When it comes to making policy that impacts mental health, our vision might be rather narrow. We’d think of funding for therapists and psychologists, availability of psychiatric drugs, maybe prevention and treatment programs in public schools.
Now, however, there’s evidence that the sphere of policy that impacts the public’s mental health may be broader than we imagine.
A study at Johns Hopkins University found that following the legalization of same-sex marriage in several states, the rate of suicide dropped among young people. The decrease was seven percent among teenagers overall and 14 percent among those who identified as lesbians, gay or bisexual. The analysis, covering years from 1999 to 2015, found that states which legalized gay marriage saw a drop in suicide rates in the following years, while other states did not.
The study confirms something that should be a guiding principle of our politics: when we make the human rights of marginalized groups a matter of public debate, the cost will be in lives.
With regards to the issue of LGBT rights, the backlash against the nationwide legalisation of same-sex marriage is well underway. Proposals of the right to refuse service to LGBT people or same-sex couples are a trend across the nation and, if Donald Trump holds true to his campaign promises on the issue, may become national law.
This may seem like a minor matter. Americans hesitate to require anyone to do anything which is against their religious beliefs. However, these policies should be understood as an issue not only of individual rights but of public health.
When same-sex marriage is a frequently debated topic, no young LGBT person in America could help but be aware that they were hated by a large proportion of the country. When news organizations invited anti-gay activists and religious leaders to discuss the issue, the negative views they had been taught were reinforced. When closeted people heard their relatives casually comment on their opposition to marriage equality, their fears and insecurities were proven true. When the issue was brought up in political debates, they knew their existence and their lives would always be a source of controversy, never something they could just take for granted.
In such an environment, mental health issues and suicide are inevitable. Now that marriage equality is the law of the land, such public debates are much less frequent, and the world is beginning to look more like one where a future as a LGBT person can exist, and maybe even be normal.
LGBT people are not the only group to whom this principle applies. We can assume the same is true of American Muslims who watch as our president attempts to ban people who share their religion from entering the country, Latinos who see people of their race branded as criminals who contribute to society only in negative ways, black people who listen as whether their lives matter is considered an issue of legitimate public debate. And young women’s self-esteem may be impacted not only by the president’s disgusting commentary on women’s bodies, but by the public discussion of their right to abortion and birth control.
We hear a lot about the crisis of mental health in this country, but often in an overly individualized sense. While many people benefit from therapy and medication, issues that affect mental health do not exist solely in the minds of the patients. They exist out here in the world, in our public sphere and in our legislation.
Envisioning a society that provides proper mental health care to every person means creating a country where no one’s worth or human rights are a matter of debate.
We should remember that the policies we make inform the life-or-death decisions of young people who know only too well how they are valued in America.