In October, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer took to Twitter to share the story of a veteran in Rochester, New York, who couldn’t pay his mortgage after his enhanced unemployment benefits expired and took his own life.
Here was Schumer’s opportunity to speak to the cascading series of policy failures that led to a veteran not being able to pay his mortgage during the worst viral outbreak of the modern era. But, in true Democratic Party fashion, he missed the glaringly obvious, calling not for the cancellation of rent and mortgage payments, or monthly survival checks, but instead a grant program for hospitals to better monitor those at risk of self-harm.
This doesn’t stray far from recent interventions proposed by other congressional leaders. Senator Kyrsten Sinema directed veterans to download the COVID Coach app, a self-care app that provides coping tools for those struggling during the pandemic. Her Senate counterpart, Mark Kelly, referred people to a Red Cross workshop designed to “to build resilience and coping skills.”
Our elected leaders have depoliticized the stress and anxiety we feel about a world that seems to be flying off the rails. Our frayed nerves are met with new prescriptions, self-care regimens, or other remedies that individualize our suffering and keep it constrained to the realm of medical professionals.
That’s not to diminish medical or other wellness treatments, of course. We need them. But rarely is anxiety and stress given political resonance and framed as a natural consequence of an economic system that profits off our exploitation, sells us products we don’t need, and, especially under COVID-19, leaves us to die.
The country isn’t just reeling from the trauma of a pandemic but a pandemic under capitalism. Our collective trauma is recast as a personal crisis, a private concern to be shared between you and your doctor. Or, if you can’t afford a doctor, you and your app.
Our elected officials fail to grasp the depth of the crisis. Americans’ assessment of their own mental health is at its lowest point in decades. One in four young people have battled suicidal ideations in the past year. The daily contortions of pandemic life have turned us into fonts of nervous energy.
The $1.9 trillion relief package provides a crucial lifeline for countless Americans and, in a welcome departure from the past four decades of Democratic orthodoxy, rejects the worst of austerity. But it’s telling that proposals to raise the minimum wage or enroll unemployed workers in Medicare were struck down. These inclusions would have given struggling people a newfound material security and peace of mind. Jason Cherkis, who has spent years researching suicide, argues in a recent New York Times piece that a living wage would reduce suicide rates — quite literally, save lives.
This erosion of our mental health will only be compounded in a post-pandemic world if stimulus funds dry up, eviction moratoriums are lifted, and people are herded back into offices with superficial shows of sanitation. So why haven’t our elected leaders sought to use this crisis to build consensus around the most urgent issues of our time, like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and a wealth tax?
Any surviving remnant of social cohesion has been undone during this pandemic. People yearn for a neatly packaged rationale for their suffering, and many Americans are finding it in conspiratorial corners of the internet, evidenced by the rise of QAnon, One America News, and crackpot COVID-19 theories. Giving voice to this anxious moment may not just succeed in making people feel less alone but stave off a growing far-right conspiracy movement that feeds off people’s isolation and misery.
What would it sound like for political leaders to promise easement from the dread through redistributive policy, or connect mental well-being to material conditions? How much more would our floundering psyches benefit from mass debt or rent cancellation than, say, a fifteen-minute telehealth appointment with a physician’s assistant in Utah?
The relief package augurs a welcome shift away from the politics of scarcity, but we need our leaders to go bigger and bolder. Americans are sitting on over $1.7 trillion in student debt, yet 41 percent of recent graduates are working in jobs that don’t even require a college degree. Millions of people are spending more than 50 percent of their income just to keep a roof over their heads. It’s no wonder we feel anxious and depressed. In the richest country in the world, we’re perpetually living at the edge of ruin.
The World Health Organization’s report on social determinants of mental health recognizes the threat of inequality to mental health. The authors suggest that public policy aimed at reducing inequality can actually improve mental well-being and diminish the risk of worsening mental health conditions, writing that “risk factors for many common mental disorders are heavily associated with social inequalities, whereby the greater the inequality the higher the inequality in risk.”
Working-class Americans feel a deep sense of anxiety about their circumstances and a feeling of abandonment by the public institutions that were supposed to protect them. Democrats should address those anxieties substantively, with policies that speak to the root causes of the country’s mental health crisis.