Mud and gloom

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(Host) Commentator Nils Dauliare reflects on mud season and mental health.

(Daulaire) Just when you think it’s over, winter hits again. Between the mud and these last Arctic blasts, March can be a tough time in Vermont. It’s also tough for Vermonters.

It was in mid-March, a few years ago, that my co-workers and I really started to worry about our colleague, I’ll call him “Jeff.” An energetic guy always on the go, Jeff now seemed to be getting less and less done each day. We knew his marriage was going through hard times, but he insisted that he had enough support, and we didn’t second-guess him. But as March blew in, there were those projects that just didn’t get finished and deadlines that drifted past.

Even though the worst of winter’s over, the truth is that early Spring is the peak season for depression. Winter’s cumulative chill and the slow tease of warmer weather, unpaid holiday bills and the pressures of tax time help make Spring the year’s cruelest mental-health season.

Globally, depression is in the top five causes of lost years of healthy, productive life. Almost 20 million Americans will suffer from depression this year. Nationwide, estimated costs in missed days of work, medical expenses and premature death are over $40 billion a year. Mental health would seem an appropriate health-policy priority – yet a recent Presidential commission declared America’s public mental health system “fragmented and in disarray.”

With budgets stretched, 29 states cut mental health funding last year. Vermont State Hospital, our own in-patient mental health facility, has been called a disaster. Now the Bush administration has asked Congress for small federal increases, but not enough to make up for the state cuts. And Congressional debate suggests that our exploding federal deficit and the escalating costs of occupying Iraq may doom even this modest request.

The president’s commission was an encouraging sign of bipartisan concern, but concern is no replacement for action. Our leaders need to choose to make mental health – and better health care for all Americans – a budget priority and a cherished goal. Words alone won’t do it.

Jeff’s paralysis at work only worsened as March brightened toward April. Though we tried to help, he seemed overwhelmed by his job, by his personal troubles, by everything. Still, he insisted – like the two out of three depressed Americans who don’t seek treatment – that he could handle this himself, that everything was going to turn out fine.

And it did. But not before he was hospitalized, suffering from the suicidal despair that can make depression so deadly. He gave up his job, and his marriage, too. But treatment in a regional hospital’s innovative out-patient mental-health program – a program that got going with help from federal funds that are now drying up – started Jeff on a recovery that has been gradual but steady, like the slow turn from winter into Spring.

And like Spring, we’re glad to have him back.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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