In a recent Schizophrenia and the City episode, Michelle Hammer examines the death of 40-year-old Michelle Go, who was killed by a train in Times Square after being pushed into the tracks by a homeless schizophrenic man named Martial Simon. This incident was largely a product of the inadequacy of New York City’s mental illness support systems, but as a CNN article reports, many are viewing it as a manifestation of anti-Asian hate. “You can tell me all you want this is not related to me being Asian but when I look at pictures of Michelle Go and read the story I see myself in it,” asserts Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. As an Asian-American myself, the issue of anti-Asian hate that has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic is personal. Even so, I believe that it is misleading to label this incident as a hate crime. I cannot say whether or not Michelle Go’s death was even remotely racially motivated, but I do know that focusing in on the race aspect serves only to obscure the fact that Martial Simon had schizophrenia and that the larger issue is likelier a lack of awareness and action concerning mental illness. The less privileged mentally ill bounce back and forth between prisons and under equipped mental institutions, and when they’re not in either they are homeless. The CNN article does not mention that Simon had schizophrenia; it only mentioned that he was homeless. We should be viewing this incident through the lens of intersectionality – that is, by understanding that multiple factors are at work behind the scenes. Asian hate is not the only thing that should change – stigma towards mental health should too.
Slowly but surely, our society’s perception of mental illness and therapy is becoming more inclusive and less stigmatized. Even so, less than half of US adults with a mental illness are receiving treatment. In addition, as a recent Daily Campus article opines, the public image of therapy is beginning to sour. Statements in popular culture, such as “[Blank] is my therapy,” while true to some extent, imply that therapy is not only just a minor, everyday thing, but also for people who are so weak as to not be able to provide their own “therapy.” Such statements, then, also imply that if one does see a therapist, it should solve all their problems.
These statements were probably not designed with the emphasis on the “therapy” part. I would guess that they were meant for people to demonstrate to others their passion for a certain activity. Unfortunately, words can be interpreted in any manner of ways, and some of those ways can have negative impacts. I agree with the points that the author makes, and I want to add a few things. The use of the word “therapy” so glibly makes it seem like treatment for mental health is monolithic and uniform – a rigid definition, one which can lead to dangerous misconceptions. If therapy is viewed as a singular object, it becomes that much easier to attach to it certain connotations, such as the stereotype of the couch, clipboard, and “How does that make you feel?” In this way, the word “therapy” is treated like a foreign, exotic word; it is a means which is to be used only in cases of extreme mental illness, an idea which only further alienates those who do happen to have a mental illness and/or see a therapist. Caring for mental health is something everybody should do with a certain level of care and seriousness. Estranging the word “therapy” just makes help seem like it is so far away. In addition, the idea that therapy is a silver bullet for mental illness can also lead people who go into therapy expecting all their problems to be solved to walk out feeling disappointed that the therapy did not do that. It may convince some people that therapy flat-out does not work. This demonstrates a rule which one should always uphold when interacting with the world: assume complexity. Everything has an impact, often in subtle ways, and failure to see those subtleties can result in negative effects.
A recent Jama Network Open study examined the use of medicare benefits by people with mental illnesses. The results found that compared to 2019, in the first month of the pandemic outpatient visits and prescription refills of antipsychotics were reduced by about 20%, and ER visits and hospital admissions decreased by almost 30%. These numbers rebounded later in 2020, but still remained lower than rates in 2019, despite the transition to telemedicine. Disadvantaged groups, such as racial minorities, were particularly affected by the pandemic.
In my opinion, these findings are not simply the result of an underdeveloped health care system – they are the result of apathy towards people with mental illnesses. Hospitals were overwhelmed with patients with COVID-19, and so those deemed to be “lower priority” were pushed out. While treating those with COVID is important, it should not be used as an excuse to marginalize those with psychosis. Having a mental illness may be long-term compared with the acute short-term effects of COVID, but cutting off resources to these people by means of redirecting it towards COVID efforts is tantamount to ignoring COVID patients – severe mental illness is severe for a reason. Of course, what is needed is more attention towards healthcare, but also we need to change how we think about mental illness – as deserving constant attention.
On December 15, 2021, in the middle of finals week, a student at Northeastern University was found dead in the library, suspected to have committed suicide. The university responded by sending out an email to all the students telling them that counseling services were available. And then finals week resumed. This is a clear-cut example of the COVID-19 pandemic’s dire and disproportionate effects on the mental health of youth, and the inadequate organized response. In 2020, 40% of students reported experiencing depression and 34% reported anxiety, and to make things worse, 60% of undergrads said that they did not have access to adequate mental health resources. Northeastern isn’t completely ignoring the issue of mental health: they created “mental health days” to give students time to relax. Even so, professors still assigned work on or around those days, completely defeating their purpose. A Tufts University Junior was completely unable to access the college’s mental health resources, despite having had multiple panic attacks. Most students end up having to rely on private therapists, the use of which is both expensive and complicated. The efforts which universities do make, such as Northeastern’s “mental health days,” are usually inadequate, short-term, and fail to account for the intricacies of the student body.
The word “youth” makes one envision children of the age no later than their early teens, but without a doubt college students closer to 20 years of age fall into this definition. Even if they didn’t, the fact remains that they are just as heavily impacted by the mental health crisis that the nation’s youth are experiencing. In fact, this is simply speculation from someone who has yet to reach such a time of their life, but it might be the worst for young adults of that age, because they are independent enough to grapple with the entirety of the pandemic’s effects, but have not yet learned to navigate the world fully. The nation’s shortage of mental health experts is no less severe at universities, where they are arguably needed the most. The sad truth is that many major colleges have so far been remiss in their duties to ensure the health of students, both physically and mentally. If they do not have the resources to address mental health, they should at least cooperate with the many student-run organizations that have sprung up in the wake of the pandemic. Universities should at least expend more effort to address the crisis from which their students are silently suffering.