Friday, January 21, 2011

Support Systems

Matt Yglesias notes a great post by Ann Friedman on gender and support systems and takes it basically nowhere:

In practice, a straight single man who reaches out for help will almost always find that people are ready to be there for him. But there’s no socially validated way to do so.

But even the first part isn't necessarily true of many people, both male and female. Frankly, if it were, my employer would have a lot less work. There are many people who have been left behind by society. Maybe they came from broken homes, maybe they moved cross-country for a job and have no support system in their new city, maybe they're a recent immigrant from a poor country. There are any number of reasons a person could find themselves with nobody to reach out to. Ann Friedman focuses on how men often have less of a support system than women, and that is undoubtedly true. But I think it misses a larger point.

The problem of inadequate support is magnified considerably when a person has some form of mental illness. Not only do mentally ill people need more support, they are often less able to find it. Without a family member or close friend looking after them, these people will often fall through the cracks. The hope is that someone will try to get them help when they show up at a homeless shelter or food pantry, but that is far from guaranteed. It doesn't matter whether the person is male or female, they will have a tough time getting help.

In Arizona, Jared Loughner would have had a tough time getting help, even if he had sought it out. Arizona has actively slashed spending on help for those who are mentally ill. As states face budget crunches, mental health spending is often eyed for the chopping block. There isn't much of a mental health lobby to protect that spending, and as a result, yet more people fall through the cracks. Even in states that still have decent support for the mentally ill, qualifying for the various subsidies and other assistance can require a dizzying amount of paperwork and effort. Someone battling with bouts of paranoid schizophrenia is going to have a tough time getting all that done.

Private groups like my employer, faith-based groups, and other non-profits try to fill the gaps, but money has to come from somewhere. As spending gets cut, people like Loughner will get less and less help. Social workers' already heavy caseloads will get heavier. I'm not saying this to scare people that there will be more Jared Loughner-style shootings. Frankly, with inadequate care, a mentally ill person is most dangerous to themself. But that is not a reason for complacency. Some of the biggest holes in our social safety net are those concerning the mentally ill. Unfortunately, with ascendant GOP legislatures in so many states, those holes look set to get bigger.

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