Times got you down? It’s a shared destiny

Posted June 12, 2009, at 7:25 p.m.

One of the unpublicized side effects of our current economic crisis is the incidence of clinically relevant psychological distress across all strata of an over-stressed population. With the exception of the post-war periods of the mid-1940s and early 1970s there has never been such a notable spike in generalized anxiety and more extreme psychiatric complaints in our nation’s history.

The long-term consequences of this mental health challenge coupled with scant availability of treatment options should concern us greatly, as we may be hobbled by this psychiatric dynamic for decades to come. At one end of the untreated disease spectrum, life expectancies may be negatively affected. At the other end disability rates will likely rise as the economy starts generating jobs. In Maine, where the business failure rates and true unemployment figures well surpass the national average there is likely to be an even greater effect on mental functionality.

Across the U.S., psychologists and psychiatrists are reporting a flood of new cases that have been triggered by uncertainty and pending financial ruin. As most public health authorities are focusing on the potential for an H1N1 pandemic, our population is exposed to a full-scale mental health pandemic, and there are no vaccines in sight.

A very interesting notion on vaccination against this mental health meltdown surfaced in conversations with my colleagues from the mental health sector and more impressively from mental health patients with a history of extreme psychiatric states. The latter group made the point that the current economic crisis is affecting them far less than what they observe in the assumed to be well-adjusted world around them. It seems that previous battles with psychoses and other debilitating mental states has, in effect, vaccinated the extreme state mental health patients against this modern plague, while the population without a history of mental health challenges is experiencing a fast spreading and debilitating group of symptoms.

All of this makes sense when you consider the parallels with the working poor, who have battled economic hardship for much of their lives and without access to mental health services. This group could now take on an advisory role in assisting the formerly middle and upper classes as they transition to the new realities of “ultra-economizing” and living on the service fringe they rarely had sight of in their previous economic lives. The hard-won protective mental state resulting from a life of poverty has now become the vaccine against economic mental trauma for many in our state and across the country.

The bottom line to all of this is the reality of our having to finally face what can only be described as a shared destiny and with it a shared set of basic life experiences. As we re-examine the American Dream in the face of potential financial ruin, we should consider the etiology of this virulent and economically produced virus, which is destroying our mental health, having already burned through our material assets.

As we struggle to find meaning and solutions to our many recently arriving woes, we must acknowledge the prowess and utter tenacity of the working poor and the long-term mentally ill, as each group provides us — their still wealthier and healthier brethren — with hope for a future that will in fact be “alright.” When was the last time we were allowed to be merely “alright”? Perhaps, in the future we will allow ourselves the luxury of simple yet enjoyable lives.

John Rockefeller is a nonprofit development consultant in Camden. He can be reached at rockefeller@zeroconsult.com.

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