A silent crisis screaming in your ear
I've been reflecting for some time on a conversation I recently had—one you might recall—with Sen. Rich Wardner. We were discussing the problem of school security and he said that we must look further into mental health, that our students are dealing with troubles and stresses today that they weren't facing 30 years ago.
I find this a very astute point. The world has changed, and we have been slow to change with it. There is a wisdom to rigidity, but there comes a time when we cannot ignore what is clear before our waking eyes. We are facing a mental health problem, a silent crisis, and I am afraid we can no longer afford to ignore it, we can no longer assume it will go away on its own.
The human population more than tripled worldwide during the 20th century. There are more human beings living on this planet then there has ever been. The problems we are facing, the struggles of a modern world, of living with technology, with constant information saturation, advertising manipulation, and to be living so close to so many other people—these are problems hitherto unknown in human history.
The consequences of modernity are difficult to identify, and mental health issues are on the rise—despite news reports to the contrary—with a steady increase from roughly 1930 to the late 1990s, according to psychologist Jean Twenge, drawing from a number of studies for an article she wrote for Psychology Today.
I've had my fair share of experience with mental illness. I've experienced the struggle of a loved one trying to afford expensive medication for an incurable condition, a medication only sparingly covered by their insurance. It is difficult for me to articulate the stress you feel as you go from pharmacy to pharmacy, traveling across a whole city in a desperate search for one place that has what you need, or the dejection of having to wait until it's available again. I can't describe to you the mounting uncertainty that grows when you find you've run out—or the horror that can result from the absence.
I can describe some of the side-effects. If you're real unlucky, and your insurance has changed its policy unexpectedly, forcing a switch to a different medication or else spend $1,000 out of pocket, you end up with narcolepsy, losses of appetite, grogginess—the "cure" becomes nothing more than a sedative, rendering you unable to work, unable to do little more than lie between sleep and waking, lost.
I know what happens when you overdose. I know the sound of a body falling to the floor, the weight of a human being drifting perilously close to death in your arms.
I know what it's like to be told by someone that they'd rather have been left to die.
I know for certainty that there are more than a few in this community who have surely experienced or even currently experience the struggles of living with, caring for or being someone who suffers from mental illness. It is something people often dealt with in silence. It is something that is not uniform—I surmise that everybody's struggle is unique and varied, as varied and unique as the human mind itself.
Myself, I suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. I was diagnosed relatively recently, but I'd been unknowingly struggling with the symptoms for a large majority of my life. Do you know what it's like, to feel something to be wrong but be unable to tell what it is?
I wasn't born like this, this was a condition visited upon me due to incidences of trauma. I can no more undo them then I can turn back time itself, and I am saddled with the quaking horrors, the manic terrors and unexpected panics, which endure to this day, swollen on the back of my mind like engorged ticks.
I say this not for sympathy, but as example. I do not, I'd hazard to guess, fit most people's ideas of somebody who suffers from mental illness. In fact, that's sort of the point—as you see in veterans and others who suffer PTSD, it doesn't matter how strong you are, how healthy or how you were raised, trauma does not discriminate.
To wit, there's no clear course of treatment for me. Psychiatric medication carries with it its own stigmas, its own problems, some of which I touched upon above. Our understanding of mental illness is as lacking as our treatment of it. We think ourselves sophisticated, but we were still performing lobotomies on people as recently as 1967. We think ourselves just, but it's 2018 and we're only beginning to come around to the idea that treating drug addicts like criminals doesn't help them overcome their addictions.
We have outsourced mental health, made it the domain of a select orthodoxy, made it go away, and all this has done is spread the problem around. First we sequestered the mad in asylums; now unable to afford them, we simply medicate the problems away, a process which leaves many struggling financially and possibly burdened with a chemical dependence.
Now, you turn on the television and you'll see the headlines—fits of insanity manifested as mass shootings. And you perhaps think that these troubles don't matter here. These are issues that big cities have, that other places have.
Yet when I go to a middle school and I see sixth-graders confessing thoughts of suicide, I don't think I am seeing a problem removed, distant. I hear about all the good things we do, but in hushed tones I have been told of unspoken problems, of bullying and cruelty. Suicide is the second largest cause of death for people ages 15 to 24 in this state.
The big city, and its troubles, is coming to North Dakota. As our population grows, the risks will as well. Is it really only a matter of time before we start to see the same insane bursts of violence? Is it really only a matter of time before it happens to us? Can we do anything to stop it?
We're going into a pretty important election now, and there's going to be much talk about what your elected officials have done for you and what they will do. As excuses and promises are made in equal measure, I would challenge our candidates to toss out the script and speak plain:
This country cannot afford to simply let the mentally ill fend for themselves. We, as a nation, struggle with increasing burdens of debt. To be sick in America is a sort of damnation, a constant cycle of payment and poverty, drugs, prescriptions and arguments with insurance companies whose profits depend on you not qualifying.
So, to those about to enter the arena, proud of stature, speeches clutched close to breast, I challenge you now to lead not just the state, but the nation. We need a solution—not a political solution, not a concession or compromise, but a real, working health care solution, a comprehensive system that can provide resources, real knowledge and real care.
We are the land of personal responsibility, and yet I find especially that conservatives shirk the responsibility they have to ensuring the common welfare. Someone will always contest the price, perhaps even while spending tens of millions of dollars on re-election campaigns. Well, contest away—but the price for inaction is already being paid. It's being paid in blood, it's being paid in time—and it's being paid in pain.
So find a solution—or risk the cost.