Editor’s Note: Today is Blog Action Day. Bloggers from over 105 countries will be blogging about inequality.
A few months ago, I binged on documentaries one weekend, while gathering information for my upcoming book about how—as a society, educators, and parents—we can optimize children’s mental health. Among other films, I watched Inequality for All and A Place at the Table. While I kind of knew things were bad, these two films really drove home two points: income inequality isn’t sustainable and food insecurity is real—right here in the U.S.A., the “richest country in the world.”
(I got so riled up, I now have a max documentaries per weekend rule.)
What Does This Have to Do with Mental Health?
I was interested in these topics because my research has revealed that much mental distress stems from environmental factors. Yes, we may be born with a predisposition to mental illness, but it’s our environment and experiences that determine mental health outcomes. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study links childhood trauma to a host of long-term health problems, including depression and suicide. One report indicates that half of all children have experienced trauma. And guess what the most common form of trauma is? Financial hardship.
This is why there is no way to have an honest discussion about mental health without considering the impact of income inequality, food insecurity, and all the other social factors that contribute to mental distress. This is not an individual issue and people who suffer from mental illness should not be stigmatized as being weak or “crazy.” They are simply reacting to a sick, unjust, unequal society that is not designed to optimize mental health, but rather to optimize profits and economic growth.
Indeed, income and status inequality is directly associated with mental illness—on both ends of the spectrum (dominance and subordination). Write Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, co-founders of the Equality Trust:
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we become less nice people in more unequal societies. But we are less nice and less happy: Greater inequality redoubles status anxiety, damaging our mental health and distorting our personalities — wherever we are on the social spectrum.
A Few Disturbing Facts
- The United States ranks fourth in income inequality.(Fourth, people!)
- The average single black or Hispanic woman owns a can of soup for every $40,000,000 owned by a member of the Forbes 400.*
- Twenty percent of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2013.**
- Over 15 million U.S. children lived in food insecure households in 2012.**
- Four million children and teens in the U.S. have been diagnosed with a serious mental disorder.***
- In my home state, Iowa, 19 percent of eleventh grade girls contemplated suicide in 2012.
Are You Proud to Be an American Yet?
I want to be proud of my adopted country. I want us to lead the way in developing sustainable economic models that care less about the bottom line and more about the welfare of all citizens and the health of our planet. To do so, we must create legislation that holds business owners accountable to the common good. Further, we must reduce income inequality and, subsequently, eliminate food insecurity. Corporate leadership must pay workers a living wage—enough for three healthy meals a day, safe housing, clothing, transportation, education, and hobbies.
There’s enough money to go around. Any one of the richest ten people in the U.S. could pay for housing for every homeless person in our country. And there is plenty of food to feed everyone. No child should have to go hungry. As former astronaut Buzz Aldrin has said, “If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger.”
Now that we know that mental health is highly dependent on our environment, it’s time we take a stand against income inequality and hunger insecurity (oh, so related). There are lots of way to get involved. First, vote for the people who are more likely to support these changes. Then visit the Inequality for All action page to figure out where you can plug in. And talk to your friends and family about these issues.
Income inequality, food insecurity, and resulting mental distress is simply not acceptable in my book.
We can do better.
“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for the minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.