Trump, Declining Mental Health, and “What Is a Life Worth?”

Susan Cooke

“What is a life worth?” was asked many times as the insanely premature plans to reopen the country began to be pushed by the White House. I heard no good answer so I’m asking it again. While I’m at it, I’ll add a corollary: What is mental health worth?

I’d like to consider mental health and the President’s effect on it before, during, and after the pandemic. You probably know this already, but poor mental health, besides causing emotional suffering, also affects physical health. Yet many government and business leaders have ignored the fact for years.

I wrote here awhile ago thatTrump seemed to be affecting the country’s mental health because his words and actions so deeply upset many people on so many levels, but during this pandemic what he’s done makes past occurrences fade in comparison. In this post I try to encourage him or those around him who can influence him to stop and reconsider what he’s doing to Americans’ mental health, along with the risks he’s forcing many of us to take physically by reopening without a clear, safe national plan.

Even in the best of times, Americans (and those who imitate us) live with a lot of stress, much of which could be prevented with awareness of some practices now known to cause stress, and with kindness toward ourselves and each other. (It doesn’t help that our President’s chronic rudeness, lack of empathy, and focus on himself models for Americans that not caring how others feel is normal and okay. )

In my research on stress in American cities I keep finding evidence that much of Americans’ increasing anxiety, depression, and numbers of suicides seem to be caused least in part by our own non-stop, incessantly driven lifestyle, plus our having lost once-common practices that prevented stress and depression and promoted good mental and physical health. Little is said about these losses, probably because people aren’t sufficiently aware of them. Certainly hardly anything is said by government, business, or schools.

It’s critically important that those with the power to do something about it understand the basics at least, because these stresses are everywhere but are more pronounced in cities, and there is now research showing that people’s lives are actually being shortened just because they’re living in a big city as many of us do. Sadly, now we’re facing mountains of stress beyond those, due to the pandemic.

There is no more room for added stress, yet that’s what the President is handing us with this too-soon, carelessly-planned reopening. Besides added deaths from the virus, I’m truly worried about the massive PTSD and increased depression and suicides likely to be caused as a result of them and of the chaotic reopening. Those in power need to take mental health extremely seriously right now. So I’ve listed here just a few of the problems we already struggle with in hopes it will help to convince them to slow or stop this reopening, and also convince them to pay much closer attention to mental health from now on.

In addition to the many authors of works on this subject I want to especially thank and credit Stephen S. Illardi, PhD, for the valuable information on the mostly depression-free lives of early humans that informs his immensely helpful book, The Depression Cure, and thank Daniel Buettner for his amazing research and books on what keeps people happy and healthy in the “Blue Zones” of the world.

Research shows that a great many Americans are stressed by an obsession with getting where we’re going (and doing it in record time), whether it’s to the next thing on an endless to-do list, the next step to becoming major successes in our fields, or accruing enough money or fame to feel we’ve reached the top.

Before the pandemic, and even before Trump, both adults and kids were not only feeling societal pressure to drive themselves mercilessly, but also suffered from the stress of lack of community. Early humans lived in tribes in which everyone helped and supported each other day and night, and we’re wired to thrive in the presence of others. Isolation is, as we all now know for certain, very hard on us.

While phones are helpful, and crucial right now, using them as constantly as we do in many ways further isolates us. Our heads are bent down to our phones so often that it keeps us, for example, from saying hello to a neighbor passing on the sidewalk who potentially might become a good friend. Connections with neighbors are more likely to last than those at work, though in our culture any lasting connections at all are much more difficult to make than in earlier times. So we suffer from the isolation that’s become the norm, rather than the communal support that once was the norm.

We also suffer from a lack of time outside in nature. Early humans lived outside much of the time and we’re wired to feel good among trees, flowers, and sky, hearing birds, and feeling and hearing the breeze rustle leaves. In this case again modern conveniences diminish our chances to experience wellbeing, as noise and/or pollution from cars, diesel trucks, leaf-blowers, power saws, planes overhead, and people shouting on phones or playing loud radios all prevent us from benefitting from nature, while also raising our blood pressures (even if you don’t think you mind the noise it still raises your blood pressure.)

Some of our stresses begin quite early in life. The societal pressure to “succeed” in a big way, while it may be invigorating for some, for many is way too much, and even for those who like it, keeping at it nonstop as many do promotes mental illness.

There were many suicides already occurring in kids before the pandemic. And we know children are further frightened by the pandemic. Psychologists are seen often now in the news, trying to help us calm them. The Jason Foundation, a group trying to prevent youth suicides, reports that in the U.S. we lose an average of more than 130 young people each week to suicide. The foundation is making available extra measures parents and others can take to prevent suicides of young people during the pandemic.

https://jasonfoundation.com/youth-suicide/facts-stats/

Let’s say the community and nature problems were solved. The adults and many kids would still find it hard to get off the steep slope that must be climbed to the required success, even if they wanted to. Many children with especially ambitious parents may try to keep up but it’s nearly impossible to do that and still be a happy child. So you see tragedies such as the teen in a town near mine who killed herself because she got a B in math instead of an A. Adults in fact also are killing themselves more often than in the past. An April 2020 USNews post reports the U.S. suicide rate has jumped 35% in the past two decades.

If chronic extreme stress leads to chronic anxiety or depression which if not treated and if severe enough can lead to drug use, alcoholism, heart disease, and worst of all, suicide, then you can see why adding even more stress right now to Americans’ lives is so dangerous. Yes isolation is especially stressful now, but it’s temporary, and is nothing like what we’re going to see with a second, likely even worse wave of the virus. The idea is to deal with a little longer isolation so we can stop the virus’s spread sooner, and then work hard to create more community than ever before (but with more of us alive).

We should also consider the extra stresses of many less well-off families who have so few financial resources that there’s little hope of a child ever going to college or anyone in the family getting a job that pays enough to live in a remotely healthy way (the inability to afford healthy food also takes its toll on both physical and mental health). Don’t forget the homeless, and undocumented workers, whose stress must rarely ever end. All these stresses on so many people, combined (again) with poor diet can lead to a host of physical ailments, and of course to depression and more of the “deaths of despair” we’re finally beginning to hear about, though they’ve gone on for years. It’s now time to pay attention.

Of course workers need their jobs, but as with ending our Covid-caused isolation, we would do better to be patient just a little longer to return to work. We’ll need the government to keep people going however, with food, shelter, and bill payment now until it’s safe, or for some people much longer than that, or else we start the torture all over again.

The causes of and antidotes for these stresses are so many and complex that we’ll probably need to take several paths toward solving them. But the solutions that can help, such as assuring more financial support through equitable wages, seem unlikely to be initiated unless we begin to embrace what essentially would be a change in our culture.

It would go something like this: de-emphasize the value of tons of money over what we might call “more than enough” (which would admittedly require government to address inequality, and again to make sure everyone has enough for at least a reasonably good life–for more on this see Annie Lowrey’s book Give People Money). We would re-think why we make ourselves endure long hours of overwork with little time off once we do have enough money to feel okay, and reconsider whether power, fame, or just the so-called success so many believe all this effort will eventually bring makes sense anymore. Is this really the healthiest, happiest way to live a life?

Some call it Socialism if you try to assure that all people have enough money for a reasonably good life, but I don’t think a label is needed. For those who insist on one I suggest “humanitarianism.” The goal is to stop the suffering of vast numbers of people. To get people to think about change along these lines of course, it would help to have someone in the White House who believed such change was helpful and possible. Well, maybe later.

All this background stress and other stresses I haven’t covered such as racism have certainly made getting through the pandemic even worse than it might have been, and will make it harder to face further challenges we know are coming with possible second or third rounds of the virus, and later with other crises we need to get working on including climate change.

But what we need right at this moment is to feel safer, which means stopping or slowing reopening. So I’m appealing to Trump, Congress, governors, and mayors, to stop now in order to save more people from getting the virus, but also to save our mental health. For them to make that decision they have to value empathy and kindness more than ever before. If they won’t, we need to make sure that next time around we elect leaders who get it. We as a society also need to help anyone who is suffering mentally or physically, and to try to find ways to help everyone thrive. Or else what has America become?

The virus is barely being controlled and is only minimally understood. There is no consistent national plan to deal with the complex problems we’ll face with a second wave, and with the near-impossibilty of safely opening businesses, schools, and restaurants this early in many areas. For weeks now there hasn’t even been any alcohol in our neighborhood CVS. (We did just find a quart of it online—for $35.)

This is just more evidence that we’re not ready. It’s clear that without immediate intelligent action there will be more lack of supplies, more chaotic or nonexistent guidance, and more illness and death due to the virus but also likely to suicide. The virus is now estimated by some to lead to as many as 75,000 more deaths of despair from accidental overdosing, over-drinking, or intentional suicide. CNN Health’s Mallory Simon writes that the national public health group Wellbeing Trust’s Dr. Benjamin F. Miller forecasts further damage to mental health:

“Unless we get comprehensive federal, state, and local resources behind improving access to high quality mental health treatments and community supports, I worry we’re likely to see things get far worse when it comes to substance misuse and suicide.” 

https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/08/health/coronavirus-deaths-of-despair/index.html

But Miller added that the numbers are a projection, and the right action could change them. So we don’t have to have all this added illness and death, from deaths of despair or deaths from the virus. Is anybody listening?

Trump likely would answer that this is why he ‘s reopening right away, and how could a good economy not make us all happy and healthy? His selfishness, ignorance, magical thinking, or whatever it is, allows him to remain in denial about (or to ignore) the likely reoccurence of much more suffering and death. The scientists keep assuring us it’s dangerous to reopen so early. Yet that’s what most states are doing, with Trump’s grinning encouragement.

It would probably be a relief to many if state and city leaders now starting to open would pause to study what Governor Cuomo of New York is doing. He’s gone beyond CDC guidelines to implement detailed extra plans and safeguards. Governors or mayors, you could tweak this plan where necessary, but the main part of the work is already done, so why not use it to help open your own area more slowly and safely? Why rush into more hell on earth when you have a good guide to making it less hellish?

Another virtue of Cuomo’s plan is that it doesn’t abandon those who are struggling financially. He took time for example to begin a program that delivers milk that farmers were dumping in one part of the state to places that feed the hungry in another area. This is inspired leadership, and just what we need.

Why cant’t Trump see that he’s going to destroy more mental as well as physical health with this scary reopening? Maybe it’s because he’s so driven himself, toward goals not much associated with the thoughtful, selfless, and generous qualities a leader must have in order to get people through a frightening crisis like this. His lack of those traits also makes him a terrible choice for President in the future, when such qualities will be needed to negotiate the many challenges quickly moving toward us.

For me one of the most distressing things he’s done besides modeling openly that lying, insulting, belittling, and offending others are fine behaviors, is to spread more chaos and despair through cruel power plays. One of the worst was forcing already financially-strapped states and cities to compete for the PPE their health workers were almost on their knees begging for, for weeks. What they were really begging for was their lives and the lives of their patients. Imagine ignoring such heartbreaking desperation. He did, and now many of those workers and their patients are dead.

It’s also disturbing to see how much of the country is in denial about the tragedy this reopening will cause. The President, his cronies, and some media outlets are all guilty of letting this false idea some have that the virus isn’t so bad continue. They must take some blame for the added deaths, whether from the virus or from suicide. They’re adding also to the wrecking of mental health by causing more stress, anxiety, and PTSD that for many will last for years.

Also distressing is Trump’s most incomprehensible cruelty yet–admitting he not only knows opening so soon will cause more deaths, but accepting it as fine, and trying to get us to accept it, and to say these new deaths are worth it. He says Well, people are dying anyway. I say they would not be dying anyway if he had quickly and with thought and care responded to the pandemic from the beginning. But you have to have both a heart and a love of something besides yourself (such as a country) to do that.

I watch with despair as the country opens, dreading more announcements of added deaths as people move around more. I despair when I see on the news people who shoot others who ask them to wear masks, when a customer at an ice cream shop shouts obscenities at a seventeen-year-old girl trying in vain to get ice cream to him fast enough due to unexpected crowds, and when I see people gather closely in groups without masks, and sometimes even with guns, as if the virus were nothing more than one of the hoaxes Trump is always blaming on Democrats; as if adding to this horrific mix more deadly weapons or more nastiness toward others will help.

Clearly they’re acting partly out of stress but at least some of this behavior was and continues to be encouraged by this President and his modeling of crude and hostile treatment of people who cross him in the slightest way. It’s sad to see such meanness and division when there’s already so much suffering, and such a need to help each other.

If we don’t stop or greatly slow the reopening, we are in essence being sentenced to death by Trump. His message is that reopening (rather than paying workers so they can survive at home awhile longer) is needed even though it means that our life or that of someone close to us is now more likely to end sooner, having been sacrificed for Trump–so he can feel he’s more likely to win a second term. His triumph in this is that it will finally give him the fame he craves. He’ll be perceived as one of the shallowest, most selfish, and meanest leaders in modern history.

Meanwhile the cruelty and breathtaking narcissism continue. Therefore all there is left to do, it seems, is to beg all people who have influenced him in the past to get him to change, and even if they think his self-interested course is going to make America great, to change their own course because it’s the humane thing to do. Convince him to save lives and mental health now, by immediately assuring that 1) needed money gets to the poverty-stricken and jobless now and in the future, 2) that he stops or drastically slows the reopening until all needed hospital beds, PPE, vaccine and testing supplies, and for the public other needed supplies such as alcohol, are in place, 3) a clear plan exists to procure and distribute to all patients who need it more Remdesivir and any other proven-safe treatments that help, and 4) there is a a detailed safe, organized, consistent reopening plan everyone can understand, one that is based on science and not politics.

As to the question “What is a life worth?” my answer is that not one life should be lost so a President can reopen recklessly in order to use a good economy (and it’s doubtful it will even be good) to make himself feel less nervous about the election. We don’t need to fix the economy this minute. Instead we (and he) can make sure everyone is kept fed and housed, with bills paid (or bill payment delayed), until reopening is much safer. A second virus wave and re-quarantine will cost much more than would waiting and keeping people supported and safe right now, and he knows it. He also knows that not waiting will cause a lot more death and despair. He just doesn’t care.

To further bring this point home, emergency physician Leana S. Wen, writing in the Washington Post, refuted several arguments often made as to why we should reopen early, explaining their major flaws. Her answer to the argument “It’s worth the sacrifice if some people die so that the country has a functioning economy,” is that “Those making it (the argument) are committing others to a sacrifice they did not choose.” Amen.

Her article is at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/10/six-flaws-arguments-reopening/