How did a country that prides itself on our democratic values end up with one of the most contentious political divides in history, alarming rates of violence, skyrocketing rates of depression, egregious bigotry, marginal and inequitable public education, and shockingly poor physical health?
While there are innumerable conventional answers to these questions, few of them get to the root of the problem. Legal scholars, for example, contend that we have distorted laws in the interest of corporate or political gain. Meanwhile, politicians declare that we swung too far left or right, while physicians assert that we have failed to pay attention to common sense health practices – such as wearing masks, getting adequate exercise, and complying with prescription medicines.
Yet however accurate – and even imperative – these conventional answers may be, they do not address why we distort laws in the interest of corporate or political gain, what drives us to swing to political extremes, and what incites us to defy common sense health practices. Until we address these questions, we will consistently fail to remedy them.
As a psychologist and conflict mediator, I contend that the failure of our system has as much to do with our inner lives as our outer ones. Just as politicians claim that all politics are local, we must go even further and frame all societal issues as personal. A group’s sense of disenfranchisement from the American Dream, for example, stems from an individual’s lack of personal and vocational meaning. Each person has their own unique story of trauma, loss, and desperation for saviors and quick fixes.
We have many problems that exceed the impersonal, academic lenses of law, politics, and medicine. If we can’t find ways to restore and reshape our inner makeup, there is little hope that our outer structures of law, politics, medicine, etc. will make meaningful reform. Religion can help to a degree, but it can also feed the problem.
Enter the insight, resources, and focus of psychology. Of course, just like the other disciplines psychology alone is not the all-knowing answer, but it may contribute a great deal more to examining how the solutions provided by our leaders affect our inner lives.
For too long, psychology has been the stepchild of medicine, despite the obvious ways it augments our policy-making decisions. Among these is a focus on psychosocial dimensions of physical and mental health care – or, in other words, an emphasis on the psychological and social conditions that give rise to problems in the first place Such a focus addresses the gaps in our policies toward cultural and familial influences on our lives, the effects of corporate and political manipulation on our emotions, and the environmental bases of anxiety, depression, and other emotional ailments that lead to real-world problems. And, above all else, psychology provides evidence-based ways to address them.
In this light, the U.S. government needs psychological consultants that are directly available to legislators, the president, and any other policymakers. Such consultants would be comprised of distinguished experts in psychosocial approaches to mental health care. These experts would work in coordination with such professional organizations as the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and other allied agencies.
In the present context, this may mean making recommendations on how to manage the pandemic, racial inequities, and political division. Consultants could lead the way in addressing evolving crises – like aiding the pandemic recovery or addressing the cultural and political divides in our country.
Their presence in the legislative process would also, in the long term, advocate for comprehensive mental health for underserved communities. Currently, the availability of such quality mental health services is skewed toward the wealthy, and those who often need such services most are left with highly delimited alternatives. Such inequities have horrific consequences and become evident in higher medical costs, increases in crime and violence, and higher unemployment.
And there is bipartisan support for this proposal. For example, one recent survey showed that both Republicans and Democrats back legislation to expand access to mental health care and addiction treatment by large majorities. This same survey also showed backing for crisis mental health care instead of or alongside the response of law enforcement by similar margins.
Although there are existing agencies within the government that address the problems of mental health – such as the Surgeon General and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – these agencies tend to be medically oriented, fragmentary, and not adequate to the scope of the crisis.
Leading this advisory role, President Biden should consider a national mental health “czar”. This leader would be on a par with the Surgeon General and oversee an Office composed of specialists available to the U.S. President, the Congress, and the public to address distinctively psychosocial problems and challenges.
How will such a position be funded? What I envision is a Works Progress Administration-style funding program to address the alarming crises in mental health. If we can pay for new roads and bridges and bloated military budgets, certainly we can set aside some significant funds to address the mass suffering in our households, communities, and mental health clinics. Moreover, there are likely to be significant offsets because of improvements in well-being. Among them: reduced crime rates, addiction, depression, medical costs, and attrition at work.
We have seen how problematic life has become in the absence of a substantial contribution from psychology at the national level. A federal office of psychological consultants could redress this imbalance, and in the process, help us to genuinely thrive, not just to survive.