The first week of October marks the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI’s) Mental Illness Awareness Week. Nine months into Donald Trump’s presidency — and nearly one year after his victory sparked a flurry of self-care and self-help articles — the new normal is taking a toll on Americans, and there’s still no sign of change in our policies.
Nicole Nadeau, a 26-year-old from Georgia, suffers from severe anxiety, which, she says, became noticeably worse after Trump became president. After Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments during his campaign, Nicole was “terrified that it would be more alright for women and men to be sexually assaulted” — a fear aggravated by her disorder. “The first month after he was brought into office, I was scared to leave the house,” she told ThinkProgress.
Of course, mental health isn’t a new issue in this country. Warnings about these problems have been sounding off for years. A study conducted in 2001 found that adolescent suicide rates had tripled over the past 60 years. In 2011, suicide passed homicide as the second leading cause of death among teens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s the second leading cause of death for people age 10-34.
The difference is that, now, there is an administration in control that threatens marginalized communities and is actively working to diminish Americans’ access to health care.
While Trump and Republicans in Congress have thus far failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), they are still pushing budget plans that cut billions from public health programs. The budget proposal released in May includes a $400 million cut from institutes dedicated to mental health and substance abuse. The $616 billion cut from Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) over 10 years would also hamper the ability of low-income mentally ill individuals to afford medical care. Just days ago, Congress failed to renew CHIP, which provided health coverage for 9 million low-income children. Republicans also proposed cutting $374 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In the meantime, reports conclude that the mental health parity demanded by the ACA isn’t being enforced. In other words, health insurance companies are failing to provide the same level of coverage for mental health issues as physical health issues, continuing to deny sufficient access to life-saving treatment for life-threatening conditions.
The lack of action has had a considerable impact on Addison Tice, a 30-year-old Washington resident who lives with clinical depression. “Everything I see from the Trump administration tells me that they don’t give a damn about people with mental illness. I feel like we had just gotten to a place in our society where we could talk about that, but Trump has driven that conversation out of the public sphere.”
Over 40 million adults living in the United States live with some type of mental illness. For the young, chances are even higher. Rates of mental illness have been on the rise for many decades, increasing steadily since the 1930s.
Part of this is an evolving understanding of mental health and increased acceptance of the very idea over time, but this doesn’t explain the sudden recent spike in diagnosed illness and suicide. A 2013 survey comparing generations found that 19 percent of millennials had been diagnosed with depression and 12 percent with anxiety, compared to 14 and eight percent in generation Xers, respectively.
The main culprit appears to be stress, according to the American Psychological Association. “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s,” psychologist Robert Leahy said in a 2011 interview with Slate. The constant crises coming out of the White House may be making this worse for young people trying to put their lives together.
This doesn’t mean that nothing is being done. Democratic members of Congress have introduced a few bills geared toward helping people with mental illness. Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA) introduced the Mental Health in Schools Act of 2017 in order to allocate more money to early mental health intervention that is meant to be “linguistically and culturally appropriate, be trauma-informed, and incorporate age appropriate strategies of positive behavioral interventions and supports.” Democrats have also introduced the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment Accessibility Act of 2017 and the Mental Health Care Provider Retention Act of 2017. All these bills, however, are stuck in subcommittee hearings, unlikely to ever reach the House or Senate floor.
NAMI is attempting fill the gap left by the Trump administration. According to Director of Policy Darcy Gruttadaro, the organization is working on early intervention programs for teens experiencing psychosis, which is typically first experienced in the mid- to late teens. The Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE) project seeks to provide specialized care designed to mitigate the effects of psychological disorders involving psychosis — a set of symptoms that can include hallucinations, delusions, and a loss of one’s sense of reality.
“If you deliver specific care early, there’s a high chance that the individual will be better able to function into adulthood,” Gruttadaro told ThinkProgress. Without it, affected individuals can develop full-blown schizophrenia and other disorders that can be severely disabling.
NAMI has attended congressional briefings to try and keep RAISE and similar programs funded. However, Gruttadaro is concerned about ongoing efforts to repeal and replace the ACA.
“If you don’t have coverage, you don’t have care,” she said. There is also a severe need for trained experts to help the growing population of the young and mentally ill. “We have 8,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists in this country with a need for 20,000,” Gruttadaro added.
Lack of early intervention is particularly disturbing considering the fact that the Trump administration is attempting to gut the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects people with disabilities from discrimination by employers, businesses, and government agencies. The House Judiciary Committee voted last month to approve a bill that would remove the burden of complying with the ADA from businesses and place it on the shoulders of the individual being discriminated against.
Texas resident Hana, who wanted to withhold her last name to avoid the stigma surrounding mental illness, worries about this often. Hana needs a service dog to help get her through intense stress, panic attacks, flashbacks, and other symptoms.
“I’m worried that Trump’s America doesn’t have a place for people like me,” Hana told ThinkProgress. “I think we can still make it, that this isn’t it for the country.”