Just recently there was a murder in the town where I grew up. A 29 year-old woman has been charged with beating and stabbing a 65 year-old man to death. People are saying that the woman was mentally unstable and the talk about a mental health care crisis in our country has resurfaced here at home.
The homicide is the first in 9 years. The previous murder involved a man and a 15 month-old baby, so it has been even longer since there was a murder that resulted from a confrontation between two adults. Saranac Lake is a village in Upstate, NY where families are raised in what is considered a safe environment. The murder is an anomaly.
However, it bears characteristics similar to gruesome incidences which have arisen all over the country; all over the world. People killing other people for reasons that have been linked to mental health issues. And so the mental health debate has been circulating.
Since Sandy Hook, policies have been changed within the mental health field, specifically in relation to gun control. These policies have changed the level of privacy that mental health patients are entitled to. Generally speaking, any new regulations which result from the emotional response to a tragedy invariably involve the stripping of personal freedoms. We consider it “individual sacrifices for the greater good,” or something to that extent. Hypervigilant airport security checks come to mind.
I’ve listened, as have you, to the national dialog. Now that the issues are being raised so close to my home, I’d like to try and set the record straight, to nip in the bud an errant discussion on mental health. Mental health care, and some solution to either augment it, or to forge some tough-love opinion about those who are mentally unstable among us, is a reaction that misses the root cause of our current epidemic.
In the mental health field, and in medicine, standard of care is driven by policy, and policy is driven by the opinion makers, and the opinion makers are influenced by the almighty corporation. Let me just condense that equation – mental health standard of care is driven by the corporation.
We are not a preventative-medicine society, because there is little or no enabled profit margin for preventative medicine in our country. We are a treat-the-symptom health care society. We take more pills than any other country in the world – Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s pain pills, for instance, 25 percent of women in the US take mental health meds, anti-anxiety pills for kids age 10-19 are up 50 % – so it ain’t a lack of pills; we take billions of them annually.
In a full-disclosure editorial, a prominent cardiac surgeon recently wrote that for 60 years, doctors have gotten heart disease wrong. The surgeon explains in his article that what was previously considered to drive heart disease – fat and cholesterol – is not the case. Rather, it is the processed foods, the refined sugars and flours that we eat which inflame artery walls and restrict the blood flow. The low-fat diet prescribed by opinion makers and fueled by the money-market system which capitalized on selling low-fat foods, and which pushes fast food, nutrition-less candies and snacks and processed foods into the market are what is killing us. (I would link to this article, but after reading it last night, it has mysteriously disappeared. There are, however, other articles which refer to and quote the source article.)
Similarly, we have had a misguided understanding of mental health for decades. Only recently have progressive doctors and therapists come to understand epigenetics, and how our environment shapes genes and behavior. Research has shown that from the time we are conceived in the womb, we are influenced by our environment and that our genes are switched on or off given the conditions we experience. By and large, we are each a being that is forged not just by the initial encoding of our genetic traits, but by the world we grow into.
That world is one dominated by the money-market system. That world is one of an increasing wealth gap that rivals anything before seen in history. That world is one in which love, empathy, and compassion are categorically unrewarded by the socioeconomic system, but rather indifference and selfishness bear up best under the economic and social pressures of our time.
Doctors – from general physicians to specialists and psychiatrists, as well as mental health counselors and other therapist clinicians, work in a system structured to be rewarded by numbers. Seeing more patients per hour and reporting more billable hours are the only ways to stay solvent given current conditions. People come back to see a doctor or therapists often with the same problem over and over again. Their time together is circumscribed. Their options are limited – provide information, or provide a drug. The true, personal care, the time it takes to unravel the complexity of a suffering person, to truly empathize and see things from their point of view in order to help them, is hardly there.
We can’t expect our system, which creates the gross inequities that result in the crime, drug use, and mental fallibility of our time, in an increasingly secular, hedonistic society, to produce perfect people. And we can’t then expect our mental health care system, enmeshed in the same money-market paradigm which engenders the conditions wherein mental instability flourishes, to be able to simply fix these people. We can’t just turn away and expect others to do the job that is, essentially, our own job – to love our neighbor and to be compassionate with our neighbor.
Each one of us is tasked with showing the love and support that many people brought down by the system deserve. Whether they are a product of poverty, of drug or alcohol abuse, of a high crime environment, of sexual or emotional abuse, we are complicit in their suffering. Our flatscreen TVs (I have three), our smartphones and two car garages and sports weekends and trips to the tropics are the result of a system that, sure, rewards hard work and all of that guff, but that functions through an increasingly stratified society, and perpetuates the gross inequality which defines modern day capitalism.
How quick we are to judge. From what I’ve heard, people have already tried and convicted this woman and have her sentenced in their minds. There’s no “excuse” for murder, but there is due process, and there is an opportunity to reflect on the conditions which may have given rise to a tragedy like this, and all other tragedies of this nature. How quick we are to label and to cast away, and to make it someone else’s problem, and to blame the mental health care system – a system in this region populated by tens of thousands of people who see endless suffering, and who do everything they can within the strictures dealt to them by the money-making hands of our economy.