By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
One of the distressing marvels of modern life is how the United States of America, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, could be so awash in mental health problems, physical illness, violence, and a palpable atmosphere of anger and despair.
The National Institute of Mental Health says more than 52 million Americans age 18 and over suffer from some form of mental illness (depression, anxiety, bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias or more).
Our average life expectancy (79 years) ranks only 50th in the world, according to World Population Review. High rates of obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer have made us particularly vulnerable to the Covid pandemic that has claimed more than a million lives here since 2020.
Violence is, in some ways, a uniquely American scourge. According to the Gun Violence Archive, each year around 50,000 acts of violence committed with firearms claim 20,000 lives in the U.S. Between 2009-2018, we had 57 times as many school shootings as the other G7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom) combined.
What is it about our society that produces so many messed-up people? I believe the reasons are many and intertwined. Each one will have to be effectively addressed before we can stop simply turning this country into a miserable maximum insecurity prison for all.
Our materialistic consumer culture, fixated on the acquisition of wealth, fame, status and physical beauty, encourages us constantly to compare ourselves to others and never be satisfied. The inability to accept one’s self and appreciate one’s blessings despite life’s inevitable setbacks is a recipe for perpetual unhappiness. To me, Donald Trump is the personification of the American mindset: an extremely wealthy, self-absorbed, miserable man obsessed with attention and power and prone to violent outbursts. It is bitterly ironic that he served as our president and may do so again.
Economic pressures such as unemployment and debt feed stress and anxiety. While many Americans struggle to earn enough to cover basic needs, many more bring trouble upon themselves with their inability to manage their money or control their impulses to spend. Buy now, pay later … and how.
Our lack of face-to-face community (as in actually knowing your neighbors and being involved in each other’s lives) is exacerbated by social media and the Internet, which lure us into a virtual reality of our own choosing. We are more easily in contact with like-minded individuals but rarely meet them. Ultimately, we are more isolated and alone with the fears and grievances we share with those virtual friends. The absence of physically present, personal forms of social support contributes to feelings of loneliness, depression, and nihilism. It also feeds a tendency to resort to violence as a means of settling disputes, which makes the easy availability of guns (used in 77 percent of all killings), so devastating. It’s no surprise that incidents of road rage and other public displays of antisocial behavior are common.
Our environment (air and water) is full of toxins and our diet is heavy in processed foods that aren’t nutritious and are laden with chemicals such as preservatives and artificial colors and flavors. Exactly how these pollutants affect us is hard to say, as everyone reacts differently to different things. But they all add up.
The benefits of good nutrition — and even what “good” nutrition is — are very poorly understood by doctors and the general public. Common sense dictates that a “garbage in/garbage out” principle applies. Mental health is often a matter of balance in one’s brain chemicals, which are affected by physical health, stress, drugs (legal and illegal), and abuse of other substances such as alcohol.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, leading to depression and other emotional disorders.”
Our lifestyles are largely sedentary. Exercise provides well-documented health benefits but our lack of fitness is alarming. The U.S. military is now dealing with a wave of applicants so out of shape they can’t get through basic training.
Our popular entertainment (movies, TV shows, video games, music, literature) reflect a culture that has historically glorified violence by romanticizing the Wild West, outlaws, notorious gangsters, and vigilantes. This country has a long history of using violence as a tool for stability — America has been at peace (involved in no armed conflicts) for only 14 of its 246 years — and resorting to illegality in the name of law and order. For the latest example, consider the brazen attempt by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election, including the storming of the Capitol by a mob of angry, aggrieved supporters.
All of these things are factors in violence, especially social alienation. Criminologist Lonnie Athens, quoted in the essay “Why We Americans Are So Violent” by social history professor Howard Smead of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says violence has less to do with insanity than “violent socialization.”
The human need to belong to a community with a purpose drives many into the arms of QAnon, militias and other political or religious extremist groups. The 18-year-old white supremacist who slaughtered 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. was radicalized in online hate forums like 4chan. The 21-year-old gunman who shot 53 people, killing seven, in Highland Park, Ill. on the Fourth of July was active in Internet communities that glorify violence and turn it into a kind of performance art for attention-seekers who often simulcast their attacks.
"I've described this as sort of like a mass shooter creation machine," Alex Newhouse, an extremism and counterterrorism expert told NPR. "A lot of these communities are designed to spin out mass shooters over time, over and over and over."
Studies have found that the people most vulnerable are men between the ages of 16 and 24. The National Institute of Mental Health has found that the 18-25 age group has the highest prevalence (more than 30 percent) of mental health issues. And while it fashionable to blame poor mental health for mass shootings and other violence, it is only part of the puzzle.
“Stressors — such as unemployment, isolation and uncertainty about the future — can lead to increased frustration and anger,” Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, is quoted by social historian Smead. “People experiencing these negative emotions are more prone to turn to crime when they lack access to more positive coping mechanisms. And previous research has shown how financial stressors and a lack of social support work together to influence the overall homicide rate.” That is particularly true in impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods like the most notoriously violent ones in Chicago.
Alone in our echo chambers, our detachment from reality and sense of grievance, helplessness, frustration, and being ignored and disrespected is further fueled by traditional forms of media (radio, TV, newspapers) full of highly partisan commentators such a Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who frequently reminds his conservative followers that they are viewed with contempt and condescension by liberals.
So how do we fix ourselves and our society?
As it is, we’re very prone to treating symptoms but not underlying causes. Gun laws and hardening schools and other public places may make us a bit safer but they will do nothing to stop the constant creation of people who are driven to violence. We should increase the availability of mental health services, but they offer often impersonal, drug-based treatment after the fact. We need more prevention.
Our “take a pill for it” health care system won’t solve much either. So-called “wellness visits” to doctors are often diagnostic tests and scant advice for protecting one’s health. Want to lose weight? Take a medication or have a surgical procedure. How about not becoming overweight in the first place?
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I am seeing arguments that it’s much more effective to spend on things like housing, health, education, behavior modification, and community-based violence intervention programs than police or prisons. We already have the largest penal system in the world, and where has it gotten us?
As it is, it’s too easy and perversely comfortable to keep doing what we are doing and adapt to things as they are. Our misery is the devil we know. Gun and junk food manufacturers, Big Pharma, health-care providers, lenders, private prisons, media and entertainment companies have found ways to profit handsomely from it. That makes it almost impossible to change without a concerted across-the-board effort.
Ultimately, it’s going to take each one of us making profound changes in the way we live and see life, ourselves and each other. Until that happens, America will remain a very unhealthy, dangerous place.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.