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.

Ties that bind: Liberals, conservatives and mental health

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there are some…umm, slight…differences between liberals and conservatives in America today. I continue to believe – perhaps naively – that the things which unite us are bigger than the things that divide us.

One of those things, without a doubt, is mental health.

First, speaking in generalities: Liberals tend to want government to do more, conservatives tend to want governments to do less. This is a very broad statement and there is a lot of room for nuance within it, but I think that’s pretty accurate. Looking at that from a mental health perspective, that tends to translate into liberals wanting government to do more (even if it means raising tax rates), conservatives want them to do less.

I have a theory: That’s not completely accurate, because conservative areas need as much help as liberal areas when it comes to this.

Let me approach this from a different perspective: Urban vs. rural. Again, broadly speaking, but urban areas tend to be more liberal, rural ones more conservative. But – and this is important – rural areas really, really struggle when it comes to mental health. Suicide rates are higher in rural areas than urban areas. This is for any reasons, including an increased prevalence of firearms and a lack of access to health care practitioners.

At the same time, urban areas – which have high levels of poverty and minorities – also really struggle in these areas. Urban areas with high levels of poverty have significantly higher rates of mental illness. Unfortunately, poverty makes mental illness worse, and the mentally ill are more likely to be pushed into poverty and lose access to health insurance and care – thus creating a viscous cycle.

Here’s my theory: These can be united. While I represent an urban area, I don’t want anyone to suffer or struggle, no matter what they look like or where they live, and I am sure that the vast majority of conservatives feel the same. We all care about the people we represent, and I’m hoping that, over the next couple of years, I can find more people to work with in order to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives/urban and rural areas. I’m hoping that we can use mental health to do that, and in so doing, help all of the people we represent.

 

 

 

How the Center for the Disease Control says we can stop suicide

Yesterday, I wrote a little bit about a really insightful technical package offered by the Centers for Disease Control. It’s a long document, but for those of you who care about how we can stop suicide and are looking for ideas (if you are involved in the government or not!), I think it’s a great read.

I don’t want to get insanely in-depth into what sort of recommendations were contained in the document. But I do think it’s worth reviewing the broad outlines of it, just in case you don’t have time to read a 60 page governmental white paper. Broadly speaking, it broke down it’s recommended solutions into a few categories:

  • Strengthening Economic Supports: This one was the topic of my entry yesterday, and I’d argue the most important for both suicide and protecting vulnerable people in our society. This specifically deals with making sure that people who may be at risk for suicide as a result of economic conditions have access to the services that they need to recover, and includes items like robust unemployment benefits, medical benefits, foreclosure assistance and more.
  • Strengthen Access & Delivery of Suicide Care: Here’s where things start to align with what I think most people would expect. This includes the obvious systemic changes needed to be made to our mental health system, including improvements to the insurance system (parity between physical and mental health), reducing provider shortages (a huge issue of mine which, unfortunately, largely needs to be dealt with at the federal level), and broader changes to the mental health care system in order to better address mental illness and suicide prevention.
  • Create Protective Environments: Here’s where what I’ll call “stop-gap” methods really come into play. This includes means reduction (guns are  huge issue here, but this also includes restricting access to suicide hotspots) and improving organizational/social systems to promote protective environments (particularly in at risk locations) and addressing excess alcohol use (which is connected to suicide).
  • Promoting Connectedness: Thanks to phones and technology, we are more connected than ever before. Except we’re not. And as social connectedness breakdown, suicide rates will continue to increase. This specific approach recommends addressing suicide by establishing peer norm programs and engaging in increased community engagement activities.
  • Teaching Coping & Problem Solving Skills: One of the keys to surviving any bout of mental illness – and I’ve written about it before – is building resilience, or an ability to cope. This includes creating social/emotional learning programs and addressing parenting and family relation skills.
  • Identify and Support People at Risk: This includes training gatekeepers, improving crisis intervention and broad-based treatment for people at risk of suicide.
  • Postvention: The aftermath of a suicide attempt can have a dramatic impact on both the victim and those around them. This section of the report deals with postvention for those who were close with a suicide victim and addresses safe reporting/messaging in the aftermath of a suicide.

This is really comprehensive, and again, worth a read. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear them! Leave your questions or comments in the section below.

The next time there’s a high profile suicide, don’t just tweet a phone number. Do this instead.

As part of my legislative work, I just finished reading a technical package from the Centers for Disease Control. The topic was suicide. It was some pretty heavy reading. At the same time, it was informative for many reasons, as it included a wide array of programs that people in government and the non-profit world can enact in order to reduce suicides.

Something, in particular, was highly instructive about the packet. It contained a wide array of information dealing with numerous public policy areas. But let me talk about the first chapter in terms of specific recommendations about suicide reduction. What do you think it was? Was it access to mental health care? The need for more research into better drugs? Controlling access to means of suicide?

Nope. It was economic supports.

Suicide rises in times of economic strife. The connection is clear. So, the first two specific recommendations within the packet:

  • Strengthening household financial security via programs like unemployment benefits, temporary assistance and livable wages.
  • Enacting programs that reduce foreclosure risk.

The report went on to note that ample evidence exists showing that stronger social safety net programs can reduce the risk of suicide.

Other areas of this report also showed the strong demonstration between public policy, public health and reducing suicides rates. Various sectors of our society are critically important as well, of course, but government can be – and should be – a primary actor when it comes to suicide reduction.

Let me go back to the title of this blog entry. Like many others, when there is a high-profile suicide, I’ll tweet out the “thoughts and prayers” line, as well as information on the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. That’s good, and it’s helpful. But it’s not enough. I want to start treating suicide in public the way we treat gun violence. It’s not enough to tweet support. We have to demand action from our policy makers:

Look, I’m a flaming progressive, so this may just be my political orientation, but I think we need more common sense gun reform measures in the worst way – things like red flag laws (which would allow for a temporary removal of weapons from people who are a danger to others or themselves), universal background checks and more. And I’m glad now that, whenever we have yet another tragic shooting, it’s not just “thoughts and prayers” but “thoughts, prayers and CAN WE PLEASE ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS.”

I want to take this mantra and apply it to mental health and suicides. Let’s stop pretending that suicides are a problem of an individual or their family. They aren’t. They are a societal, communial and governmental problem. We need to do more at the societal level to address mental health and suicide, and that means doing more than just working to improve mental health. If we can acknowledge that, we can make a change.

So, I say to you, dear reader: Don’t just tweet the suicide hotline numbers. Demand that policy makers make the changes necessary to save lives.

Interview: Not Another Anxiety Show

Hey folks – a quick entry here, just wanted to share a podcast interview I did for those of you who are interested. Thanks to Kelli over at Not Another Anxiety Show for hosting me on her podcast, where we discussed mental health, politics, and I miiiiiiiiiight have mentioned the book I have COMING OUT TOMORROW.

Here’s the show. Enjoy!

Is Donald Trump bad for your mental health? And what can you do about it?

 

Alright, let me start by admitting that I really debated writing this one.  I’m a politician, and a pretty progressive/Democratic one at that, so as you can imagine, I am pretty much diametrically opposed to…err, everything Donald Trump stands for.  As a result, the last thing I want to do is to be accused of “bringing politics” into a mental health discussion, something that I legitimately think happens too often.  I’m going to do my best to stick with legitimate, reputable sources as I discuss this issue, and try to approach it from the most objective angle possible.

The short answer to this question is yes, the President of the United States can be damaging your mental health.  That, of course, depends on a variety of factors.

Let’s start in my favorite place, Twitter:

Well, that was stressful.  And yes, there are plenty more.  I will say that, in my personal life, I’ve repeatedly joked that this election turned me from an elected official into a therapist: I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken with who are suffering from Trump-related anxiety.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, 24/7 crisis lines found themselves overwhelmed with calls from frightened individuals.  Then there is this Daily Dot article, which led with the subtitle, “If you’re a liberal with a history of depression or trauma, this presidency could be more damaging than you thought.”

Well, crap.

From the perspective of a therapist, there’s no doubt:

Several patients with histories of sexual abuse and self-image concerns told me that they experienced significant increases in anxiety. One reported that the constant news coverage triggered memories of her past sexual abuse, and another suffered frequent crying spells and difficulty sleeping.

Quoting multiple therapists and psychiatrists, the article notes that many clinical professionals have had patients tell them that they are experiencing additional anxiety, worry and depression as a direct impact of Trump’s rise to the Presidency.  This effect is particularly pronounced for members of threatened classes, such as people of color, the LGBT community or other religious minorities, many of whom are already more likely to suffer from mental illness.

Then there is this survey, conducted by the website CareDash.  The data below is copied directly from the survey:

  • More than half (59%) of Americans are at least somewhat anxious because of the November election results. The national survey findings mirror an online poll of CareDash newsletter subscribers which found that 55% of respondents are at least somewhat anxious because of the November election results.
  • Nearly three-fourths (71%) of people 18-44 are at least somewhat anxious because of the November election results.
  • Half (50%) of Americans are looking for ways to cope with the negative political environment.
  • Over one-third (39%) of Americans are avoiding social media to reduce their anxiety around the political comments.

Another survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found that 52% of Americans believed the 2016 elections were a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives.

It seems pretty clear: Yes, Donald Trump has had a negative effect on the nation’s mental health.

So, all of this begs the question: What can you do if you are suffering from Trump Anxiety?

This Lifehacker article and this article from Psychology Today lay it out pretty nicely: Don’t just worry.  Channel that worry into something real and tangible.

  • Ask yourself some key questions about what you can and cannot do.
  • Get active in politics or other social causes – ones that you care about – that will help you reestablish a sense of control in your life.
  • Stop reading the news all the time.  There is a difference between being informed and being obsessed.
  • Connect with others; family, friends and people who, like you, are under serious stress.
  • Exercise!
  • Write down your anxiety.  Don’t just let it be free-floating – write what is troubling you, and use the information you gain from that writing to fight back.

The elections, and the aftermath, have been extremely stressful to some.  If you are one of those people, know you aren’t alone.  If you aren’t, I hope this entry gave you some perspective: There are real people who are truly suffering as a direct result of the election and its aftermath.

As always, I’d love your thoughts in the comments below!