Politician’s Misconceptions Concerning Mental Illness Need a Closer Look

Last week Bozeman’s own Rep. Tom Burnett (R) disclosed his plan to prevent “seriously disabling mental illness, addiction, depression, obesity, diabetes, low-income status and dementia,” so that “social program spending could be a fraction (of what it is today).”

His six-step plan includes 6-10 hours of exercise weekly, healthier eating habits, fostering relationships and working hard. Most people agree these are positive life choices, if not cures for serious illnesses. The other two he lists are “spirit” (going to church weekly and reading the bible daily), and cutting out porn and drugs.

Rep. Burnett sent these suggestions via email to fellow lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee in Helena. The committee helps allocate state funds for lower-income Montanans. Although an email is hardly legislature ready to be voted on, Rep. Burnett’s words are still troubling.

This brings me to the reason why Burnett’s email is even worth mentioning — it shows the misunderstanding of poverty and mental illness policy makers have today. We can only hope others will prevent Burnett from imposing his religious beliefs, but how many lawmakers truly understand how mental illness work? How many shudder seeing low-income listed alongside dementia and depression as if it is a disease? How many will challenge Burnett based on religious imposition, but ignore the misconceptions he enables?

Depression, for example, is caused by physical changes in the human brain. While it is not totally understood due to the complexity of our neurological systems, chemical imbalance and changes to the brain structure are the causes. As Harvard Medical School states, it is brought on by changes in “nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth and the functioning of nerve circuits”  Something like a better diet, or more exercise, will relay endorphins but can’t rewire your brain on its own. Depression is a disease and lawmakers need to understand that, especially in a state that has been on the top five list for suicide rates nationally for thirty years.

He also mentions dementia, which is caused by damage to nerve cells in our brains, most often as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. As Alan Leshner points out in his peer-reviewed neuroscience article Addiction Is a Brain Disease, and It Matters, it is a myth that addiction befalls only lazy individuals and that addicts are victims of their circumstances. Instead, he states, “Addiction is actually a chronic, relapsing illness.” This was published in 1997, almost twenty years ago, in Science, one of the most esteemed journals. You’d think this data would be part of the discourse by now.

Obesity, of course, would see a decline with better diet and exercise, but accessibility is key. Healthy food tends to be more expensive and takes time to prepare. Many argue that it is cheaper to eat healthy, but every town in Montana doesn’t have a farmer’s market to buy fresh produce. Fruits and veggies are more expensive than processed foods in the grocery store and making three meals a day, working forty hours a week, hitting that exercise quota Burnett is adamant about and raising a family simply isn’t possible for many. If current wages could still comfortably support a family and healthy food was accessible, I believe these changes could be made. It’s near-sighted, however, to assume that everyone has the same time and easy access to a comfortable life style.

This brings us to the last component of Burnett’s plan: the end of low-income status. Some argue that poverty is a result of bad decisions and, if you are as narrow in vision as in your experience outside the upper-middle class, this holds some truth. Unemployed? Why don’t you get a job? Can’t afford college? Why’d you ever go then? The idea that the poor are digging their own grave is notorious in politics. If you widen your scope, have some humanity, and observe the reality of poverty in our state and country, however, you’ll see there are systematic class systems that make financial stability a more difficult goal for people of color, lower-class people and women. Systematic inequality and illness isn’t something you can fix with a workout plan, a holy book or a porn ban.