At the Guardian's Comment is Free blog, Affluenza author Oliver James bemoans the rise of "Selfish Capitalism" (James's capitalization) which, he argues, is making us flat-screen television-obsessed Westerners "mentally ill." James claims, without offering any convincing data, that those living in the generous welfare states of Western Europe—whom he ridiculously calls practitioners of "Unselfish Capitalism"—are much less likely to suffer from depression than their counterparts in England and the United States. James doesn't provide a definition of "mental illness" or sources for his data, though it is, of course, likely that the "nationally representative studies in the United States, Britain and Australia" he vaguely references employ very different definitions and standards of what it means to be "mentally ill." And one could obviously argue that the American data set represents not an epidemic of illness but an epidemic of overdiagnosis. Regardless, James says that his case is rather more nuanced than a simple correlation between income inequality and depression:
In itself, this economic inequality does not cause mental illness. WHO studies show that some very inequitable developing nations, like Nigeria and China, also have the lowest prevalence of mental illness. Furthermore, inequity may be much greater in the English-speaking world today, but it is far less than it was at the end of the 19th century. While we have no way of knowing for sure, it is very possible that mental illness was nowhere near as widespread in, for instance, the US or Britain of that time.
This is absurd. James argues that the supposed "commercialization" of society, creating an insatiable appetite for consumption, is driving those who, say, can't afford an iPhone into fits of debilitating illness. But he speculates, without a shred of evidence, that in the 19th century the English-speaking world—a world of enormous hardship and disease—was a happier epoch. If you couldn't bank on extending life past a 50th birthday, I suppose it wouldn't be too depressing when your parents die at 40. But health and longevity don't feature in his argument; he simply wants the government to be the arbiter of "when you already have enough income to meet your fundamental psychological needs."
It's worth reading (or rereading) Will Wilkinson in reason's December issue, in which he convincingly demonstrates that the "alleged epidemic of depression [in the United States] simply doesn't exist":
According to [The Loss of Sadness authors] Horwitz and Wakefield, "There are no obvious circumstances that would explain a recent upsurge in depressive disorder." The ranks of the depressed are bulging, they argue, because the clinical category fails to make the elementary distinction between normal, functional sadness and true mental disorder. The depression data are littered with false positives-jilted lovers, white-collar workers who missed out on a promotion, and kids nobody asked to the prom. People who are suffering but aren't sick.
Full review here.