

Now, the suicide of Catherine Lucas has led her family to accuse the chain of “involuntary manslaughter” and “moral harassment” based on a letter left by the worker in which they blamed her mental health on her working conditions. The media picked up the statements of her co-workers and stressed that Catherine Lucas was an enthusiast of the company to which she was devoted.

Catherine Lucas had Lidl under her skin. “She even made Lidl earrings“says one of her colleagues whom she befriended, Jean-Marc Boivin. She was one of the first employees to represent the group at the 2015 Agricultural Fair. Two years later, she opened the new Lamballe supermarket in the Côtes-d’Armor, becoming team leader of about twenty employees. A challenge, but also a source of pride for a woman who was 45 years old at the time. She joined the company in 1994 as a cashier and rose through the ranks to become store manager.

Catherine Lucas was what we would call today an employee with a “corporate” spirit. “During the vacations, she would shop at Lidl,” exclaims Jocelyn Thémista, another of her co-workers. A caring mother to both her two children and her team, she was an accommodating person. “When her manager told her to push an employee into doing two more hours, Catherine asked her to do one and she took the second one for herself,” says Jean-Marc Boivin, himself a store manager, like her. He made sure single mothers didn’t work Wednesdays at 6 a.m.

Libération

This is by no means an isolated case, even in France. In the health service alone and among resident physicians alone this year there was more than one suicide every 18 days linked to working conditions. Nor is it just now: physician suicides have been on an upward trend since long before the pandemic.

Loneliness, mental health and correlation of forces

Evolution of "Anxiety" searches, in blue, and "Depression" in red on Google in Spain since 2007. Concern for one's own mental health explodes with the 2009 crisis and rebounds strongly since the end of 2019
Evolution of “Anxiety” searches, in blue, and “Depression” in red on Google in Spain since 2007. Concern for one’s own mental health explodes with the 2009 crisis and rebounds strongly since the end of 2019

The handful of cases that appear in the media are anecdotal when we are talking about a global epidemic that leaves around 4,000 dead each year in Spain -almost a thousand more than a decade ago-, 9,000 in France and at least 128,000 dead in Europe. But if the media were to consider them significant, the correlation with loneliness and isolation in the workplace would be obvious to everyone. This would explain at least partially the class bias of the media in the prominence of low-level cadre and “upwardly mobile” workers like Catherine Lucas.

But this loneliness, this inability to even glimpse a collective way out, is not the preserve of the suicidal. They are in fact only the tip of the iceberg. Every time the media hears from a worker, whether in the US or in France we hear echoes of the same despair:

“I give myself three years and then I will quit. I plan to become an interior decorator.” Sylvanie Panhameux has been a nurse for about ten years, almost too long. “It was a vocation, at 12 years old I knew what I wanted to do. [But] The hospital made me sick to the point of disgust. I don’t even want to practice in the private sector. I’ll make a radical turnaround as soon as I have my back covered financially.”

A nurse in statements to Ouest France

But how many nursing workers, precarized to the extreme, can sensibly hope that the job will “cover their backs financially”? If the media lavish advice on alleviating “burnout syndrome” and “taking care of mental health” it is purely and simply because most workers have no real chance of changing jobs and even if they do, of finding better conditions than the ones they already suffer from.

The bottom line is that even if they do get a new job they are generally not going to be less exploited or less lonely. And they are certainly not going to improve their work situation and their mental health if they persevere in understanding labor relations from the individual, as “something between individual workers and the company”. There are no individual solutions available to workers. Individualized, isolated, we are weaker than the system that crushes us and can only get worse. Also in mental health.

No matter what the state TV psychologists say, the problem does not lie with us, hundreds of thousands of us. The problem is that the system has become a life-crusher and we have nothing to do against it on an individual basis. The problem is the correlation of forces.

Induced shame and trickery are part of the state’s effort to avoid the only way out of widespread mental health problems, a solution that is collective

Mental health is not an individual problem but a social problem
Mental health is not an individual problem but a social problem

The control of information about depression and suicide is a matter of state. We have gone from opacity and the will to hide any reflection in the media, into doing so under a balsamic message -for the ruling class- that places the responsibility on individuals and presents social causes as if they were “facts of Nature”. Another example of a campaign that wants to convince us that as “vulnerable people” we can only put ourselves under their care. One more slab on the backs of hard-working families whose world is falling on their heads.

The bad news is that “the caring hands” of the state and the system are busy making sure the causes of this epidemic don’t change. To top it off, not infrequently the welfare hand does not know what the repressive hand does. And one and the other hands exchange victims like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. The grinder works in two steps while problems and people are divided and individualized to render invisible the situation of neighborhoods and workplaces.

Because the way out of this situation is collective and that’s why it makes the ruling class uncomfortable. The nature of mental health is social, not individual. There is no solution in “giving up” neither life, nor hope, nor work, nor unemployment. However, as lonely, isolated individuals we are nothing but fuel for the great life-crushing machine, victims and propagators of horror. The only way out is to organize ourselves, to unite, to support each other in the battle to impose the satisfaction of human needs. From below. From right now.

Let us never forget: in the face of an unhealthy and anti-human system, only we, the working class, represent the future.