Saturday, June 9, 2018

Mental Illness and Quality of Life in America


If you read this blog for awards season analysis and other movie commentary (if you read it at all), this post might come as something of a surprise. When I first started writing here eleven years ago, I imagined that there would be a fair amount of political entries. It didn't take me very long to learn how exhausting that really is. Politics on the internet is a constant parade of various outrages and overblown non-news stories and I'm not sure how anyone with any sort of real-life schedule is supposed to "react" to all of them. I put that stuff aside to keep the focus on what I thought I did pretty well, stuff like Oscar predictions and looking back on childhood shows with an adult's point of view. Sometimes, though, I just have to get something out and that's basically what this is. Not a rant exactly, more like a structured essay that gives me a chance to express some feelings I've been stewing about for a few years now. If that's not your thing, I understand. Oh, just one more note - I've been working on this for so long that the bulk of it was actually written before Trump was elected. I'm going to try and keep him out of it, especially since he's a particularly vile symptom rather than the disease. But with him around, basically take everything here and multiply it by ten.


I've seen quite a few articles about how anxiety and depression is rising in America, particularly with young people. As I read them, I often slowly nod my head in agreement since the observations of the journalist line up with my own observations in my personal and professional life. I honestly feel like the majority of people I know struggle with anxiety (and possibly depression, although that's harder to spot). Medical science says that people are born with a certain level of susceptibility to these feelings and that leads to a sense of inevitability that compresses the conversation into variations on "What can these individuals do to help themselves?" This is all well and good, but if we really are seeing more anxiety and depression than we used to, I think we have to talk about the bigger picture as well.

The "big picture" is usually invoked as a way to cheer someone up, as in "You had a bad day today but in the big picture, your life is going pretty well!" That's fine but I don't hear people talk about how if the picture gets big enough, it might make you feel worse. I don't think you can talk about these prominent mental conditions in America without talking about life in America. Quality of life in America to be more specific, which is often compromised by our country's obsession with productivity and profit. It's true that some people are more prone to depression or anxiety than others. That doesn't mean we always need to be making it so goddamn easy to feel that. Right now, America is facilitating anxiety and depression, keeping it going the same way my phone charger didn't create my phone but keeps it at 100% power. We've got to do better.

Obviously, there are a lot of directions we can go with this - poverty, discrimination, police brutality, war, environmental blight, our longtime tradition of constant mass shootings, border patrols re-enacting scenes from Sophie's Choice with migrant families at the Mexican border, etc. If I was younger, I probably would have tried to hit all of them with an essay like this. These days, I think a "jack of all trades" approach to advocacy leads to inevitable instances of sounding presumptuous and/or uninformed. That said, while all of these issues don't impact everyone directly, they do contribute to an overall portrait of despair that can do more damage to someone's mental state that we usually give credit for. I'm narrowing my focus to a few loosely connected issues that relate to a person's relationship with their career as well as obstacles in the way of getting the necessary help, which are topics I have plenty of personal experience with. Those who have had conversations with me in real life will probably find that much of this is familiar, but I never get the chance to tie it all together like this. Four paragraphs is a long enough introduction, I'd say. Let's start.

The Broken Bargain

Since the economy went south, it's become very common to hear things like "you should be happy to even have a job right now with the economy the way it is." Yet when you consider how so many people in America are treated by their employers, gratitude is hardly the first emotion that comes to mind.

People talk about full-time work as if there is no downside to it. But there is. There always has been. Giving up 40 hours of your life every week for years is a huge sacrifice. That's time that could be spent with your family, out in a park, doing something creative or just quiet reflection. Time is not a renewable resource. When it's gone, we're gone. The whole idea behind it is that you get paid enough to sustain yourself and enjoy the time that you're not at work. The exchange of time for money - this is a bargain that is supposed to sustain contemporary society, but it's broken.

We've lost respect for the time that people give up when they spend countless hours in an office. America's $7.25/hour minimum wage is an insult, not even close to anything resembling proper compensation for giving up that time. To make up for this, many people have taken on additional jobs, giving up even more time in exchange for earning just enough to stave off hunger for another week. I don't have enough negative adjectives to describe this situation - unjust, heinous, despicable, shameful, horrifying, take your pick. Politicians like to say "Nobody who works full-time should live in poverty." I'd prefer to say that nobody at all should live in poverty, but yes it's particularly insulting when you're also working your ass off. But there's more to quality of life than just avoiding poverty. People who are giving up that much time should make enough to pay their bills, feed their families, and have enough left over for something special every so often. A trip to a restaurant, a family vacation, an opportunity to enjoy life. Because if you can't do that, what's the point of working? What's the point of even being alive?

Sometimes you hear people say that the minimum wage should be kept low in order to encourage fast-food workers and other people at "dead-end" jobs to strive for something better. But those jobs will always exist because there's always a need for them, so someone will have to do them. Not everyone has the resume to move on to something more respectable (and fewer will in the future since higher education has gotten so laughably unaffordable), so is it really right to sentence these people to lives full of struggle just for working jobs that are always necessary and yet seen by the public as disreputable? Fast food places are everywhere so there's obviously high demand for them. Why have we collectively decided that the people who serve the food deserve to be paid so poorly?

This issue is at the heart of the "income inequality" concept, which I have to admit is a term I'm not a big fan of. Not because I don't feel it's a problem, it obviously is, but because I think the wording is ripe for distortion. It's too easy for pundits to get overly defensive and sound the alarm about the plot to bring everyone's wages to the same level. We don't actually need a society where everyone gets paid the same exact amount of money. We just need to make sure nobody gets screwed. The bottom of the ladder, so to speak, should still yield enough money to live a decent life. Once again, I'm not saying everyone needs to be able to get sports cars and mansions and luxuries of that nature, but they should be able to live comfortably with opportunities to create those memories that make life worthwhile.

Real Family Values

The fact that the phrase "family values" is almost exclusively used in American politics as a warped justification for various types of bigotry or moral censorship is a sad commentary on our national conversation in general. We shouldn't have to cringe when our leaders use that phrase, because actual family values are important and not given much respect in this country's work culture. The most glaringly obvious example is that new parents are still not guaranteed any paid time off to care for their newborn children. We love to heap praise on mothers and fathers when their respective parent-themed holidays roll around, but when it counts, it's just talk.

In the interest of honesty, I should note that this is personal. When I became a father, I was shocked and deeply discouraged by how my employer behaved. They couldn't legally deny me time off, but they tried everything to make the process as inconvenient and unhelpful as possible. I'm not going to get into all the details here, I've told the story many many times. I don't mind telling it since it has that rare 100% success rate of getting a sympathetic response, which I've never been accustomed to when talking about my problems. The unanimous solidarity people express when hearing that story, regardless of age, background or politics, makes me wonder why our laws are so behind on this issue because clearly a decent chunk of our people are not. But make no mistake, what America offers is abysmal compared to the rest of the world. Even Iran, a country we always paint as full of backwards-ass fundamentalist nutbars, will give you 12 weeks of paid family leave.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed about 25 years ago and provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents and guarantees that you will have a job when you return. I got to become very familiar with this law during my own experiences, particularly its limitations. Various exceptions within the legislation mean that a huge chunk of the workforce (sometimes estimated as high as 50 percent) is not eligible for anything. But beyond that, unpaid leave creates a very different dynamic than paid leave. Sure you can keep your job, but you are being punished for taking the time off by having your income cut off. Have you ever bought baby formula? How about diapers? It's expensive. Not the best time to be short on money. It's supposed to be an incentive to have children, but instead it becomes an incentive to go back to work earlier. That doesn't strike me as an accident.

I've seen a few articles reporting that a significant percentage of people my age and younger don't intend to have kids. If they just don't want to, that's all well and good. Being a parent is a ton of work that shouldn't be forced on anyone who doesn't truly want children. However, the most commonly cited reason is not a lack of desire but financial insecurity. They're afraid that they can't afford it or that it will compromise their careers and they're totally justified in those fears. I've seen a lot of tone deaf articles whining about not enough babies being produced so what's holding us back from doing something significant about it? Well, I read one article that speculated that opposition to paid family leave is rooted in opposition to women working at all. While I'm sure that's the motivation for a decent amount of people in Congress, I think most of it is just cold hard capitalism. Too many employers are worried that paid family leave could cause them to miss out on some potential money. As far as America is concerned, there is no greater good that's good enough to risk such a horrible fate.

So that's the sad state we find ourselves in. Productivity and profit is more important than the continuation of society itself. Bringing the next generation into the world, already challenging on its own, is turned into a major financial risk for thousands of families out there. Speaking from experience, I can tell you this sort of thing is very bad for your mental health. It poisoned my mood for the few months I spent at my job afterwards and even now, it still haunts me. I think of these lyrics from Eminem's "Like Toy Soldiers" - Even though the battle was won/I feel like we lost it/Spent so much energy on it/Honestly, now I'm exhausted/But I'm so caught up in it I almost feel like I'm the one who caused it. But I didn't. I was just trying to be a good father until my job got in the way. We won't shut up about "family values" and yet we don't actually value families. The irony is very cruel indeed.

The One Great Sight

"Wildness is a necessity. I am losing previous days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must get out into the mountains and hear the news."
-John Muir

Quick note: We don't have paid sick leave either. This one really boggles the mind. Do you want a waiter serving your food at a restaurant to have the flu? Didn't think so. This is a much easier sell than family leave and yet for some ungodly reason, we still don't have it.

Vacation that's a hard sell. Most people agree that taking time off to get healthy or to care for a newborn child are still practical choices. But taking time off to relax? To see a beautiful place? To enjoy uninterrupted time with your family? This isn't seen by employers or politicians as smart use of time that could be spent making other people money. This is a distinctly American eccentricity. We've been called "The No Vacation Nation" by the Center of Economic and Policy Research. There are benevolent employers out there who grant paid vacation time to their employees, but the fact that you're at the mercy of your employer when it comes to this issue is what bothers me.

Our obnoxious cultural disdain for enjoying life in non work-related ways can be summed up by a car commercial from a while back. I'm not gonna give a link to it because they can go fuck themselves. It showed an over-privileged white douchebag walking around his house insulting the French for taking six weeks of vacation each year and praising America for using our limited time on the planet making great cars instead. Yeah, I'm sure the French are sulking around Europe during their long vacations because they don't make cars as cool as ours. However, that wasn't the worst part of this commercial. The most insidious part was at the end, when the pitchman said that "only taking two weeks off in August" was worth it for a nice car. This presents two weeks of vacation as the default in America, but it isn't. The default is nothing. A large portion of people working in this country have no time off whatsoever.

Making the whole situation even stranger is that despite our reluctance to guarantee vacation time to our citizens, we still have the federal government taking care of millions of acres of protected land - our National Parks. They're meant to preserve beautiful places for our enjoyment, but these days they're used more by foreign tourists. You know what I'm talking about if you've been to one - most people there are from Germany or Canada or China or Japan. In fact, I've even seen Chinese-speaking tourists at Walden Pond. You've got to have a lot of time off to make the trip from China to Massachusetts...and be really into Thoreau. The parks are one of the greatest things America ever did. Most of the world has followed suit, but why are we not prouder that we did it first? Why do we take more pride in how efficiently we can destroy other nations rather than the beauty of where we live? I actually feel patriotic when I'm in a national park. Yeah, me. The lack of access to television and the internet probably helps with that.

There was a time when our leaders found them patriotic as well. President Theodore Roosevelt, who did more for this cause than anyone else to hold the position, once described the Grand Canyon as "the one great sight that every American should see." But good luck making good on this if you don't already live near it and don't have any vacation time. Trying to do it in a weekend would be more stressful than your job. I saw a particularly dense article (this is becoming a running theme) theorizing why more minorities in America don't go to the parks. The writer wondered if it was because there was no wi-fi. Someone actually got paid to suggest that but I'll tell you the truth for free. They don't go for the same reason a sizable portion of white people don't go - not enough money, not enough time off.

I understand that parks aren't necessarily where everyone wants to go, but whatever you enjoy doing that isn't strictly should have time for that without having to risk your financial security. It's not unreasonable to ask for that, no matter what a brain dead commercial might tell you.

Good Help is Hard to Find

"I tell ya, I get no respect! I get no respect at all!"
-Rodney Dangerfield

If you've read everything up to this point and are on board...thanks! But this is the part you're not going to like. Still, it needs to be said. More often than not, the way people react to depression and the people who have it is the opposite of help.

This is the sad, awful truth about living with depression - being alive is hard. It doesn't even have to be a bad day. The simple state of being alive is hard. When you consider the deaths of beloved, successful people like Robin Williams, Chris Cornell or Anthony Bourdain, people who weren't dealing with any of the stuff I've been going on about, you understand just how ruthless depression is. I've got kids running around, I have to drag myself out of bed every day but it's hard when your energy level is so often depleted. Sometimes a simple thing like bending over to pick something up becomes tiring. Some days I panic if people ask too many questions because of the effort required to answer them all. Tasks that most people would complete without a second thought often require me to spend a while shoring up the energy and willpower. People just don't want to hear this. They hate the idea of someone having an "excuse" not to be overly productive or hardworking. It's simply not acceptable. So they tend to react to people who are mentally ill with passive-aggressive glurge or sometimes outright hostility. Want some examples?

"Stop being so selfish!"

You know what somebody who is struggling is going to think after you say this? Here's a hint, it's not "Wow, he's right!" More like "Well, I won't be opening up about my struggles to that person again." If that's what you wanted (and something tells me it just might be), then mission accomplished. Just don't start going on about how "I had no idea anything was wrong."

One of the worst parts of depression or any mental illness is the shame, that awful guilt about being a burden to everyone around you. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel like the proper thing to do is to pile on even more shame. They think it's about your well-being, but it's not. It's about what you can give them. They'll call you selfish for taking something away from them, never mind the hurt of what they take from you.

"You're not entitled to a living wage/sick time/vacation time/family leave/anything that might give you the impression that you're a worthwhile human being!"

Ah, the E-word. Where would assholes be without it? The thing cuts both ways. You're not entitled to borderline free labor from employees who express nothing but happiness about getting screwed over! See how easy that is?

"Smiling is the best anti-depressant!"

Wait, isn't this a quote from The Stepford Wives? No? This is a thing people actually say? Wow. Well, it's inaccurate in addition to being incredibly stupid.

Otherwise well-meaning people might interpret this stuff as "tough love," but frankly nothing about it feels loving. We're all getting called out constantly by the culture around us and to be treated like this by our loved ones does not help. People who are a little more savvy will advise you to get professional help. They're right but it's not always as simple as it sounds.

It's become routine for journalists to provide the number for the suicide hotline at some point in their coverage. It's a thoughtful idea but it's not a magic bullet. The hotline's go-to move is to send you to the ER, because that's the surest bet that you'll remain alive once they're off the phone. But the suicide hotline doesn't pay that ER bill. Not only that, visits to a therapist add up. Medication adds up.

And so we've gotten to the most literal example of mental health being compromised by the whims of business and commerce. As long as we treat mental health care (or any health care, really) like a big screen TV or some other luxury, this won't stop. You can keep pushing people into darker corners, but you can't make them happy about it. We're all going to become very familiar with that reality. When the next shooting comes around (should be any day now, it's been a few weeks) and people start reprising their empty declarations about "mental health," maybe think about what it would actually take to address that instead of just using it to fill airtime.


This rise in anxiety and depression that baffles so many otherwise intelligent people is inextricably linked to a society that doesn't see its citizens as actual people, but economic units to be plugged at their lowest possible price into a ruthless market that provides the greatest possible returns on investment to the wealthy few...all with no thought to the resulting human resentment and misery.

It may be tempting to think that it's not worth even trying. If depression is so bad, is it even possible to do anything? The answer is yes. Some people are lucky enough to have their illnesses go into remission for a long time, sometimes even years. Many other people will always be dealing with them at least a little bit. Regardless, moments of happiness and joy are still possible. It can be anything from standing on top of Glacier Point to hearing "What is Love" start playing over the intercom while you're grocery shopping (I like that, anyway). More than anything else, hope for more moments like these is what keeps people alive. So maybe don't make it so difficult to experience them?

It's just a thought.