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Reducing Inequalities, Reducing Suicides in the US

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Since 2000, US suicide rates have shockingly increased by 25 percent, calling for an urgent national discussion on depression, suicide prevention and more importantly, the factors underlying mental-emotional illness. Some call for developing new antidepressants, noting the inefficacy of current medical therapies. But developing better drugs buys into the mainstream notion that the collection of human experiences called “mental illness” is primarily physiological in nature.

However, research has shown that, to the contrary, economic inequality could be a significant contributor to mental illness. Disparities in wealth and income are associated with increased anxiety and stress, with poverty having a negative impact on children’s development—including social, emotional, and cognitive impairment. A society designed to meet everyone’s needs could help prevent many of these problems before they start.

To address the dramatic increase in mental-emotional distress in the US, we must move beyond a focus on the individual and think of well-being as a social issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations (UN) both agree that mental health is primarily a social problem requiring social solutions. WHO studies state: “[a] focus on social justice may provide an important corrective to what has been a growing overemphasis on individual pathology. The UN’s independent adviser Dainius Pūras reported in 2017 that “mental health policies and services are in crisis—not a crisis of chemical imbalances, but of power imbalances,” and that decision-making is controlled by “biomedical gatekeepers,” whose outdated methods “perpetuate stigma and discrimination.”

Our economic system is a fundamental aspect of our social environment, and the side effects of neoliberal capitalism are contributing to mass malaise. Epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson found a close correlation between inequities of a country and mental illness. Of the 12 countries they studied, the US was the most unequal and the most mentally ill. Furthermore, Economic hardship is found to be the most common form of childhood trauma in the US—one of the richest countries in the world.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study revealed in fact that repeated childhood trauma results in both physical and mental negative health outcomes in adulthood, making the relationship between economic hardship and mental health even more critical. Research shows the decrease in depression between mothers and newborns when mothers stay home for at least 6 months, but many new mothers return to work soon after child labor and only 13 percent receive paid leave.

We need to build an economy that is designed for all, not just the one percent. The article states that guiding principles of a real economy prioritizes human well-being, fosters family relationships, brings meaningful and democratic careers while closing the income gap and eliminating poverty. Co-ops are one solution that brings light to everyone. Worker cooperatives shrinks the income gap and can alleviate poverty as wealth occurs through employee ownership and control, while bringing democracy into the workplace. When workers can be a part of the mission and governing of the work they do, their well-being is automatically better. We all need a new economy that puts our wellness first.

In June 2018, CNN and NBC News both reported on the 25 percent rise of suicide rates in the US, but these reports did not mention inequality as a factor, except in rural areas.

Source:  Tabita Green, “What a Society Designed for Well-Being Looks Like,” YES! Magazine, September 12, 2018, https://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/mental-health/what-a-society-design-for-well-being-looks-like-20180912.

Student Researcher: Sonia Chen (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)

Daniel Christof

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