Playing Politics With Mental Health

Acting Human Services Secretary and Effusive Wireless Advocate Jenney Samuelson

As our political leaders, state and national, try to reassure us that the post-pandemic future is now, one of their favorite rhetorical devices is mental health. The danger to our physical health is nothing compared to the toll of isolation, fear, absence of normal activity, and apparently how facemasks cut off blood flow to the brain. Our leaders aren’t simply pushing us back to the assembly line of work and consumerism; they are the good guys, protecting us from Covid’s frightful toll on mental health.

Take, for example, Edjamacation Secretary Dan French implying that those of us still worried about the pandemic are pushing our kids into the abyss. At this week’s Gubernatorial Agenda Promotion Event, he talked of reducing the anxiety level in schools by getting everything back to normal. In other words, if you’re still concerned about prevention, if you’re constantly badgering kids to wash up or stay home if they’re sick or — horrors — force them to wear a mask or do so yourself, you’re complicit in fostering a pandemic of mental illness.

Nowhere in any of this do we hear about the mental and emotional toll of living with the pandemic, of the continuing vigilance that many of us feel compelled to maintain even as French and Gov. Phil Scott pretend that those stresses don’t exist.

Masking is a two-way street. I wear a mask in public spaces, but it’s much less effective if other people are unmasked. Meanwhile, our leaders are practically tearing the masks off our faces. Oh well, the concerns of marginal Vermonters like the old, the immunocompromised, the disabled, and anyone at elevated risk are absent from the administration’s equation.

But wait, there’s one person with the best interests of vulnerable Vermonters foremost in mind. Acting Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson knows exactly what will ease their plight: Better cellphone service.

Wouldn’t have been number one on my list, but hey, I’m not a social services professional.

At the Tuesday Gubernatorial Agenda Promotion Event, which focused on Scott’s $51 million proposal to build more cell towers, Samuelson devoted a full four minutes to an exhaustive list of reasons why better cell service “is key for health and human services clients and staff.”

She has a point, but she kept on hammering and hammering away so hard that it kind of got cartoonish by the end. Here’s just a sample. Feel free to skip; I’m mainly giving you a sense of how damn long this soliloquy went on.

One of the gaps [the pandemic] has exposed is a lack of universal high-quality reliable wireless and cellular service. While most Vermonters find that these are important components, it’s particularly important for Vermonters who have immediate or high-risk health conditions, or are in need of benefits or are in need of services, live in rural areas and are more isolated than others, and lack access to transportation. Adequate wireless and cellular service means more Vermonters can connect with health care providers without leaving their home, access telehealth and telemedicine mental health services, can consult with specialty providers located out of state but who are licensed in Vermont, which allows us to expand significantly our health care workforce, connect or access case managers and home visiting providers between visits, access life-saving services such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Textline, and for those who are blind and visually impaired, cell phones help them to navigate their communities, assist with object recognition and text-to-speech assistance.

That’s roughly one-half of her monologue. Again, she has some good points, but she came across like a middle schooler desperately trying to hit an assigned word count.

Also, many of the claimed benefits of wireless are better addressed via universal broadband. But that wasn’t the topic du jour, so she couldn’t mention it.

Lord knows we could use more attention to mental health in our state government. The system is grossly underfunded and under-resourced. Better wireless coverage would help, but it’s far from the biggest issue in supporting Vermonters’ mental health. But Tuesday was Wireless Day, and mental health played a convenient supporting role in the governor’s agenda.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Scott has repeatedly claimed to be above playing politics, I’d say that he was playing politics with mental health.

Check that. Whatever he may claim, he was definitely playing politics with mental health.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s