Talk ain’t cheap

Nobody really planned for this week’s main features to be a gloomy mix of death, drug addiction and depression. In fact, if we’d realized the mounting theme as the stories developed, we might have moved the whole package closer to Christmas.

Joking aside, there’s a theme to this week’s issue: People don’t like to discuss personal things in public. And since people don’t want to talk about them, the issues don’t get solved.

Devin Hansrote hits the nail pretty squarely on the head in his Arts & Culture story, “Junkie.” For years, Americans—in fact, human beings—treated depression like it was a moral failing on the part of the sufferer. Depression isn’t a sentient being, and it doesn’t distinguish between rich or poor, young or old, men or women, although certain of these conditions may make someone more inclined toward the disease. But, because we didn’t talk about it, ignorant people thought depression was just something people could “snap out of.” It wasn’t that long ago that doctors tried to get victims to snap out of depression by drowning, shocking or beating them.

And then, along came Prozac, and since pharmaceutical companies had a financial stake in it, discussion of depression hit the mainstream. And while those talks opened up treatment of depression and acceptance of its reality, the dialogue was primarily about chemical treatments—when other treatments, such as group and individual psychological therapy, or even simple exercise, were shown to be just as effective.

Fast forward to 2009 and the early battles over the Affordable Health Care Act. The idea that people should have the right to choose the manner of their own deaths—dignified in a hospice or with interminable torture hooked up to machines—was characterized as “death squads.” Suddenly, the “decrease government’s influence in our lives” bunch found themselves arguing in support of the idea that the government owned our very lives, and it could punish those who wanted to make personal decisions about how they’d prefer to end them. A dignified death chosen by an adult in their right mind became a birdie in a political game of badminton.

And there it stands. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Mike Willden, director of Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services, when talking about end-of-life decisions, said Nevadans probably are not ready to have the discussion. And the reason we’re not ready to have it is because we’re not having it; it’s a vicious cycle that will end with most of our loved ones dying from surgeries they should not have been forced to have, with ribs broken from respirators they should not have been hooked to, with minds fogged by pharmaceuticals they should not have been forced to take.

It’s stories like Anne M. Johnson’s “The Bitter End” that will move our culture beyond the idea that the government should make decisions that the most undignified and expensive medical procedures should be pursued even for people who’ve lived long, happy, productive lives and who’d prefer that they, themselves, would choose the manner of their own deaths.

There’s something inherently gloomy about the idea that despotic government decides the manner of any individual’s death. Doesn’t that mean the government owns its citizens very lives?