On October 13, 2021

Decisive action needed on deaths of despair

By Tanya Vyhovsky

Editor’s note: State Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, is a licensed independent clinical social worker, works in the public school system, and has a private counseling practice in her hometown of Essex.

September was Suicide Awareness Month, and I am sure many of us felt inundated with frightening statistics and information about mental health support (or the lack of mental health support) available if people are struggling.

This is all-important information, as suicide rates have risen 31% since 2001. Suicide is now one of the top 10 causes of death overall in the United States, and the second-leading cause of death for young people under 35.

These numbers are shocking, and mental health care investment is important and direly needed, but we can throw millions into the mental health system and likely continue to see a high rate of suicide, because suicide is a death of despair and the people have far too many reasons to despair.

There is so much that we can and must do, above and beyond mental health investments, to heal the despair people are struggling with, so why aren’t we taking immediate and decisive action?

Suicide, like overdose, substance use and alcoholism, are symptoms of an economy and a society that is failing the people, and the very planet we live on. These deaths of despair are largely responsible for the declining life expectancy in the United States, and we are in a position with federal money pouring into our state to invest in lifting people out of the despair that leads to these preventable deaths.

This is an important and critical moment to look at all of the reasons, beyond individual mental health, why a person may feel so hopeless that they see suicide as the only way out. We spent the last month hearing tragic and heart-wrenching stories from survivors and families, and we were touched by each one of them.

I hope that we can take a deeper look, and bring attention to the larger issues that need our attention so that we can have a community filled with resilience and hope instead of despair and hopelessness.

There is no question that Vermont, like the nation, is in the midst of a major mental health crisis. I work in mental health and have daily evidence of the crisis. People are afraid, anxious, and in despair and see that the resources they need simply do not exist.

These, however, are not only the necessary mental health resources; they are social and economic resources that were missing before Covid and that landscape has only become starker since. In over a decade of working in this field, I have seen the many problems that underinvestment and austerity budgeting have caused.

This moment in time is unprecedented. We are looking at a landscape where “crisis” follows nearly everything we need to sustain dignified and meaningful lives. Every day, we are bombarded with housing crisis, wage crisis, workforce crisis, health care crisis, climate crisis, overdose crisis and an economy and society that has failed the people. So, of course we are facing a suicide crisis.

The state of the economy forces people to choose between needed health care and food, as the cost of both soar, all while our farmers cannot afford to feed their own families.

People of color live in fear of police brutality, and are asked daily to stomach the racism built into every system, and to wait for us to get around to equity work.

Extreme weather, flooding, droughts, extreme heat and severe storms occur more and more frequently, costing us billions in repairs, health care costs, and displaced people.

No wonder our people live in absolute despair; the picture before them is grim, and our “leaders” are sitting by in inaction. When asked for my professional view on why the youth seem so despondent, I am speechless by the absurdity of the question. How can anyone not be despondent while the people in charge do nothing while the planet melts and the people whither and die in despair?

So, what are we going to do?

We need to move away from austerity budgeting and a scarcity mindset and embrace the simple fact that we can — and must — take care of our people. We must stop asking people to choose between one necessity and another. Instead, we need to challenge ourselves and each other to be brave, be bold, and do all of the things we know the people need.

Stop with climate solutions or equity; we have to have both. No more housing solutions or livable wages, the people need both to survive. Enough education funding or education equity, the only way forward is to ensure both of these things come to pass.

We live in a time when millions of dollars go out the door to businesses without a question asked, and we have to fight to try and put just $25 extra in the pockets of Vermonters who are out of work. This is absurd. We can do better. We have to do better.

The time is right now to think about not only how we make real investments in a mental health system that is bleeding out, but also how we make real investments in Vermonters, in transforming our economy to one that is green and sustainable and allows every Vermonter to thrive and have hope for the future. We need to invest in student loan forgiveness to anyone giving back to our communities through service, high-quality early education and child care that every family can afford, universal public paid family medical leave, statewide high-speed broadband access, public pension expansion, universal health care from cradle to grave, and affordable, safe housing.

These value-added policies will not only bring young professionals to Vermont who can work in the fields where we have worker shortages — including nursing, mental health and education — but these policies are also the expansive mental health care that is truly needed to turn the suicide crisis around. We need to truly challenge ourselves to see these things as the mental health care they are.

While therapy is a great first step, it’s not enough on its own. Therapy will never solve my despair if I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, or if I can’t afford my life-preserving medication. If we want to stop the deaths of despair that are ravaging our communities, we need to fix our economy.

I ran for office for exactly this reason — person after person came to me in despair and within moments of meeting them I learned they were struggling because of a failed economic system with little to nothing in the way of social and community support, and I knew mental health care was never going to be enough to solve this.

For too long, we have siloed these issues, asserting that we have only so much time and money to tackle some of them this year. But, the truth is that each of these issues is interdependent on the others, and we must solve them in a holistic and intersectional way.

We do not have the luxury of time to keep waiting until next year while people are dying. We must forge ahead, face our failures, and act, we cannot afford not to.

Livable wages are suicide prevention.

Universal health care is suicide prevention.

Affordable, safe housing is suicide prevention.

Harm reduction is suicide prevention.

Criminal justice reform is suicide prevention.

Antiracism is suicide prevention.

Building a sustainable economy that no longer exploits people and planet is the suicide prevention we need now.

Until we live in a world where we take care of one another, and take action on the catastrophic problems facing us, we will continue to have to face every September that we have not yet healed our communities’ despair and suicide rates will keep climbing.

So, as we put another Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month behind us, what can you do to help heal your community? What can you call on us to do to help heal all our communities?

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