The Coming Depression Onslaught

If this study is to be believed, we’re in trouble.

A study from Boston University conducted a major survey on adults and depression, using previous scores as a baseline measurement. The study used the PHQ-9 questionnaire, which is a nine-question screening method that can be used to determine if someone may be suffering from depression. A 2017-2018 study found that 8.5% of adults were suffering from depression. 

The results were horrifying: 27.8% of Americans are now clinically depressed, according to the results of the study. That is more than a tripling of depression rates. It is massive, it is significant, and it cannot be treated by the current state of our mental health system. 

The study, of course, attributed much of this rise to COVID-19 and the economic stressors placed on society by this disease. The study also found that people with less than $5,000 in savings 50% were more likely to be depressed, further showing the connection between economics, a social safety net, and mental health.

I have a couple of broader thoughts – first, on the general situation, and second, what this study shows us.

First, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is catastrophically bad but not as bad as it appears! Yes, I said that. First, the good news. This will abate as the pandemic abates and economic damage mitigates. That will happen. It will take time, but I don’t think this represents a fundamental shift in our moods or economic status for the majority of people who took this study.

The bad news? Let’s say this only permanently affects 5% of America. Uhh…that’s tens of millions of people. That is fundamentally, catastrophically terrible. We could be staring down the barrel of millions of people who will never recover without assistance that we cannot hope to provide. Before this crisis, we were looking at a major shortage of mental health workers. There is no way our system has the capacity to deal with all of the people who will need help. 

About two months ago, I attended a hearing on mental illness and the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the things I asked some of our panelists was whether or not there had been an increase in suicides. The answer: Not yet. Emphasis on yet. They were worried that, as the economic toll continues, you’d have a lot of people who would be more likely to die by suicide. This study furthers my concern there.

What can we do? Well, if you believe that economics and mental health are connected – and I do – that means we need to support people in their times of need and provide generous economic supports to get them through this crisis. That means working to prevent evictions and foreclosures. To extend unemployment assistance. To throw money at small businesses in order to keep them open.

This is a catastrophe in the making, but it doesn’t have to be this way. A strong government can stop the economic damage and can abate this crisis, and I don’t think it’s too late. But that’s what we need to get us through the physical, economic, and mental health disaster that we are currently experiencing. 

How Politics Helps Keep Me Sane – And How It May For You, Too

 

So, I’ve written extensively about mental health, depression, my book, etc. But, if you’ve followed this blog for long enough, you’ve probably seen me allude to my full-time career. I want to talk about it for a second – and talk about why I think that getting involved politics and governance is actually really good for your mental health.

My full time job is to serve as a Pennsylvania State Representative, where I work for 65,000 people who live in the City of Allentown and South Whitehall Township. I’m a Democrat, and involved in a slew of issues, but mainly working in education and mental health.

One of the more common things I get when I discuss my long-time issues with anxiety & depression is, “IN YOUR LINE OF WORK!?!?!”

I mean, yeah. To quote Finley Peter Dunne, Politics Ain’t Beanbag. And there are times where the hard parts of this job – the negative mailers, the nasty comments – they get to you. They weigh on you. And when you combine the normal stresses of this abnormal job with a mental illness, it can be ugly. I should note something here: If I hadn’t had years of therapy, and medication, I’d never be able to cope with the stresses and requirements of this job. I’d have never been able to hold it, and I hope do well at it, as I hope I have.

That being said, I firmly believe that politics has been good for me and my mental health, and if you are similar at all to me, you may feel the same.

Why? A few reasons.

First and foremost, politics & government gives me a chance to make a difference. I firmly believe that, with my type of depression, I feel worst when I am hopeless, helpless, and out of control. That includes a variety of things in my life, including the health of my loved ones or the state of the planet around me. Being in government, I firmly believe, is one of the most noble and powerful callings that there is. It also gives you a modicum control over one of the most powerful entities in the country. As a result, this job let’s me have a say in the direction of resources and state authority towards what I believe to be just pursuits. That acknowledgement, alone, is often enough to help combat the helplessness I feel as a citizen of a country and planet for which that I am deeply worried.

Second, it gives my mental illness meaning. On those bad days – where I’m sitting with my hands in my head, plagued by some very silly demons – I can’t help but wonder, Why me? Yes, there’s that tendency to stew in your own sad juices if you have some sort of mental illness. Being in government and politics – helping people – is the perfect antidote for that self-indulgent question, because I know I’ve helped people by telling my own story.

To be clear, government isn’t required to find meaning. But I get to be someone who is part of a good story – how mental illness is being viewed by our society, and how those views are evolving. I’ll take that.

Third, I can speak with authority. One of the biggest challenges we have in government is people don’t believe us. Much of that we bring upon ourselves, so I get that. However, it’s hard for people to ignore you when you speak on an issue which personally affects you in a deeply personal way. As humans, we are built to better understand stories – personal stories – and when I tell mine, I think that people are inclined to listen. I can speak with authority on this issue. Honestly, that helps me sleep at night.

There’s more, of course, but I’d say those are the biggest reasons I’ve found government to be helpful to me when it comes to dealing with my own depression. This is just me – your mental illness may have helped motivate your career choice, and if that’s the case, I’d genuinely love to hear it.