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Let's Go Crazy: The Decline in US Mental Health under Bush

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Message Heather Wokusch
Factors linked with mental illness (including poverty, homelessness, violence and social uncertainty) have run rampant during the Bush years while 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 following Katrina, and hurricane-related mental disorders remain widespread today. Yet with hospitals still shuttered and psychiatric clinics closed, those suffering from chronic mental illnesses or post-Katrina depression and post-traumatic stress disorder have few options. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that while 26% of respondents reported at least one family member needing mental health support following Katrina, less than 2% was receiving any.

New Orleans' mental health crisis exacerbates its already debilitating crime rate, with police reporting a 15% higher incidence of psychiatric-related emergency calls than before Katrina. But instead of receiving 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 been transferred to state mental hospitals languish in prisons unequipped to handle their special needs. As The St. Petersburg Times reported last month, mentally-ill inmates "play poker with ghosts, climb the bars like bats or dump their lunch trays into the toilet and eat the food like soup. They will slam their heads against the wall, slice themselves with razors or plunge head-first off their bunks onto the concrete floor." With no psychiatric beds available due to funding cutbacks, inmates charged with only misdemeanors end up deteriorating in jails one Floridian official called "a dumping ground for the mentally ill."

Veterans face a similar lack of support. An estimated one out of every five service members returning from Iraq suffers from psychiatric problems and, with a backlog of 400,000 cases, the Department of Veterans Affairs has proven incapable of handling the deluge. Veterans subsequently have to wait an average of five and a half months for an initial decision on disability benefits and an appeal can take years.

That's not supporting our troops.

The number of veterans trying to get mental health support doubled to 9,103 between October 2005 and June 2006. The Government Accountability Office recently found, however, that most who show symptoms of post-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 a million troops have been deployed, it's safe to say the US will soon be facing a mental health crisis of ominous proportions.

After the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of veterans either committed suicide, became drug addicts or ended up on the streets. Today, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reports that almost 200,000 veterans are homeless each night, roughly one in three adult homeless males. Half of today's homeless vets suffer from substance abuse problems and 45% from mental illness. Yet the administration continues to fund military escalation instead of providing them with shelter and treatment.

The psychiatric needs of active-duty service members have also been ignored. A tragic example is Steven Green, the former Army private charged in the March 2006 murder of an Iraqi family and the rape/murder of their 14-year-old daughter. In December 2005, Green had tried to get help from an Army Combat Stress Team in Iraq, claiming that he was enraged 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 a full three months to contact Green again (over a week after the family had been murdered) due to reports he had thrown a puppy off a roof and set 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 never receive.

Bush has, unfortunately, been pro-active in one mental health area: the push for mandatory screening of US citizens. In April 2002, Bush set up the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, ostensibly to "eliminate inequality for Americans with disabilities" but whose recommendations include broad-based mental health screening for US adults/children and the prescription of psychoactive medication. Civil rights advocates fear the disturbing implications of comprehensive mandatory psychological testing and therapists question the Commission's emphasis on 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: "President Bush wants to test all Americans for 'mental illness.' We demand that President Bush start with himself first. We will provide the mental health professional to do the screening." Virginia-based physician Patch Adams even volunteered to screen Bush, adding, "He needs a lot of help. I'll see him for free."

The National Alliance on Mental Illness recently conducted an analysis of mental health care systems across the US, incorporating factors such as infrastructure and information access. The national average grade was D, a shameful record for such a wealthy nation. Factoring in the long-term psychiatric implications of Bush's ongoing military adventurism, the future looks even worse. That is for everyone but pharmaceutical companies.

Action ideas:

1. Visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site (www.nami.org) for information on everything from "Public Education and Information Activities" to "Advocacy on Behalf of People Living with Mental Illness." Find out how your state ranks on mental health care and consider signing up for their fundraising walks. Also check out the terrific MindFreedom International site (www.mindfreedom.org) dedicated to "defending human rights and promoting humane alternatives in mental health."

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 National Coalition of Homeless Veterans site (www.nchv.org), which offers legislation information, support for homeless veterans and service providers and opportunities to get involved.
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Heather Wokusch is the author of The Progressives' Handbook: Get the Facts and Make a Difference Now, which went to #1 on Amazon's political activism charts in December 2007 (www.progressiveshandbook.com). Heather can be reached at (more...)
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