Optimizing Children’s Mental Health is a Social Justice Issue


One of the perks of being on staff at a liberal arts college is that I get invited to guest lecture on a variety of topics. I’ve talked to future educators about mindfulness and yoga in the classroom. I’ve saved first-year students many hours (I hope) by teaching them simple productivity tips. I’ve shared blogging best practices in the popular “Bible Blogging” class. And I’ve even taught a whole semester on data analysis for business decision-making.

(Yes, I’m a generalist.)

After the publication of my book, Her Lost Year: A Story of Hope and a Vision for Optimizing Children’s Mental Health, I was delighted to be invited to several social work classes to talk about how to optimize children’s mental health. In one class, I had enthusiastically covered the first of four points, “Compassionate Parenting,” when the professor gently reminded her students that my suggestions might work well for a high-functioning family. However, a single mom struggling to make ends meet might have trouble changing the discourse with her children to validate their emotions and express appreciation for who they are—not what they do. (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you know…)

“You need to meet your clients where they are,” she reminded the class.

Mental Health as a Social Justice Issue

This comment by my friend and colleague, Britt Rhodes, helped me pivot in my understanding of mental health as a social issue (versus purely an individual issue) to a social justice issue. I can spout off the most amazing strategies for optimizing children’s mental health, such as feeding them real food, making sure they get lots of unstructured playtime in natural spaces, loving them unconditionally, and guiding them to the intersection of their skills and passions. But if a parent doesn’t have the financial/emotional/physical/mental means to act on these strategies, it is for naught.

It dawned on me that in our society, all children do not have the same opportunity to grow up to be mentally healthy adults.

This is an injustice of the worst sort.

Income Inequality and Mental Health

In my quest to learn more about mental health as a social justice issue, I stumbled upon The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by social epidemiologists Roger Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. In this book, the authors clearly demonstrate a causal relationship between income inequality and increased mental illness diagnoses. The US is at the top of that income inequality list. As expected, we have the highest rate of mental illness.

Wilkinson and Pickett argue that the ill effects of income inequality don’t just affect the poor—they affect everyone. Certainly, they affect the poor worse, but the point is that everybody wins in a more equal society. That’s because there is less so-called “social anxiety,” what philosopher Alain de Botton describes as “a worry so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives.”

It is clear that our political-economic system plays a major role in determining our children’s ability to be mentally healthy. Rogue capitalism is making our children unwell—in too many ways to count.

An Equal Society: It’s Our Choice

“The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out.” ~Joseph Stiglitz

Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s book The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future.

Stiglitz writes of the market economy: “the power of markets is enormous, but they have no inherent moral character. We have to decide how to manage them.” He continues, “it is plain that markets must be tamed and tempered to make sure they work to the benefit of most citizens.”

As noted in The Atlantic article, “Stiglitz: Here’s How to Fix Inequality,” Stiglitz’s most important point about inequality is that it has been a choice, which “means that citizens and politicians have the opportunity to fix the problem before it gets worse.”

It’s our choice. We decide if we want equality or inequality. We decide if we want to optimize mental health for all.

A Focus on the Biggest Picture

There are children suffering distress right now, and they need relief right now. And there are many who work day in and day out to relieve their pain. We need people to do this intervention work.

We also need people working on bigger-picture, preventive initiatives such as resilience-building in schools and at home through social and emotional learning, child-centered education, parenting classes, and family coaching.

But we need even more people working on the biggest picture of all—the fact that creating a more equal and just society isn’t merely the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do if we want a mentally healthy and thriving population.

This involves changing how we think about mental health, how we talk about mental health. It requires a shift in how we think about living in a regulated market economy. It requires a change in our collective values from competition to cooperation, from excess consumption to creating a culture of enough, from privatization to protecting the commons.

It isn’t practical, not compromising. And it sure as heck won’t be easy.

There Is Hope

Yet I have hope. Hope grounded in a history of massive change in short periods of time. Hope stemming from the shift that has already taken place through slow movements, voluntary simplicity, and a sharing economy. Hope fueled by Our Revolution and the fact that “income inequality,” “corrupt political campaign finance system,” and “rigged economy” are now household terms.

I challenge you to dig deeper and to stay focused on the issue at hand. There are ample distractions to keep us from pursuing real solutions—merely scratching the surface with ineffective social programs, philanthropy, and mental health policies.

I am committed to working for improved mental health for all people—and especially our children and those not yet born. I teach Yoga Calm. I’m a health coach. I promote social and emotional learning in our school district. I mentor college students.

These are all good things.

But my biggest task—the one responsibility I can’t shirk—is advocating relentlessly for social justice, economic equality, and dignity for all. This is where mental health starts—and ends.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Great post! A lot of kids have a deficiency in zinc too, contributing to mental illness: http://www.optimallivingdynamics.com/blog/do-you-have-chronic-stress-and-anxiety-these-two-minerals-might-be-the-cause

    Also, a study just came out today showing cellular changes in the brains of autistic children can be reversed by zinc. It was published in the Journal of Neuroscience! http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-08-zinc-reverse-brain-cell-autism.html

    The times are a changing!

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    • Thanks! There are certainly a number of micro factors that contribute to children’s mental health, such as nutritional deficiencies and sensitivities. My primary interest lies in understanding why these micro factors are present in the first place. What are the macro factors affecting our mental health (e.g. economic, political, social, cultural, environmental)? It’s all incredibly intertwined, so I appreciate you bringing up the zinc deficiency as an example of the micro/individual layer of mental health optimization.

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  2. Glad you are focusing on macro level issues, economic and political are difficult for many to see and understand, they seem natural and inevitable, and people are taught this way in schools and colleges, anything not status quo is called radical and even violent

    The Spirit Level is good, but Americans do not seem to understand what ‘social determinants of health” means: they think it means social as in social media, not social as economic and political and socially constructed.

    Also, many think that to continue to use “mental health” as a way to discuss what we may now understand as societal factors (racism, sexism, normalizing poverty, etc.), puts the focus back on the individual who needs to be fixed or helped or supported or protected, even if they require to be coerced or nudged, for their own good. This is especially true for children and other marginalized people (women, older adults, disabled people, children in foster systems, survivors of torture and/or institutionalization, etc.). Use of “mental health” terminology can perpetuate the thinking that these are individual=level issues to be corrected or ameliorated by individual-level interventions (drugs, talking, etc.) rather than issues of wider institutions. Calling it health seems ot mean that physicians and other health professionals have the best ways to deal with these people. Say oppression and repression, not depression.

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    • Eileen, thanks so much for pushing the boundaries on use of language here. One of the best things about the MIA community is that I’m always learning to think about the topic at large in new ways. Language matters. Yes, these are difficult concepts to grasp, so I’m constantly looking for better ways to express myself to spread this message. “Say oppression and repression, not depression.” Wow. Yes!

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      • Learned this in A.A., a couple decades ago:
        “Sympathy is a disease. You can find it in the dictionary, between s**t, and syphilis”!
        EMPATHY heals together!….
        (Why does media insist on ad nauseum repeating the construction, “suffers from (so-called) “mental illness”….????…. I don’t *SUFFER*!
        I’m loving every minute of it. Despite my iatrogenic neurolepsis….

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  3. No, mental health is not a social justice issue, because there is no such thing as mental illness.

    And talking about parenting issues, even be they things like compassion, only helps legitimate parents abusing their children. Whatever kind of pedagogy or child development theory is put forth, it serves the parents, legitimates them, and always at the expense of the child.

    What is a social justice issue is protection from familial child abuse, and legal redress when it happens. And here we are still sorely lacking. And so we find countless numbers of people being convinced that they have psychiatric, psychological, behavioral, developmental, and other, kinds of defects. Most people are not well prepared to be able to defend themselves against this.

    These kinds of abuses will not stop until the parents and the doctors and therapists are publicly held accountable, instead of the child abuse survivors being send to therapy, recovery, and religion.


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  4. “You need to meet your clients where they are,” she reminded the class.

    WTF? Climb down in the dumps with them? That example, above, from a TEACHER, no less, shows exactly how bass-ackwards the whole “mental health” system truly is! Yeah, you have to communicate with them, and, “misery loves company”, but true healers ELEVATE, and HEAL. Not commiserate. And, “your clients” implies a “superior/inferior”, or “master/subject” power / dominance imbalance. Truly, “those who can’t do, teach”!….

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