Shit Life Syndrome

Diseases of despair

Hillbilly Elegy

Shit life syndrome (SLS) is a phrase used by physicians to describe the effect that a variety of poverty or abuse-induced disorders can have on patients.

Journalist Sarah O’Connor’s 2018 article for the ‘Financial Times’ ‘Left behind: can anyone save the towns the economy forgot?’ on shit life syndrome in the English coastal town of Blackpool won the 2018 Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils. O’Connor wrote: ‘Blackpool exports healthy skilled people and imports the unskilled, the unemployed, and the unwell. As people overlooked by the modern economy wash up in a place that has also been left behind, the result is a quietly unfolding health crisis.”

“More than a tenth of the town’s working-age inhabitants live on state benefits paid to those deemed too sick to work. Antidepressant prescription rates are among the highest in the country. Life expectancy, already the lowest in England, has recently started to fall. Doctors in places such as this have a private diagnosis for what ails some of their patients: ‘Shit Life Syndrome’ … People with SLS really do have mental or physical health problems, doctors say. But they believe the causes are a tangled mix of economic, social and emotional problems that they — with 10- to 15-minute slots per patient — feel powerless to fix. The relationship between economics and health is blurry, complex and politically fraught. But it is too important to ignore.’

Psychologist Rosemary Rizq, in an essay in the 2016 collection ‘The Future of Psychological Therapy,’ questioned the origin of the term shit life syndrome, writing that ‘The phrase seemed to denote a level of long-standing poverty, family breakdown, lack of stability, unemployment and potential risk factors common to many of the predominately young, working class patients referred to the [psychotherapeutic] service’ for shit is ‘something that we continually reject, get rid of or hide. At the same time it is something we cannot completely repudiate, it is part of us, something we need’ and that the individuals with SLS have problems so ‘terrible, so untouchable’ that they ‘quite literally cannot be thought about, cannot be handled by the service,’ yet a therapeutic organization is ‘obliged to do so.’

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