The Ghost Quartet: Part II


A Lucrative model: Make them sick, then charge them to get well.

In Part I of the Ghost Quartet, we explored the lucrative model of using the chemical/agricultural complex and the ultraprocessed food (UPF) industry to make us sick and then paying pharmaceutical and healthcare businesses to make us well. In Part II, we will explore a similar business model but from a mental health perspective. But this time, the enablers are cellphones and social media and, prospectively, artificial intelligence (AI).

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in five adults live with a mental illness, while more than one in five young people (13-18) either currently or at some point during their life has a debilitating mental illness. Approximately 2 million adolescents attempt suicide each year. Among U.S. pediatric deaths, more than a quarter are by suicide. It’s the second leading cause of death in children and young adults ages 10-14, causing more death than any single illness and second only to unintentional injuries.

We adults are not well and neither are our young people. Why?

Survey data tells us that 42% of U.S. children have a smartphone by age 10, while 91% own one by 14. Research studies indicate that young girls age 16 to 24 spend seven and a half hours a day on internet-connected devices while boys the same age spend seven hours on such devices.

By comparison, when television first came into our house in 1955, we were strictly limited as to what we could watch. As children, we could watch the Mickey Mouse Club daily at 5:00 PM. As we entered our teens, we were allowed to watch GE Theater with Ronald Regan and then Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The TV was otherwise off unless my parents were watching a news and weather show, although we usually got our practical information from WDEV Radio AM in Waterbury or the local News and Citizen. The only other communication technology at the time, landline phones, was used for necessary calls as well as staying in touch with friends and family   ̶   which did include some gossip   ̶   and, by us kids, for entertainment as we were on a five-party line.

But the past is history and, as I noted in a prior column, the issue of cellphones being brought into our schools is coming rapidly to the fore. Approaches to limiting children’s time spent in front of a glowing screen vary widely. Most agree that they’ve become a serious distraction from classroom learning. While some schools adopt a laissez-faire attitude, others believe prohibition is the best cure    ̶   zero, or strictly supervised access. Most are  somewhere in between.

To further complicate things, parents and teachers may disagree. Teachers and schoolboards debate the issue, but most psychologists agree that unmanaged time online in front of a screen is injurious to young people’s wellbeing.

Human engagement with others is the natural order of things, especially when it comes to child development. The importance of unsupervised play among children has long been understood to be a positive factor in developing a healthy adult. Play allows children to use their creative instincts while developing their imagination, dexterity and physical and cognitive and emotional strengths. It’s vital to healthy brain development. Through play children engage and interact in the world around them.

But not only are cellphones isolating, they are the portal to a world of damage for children. In February of this year, the Vermont Women’s Caucus presented Laura Marquez-Garrett with Jonathan Haidt’s research asisstant Zach Rausch. The presentation lays out chapter and verse all the dangers to young people of unrestricted online access.

According to the BBC, among the most horrific is the online availability of a guide showing how to make money using sextortion and blackmail. Sextortion and its outcomes is explained in a recent article in the Guardian.

A recent issue of Rolling Stone published a deep-dive piece by Paul Solotaroff on Snapchat alleging that the app is fueling a teen drug-overdose epidemic across the country.

“Still, say my sources at the DEA, Snapchat teemed with dealers, large and small. ‘We saw fake pills on social media before the pandemic, but Covid drove all the dealers online, because that’s where the kids were,’ says Bodner. “Snap was, by far, the top spot for dealers — and once they saw how easy it was, they just never left.”

Meanwhile, many schools in Vermont are grappling with cellphone and social media issues and the damage they cause to their pupils and classroom culture. Senate Bill S.284 would have banned cellphones and accessing social media on school property. Inexplicably, Commissioner of Health Mark Levine M.D. opposed the bill, even as suicide is rising among teens under his remit.

Dr. Levine’s national counterpart, Vivek Murthy, announced on the 17th of June that his office would call for a warning label for all social media platforms similar warnings on cigarette packaging.

Adding insult to injury, Governor Scott vetoed H.121, a bill that would have further expanded “consumer privacy and age-appropriate design.” On Monday, the 17th, the House voted to override, but the Senate sustained Governor Scott’s veto.

The beat goes on.

Next in the Ghost Quartet we have questions emerging around artificial intelligence (AI).

The jury is out on whether generative artificial intelligence will do more harm than good to our families, economies, and societies. It’s an open and haunting question.

Based on some 200 interviews over the last twelve months with top executives at leading AI companies, cybersecurity researchers, weapons of mass destruction experts, and national security officials, a report commissioned by the State Department calls the risks to U.S. national security “catastrophic” and warns that “time is running out for the federal government to avert disaster. It concludes that at its worst, “AI could pose an extinction-level threat to the human species.”

At the human level, AI is creating digital companions for the lonely. A recent piece in The Guardian explored the full extent of how deeply AI can replace human interaction. The stories are terrifying to this writer, who believes in the positive power of human engagement.

Along with the high cost of use, the issues with generative AI have been well documented. Cybercrime experts warn that AI’s intersection with dating apps could lead to increased catfishing, usually for a sense of connection or financial gain. There is also the risk that over-using these systems could damage our capabilities for human-to-human interactions, or create a space for people to develop toxic or abusive behaviours. One 2019 study found that female-voiced AI assistants such as Siri and Alexa can perpetuate gender stereotypes and encourage sexist behaviour. Reports have documented cases where AI companion technology has exacerbated existing mental health issues. In 2023, for instance, a Belgian man killed himself after Chai Research’s Eliza chatbot encouraged him to do so. In an investigation, Business Insider generated suicide-encouraging responses from the chatbot.”

Cheery stuff !

On to Pharma… The National Institute of Health (NIH) published an analysis of the influence of pharmaceutical companies in promoting their products for the treatment of mental health issues, noting that research data indicates that person-to-person psychotherapy is significantly more effective at treating anxiety and depression than are antidepressant medications.

Struggling with obesity and depression in my mid-twenties, I sought the help of a psychiatrist. He prescribed a new antidepressant drug, Amitriptyline, a member of the tricyclic drug family. Noticing wide mood swings, significant loss of vocabulary and the disappearance of any libido, I stopped taking it within two weeks. Since then tricyclics have been linked to suicide attempts and weight gain.

New research at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, calls into question the definition of “mental illness” as currently used. but fully acknowledges the “symptoms” of mental illness by differentiating between symptoms and diagnoses. The research focuses on metabolic and mitochondrial dysfunctions that eventuate in symptoms of mental disorders. This calls into question Pharma’s dictionary  definition of mental health disorders that potentiates lucrative markets for new   ̶   and often questionable drugs   ̶   in lieu of interpersonal counseling.

Meanwhile patients with symptoms such as anxiety disorder, depression and even bipolar disorder have seen recovery when their diets are changed, hinting at a relationship between what is still conventionally called “mental illness” and the wide use of chemical soil amendments that underlie an industrial ultraprocessed food (UPF) system. This research has given rise to the science of psycho-nutrition.

The fourth element in our Ghost Quartet: Part II remains the healthcare industry which will try and make you well again if you can access it or afford it. Prices range from $10,000 to $60,000 a month for most psychiatric care facilities, Medicare and Medicaid do not cover the cost for most residential treatment facilities. The average cost to visit with a mental health professional is $100 to $200 an hour for a psychotherapist and another hundred for a psychiatrist.

Safe to say that the lucrative recovery business done right is beyond the financial capacity of the average American who earned just shy of $60,000 annually in 2024.

So, here we have the Ghost Quartet again… “charge them to get sick and then charge them again to get well.”

I apologize for the dark, apocalyptic vision laid out here and in Part I, but as a society, we must decide how to balance power and profits with the wellbeing of our people and communities. We can have both, but it will require us to initiate regulatory policies that balance and enable both.

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