It’s no coincidence that our politics and our mental health have declined so rapidly, at the same time.
Everyone has his or her own definition of a political crisis. Mine is when our collective mental health starts having a profound effect on our politics — and vice versa.
It cannot be a simple coincidence that the two have declined in tandem. The American Psychiatric Association reported that from 2016 to 2017, the proportion of adults who described themselves as more anxious than the previous year was 36 percent. In 2017, more than 17 million American adults had at least one major depressive episode, as did three million adolescents ages 12 to 17. Forty million adults now suffer from an anxiety disorder — nearly 20 percent of the adult population. (These are the known cases of depression and anxiety. The actual numbers must be dumbfounding.)
The really sorrowful reports concern suicide. Among all Americans, the suicide rate increased by 33 percent between 1999 and 2017.
All of this mental carnage is occurring at a time when decades of social and political division have set against each other black and white, men and women, old and young. Beyond bitter social antagonisms, the country is racked by mass shootings, the mind-bending perils of the internet, revelations of widespread sexual predation, the worsening effects of climate change, virulent competition, the specter of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, grinding student debt and crises in housing, health care and higher education. The frightening environment helps cause depression, depression causes catastrophic thinking, and catastrophic thinking makes the environment seem even more terrifying than it is.
Out of this dark cast of mind arose the hunger for a strong, avenging figure whose arrival has sent even more mentally harrowing shock waves through society. If President Trump is indeed mentally ill, as so many of his critics claim, he may well be the most representative leader we have ever had.
Yet as everyone whose mind is in jeopardy knows, it is not sufficient to speak about mental illness in general, abstract terms. A person’s individual challenges are not simply extractions from a national malaise.