Mental Health Care: More Than a Texas Talking Point
Edvard Munch, "The Scream,” 1910, tempera and oil on board, 32 1/2 x 26”. Courtesy of the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway
Back in 2016 a rotating mass of bodies packed into a small space in front of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” all eager to see the Norwegian painter’s most famous work hanging in the Neue Galerie in New York City. It was the centerpiece of a compelling exhibition titled “Munch and Expressionism.” Like others who stood mesmerized, staring at its haunting figure years before the Covid-19 virus would temporarily shutter most museums and usher in the age of social distancing, I felt I could never have enough time with Munch’s masterpiece, an artwork that embodies such a profound sense of existential dread.
In previous years, the United States had experienced a torrential onslaught of tragedy, including the 9/11 terrorist attack and the school shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook. The years that followed brought more horrors, from the murder of George Floyd to the current Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. Now, more than ever, equitable access to quality mental health care addressing everything from generational trauma to pandemic isolation needs to be a priority for American policy makers, change agents, and community members. Instead, the country’s conservative lawmakers unable, indeed unwilling, to control the mass delusions rampaging through their own party, while a governor in Texas thinks the way to stop the steady bleed of gun violence is to blame people living with mental illness.
In the aftermath of the slaughter of 19 students and two teachers during the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Governor Greg Abbott in effect declared mental illness, not America’s gun-saturated culture, as the cause. He vowed to increase mental health services in his state, a tack that prompted commentators to recall his previous approach: slashing more than $200 million in funding from the state agency that oversees mental health care in order to boost the budget for border patrol agents amid xenophobic attacks on migrants imagined as marauding criminal hordes.
(l.) Texas Governor Greg Abbott appears at a news conference following the Uvalde mass shooting of May 24. Photo courtesy Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune. (r.) Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke confronts Abbott at the press conference, tells him "This is one you." Photo courtesy Patricia Lim/KUT Radio, Austin
Countless studies show that people living with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than its perpetrators, but that hasn’t stopped ideologues from making them a convenient scapegoat. Even the bipartisan federal gun reform bill passed on June 24 includes several provisions reinforcing the idea that mental illness is a major cause of violence in this country. These measures merely amplify the prevailing stigma surrounding mental illness — something evident in the long trajectory of art history as well as in more mainstream artifacts of visual culture.
People impacted by anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions that alter the ways they think, feel, and interact with the world deserve competent and compassionate care, including prompt diagnosis, treatment, and social supports. Instead, politicians reduce the afflicted to foils in their debates over gun rights while failing to provide adequate resources for a comprehensive mental health care system, one that includes training for skilled mental health care providers, accessible mental health care services, and insurance parity. This amounts to an abject failure, especially when you consider the prevalence of mental health conditions in our society. Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which puts the number at 52.9 million people as of 2020.
There’s little reason to expect a significant change, and every reason to believe America’s mental health crisis could escalate in the face of terrifying efforts to undermine democracy and the surge in hate-filled rhetoric. Recalling Frida Kahlo’s devastating painting, “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale,” we should all be reminded just how high the stakes can be.
What, then, can be done amidst this vast expanse of individual and collective grief and trauma?
Frida Kahlo, "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale,” 1938, oil on masonite, painted frame, 24 x 19”. Courtesy of the Phoenix Art Museum
We can march, vote, run for office, and elect people who prioritize the availability and quality of mental health treatment. We can stop using words like “crazy” and “insane” to describe people and ideas. We can stop romanticizing the notion that mental illness is the stuff of genius or creativity, a practice far too common in considerations of artworks by artists such as Vincent van Gogh or Francisco Goya. We can share kind words and thoughtful actions in our everyday encounters. We can listen more than we talk. We can seek out creative experiences. And we can pause to consider how we can support not only our own mental health, but also the mental health of our communities.
Mental health care is more than a Texas talking point.