Let’s Go Crazy: The Decline in US Mental Health Under Bush
Source: Dissident Voice
Factors linked with mental illness (including poverty, homelessness,violence and social uncertainty) have run rampant during the Bush yearswhile psychiatric treatment options have disappeared.
Nowhere has this trend been more prevalent — and more heartbreaking- than with Katrina survivors and veterans of Bush’s wars.
Suicide levels in the Big Easy soared 300% in the four months followingKatrina, and hurricane-related mental disorders remain widespreadtoday. Yet with hospitals still shuttered and psychiatric clinicsclosed, those suffering from chronic mental illnesses or post-Katrinadepression and post-traumatic stress disorder have few options. ACenters for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that while 26%of respondents reported at least one family member needing mentalhealth support following Katrina, less than 2% was receiving any.
New Orleans’ mental health crisis exacerbates its already debilitatingcrime rate, with police reporting a 15% higher incidence ofpsychiatric-related emergency calls than before Katrina. But instead ofreceiving treatment, many of the mentally ill end up in local prisons — a trend repeated across the country.
In Florida, for example, over 250 prisoners who should have beentransferred to state mental hospitals languish in prisons unequipped tohandle their special needs. As The St. Petersburg Times reported lastmonth, mentally-ill inmates “play poker with ghosts, climb the barslike bats or dump their lunch trays into the toilet and eat the foodlike soup. They will slam their heads against the wall, slicethemselves with razors or plunge head-first off their bunks onto theconcrete floor.” With no psychiatric beds available due to fundingcutbacks, inmates charged with only misdemeanors end up deterioratingin jails one Floridian official called “a dumping ground for thementally ill.” Veterans face a similar lack of support. An estimatedone out of every five service members returning from Iraq suffers frompsychiatric problems and, with a backlog of 400,000 cases, theDepartment of Veterans Affairs has proven incapable of handling thedeluge. Veterans subsequently have to wait an average of five and ahalf months for an initial decision on disability benefits and anappeal can take years.
That’s not supporting our troops.
The number of veterans trying to get mental health support doubled to9,103 between October 2005 and June 2006. The Government AccountabilityOffice recently found, however, that most who show symptoms ofpost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not referred for treatment,no doubt due to the VA’s lack of capacity to meet demand.
Considering that combat PTSD can take years to surface and that over amillion troops have been deployed, it’s safe to say the US will soon befacing a mental health crisis of ominous proportions.
After the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of veterans either committedsuicide, became drug addicts or ended up on the streets. Today, theNational Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that almost 200,000veterans are homeless each night, roughly one in three adult homelessmales. Half of today’s homeless vets suffer from substance abuseproblems and 45% from mental illness. Yet the administration continuesto fund military escalation instead of providing them with shelter andtreatment.
The psychiatric needs of active-duty service members have also beenignored. A tragic example is Steven Green, the former Army privatecharged in the March 2006 murder of an Iraqi family and the rape/murderof their 14-year-old daughter. In December 2005, Green tried to gethelp from an Army Combat Stress Team in Iraq, claiming that he wasenraged and wanted to kill Iraqi citizens. Doctors diagnosed Green with”homicidal ideations,” gave him a psychoactive drug, told him to rest — and sent him back to fight. It took Army mental health officials afull three months to contact Green again (over a week after the familyhad been murdered) due to reports he had thrown a puppy off a roof andset its body on fire.
It’s safe to say that many other US service members are like Green,walking time bombs in desperate need of psychiatric care they may neverreceive.
Bush has, unfortunately, been pro-active in one mental health area: thepush for mandatory screening of US citizens. In April 2002, Bush set upthe New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, ostensibly to “eliminateinequality for Americans with disabilities” but whose recommendationsinclude broad-based mental health screening for US adults/children andthe prescription of psychoactive medication. Civil rights advocatesfear the disturbing implications of comprehensive mandatorypsychological testing and therapists question the Commission’s emphasison psychiatric drugs over other forms of therapy.
Put bluntly, big-donor pharmaceutical companies are slated to profit at the expense of US citizens’ rights.
David Oaks, Director of the advocacy group MindFreedom International,had this to say about the administration’s screening plans: “PresidentBush wants to test all Americans for ‘mental illness.’ We demand thatPresident Bush start with himself first. We will provide the mentalhealth professional to do the screening.” Virginia-based physicianPatch Adams even volunteered to screen Bush, adding, “He needs a lot ofhelp. I’ll see him for free.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness recently conducted an analysisof mental health care systems across the US, incorporating factors suchas infrastructure and information access. The national average gradewas D, a shameful record for such a wealthy nation. Factoring in thelong-term psychiatric implications of Bush’s ongoing militaryadventurism, the future looks even worse. That is for everyone butpharmaceutical companies.
1. Visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site (www.nami.org)for information on everything from “Public Education and InformationActivities” to “Advocacy on Behalf of People Living with MentalIllness.” Find out how your state ranks on mental health care andconsider signing up for their fundraising walks. Also check out theterrific MindFreedom International site (www.mindfreedom.org) dedicatedto “defending human rights and promoting humane alternatives in mentalhealth.”
2. Urge your congressmembers to provide more mental-health support to those hit by Katrina.
3. Learn about the plight of homeless veterans at the NationalCoalition of Homeless Veterans site (www.nchv.org), which offerslegislation information, support for homeless veterans and serviceproviders and opportunities to get involved.
Heather Wokusch is a freelance writer and author of the two-volumeseries The Progressives’ Handbook: Get the Facts and Make a DifferenceNow. This article is partially excerpted from Volume I. For more ActionIdeas or to learn more about The Progressives’ Handbook series, visitwww.progressiveshandbook.com. Heather can also be reached viawww.heatherwokusch.com.