He is courageous and honest. He has stood up publicly to speak the truth about something to an entire nation that most of us can’t even tell our friends and family. He has been praised for how his bravery has opened up a country-wide conversation about something that really matters. And to boot, he is a politician. His name is Scott Ludlam, deputy leader of the Green Party and a Senator in the Australian Parliament. Last week he announced that he would be taking a leave of absence from the Senate in order to treat depression and anxiety. How many of us would have that fortitude?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately one in five adults in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness each year. Nearly 7% of U.S. adults had a major depressive episode last year and 18% experienced some form of anxiety disorder. When you target specific demographics, the prevalence of poor mental health is striking. According to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition and at least 20% live with a serious mental illness. Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition, and 46% of people who are homeless live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.
Yet the prevalence of poor mental health, even among those demographics who suffer disproportionally in our country, needs to be considered alongside the relational impact that being designated as suffering from mental illness can have. In my own work on mental health and the Gospel of Mark (Mark, Mutuality and Mental Health) I learned of the profound impact that stigma can have on a person’s sense of identity and agency. Such relational dynamics have been found to lead to discrimination that takes a number of forms. One study found that more than half of respondents in a U.S. survey said they would be unwilling to spend an evening socialising with, work next to, or have a family member marry a person ‘with mental illness’. People known to have suffered poor mental health can face prejudicial behaviors ranging from denied insurance policy applications to opportunities for employment or career advancement.
The tragedy added to this is that a significant percentage of those who struggle with the psychological and social impact of mental illness face this cocktail of challenges alone, often untreated and kept hidden. Again, according to NAMI, only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Across ethnicities, the picture is worse: African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about one-half the rate of Caucasian Americans in the past year and Asian Americans at about one-third the rate.
All of this – the under-treatment of mental illness, the persistent social stigma, and the disturbingly high incidence rate among certain demographics and at-risk populations – makes Scott Ludlum’s act of speaking truth to societal power with regards to his own struggles a timely reminder that public servants can act for the common good. On this, our Election Day, a politician half a world away offers us a glimmer of what it might look like if our own political leaders lived more fully into their vocation. In The Republic, Plato argues that in order to properly govern one must be a lover of wisdom, balancing intellectual capabilities with the virtues of self-control and discipline. Our politics is meant to offer to the ‘polis’, the city and by extension the nation, the best of us.
Perhaps the most generous thing that could be said of this election is that the best of us is yet to come. That is, after all, the great promise of democracy – we get to start over. We need to start again, profoundly so. People of faith, no matter how they vote today, can play a crucial part in that, for we are among those who trust in hope, not as an act of blind optimism but as the strength found in the God who makes all things new, even those parts of our lives that look well-past repair. Tomorrow we have a chance to start over. Let us each play our part and find our own voice of honesty and courage.