As a licensed mental health professional, I was taught to keep politics (and religion) out of the therapy room, to keep the focus on mental health issues. So why am I writing about voting? Because I have come to believe that both the right to vote, and the act of exercising that right, are directly connected to the mental health and well-being of every one of us.
Three of the major crises facing us today – skyrocketing healthcare costs, climate change, and systemic racial injustice – are not only interwoven, as I’ve mentioned before, but impact mental health, and relate to voting. Let’s start with healthcare, and a personal example:
In the past year, three of my relatives have lost their jobs, and as a result, lost their health insurance. All are too young to qualify for Medicare, but over 55 – an age group that is especially vulnerable to job loss (yes, age discrimination is real) and also more vulnerable to COVID-19, as well as all of the everyday health issues that tend to increase as we age. They were faced with either having to pay for continued coverage through COBRA, at 3 – 4 times the cost of their healthcare premium when they were working, or foregoing healthcare coverage until they’d spent down all of their assets so they could qualify for Medicaid. Yes, stuck between a big rock and a very hard place. During a pandemic and a collapsing economy.
While optimism tends to run in my family, is it any surprise that each of them have struggled with feelings of anxiety and depression? Clearly their mental health and well-being is impacted. Yet their painful dilemma, and that of thousands like them, could be solved with the stroke of a pen – the signature of the President authorizing Congress to act to lower the qualifying age for Medicare from 65 to 55. Yes, it could be that simple – that is, if we had a President who believed in programs like Medicare, and who felt some responsibility for the health and well-being of every American. That’s one very important reason to vote on November 3rd.
The stroke of a President’s pen won’t solve all of the issues with our broken healthcare system, so that’s why we also need to show up and vote for state and federal legislation that offers a variety of other fixes, and for local and national representatives who are able to understand the complexities of the system and will reach across the aisle to get bills passed.
In my other role a mindfulness teacher, I heard from a student that she was having trouble embracing the practice of mindful breathing, as her worry about climate change is giving her nightmares. “How will focusing on my breath help anything, when these are real problems that affect all of us and aren’t getting fixed?” she asked.
Climate change is giving many of us nightmares now! Social psychologists tell us that the human brain isn’t very good at noticing change that happens at a slow pace, which may explain why many people ignored what climate scientists (and Al Gore!) were saying for decades. Now that Mother Nature seems to be clobbering us over the head with all of these extreme weather events, more people are noticing, but they’re reacting with despair. Is it already too late?
A member of my monthly mindfulness meditation group shared, “with all that is going on in the world I have been struggling a bit. Seems like every day something new comes up. The one issue that troubles me the most is being put aside . . . and that is climate change.” He went on to say, “but the good news is there are actions we can take to fight against it. And I have found that by taking action it has been a tremendous help to me in relieving my stress and anxiety.”
Exactly. Taking action almost always helps us feel better, because when we focus on what we have control over, and do something, we become stronger, more empowered, and less helpless. And one important action we can take for climate change is to vote.
“We need to be sure that we are electing politicians who believe in science and know how to listen to scientists, can interpret what they are telling them, and have the courage to act. This is not trivial. . . . It behooves us voters to assess current and proposed political leaders at the federal, state, and local government levels come election time, and after they are elected. This is not time to elect climate change deniers.” (Richard Maurer, League of Women Voters, Eden Area, August 2020 newsletter)
Recently we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Actually, only white women gained this right, since Black women weren’t included until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and many Native and Latina women were still excluded until 1975, when amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated literacy and English fluency as requirements to vote.
Early this year, back when we could still travel freely, I was in Austin, Texas, and visited the LBJ Library and museum. As a boomer, I’m old enough to remember when Lyndon Baines Johnson was president, so the museum was a fascinating, and moving, trip down memory lane. I chose just one souvenir from the gift shop, a postcard with this LBJ quote:
“It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”
I had learned from the museum that LBJ didn’t always believe this, since he was raised in a state that had been part of the Confederacy, and that in fact he had been actively involved in voter suppression activities as a young Texas congressman. But his views evolved over his time in office, were greatly influenced by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and other civil rights leaders of the time, and led him to push for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which became the hallmark legislation of his presidency.
However, the voting rights guaranteed by this law have never been enforced in many states, and disenfranchisement of Black voters has been common practice in the South. Furthermore, as a result of a 2013 US Supreme Court ruling (Shelby County v. Holder), which reversed a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, efforts to prevent Black and brown voters from voting have intensified in many states, via voter ID laws, purging of voter rolls, gerrymandering and so on. (For a clear and comprehensive explanation of this dark side of American history, I highly recommend reading Carol Anderson’s One Person No Vote.)
As a white person, raised in the North by educated and progressive parents, and residing in the SF Bay Area for forty years, I confess to being in a bit of a bubble until recently. I took for granted the right to vote, because I didn’t realize how pervasive racial injustice still is. I thought when we elected a Black President we were well on our way towards realizing Dr King’s dream (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”) Instead, it seems that the Obama presidency outraged a certain segment of our society, and we have been experiencing the backlash ever since.
The right to vote is the foundation of any democracy, and democracy is the foundation of a healthy society, a society that values and respects all of its citizens. Thousands throughout our history (including some of my ancestors) have fought for the freedom to exercise that right, and so that it would be granted to all Americans; yet still today there are members of our society who seek to prevent other members from exercising this basic right, based on the color of their skin. Being denied your rights takes a huge toll on a person’s health and mental health; the consequences of systemic racial injustice include higher rates of health and mental health problems, as well as restricted access to health and mental healthcare.
As a clinical social worker, I have seen that simply knowing you have a choice, and that you are empowered to make it, has an immediate and profound effect on lowering levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. I also know that by using our power to vote, we can elect representatives who will fight for our right to better health and mental health care, as well as address climate change and racial injustice, in our local communities and nationwide. So I urge you to 1) make sure that you are registered to vote, 2) educate yourself about the people and issues on the ballot, and 3) VOTE this November 3rd, like all of our lives depend on it!
For more information on voting
The League of Women Voters is a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for informed voter participation. To register to vote, confirm your registration status, or learn about the issues on your local ballot, go to Vote411.org.
Sharon Salzberg has a page on her website for Election Season Resources, including some free downloadable images (like the one for this post) and a short audio guided meditation practice.