Historically, mental health talks in public forums have been suppressed. Not anymore. For an issue that society has long encouraged people to open up while simultaneously subduing it, mental health is now being skewed by conservative politicians into a polarizing touchpoint.
To see how this is playing out in a way that penalizes progress for the state of the mental health movement, look no further than the sardine-filled 2024 Republican presidential primaries. Mental illness has been weaponized politically. After the political upheaval over COVID-19 vaccines, however, who’s surprised?
About from the National Rifle Association 2023 stage (NRA), now disjointed White House hopefuls Donald Trump and Mike Pence have made their point clear: mass shootings are a mental health issue, not a gun issue. This display of stigmatization is most commonly seen after tragic events, such as the unprecedented number of mass shootings we have experienced. It is an unrelated distraction tool. The experts said so not only are most people with mental illness non-violentbut it is also much more likely that they are victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators.
The medicalization of political subjects is an intersection that UCLA’s Dr. Danielle Carr grapples with as she states that mental health is really political.
The NRA, in particular, has become an ever-open faucet of mental health blaming, which has had pretty powerful implications on our mental health system, said Dr. Yanos, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Written Off: Mental Health Stigma and the loss of human potential.” The NRA’s anti-mental health rhetoric, part of their routine finger-pointing exercise, has coincided with increased institutional funding for social removal of individuals with health problems mental.
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This response, blaming mental health, is common, according to Dr. Naomi Torres-Mackie, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Given the complexity of mental health, it is often not understood. “We are emotional beings and things we don’t understand, we fear,” Dr. Torres-Mackie explained. “We’re definitely talking more frequently about mental health on a larger scale, but quantity doesn’t always equal quality.”
Pence and Trump are not alone. Suicides are known to be soaring among teenage girls, a sobering reality that GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley baselessly blames on their transgender athlete peers. The former South Carolina governor recently spewed this factually incorrect and dehumanizing language CNN Town Hall. When asked to define “wake,” which the right has repeatedly demonized, Haley stammered this answer:“How are we supposed to get our girls used to biological boys being in their locker rooms? And then they wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year.”
Crossing out “mental health” in promoting resilience is not only creating more stigma and shame around mental health, Dr. Torres-Mackie said, it’s also increasing toxic positivity.
Such examples from the congregation of GOP candidates stigmatizing mental health are not in short supply. While comments like those of Haley, Pence, and Trump may seem like just talking points, they are erasing the result of decades spent destigmatizing mental illness. When these not-so-micro-aggressions by candidates are compiled, the picture is clear: The GOP presidential primaries have succumbed to a damaging reckoning with mental health at the expense of vulnerable and marginalized communities. These comments being made on public platforms by top political contenders can be interpreted as an indication of one’s worth, with the potential to devalue and make people feel unworthy, Dr Torres-Mackie said.
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So what might all of this mean for the mental health landscape if a GOP candidate secures the White House next year? Well, there’s already some kind of project in Florida. The wife of Trump contender governor Ron DeSantis, Casey DeSantis, recently announced a mental health campaign in Florida schools. Amid the onslaught of other stigmatizing interventions Florida schools are enduring, First Lady DeSantis’ campaign is “rejecting the term mental health and replacing it with resilience,” despite the widely accepted cultural neglect of using the racist word “resilience.” “.
Crossing out “mental health” in promoting resilience is not only creating more stigma and shame around mental health, Dr. Torres-Mackie said, it’s also increasing toxic positivity. This approach embodies the dangers of going back to a time when children were encouraged not to talk about hardship and pain.
If Pence’s governorship of Indiana from 2013 to 2017 is any indicator of a potential mental health landscape under a GOP candidate, we could see an effort to return to an institutionalized approach, similar to the abandoned approach of the 1960s. Governor Pence’s growing number of speeches often bring up this point of institutionalized mental health care, something he spearheaded with the 2019 debut of the NeuroDiagnostic Institute, a mental hospital in Indianapolis.
“The desire to remove people from society that we don’t quite understand and don’t know how to help, that’s a fear-based response,” Dr. Torres-Mackie said.
Agreed, Dr. Yanos sees requests for institutionalized mental health care as a distraction, not an answer, leading people to say “yes, yes, yes” even though it is a reality that doesn’t address the serious needs of none even if it were feasible on a political level.
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And it’s not just conservatives who support this approach.
Eric Adams, the Democratic mayor of New York City, recently launched a mental health response plan that was widely seen as a institutionalized and flawed approach.
The targeting of mental health as a scapegoat at the highest levels of political power has a cascading effect on individuals. For someone without pre-existing mental health conditions, public fault can invoke the onset of a mental health condition, Dr. Torres-Mackie said. Furthermore, this public display not only promotes stigma while serving as a barrier between individuals and treatment, but at the same time also impedes further funding for structural change in mental health.
The more our political leaders target mental health as a justification, the more the entire mental health system is harmed, devalued and further stigmatized. Instead, mental health needs to be discussed as something everyone experiences.
The answer here seems simple; if people are afraid of mental illnesses because they don’t understand them, then raise mental health awareness and education. This, unfortunately, is incredibly easier said than done as this is one of many places where stigma acts as a barrier.
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