The role of cultural attitudes as a hindrance to soberly addressing mental health issues, much less resolving them, has been often mentioned in this space. On the deepest personal level, too many suffer needlessly due to the stigma of having to struggle with things like everyday depression and anxiety, not to mention those other problems that can become debilitating, at their worst.
People often find little support from those around them, and when they find the courage to finally seek help – or when desperation or other factors force them to take action – help can be difficult to find, or once found , the wait for that first appointment can be a long time. On a broader level, access to affordable mental health care has not been much of a government priority, reflecting the culture as a whole. Any positive change in this picture would be welcome, one would think, but one can only welcome a recent current for positive change with mixed emotions, as it has only surfaced in the context of gun violence. America is well aware – and accepts, as a culture – all the horrific consequences of easy gun access.
We are a standout among all the countries of the world on that one, along with incarceration rates. Sandy Hook, three years ago, changed the conversation a bit, due to the extraordinary level of tragedy, and what we got was a consequent call for better policing, education, training, gun laws – and mental health services. Shooters are mentally ill in some way, obviously – or so the reasoning goes – so detecting this, and treating it before it’s too late makes sense, right? A couple of bills were introduced at the time on Capitol Hill, proposing removal of insurance barriers, funding more psychiatric research, and establishing an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health, among other things. A chance for real movement on this issue! Except for the fact that the gun interests that seem to determine outcomes (this is America, after all) have dictated that none of the agenda ever got realized through legislation. Following the consequent gun tragedies in South Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia, Oregon, Arizona, and Texas – yes, those all have happened since Sandy Hook – the two Republican-introduced bills (think about that) are finally getting a hearing. Does this mean mental health is finally having its day in Congress? The talk is about schizophrenia and bipolar illness, while the mental health reality is that these represent a tiny part of what constitutes mental health in this country. Does a rising tide lift all boats? Or is mental health only getting further stigmatized by this government-sponsored association with extraordinary behaviors? Is this focus on mental health a ploy by the politicians, where taking action on mental health substitutes for putting restrictions on firearms, which they continue to resist? We are living in complicated times, indeed.
John Dabrowski LICSW
Neponset Health Center and Geiger Gibson Community Health Center