It’s no coincidence that our politics and our #mentalhealth have declined so rapidly, at the same time.
By Lee Siegel
Mr. Siegel is the author, most recently, of “The Draw: A Memoir.”
Everyone has his or her own definition of a political crisis. Mine is when our collective #mentalhealth starts having a profound effect on our politics — and vice versa.
It cannot be a simple coincidence that the two have declined in tandem. The American Psychiatric Association reported that from 2016 to 2017, the number of adults who described themselves as more anxious than the previous year rose 36 percent. In 2017, more than 17 million American adults had a new diagnosis of a major depressive disorder, as well as three million adolescents ages 12 to 17. Forty million adults now suffer from an #anxiety disorder — nearly 20 percent of the adult population. (These are the known cases of #depression and #anxiety. The actual numbers must be dumbfounding.)
Welcome to the “next chapter” of my life… being a voice and an advocate for #mentalhealthawarenessandsuicideprevention, especially pertaining to our younger generation of students and student-athletes.
Getting men to speak up and reach out for help and assistance is one of my passions. Us men need to not suffer in silence or drown our sorrows in alcohol, hang out at bars and strip joints, or get involved with drug use.
Having gone through a recent bout of #depression and #suicidalthoughts myself, I realize now, that I can make a huge difference in the lives of so many by sharing my story, and by sharing various resources I come across as I work in this space. #http://bit.ly/JamesMentalHealthArticle
The really sorrowful reports concern #suicide. Among all Americans, the suicide rate increased by 33 percent between 1999 and 2017.
All of this #mental carnage is occurring at a time when decades of social and political division have set against each other black and white, #men and #women, old and young. Beyond bitter social antagonisms, the country is racked by #massshootings, the mind-bending perils of the internet, revelations of widespread sexual predation, the worsening effects of climate change, virulent competition, the specter of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, grinding student debt and crises in housing, health care and higher education. The frightening environment helps cause #depression, #depression causes catastrophic thinking, and catastrophic thinking makes the environment seem even more terrifying than it is.
Out of this dark cast of mind arose the hunger for a strong, avenging figure whose arrival has sent even more mentally harrowing shock waves through society. If President Trump is indeed #mentallyill, as so many of his critics claim, he may well be the most representative leader we have ever had.
Yet as everyone whose mind is in jeopardy knows, it is not sufficient to speak about #mentalillness in general, abstract terms. A person’s individual challenges are not simply extractions from a national malaise.
I would not have sat down to write this if I had not been tormented over the past few years by my own individual challenges, including frequent thoughts of #suicide. Even today, the idea of jumping off a bridge or swallowing a lethal amount of pills enters my mind and holds me in its grip.
But with the exception of one morning a year and a half ago, when the effects of the withdrawal from the Valium that I had been taking nightly for 18 months were so overpowering that I nearly stepped in front of a subway train, my fantasies of killing myself have been just that: dreams of escape that would obliterate my pain without ending my life.
Along with visits to a therapist — since my experience with Valium, I have refused for now to take psychiatric medication — I have my own coping strategies. Picking out “Over the Rainbow” on the piano my wife and I have rented for our 9-year-old daughter, I realized that the first two notes — “Some-where” — are identical, separated by an octave. The seven notes between them correspond to the seven colors of a rainbow. Thus the song musically embodies the leap from unfulfilling Kansas to the enchanted world of Oz.
The process of struggling to conceive of a positive idea of the future that would enable me to leap out of my #depression I have begun to call, to myself, “octave thinking.”
The real national division is between people who have the resources, inner and outer, to survive their #mentalillness and those who don’t.
Particular instances that make it possible for me to climb out of despair I imagine as pitons, the iron spikes mountain climbers drive into rock to ascend, sometimes hand over hand. Work is a piton. The enjoyment of art is a piton. Showing kindness to another person is a piton. Helping to raise our two #children — our son is 13 — is the strongest piton of them all.
Freud famously said that #depression was anger turned inward. We know now that #depression is a result of numerous factors: social environment, economic pressure, cognitive misreading, a random event, trauma, neurobiology and genes.
Like anyone who has confronted #depression, I know that this is, first and foremost, my challenge, unique to my life. And yet the line between the self and all the external forces that continually shape and reshape the self is blurrier than we like to believe. There are very particular external factors that make their way into my head and impel me toward thoughts of taking my own life.
There is the constant, relentless, unremitting financial triage as our financial obligations slowly overwhelm our means of meeting them. The choices are especially painful when they involve responding to one child’s needs over another’s. We have to weigh expensively nurturing a child’s gift against expensively responding to a child’s challenge.
It’s not just the money. To say that there is less use for a 62-year-old white male (unless you happen to be running for president) these days is not to devalue the social transformations that are rapidly occurring in the age of Trump. You can hail necessary social change and complain about being, to some degree, a casualty of it, both at the same time.
In this way, I view myself — and imagine others — caught in a double bind. My #depression springs from my biology, my biography, my choices. But it occurs within a far broader context that could bring just about anyone down, and apparently does. The fact is that the country is not red and blue. It is almost entirely blue.
The real national division, as I see it, is between people who have the resources, inner and outer, to survive their #mentalillness and those who don’t.
Affording a therapist and finding the right therapist — it is rare: wisdom, empathy and kindness cannot be taught — they are the first obstacles to overcome. Then you might have to find the right and affordable psychiatrist, who will help you make an informed decision about whether to take psychiatric drugs that will or will not help, perhaps even saving your life.
Even more people never receive an actual psychiatric diagnosis. A 2014 study found that 80 percent of all prescriptions for antidepressants were being issued by primary care physicians who had no psychological, psychiatric or psychopharmacological training at all.
Yet even as our #mentalhealthcrisis proliferates, even as streams of books and articles are published about depression and anxiety, the subject of #mentalillness has become another voyeuristic exhibition in the carnival of commerce. We talk about it, but we don’t talk about how to address it.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on Mental Health, which led to the #MentalHealth Systems Act of 1980. Much of that legislation was repealed by Ronald Reagan, but it led to many good policy ideas, including a new emphasis on treatment for #AfricanAmericans and #women, and for people with a nonbinary sexual identity or a disability. There was also a new focus on organized psychiatric care for children and adolescents, older Americans, those living in rural areas and victims of rape.
Trump appeals only to our meanest selves, unconcerned with the impact that has on our overall sense of self.
Many of these ideas, however, never took hold in practice. And #mentalhealth has not been addressed at a sweeping national level since then. Our pandemic of #mentalillness simply does not come up in the presidential debates.
We need a national leader who will, as President Carter tried to do, address the urgent issue of #mentalillness, not with piecemeal legislation but with a national crusade. We need a leader who will elevate this crisis to the same level of national urgency as gun control and climate change.
I know what I rationally expect in a president: reason, character, dignity. But I will not feel hopeful about anyone who does not respond to my turbulent unconscious, to my brute, irrational need to be the object of empathetic concern as an individual and to be affirmed as a person.
There are positive and negative means of appealing to that almost biological desire to be protected and empowered. Sadly, Mr. Trump has known how to make that appeal better than anyone on the national stage so far. He addresses himself to the meanest, basest sources of emotion, and this has the effect of making everyone who is indifferent to his appeal feel imperiled and unnerved.
A positive alternative had better come along soon. In the absence of a national resolve to address surging #mentalillness in #America, our politics and its social consequences will continue to toss on waves of #depression, #anxiety and despair, themselves both a cause and an effect of our collapsing public realm.
As for me, I will keep thinking octavely and grasping my pitons; I will do whatever I can to go on living and to flourish, my loving wife by my side, my rare and precious children ever in my mind.
If you are having thoughts of #suicide, call the #NationalSuicidePreventionLifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.