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Examining the state of mental health in the United States

Is the United States doing a worse job at caring for its citizens mental health than countries like the Netherlands?

In The Wall Street Journal article “Psychiatrist Thomas Insel Looks for a Cure to America’s Mental Health Crisis,”1 Dr Insel is quite positive about the scientific progress in psychiatry, but dismayed at the lack of translation into improved mental health care. There is lots of news confirming his view of our overall mental health.

First, on Friday, February 8th, there was an article on the fall of The Capital Steps.2 They were a successful comedy group for 40 or so years using gentle humor toward both political parties with an unstated goal of connecting them, until disbanding during the pandemic. Their kind of humor was losing its impact in our time of divisive, caustic, and cruel humor.

On the same day, a bill in the memory of the emergency physician Lorna Breen, who died by suicide in 2020, was brought to President Biden’s desk. The bill is designed to help the mental health of health care workers who are experiencing epidemic rates of burning out, and now are even being attacked by patients and families for not getting what they want.

It is not clear that health care workers are having the “deaths of despair” that are so common in white male working-age adults without a college education, but it is only us among other industrial countries where such deaths from suicide, alcohol poisoning, and drug overdose are increasing. Why the difference? One recent article suggests that other countries take better care of their citizens from cradle to grave.3

Even Laurie Santos, the “happiness professor,” is losing her happiness. In the February 18, 2022, New York Times Magazine article, “Yale’s Happiness Professor Says Anxiety is Destroying Her Students,” Santos adds that she is taking a leave of absence due to burnout—that is, trying not to burn out as she was noticing personal signs of depersonalization, annoyance, and feeling ineffective.4 She concludes the same as the deaths of despair author, that we need more supportive structures to be happier like in the Netherlands.

Then there are all the recent polls conveying our increasing rate of suicide, overdoses, anxiety, despair, and trauma. To respond to that, we have fragmented and inadequately funded mental health care systems, especially for the poor.

The federal response to our mental health and mental health care was in the Community Mental Health Centers Act spearheaded by President Kennedy in 1964, but that was disbanded by President Reagan in 1980. Maybe it is overdue time for President Biden to restore and improve upon what we once had.

Reference

1. Bobrow E. Psychiatrist Thomas Insel looks for a cure to America’s mental health crisis. The Wall Street Journal. February 11, 2022. Accessed February 22, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/psychiatrist-thomas-insel-looks-for-a-cure-to-americas-mental-health-crisis-11644600489

2. Vyse G. The fall of the Capitol Steps. The Washington Post Magazine. February 16, 2022. Accessed February 22, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2022/02/16/capitol-steps-comedy-troupe-folds/

3. Sterling P, Platt ML. Why deaths of despair are increasing in the US and not other industrialized nations - insights from neuroscience and anthropology. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online, February 2, 2022.

4. Marchese D. Yale’s happiness professor says anxiety is destroying her students. The New York Times Magazine. February 18, 2022. Accessed February 22, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/02/21/magazine/laurie-santos-interview.html