Soon after my second daughter was born in 2002, I became obsessed with global warming and the world’s indifference to it. We were looking the apocalypse in the face, I believed, and instead of battling it with massive investments in wind and solar energy, we were drilling deeper and spewing more carbon dioxide into the air.
In response, I started biking everywhere, recycling everything, and sending checks off to environmental groups. I wrote letters to the editor and to my elected representatives. I read books and articles on global warming. Hoping to be calmed by simple-to-enact solutions, I instead became alarmed at the immense effort it would require to turn the tide on climate change.
I was—I am—not alone. A 2007 survey by the Australian Childhood Foundation, for example, found that more than 44 percent of 10- to 14-year-olds are anxious about the impact of climate change. Said Richard Eckersley of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University: “I don’t think we’ve really come to terms with the extent to which these global threats become part of young people’s personal experience or personal environment and the impact they have.”
Australians are on the frontlines of global warming. They are facing severe water shortages and the decimation of the Great Barrier Reef. For them, climate change isn’t what’s coming. Its end-of-days devastation is here.
But it’s here for us too. Public officials in New York City are talking about building a billion-dollar wall in lower Manhattan to hold back the rising waters.
A 2014 report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica concluded that climate change will “have significant negative effects on Americans’ health and well-being” and its likely effects will include “stress, anxiety, depression, and a loss of community identity.”
In her elegant, thoughtful, and deeply felt book Stay, Jennifer Michael Hecht argues that, in contrast to some societies that have preceded us, we give a tacit blessing to suicide. We shouldn’t, she says. As a culture, we should make it clear that suicide, except in the case of someone facing a painful terminal illness, is not a satisfactory response to the pain of modern life. Suicide is, indeed, a kind of crime, she says. It robs the person committing the act of the years he or she might have lived (years unlikely to be as painful as what compelled the person to commit suicide) and makes a terminal decision that a future iteration of the same person would likely not agree with. In addition, it puts the rest of us in greater danger of committing suicide. We need each other in the endurance test of life, Hecht says, and anyone’s suicide weakens what we can give each other.
I agree with Hecht—passionately. But as she acknowledges, her position can be understood, embraced, and acted on only by someone in his or her right mind. From experience, I know that clinical depression can tip a person into madness. And madness listens to no argument, however well-reasoned, other than its own. Madness creates its own logic in which oblivion isn’t an undesirable end but the only reasonable destiny.
The solution to easing our national mental-health crisis is complicated. Ideally, we would eliminate the conditions that drive us into despair. We would heal our environment, ensure a fairer distribution of wealth, and strive to build lasting peace. We would also make it impossible for the suicidal to possess firearms. We would find sure-fire, side-effect-free medical treatments. We would dial down virtual communities and ramp up real ones.
To the extent that we can contribute to these ends, we should. Depression likes nothing better than hopelessness and inaction. To act is to empower hope.
Likewise, we can do what Hecht suggests and begin a conversation about how important we are to each other and create an ethos in which suicide is shunned.
All of this will take wide-scale coordination, commitment, and money. Any national healthcare plan that ignores our country’s suicide epidemic by shunting the mentally ill (which, remember, is 10 percent of us in any given year) off to a perilous, uninsured place, where we will be tempted disastrously to “tough it out,” will perpetuate our national despair.
At the core of our commitment, or lack therefore, to our collective health is a fundamental question: How much is a human being worth?
Is a human being who suffers from a major illness, whether it’s cancer or clinical depression, worth the time and money necessary to help that person recover?
In my case, I was fortunate: I had insurance. But even with my insurance, because of co-pay requirements, treatment of my depression, which included visits to psychiatrists and psychologists, threatened to put my family in serious financial trouble. When my depression persisted, we were at risk of a full-blown financial meltdown.
I was, therefore, extremely fortunate that my brother-in-law worked at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York and found a place for me in the hospital’s mental-health unit. In exchange for a willingness to be open to experimental treatments for depression, I was given a free bed for as long as I needed.
It turned out I needed that bed for a couple of months—or until I had electro-convulsive therapy, which cured my depression.
I believe each of us deserves the best chance to recover from whatever healthcare crises befalls us. The best way to ensure that we have the resources to overcome any illness is universal, comprehensive healthcare. Every American should be insured.
This might be easy for me to say, because I’ve needed help.
But it’s very, very likely that you—or someone you love—will too.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of seven books, including The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose. His book was featured on the Diane Rehm Show, where he discussed his experiences with depression and mental-health treatment (https://dianerehm.org/shows/2012-12-11/mark-brazaitis-incurables).