The Economy and Mental Health

With the nation grieving over the recent shooting in Tuscon, there has barely been any acknowledgement in the mainstream media of the fact that Jared Loughner is afflicted with a mental illness (i.e. a brain disorder), but did not get help. On Democracy Now’s show this morning (Jan 11, 2011) however, there was a balanced and compassionate interview of one Loughner’s past classmates in a poetry class. It demonstrated that this young man clearly stood out from his classmates due to poor socialization skills, but was highly functioning, enough to be attending classes at a community college. Even though symptoms of his mental illness had been apparent since high school, he nor his parents apparently ever sought, or been offered, treatment for it. Instead, the community college he was attending last fall withdrew him from class, and forbade him from coming on campus until he had obtained treatment, and been given a clear bill of health from a mental health professional that he was not a danger to himself or others.

Because of the drastic cuts in support for the public mental health system in Arizona, the only way Loughner could have done this, apparently, would have been to personally contact a psychiatrist and pay for this himself, which was highly unlikely. There were no other public services available, as described by another interview in the episode with a representative from NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. NAMI is the foremost organization in the country that is seeking to achieve greater awareness of the widespread distribution of mental illness across all strata of society, and the need to develop more investment in its treatment, particularly the sources of the illness, and reducing the stigma associated with it. This is quite apparent in how the mainstream media is typically hesitant to address the issue directly. Recognizing this, NAMI’s current executive director has provided a clear procedure for how the media should be reacting to the issue.

But in terms of public safety, the first such preventive measure is detection. In that Democracy Now interview, the NAMI representative related a story about his own son, who was excelling in school as a teenager where their family was living in Belgium at the time. The school counselor called him, saying that his son needed to be withdrawn from school for a while. Surprised, he asked why? The answer was that the son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. This was a painful realization, but at least the family was made aware this illness, which they have had to deal with since then. In hindsight, it is worth contemplating if this tragedy in Tuscon might have been prevented had there been an alert counselor in Loughner’s high school, well trained to identify mental illness traits.

However, there is a deeper theme to this tragedy which deserves greater discussion, namely that our society is destined to produce more such tragic incidents until we acknowledge the role of good mental health in our country — and that good mental health starts with healthy, intact families, especially during childhood. The data about healthy, intact families in this country is a sheaf of bad news. This issue has been recognized and extensively diagnosed by some of the more insightful among us, such as David Korten and Riane Eisler. Consider this passage from Korten’s The Great Turning (p 336) which illustrates the direct connection between deterioration of intact families and the economic policies advocated by the conservative right:

The New Right’s propagandists would have us believe that family stress and breakdown are the fault of gay marriage, abortion, feminists, immigrants and the liberals who support them. They are prepared to blame most anyone or anthing except their own economic and social policies. In pursuit of their own personal power and profits, New Right leaders [Author’s note: think the newly elected Republicans in the House led by John Boehner] work tirelessly to
  • roll back health and safety standards for the environment, consumers and workers, including workplace standards, a meaningful minimum wage, and the right to form unions to bargain collectively for improved wages and working conditions;
  • drive down wages and benefits for working people through international job outsourcing;
  • shift the tax burden from the investor class to the working class;
  • eliminate public services and safety nets, including public education and Social Security [Author’s note: and public mental health services in Arizona?];
  • generate military contracts for crony corporations;
  • secure intellectual property to facilitate monopoly control and pricing of access to information and technology, including essential seeds and medicine;
  • increase tax breaks and subsidies for large corporations to give them a competitive advantage over local businesses.
Each of these policies transfers wealth and power from ordinary people to the ruling elite and leaves families and communities without the means to provide their children with the essentials for healthful physical and mental development.
The following are but a few of the consequences. The details of this list are specific to the United States, but similar consequences are being experienced nearly everywhere as a direct consequence of neoliberal policies [of the New Right (Author’s note)].
  • High unemployment undermines family formation, and punitive welfare policies force single mothers into jobs paying less than a living wage without affordable, high-quality child care options. Even two-parent households are forced to piece together mulitiple jobs, allowing no time or energy for child care or for a normal family and community life. Parents are thus forced to abandon their children to television and an unregulated entertainment and gaming industry that finds it profitable to fill their minds with images of sex and violence and to actively undermine parental authority and values.
  • Corporations spend billions on direct marketing to children to create lifetime additions to junk food, alcohol and cigarettes, and a childhood obesity epidemic is poised to become the leading cause of premature death.
  • Declining health care coverage and skyrocketing health care costs place essential health care beyond the reach of most families.
  • A deteriorating public education system is unable to deal with the special needs of children physically and mentally [Author’s emphasis] handicapped by the consequences of growing up in physically and socially toxic environments, let alone deal with normal individual differences in learning styles and talents.
  • Lax environmental regulations allow corporations to discharge into the air, soil, and water massive quantities of tens of thousands of toxins destructive of children’s physical, neurological, and endocrinological development.

Intended or not, these conditions are all a direct result of the neoliberal economic policies that are the real priority of the corporate plutocracy. They leave families with few or no good options, and the lead to mental stress, family breakdown, divorce, the destruction of community life and a coarsening of moral values. The New Right argues that it is the responsibility of parents, not the state, to provide proper care for their children. Ideally, that would be the case; but the policies the New Right advances virtually guarantee that the substantial majority of parents are unable to fulfill this responsibility.

These words, published in 2006, ring prophetically over the tragic event in Tuscon on January 8, 2011. I hope some of new elected representatives in the House will hear them and take them to heart.

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