Some needs for mental health don't seem like needs at all. That is, until you have these needs and then it's easy to see how such things have everything to do with each other; when they are lacking, maintaining sound mental health becomes very challenging. The well-known psychologist, Abraham Maslow, created a conceptual pyramid, that is often called the hierarchy of needs. When met, these form the base of development and mental growth. If they are unmet, it is very hard to move forward. I am only going to discuss the bottom of the pyramid and its lack for many people in our country, even as recovery efforts continue to be made. This first need is for physiological support, or translated as the need for food and shelter. According to Maslow, that is the base of what is required for healthful mental growth, stability, and development. There have been other ways to conceptualize what people's most basic needs are, but pretty much all of them begin with sustenance and physical safety.
Many times over the past year, we have heard of landmark showings at food bank distribution centers. When I first wrote this article, I commented on a San Antonio food bank event where over 10,000 people had showed up in need of food. Since then, we have seen distribution like this in many parts of the country as people struggled without jobs or without swift response from unemployment and other services. Again, there has been some effort to meet some of this profound need, but it hasn't always been enough, and some people inevitably fall through the cracks.
It's certainly true that the need to provide for family or make the rent was felt by many who usually are covered by work, and anxiety and depression levels have been unprecedented, in part due to the other extreme difficulties of losing loved ones or feeling massive risk to safety, but also due to basic survival worries. There were also so many acts of generosity, that showed how the true heart of Americans can beat for each other. Empathy is an amazing thing and probably one of the best qualities of American citizenry in times of trouble. However, as need becomes less prominent, empathy starts to fade.
Here is where my politics will show through, but I think we should share this, truly. We absolutely know that Maslow and other scientists are right about growth and development, and the preservation of sanity when it comes to feeling food secure and feeling securely housed. The question is: Does that only extend to times when there are extraordinary circumstances or should it be something we're striving for always? If there is a direct linkage between food security and mental wellness, and also a direct linkage between severe mental illness and homelessness, then shouldn't all Americans have a right to food?
This is where it gets difficult because there are agencies and programs that can help people who are at what is considered very low income in the United States. The problem seems to occur with income measures, which are often extremely inaccurate, given costs of living. For instance, many of you may have noticed quite an increase in food costs during the pandemic. That typically is not taken into account when determining who can get financial housing or food assistance. Unfortunately, even if I make $15 an hour, and I live in many parts of the US, my rent costs will be so high that I will always be food insecure and I will be unlikely to qualify for those programs that help others. So then I am both food and shelter insecure, and this problem is one that many states are trying to handle right now so tenants don't lose their place after being unable to pay full rent during the last year.
What has been suggested by some social scientists and some politicians are concepts like minimum income or the right to food. I can understand why some people would get very worried about offering their support to their neighbors, that it may seem like a payout, that it may seem unfair because they didn't get it. I guess the only thing I can counter is the cost gets higher as more people become food and shelter insecure. I have worked in therapy with those individuals who don't have these basic levels of security, and the work is so hard, with good reason. Imagine going to counseling with your belly groaning for something to eat. How much would you get done or be able to change? Reliable food and shelter are the foundation for mental health, and it seems very ill-advised to eliminate that foundation. Additionally, Americans could discover we are a people of empathy at all times, not just hard times, and many of us now know how the precarious nature of survival can powerfully impact our mood, our growth and our ability to make improvements in our lives. Patricia Ellis-Christensen