Sometimes you’ll hear me say, as though it didn’t need explaining, “Ronald Reagan was Satan’s agent on Earth.” I forget sometimes that this is news from Neptune for a lot of people — sometimes because they are younger, sometimes because they simply haven’t heard. This post is about just one of the reasons that I have a deep loathing for Ronald Reagan: because his administration perpetrated grave injustice and injury on the mentally ill, because wounds inflicted by his hands have bled from then until the present day (causing tremendous amounts of preventable death and misery), and because those policies are stealing from and endangering me and those I care about.
Almost immediately after Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, ferocious cuts began:
Within a month, the Office of Management and Budget announced it would curtail the budget of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), phase out training of clinicians, interrupt research, and eliminate services. Cutbacks to staff followed; chaos ensued. Experienced people left, others remained in government service but were forced into menial jobs. Trained professionals were reassigned to labs to dissect dead rats; science writers were reassigned to typing pools. The Mental Health Systems Act would be disappear. Instead, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (1982) would merge money for mental health programs into block grants, and with fewer dollars going to the states.
“Block grants” are a political instrument with a nasty legacy in the United States, and it’s worth taking a minute to explain how they work. In practice, they are a way to cut funding for things that the federal government disapproves of, but with a layer of deniability over it such that no one in Washington must admit to, for example, having cut funds for reproductive health, for relieving poverty, or for pushing back against racism. They have the grim distinction of being used for despicable ends in the hands of both Republicans and Democrats.
The mechanic goes like this: a great deal of the money that the US Federal government sends to the states, comes with instructions. So many dollars here for highways, bridges, and tunnels, so many dollars there for prisons, police, and courts. The funds are sometimes very specific and pedantic, especially when it comes to money for helping to make the lives of marginalized populations somewhat better. Such programs have a long history of having their funds stolen in one way or another, so the pedantic directions were a form of defense against misappropriation. Block grants come in the form of simplification: instead of so many little grants, their advocates say, we’re going to have the federal government make a bigger grant with few rules, and the state, being closer to the problem, will be able to spend that money more efficiently than a patchwork of potentially overlapping grants.
When you hear them speak of “efficiency,” beware.
In the case of block grants, “efficiency” meant “… and since we expect you to be more efficient, we’re going to take ten, fifteen, maybe twenty-five percent off the top.” The result was a viciously effective form of “let’s you and him fight,” conducted at the level of state politics. The efficiency gains promised by the advocates of block grants never materialized, and the funding for projects aiding marginalized populations was always precarious anyhow. Definitionally, the state of being “marginalized” is self-perpetuating — or rather, it’s a state of not being able to prevent others from perpetuating economic violence on you, of always being the one without a chair when the music stops and of going unheard when you point out that some people don’t even stand up when the music starts. The practical upshot of block grants was that programs for aiding marginalized populations were ruthlessly and repeatedly cut, and that the projects that could afford the most lobbyists (which is to say, people whose agenda is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer) suffered only negligible cuts.
Alongside people of color and queers, people struggling with mental health problems are one of the (many!) perennially screwed marginalized populations in the USA — and the Reagan agenda targeted that population specifically. Not that Reagan was anything like a benevolent president to people of color or queer populations or people living in poverty or women in general — but fortunately, those populations usually are pretty clear on Reagan’s villainy and the injuries he did to them particularly. People with mental health issues, on the other hand, especially people my age and younger, are often unclear on Reagan’s role and legacy.
This is not an abstract hatred, either: Reagan’s policies steal from me and people I care about, and have (speaking of just the domestic mental-health policies here) killed thousands who didn’t have to die, and may yet kill people close to me. The Reagan crowd’s message to people with mental illnesses and the people around them was: “if you are suffering from mental health problems or are supporting someone who is, the larger community doesn’t owe you shit in terms of help, deal with it yourself.” They wanted those issues and those people to disappear, to just go away so they wouldn’t have to think about them.
Neither the issues nor the people will just “go away,” though, because there is no “away.” So the costs of amelioration and treatment fall upon sufferers and their families and friends, who for as much goodwill as we have, are not actually as good at that as mental health-care professionals (who also became harder to get ahold of because Reagan attacked their ability to make a living). Supporting the people we care about — we’re all clear on this, right? — is not easy, and certainly not free, and we cannot in good conscience refuse to do it. While mental health professionals shouldn’t handle everything, their role is vital, and everything that we do for those we care about who endure mental health problems that really should be done by a professional, is a form of stealing from us.
The policies of Reagan amounted to telling those of us with mental health problems and those of us supporting them that we could expect no help. If you are not rich, the Reaganite morality said, then you deserve to suffer. So burdens were added to those already burdened, those with the least ability to fight against being further burdened. This was perpetrated on multiple levels: the Reaganites also catalyzed the Pentagon’s de facto policy of forbidding soldiers from being mentally ill. Virtually every veteran with mental health problems, is not getting the help they need because of Veteran’s Administration policies instituted by Reagan. One of the great shames of the Pentagon is its treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Reagan, again.
The tragedy with Reagan, as Brad Hicks points out, is that after twelve years of his policies (his vice-President simply continued his policies, man of withered conscience that he was), Clinton came along and demonstrated that even if your views extend no further than the Beltway, the misery, darkness, and cold of the Reagan years was never necessary at all. That made it into high tragedy — that it was not just pain and death and privation, but pain and death and privation for nothing.
And all of that is without even getting into the misogyny that Reagan perpetuated, the hatred for the poor, the racism, the wars, the lying about the wars, the fraud, the assassinations domestic and foreign, the drugs (another good way to get me worked up is to get me started on the evil done in the name of the War On Drugs). Read Chomsky if you want to see details and meticulously sourced and footnoted evidence. For now, know that when I say that Ronald Reagan was Satan’s agent on Earth, I am quite serious and I say it as someone who the Reagan legacy has mugged and who has seen her friends bleeding over and over again because Reagan’s policies said that they didn’t deserve help. Fuck that guy.
On the bright side, it’s pretty hard for me to hate people because Reagan set the bar so high. So I got that goin' for me. Which is nice.