I’m giving a presentation at an academic literary conference in San Antonio this weekend so I’m taking a much-needed break from writing about the Oklahoma political scene today.
My presentation, “Fuku or Zafa? Teaching the Raw Language of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” tries to deal with the issue of teaching literary texts that contain racially-charged language. What are the best practices? How have they changed through the years? How does Oscar Wao, in particular, open up opportunities for understanding the use of such language in and on the borders of the Latino community?
Diaz’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.
In an interview, Diaz, a Dominican American, has argued, “Latinos are a racial complexity that the U.S. seems ill-suited and unwilling to confront.”
The Latina/o Literary Landscape conference, a part of the American Literature Association, is meeting for three days in downtown San Antonio, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in literature I love to teach and write about while exchanging ideas and catching up with other professors, literary critics and writers.
There’s always a lot of brief media attention when the latest report comes up documenting the unbelievably high rate of mental illness here in Oklahoma, but there’s never much discussion over why that is the case.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) issued a report recently that showed Oklahoma ranked second in the nation in both serious mental illness and all mental illness, ranking just behind West Virginia and Utah, respectively.
That means that 5.24 percent of Oklahomans 18 or older suffer from such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia and severe depression while a whopping 21.88 of Oklahomans 18 or older suffer from what some might consider less debilitating forms of mental illness, such as low-grade or temporary depression. The data is from the years 2011 and 2012.
The impact of mental illness on the quality of life here, whether one suffers from symptoms or not, cannot be underplayed. It can raise the crime rate, lower work productivity and wreak havoc in families.
So why do Oklahomans suffer from so much mental illness?
One thing is sure. The state spends little public money in prevention, programs and maintaining mental health facilities, at least compared to the national average. This has a snowball effect because untreated mental illness can escalate into deeper problems. A low-grade depression, for example, could turn into clinical depression that is more difficult to treat.
But I would like to posit some other reasons for the high rate of mental illness here, many of which can be ascribed to the state’s particular “DNA”:
Lack of awareness. I would argue that many Oklahomans don’t even accept some forms of mental illness as valid and embrace a “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” mentality. Obviously, most people can recognize when someone is completely delusional in a real medical sense, but what about people who are simply extremely sad or anxious? Should they just get over it? Those sad or anxious people can face, then, a bias and a feeling that they’re abnormal, which can accelerate their conditions. We simply must get over the stigma of mental illness.
Bias against education. I have long held that there remains among many Oklahomans a bias and distrust of education. This can be seen from the inadequate funding for schools in the state to legislative bills that attack the scientific principle. What this does is inhibit basic awareness of psychological problems on individual and cultural levels.
Poverty. Oklahoma has a long history of being an impoverished state with poverty rates lower than the national average. What this means is that some people here tend to self-medicate or tough it out without treatment, if they can even find treatment, which leads to the next reason.
Poor medical access. The lack of medical access in Oklahoma has been a long-term dilemma, especially when it comes to mental health. The state needs more psychiatric and substance abuse facilities. It needs more outpatient facilities. This would be an investment that could really enhance the quality of life here.
The intangibles. I have argued in the past that Oklahomans, and I realize I’m generalizing, tend to tough things out in their lives. But there are so many aspects of life here that can contribute to mental illness, such as the severe weather, living in urban and rural blight, religious oppression and the lack of walking spaces within Oklahoma City’s massive urban sprawl. Physical exercise can help improve one’s basic outlook on life. Mental illness is an individual condition, of course, but one’s cultural and geographical milieu is always a factor in terms of mood and philosophy.
All this is not to say that Oklahoma is necessarily a bad place to live. For some people, obviously, it’s a wonderful place. But studies like this one point to real foundational problems in the state. It will take a holistic approach to solve it, but improving awareness and investing in mental health facilities and programs is a basic step in the right direction.
I’m glad that at least one statewide Republican leader has publicly asked for an actuarial study to determine the specific financial impact of a proposed and radical change to one state pension plan.
Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, writing in The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com, argues, “Any changes to the pension systems must be verified by an actuarial study to provide the impact those changes will have to the fiscal stability of the plan. It only makes sense to give the pension experts, CPAs and actuaries a chance to fix this problem. Working with these experts, legislators would be able to make the necessary, tough, informed decisions to find an actuarially sound solution.”
Jones’ point makes perfect sense, but some Republican leaders, such as Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller and Gov. Mary Fallin, both Republicans, are simply relying on reductionist rhetoric to move some new state employees into 401(k)-styled pensions without defined benefit payments and thereby putting one pension plan at risk.
Senate Bill 2120 and House Bill 2630 would require that new state employees under the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) go into a new 401(k)-styled plan. One major question that hasn’t been addressed fully by Miller and Fallin, according to some opponents of their plan, is how the old plan would still remain solvent without new participants.
Instead, we only hear dire cries of a pension crisis from them and the editorial board of The Oklahoman and how the new plan will be portable if employees leave their jobs. (Of course, that wonderful portability has nothing to do with how well the 401(k)-styled plan performs.) While it’s true that all of the state’s pensions face an $11 billion liability that liability has been reduced by some $5 billion just in recent years, and it will be reduced even more if state leaders simply provided appropriate funding and made wise financial decisions.
Jones, of course, who writes that the pension problems were created by “irresponsible, reckless and self-serving actions by the Legislature,” isn’t the only one calling for a financial study of the proposed change. David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, has been raising this concern for months. How can you make such a major change within a financial system without calculating the impact in specific dollars? As state treasurer, Miller, in particular, should get behind conducting such a study.
Blatt has also pointed out that the change would harm the pension plan for current employees. He writes:
. . .the proposal to close off the system for new employees and shift these workers to defined contribution plans risks weakening OPERS and increasing the system’s unfunded liabilities. The reason is that pension plans depend heavily on investment earnings to grow their assets so as to be able to meet their obligations. As long as plans remain open to new employees, investment managers can invest for the longer-term because they have a mix of young, mid-career and retired workers.
In other words, if there’s less money to invest, there’s going to be smaller returns. Think of employees, in particular, who have been hired in the last ten years or so and are under the old plan. Think of employees hired under OPERS this year. Will the lack of new participants create a huge liability? Will political leaders, then, declare yet another emergency?
It becomes clear when viewed from a larger perspective that Republicans here and in other states simply want to reduce retirement benefits for government employees. They want to force a crisis. Of course, most Republicans won’t address the issue with that basic language.
Here’s the GOP game plan at the state level here and elsewhere: Cut taxes for rich people, give huge tax breaks to corporations, keep wages stagnant for rank-and-file state workers and cut their benefits, making them financially insecure.
The only thing that will stop the execution of that plan is if people stand up, voice their concerns and vote differently. But the neoliberalism (i.e., “free market” principles) model pits people against one another. If I don’t have guaranteed retirement benefits then why should you have them? The right-wing emphasizes the point. Consequently, no one gets decent retirement benefits. Meanwhile, the wealthiest top 1 percent snicker away from above.
The growing income inequality in this country is the only thing that’s not sustainable, not one pension program in one relatively small state.