Toxic positivity and the GOP primary’s plight with mental health

Toxic positivity and the GOP primary’s plight with mental health

Historically, talk of mental health in the public forum has been suppressed. Not anymore. For a topic society has long encouraged people to open up about — while simultaneously subduing it – mental health is now being contorted by conservative politicians into a polarizing touchpoint.

To see how this is playing out in a progress-detracting manner for the state of the mental health movement, look no further than the sardine-packed 2024 Republican presidential primary. Mental illness has been politically weaponized. Following the political uprising over Covid-19 vaccines, however, who’s surprised? 

Speaking from the stage of the 2023 National Rifle Association (NRA) convention, the now broken-up White House hopefuls Donald Trump and Mike Pence made their point clear: Mass shootings are a mental health problem, not a gun problem. This display of stigmatization is most commonly seen following tragic events, like the unparalleled number of mass shootings we’ve endured. It is an unrelated tool of distraction. Experts have said that not only are most people with mental illness not violent, but they are also far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators.

The medicalization of political subjects is an intersection Dr. Danielle Carr of UCLA grapples with in declaring that mental health is indeed, political.

The NRA, in particular, has become a continuously open spigot of blaming mental health, which has had quite effective implications on our mental health system, said Dr. Yanos, a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of “Written Off: Mental Health Stigma and the Loss of Human Potential.” The NRA’s anti-mental health rhetoric, part of their routine finger-pointing exercise, has coincided with increased institutional funding for the removal of individuals with mental health conditions from society.

This response, blaming mental health, is a common one, according to Dr. Naomi Torres-Mackie, a clinical psychologist at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital. Given the complexity of mental health, it is often not understood. “We’re emotional beings and things that we don’t understand, we fear,” Dr. Torres-Mackie explained. “We’re definitely talking on a broader scale about mental health more frequently, but quantity doesn’t always equal quality.”

Pence and Trump are not alone. Suicides are known to be soaring among teen girls, a sober reality that GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley baselessly blames on their peer transgender athletes. The former South Carolina governor spewed this factually incorrect and dehumanizing language at a recent CNN town hall. Asked to define “woke,” which the right has repeatedly demonized, Haley stammered this response:“How are we supposed to get our girls used to the fact that biological boys are in their locker room? And then they wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year.” 

Erasing “mental health” in the promotion of resiliency is not only creating more stigma and shame around mental health, Dr. Torres-Mackie said, but it is elevating toxic positivity.

Such examples of the GOP’s congregation of candidates stigmatizing mental health are not scarce. While comments like Haley’s, Pence’s, and Trump’s may seem like just talking points, they’re erasing the result of decades spent destigmatizing mental illness. When these not-so-micro-aggressions from candidates are compiled, the picture is clear: the GOP presidential primary has succumbed to a harmful reckoning with mental health at the expense of vulnerable and marginalized communities. These comments that are made on public platforms by top political contenders can be interpreted as an indication of one’s own value, with the potential to devalue and make people feel unworthy, Dr. Torres-Mackie said.

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So, what could this all mean for the landscape of mental health if a GOP candidate secures the White House next year? Well, there’s a blueprint of sorts already on tap in Florida. Trump-contending Governor Ron DeSantis’s wife, Casey DeSantis, recently announced a mental health campaign in Florida schools. Amidst the onslaught of other stigmatizing interventions Florida schools are enduring, First Lady DeSantis’s campaign is “rejecting the term mental health and replacing it with resiliency,” despite the widely accepted cultural abandonment of using the racially trope-heavy word “resilience.”

Erasing “mental health” in the promotion of resiliency is not only creating more stigma and shame around mental health, Dr. Torres-Mackie said, but it is elevating toxic positivity. This approach embodies the dangers of backtracking to a time when children were encouraged to not talk about hardship and pain. 

If Pence’s governorship of Indiana from 2013-2017 is any indicator of a potential mental health landscape under a GOP candidate, we could see an effort to return to an institutionalized approach, the likes of the 1960s abandoned approach. Governor Pence’s increasing number of speeches often raise this point of institutionalized mental health care, something he spearheaded with the 2019 debut of the NeuroDiagnostic Institute, a psychiatric hospital in Indianapolis.  

“The desire to remove people from society who we don’t quite understand and don’t know how to help, that’s a fear-based response,” Dr. Torres-Mackie said.

In agreement, Dr. Yanos considers calls for institutionalized mental health care as a distraction, not an answer, one that has people saying “yeah, yeah, yeah” despite it being a reality that addresses no one’s serious needs even if it was feasible on a policy level.

And it isn’t just conservatives advocating for this approach either. 

Eric Adams, the Democratic Mayor of New York City, recently debut a mental health response plan that was widely viewed as an institutionalized and flawed approach

The targeting of mental health as a scapegoat at the highest levels of political power has a trickle-down effect on individuals. For someone with no pre-existing mental health conditions, public blaming can invoke the onset of a mental health condition, Dr. Torres-Mackie said. Furthermore, this public display not only furthers the stigma while acting as a barrier between individuals and treatment but it also simultaneously prevents further funding for structural mental health change.

The more our political leaders target mental health as a justification, the more the entire system of mental health is harmed, devalued, and further stigmatized. Instead, mental health must be talked about as something everyone experiences.

The answer here seems simple; if people become fearful of mental illnesses as a result of not understanding them, then just up the awareness and education of mental health. This, unfortunately, is incredibly easier said than done as this is one of the many places where the stigma serves as a barrier.

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