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The Quiet Scapegoat: What we Talk About When We Talk About a Stranger’s Mental Health

This is not an article about mental health. At least, I hope that it’s not. It’s about how mental health is weaponized by the powerful and used as a strategy to move a few political chess pieces around a board.

Every conversation about mental health gives us the opportunity to talk about the crisis in healthcare. While more people have access to medical carethan ever before, if you extend the definition to vision care, dental care, and mental health, you see a precipitous drop in access.

Mentioning “mental health” becomes a strategy for the powerful. It’s deployed to explain marginalization, to defy legislative changes, and to deflect guilt from powerful industries and lobbyists. When powerful figures use the term “mental health” to explain an issue, it never leads to a discussion of how to extend access and destigmatize care. “Mental health issues” are a black hole to pour all of our problems into when issues get too complicated.

The fact that this strategy is used by figures from the whole spectrum of progressive and conservative voices should be alarming to us. If extending integrity to marginalized people is the task of progressive voices, we should be wary any time our actions or words shadow those who we find to be otherwise reprehensible.

Taking Away Power

When elected officials are tasked to talk about the 60,000 people in New York City who are homeless, they’re quick to talk about mental health. Never mind the fact that 34% of homeless New Yorkersare employed, but can’t afford the skyrocketing rents.

Economists say that the maximum amount that someone should spend on housing is 30% of their income. With 15% of jobs paying $15 an hour, or less if you work in the gig economy sector, that means to afford an average $1,500 studio with no privacy would require a 75-hour work week.

So when elected officials talk about mental health, you have to ask them a capitalist chicken and egg question. In a fair society, in a fair economy, in a supposedly fair market, how can someone work a 75-hour week and still have a robust social and emotional life? If all things are fair, how should someone measure their self worth if, after working a 40-hour week, they still can’t afford to pay for a roof over their head? What comes first: emotional instability or economic instability?

When elected officials are swear that the market is fair, how do you not start to feel like you’re living in another reality? How do you not feel like a failure if, after working 40 hours, you’re still spending 70% of your income on housing?

We don’t have 60,000 people asking for luxury accommodations and 40thfloor high rises. We have 60,000 people asking for dignity.

It’s both irresponsible and unethical to look at the grievances of people who are seeking a dignified life in exchange for their hard work and begin speculate on their mental health.

If I tell an elected official “I can’t afford my rent and it’s causing me depression” and then am told to see a therapist, they’re addressing a symptom, not the disease. Meanwhile their actual responsibility, which is to create prophylactic legislation, goes unaddressed.

Whose Violence Is This?

The Parkland school shooting on Valentine’s Day 2018 was already the 17thschool shooting of the year. The resulting protests, public conversations, and the March For Our Lives told the world that if adults wouldn’t address gun violence, children would make their voices heard and say #NeverAgain. The prevailing response from both media and elected officials following this, and most shootings, is to have a conversation about mental health.

Only 3-5% of gun violence incidents can be linked to people with serious mental illness. People with mental illnesses are 12 times more likely to be victimsthan perpetrators of violent crime. These. Are.Facts.

It’s essential that we question the mental health of anyone who espouses the kinds of ideology and violence that these men need to feel empowered. However, they are outliers of the mental health crisis. They deserve the treatment they need but they are the aggressors in this situation and not the likely victims.

The mental health crisis is about people who don’t have access. It’s about the teens who don’t have anyone to talk to and hurt themselves. It’s about the people who work 75-hour weeks to support their family and who don’t have a high-quality professional to check in with regularly before it’s too late. But the mental health crisis and the crisis of gun violence are two different problems.

Death Of A Working Class 

When Trump won the electoral vote on November 8, 2016, there was a sudden dearth of stories about how his core supporters came from places where jobs had disappeared. The concept immediately conjures images of coal-mining towns, former auto manufacturing hubs, and urban textile plants. These jobs started to disappear during the Reagan administration and have dwindled to a tiny fraction of the job market in 2018. The disappearance of working class jobs is blamed on everything from the opioid crisis to the rising tide of nationalism.

The problem is that this sepia-toned characterization disregards the working class job crisis facing cities around the U.S. For the past 40 years, one of the most reliable jobs that working-class city residents and recent immigrants could support a family on is to work as a cab driver. A taxi job could put kids through universities, buy homes, and even pay for an occasional vacation.

In the early morning hours of February 5, 2018, Douglas Schifter parked his car in front of the east gate of New York’s City Hall, the mayor’s entrance. He posted a Facebook status about the state of the cab industry and how “Bloomberg, de Blasio, and Andrew Cuomo have each had their part in destroying a once thriving industry…They count their money and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry.”

He wrote that he’d rather be dead. Minutes later, he killed himself inside of his car with a shotgun.

In the following days, when asked about how to change regulations to prevent further strife, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio avoided naming the driver and pivoted his response toward the driver’s mental health. In this WNYC interview, at the 18 minute mark, he says “when that happens, there may be other societal factors, but it also begins with somebody unfortunately dealing with their own struggle and some kind of mental health challenge.”

By not saying his name but using his details, he failed to acknowledge Douglas Schifter beyond the purpose he served in that moment. Keeping the details spare allows his pain to be instrumentalized for the sake of making a point related to a political goal. In this case, the mayor adeptly flips the conversation to promote his initiative, asking anyone concerned for a friend or family member to call 888-NYC-WELL, part of an initiative he created in the absence of readily available mental health care.

He cautions listeners against making a hasty societal analysis and instead offers his own hasty and unqualified psychological analysis of a man he had never met.

Again, if I tell you that I can’t afford my rent and it’s making me crazy, your first response shouldn’t be that I need to see a therapist. This is especially true if you have any sort of purchase over the conditions and direction of rent prices. Your concerns shouldn’t be over my internal struggle. It should in the realm over which you preside.

Elected officials aren’t psychologists. They shouldn’t feel comfortable talking about anyone’s mental health. They are elected to talk about legislation to fix problems, not to deflect the issue over to something that’s more emotionally resonant but wholly disrespectful to grieving families.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Mental Health

Sometimes, we feel the need to talk about mental health to explain madness that engulfs us. President Trump’s mental health affects the world. Suddenly, everyone feels qualified to comment.

The mental health of a cab driver, who commits suicide because of issues in the city’s economy, isn’t addressed by those who control the economy. His gripe with an unregulated industry turns into a tool for elected officials to comment on mental health issues and promote their own misguided initiatives.

The acceptance of publicly scapegoating mental health has given a perfect opportunity for elected officials to bait-and-switch arguments about industry regulations for faux-sympathetic chatter about mental health.

Imagine how the families of Douglas Schifter and Nicanor Ochisorfeelto have their spouse’s or their father’s names associated with mental illness because elected officials are too cowardly to focus on the job they were elected to do.

Imagine being a queer high school student struggling with identity issues, who survived a shooting, only to have people more concerned with the shooter’s mental health than your own.

Elected officials are meant to protect the vulnerable many from the deregulating desires and profit motivation of the few. Instead they throw them under the bus along with another community, people dealing with mental health issues.

Mental health has become a magician’s tool of misdirection that elected officials use to make our concerns about the regulation of developers, arms manufacturers, and tech companies disappear before our eyes.

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