The Social Fabric of the U.S. Is Fraying Severely, if Not Unravelling

Why, in the world’s richest country, is every metric of mental health pathology rapidly worsening?

THE YEAR 2020 has been one of the most tumultuous in modern American history. To find events remotely as destabilizing and transformative, one has to go back to the 2008 financial crisis and the 9/11 and anthrax attacks of 2001, though those systemic shocks, profound as they were, were isolated (one a national security crisis, the other a financial crisis) and thus more limited in scope than the multicrisis instability now shaping U.S. politics and culture.

Since the end of World War II, the only close competitor to the current moment is the multipronged unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s: serial assassinations of political leaders, mass civil rights and anti-war protests, sustained riots, fury over a heinous war in Indochina, and the resignation of a corruption-plagued president.

But those events unfolded and built upon one another over the course of a decade. By crucial contrast, the current confluence of crises, each of historic significance in their own right — a global pandemic, an economic and social shutdown, mass unemployment, an enduring protest movement provoking increasing levels of violence and volatility, and a presidential election centrally focused on one of the most divisive political figures the U.S. has known who happens to be the incumbent president — are happening simultaneously, having exploded one on top of the other in a matter of a few months.

Lurking beneath the headlines justifiably devoted to these major stories of 2020 are very troubling data that reflect intensifying pathologies in the U.S. population — not moral or allegorical sicknesses but mental, emotional, psychological and scientifically proven sickness. Many people fortunate enough to have survived this pandemic with their physical health intact know anecdotally — from observing others and themselves — that these political and social crises have spawned emotional difficulties and psychological challenges.

But the data are nonetheless stunning, in terms of both the depth of the social and mental health crises they demonstrate and the pervasiveness of them. Perhaps the most illustrative study was one released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month, based on an extensive mental health survey of Americans in late June.

One question posed by researchers was whether someone has “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days”— not fleetingly considered it as a momentary fantasy nor thought about it ever in their lifetime, but seriously considered suicide at least once in the past 30 days. The results are staggering.

For Americans between 18-24 years old, 25.5 percent — just over 1 out of every 4 young Americans — said they had. For the much larger group of Americans ages 25-44, the percentage was somewhat lower but still extremely alarming: 16 percent. A total of 18.6 percent of Hispanic Americans and 15 percent of African Americans said they had seriously considered suicide in the past month. The two groups with the largest percentage who said yes: Americans with less than a high school degree and unpaid caregivers, both of whom have 30 percent — or almost 1 out of every 3 — who answered in the affirmative. A full 10 percent of the U.S. population generally had seriously contemplated suicide in the month of June.

In a remotely healthy society, one that provides basic emotional needs [ … ]

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