Bipolar Illusion: Tom Sullivan, Rand Paul, and the Economics of Disability

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Back on Wednesday, January 28, in a discussion of Social Security disability benefits on his Fox News Radio show, Tom Sullivan, who also serves as an anchor for Fox Business Network, said some incredibly stupid things about Bipolar Disorder. Sullivan, or whoever is responsible for the content of his web page, then proudly promoted Sullivan’s ignorance by posting what I can only hope is the worst part of that day’s show in a brief written piece, and a 5-minute audio clip, which you can see here: Tom Sullivan argues that Bipolar Disorder is a myth.

Among his statements, Sullivan called Bipolar Disorder “the latest fad,” adding, “We all have good days and we all have bad; and I don’t consider that an illness; and I don’t consider it a disability.”

Sullivan said plenty of other amazingly idiotic things, like suggesting people are talked into thinking they have Bipolar Disorder, and that it is a “made up” condition, as well as vilifying the entire “mental health business” and “big pharma.” (Wait–I thought Fox “News” liked big pharma.)

Broadcasting live from the Fox studios in the depths of hell, it's the Tom Sullivan Show.  Today's topic: Yes, you should hate and fear your neighbors.

Broadcasting live from the Fox studios in the depths of hell, it’s the Tom Sullivan Show. Today’s topic: Yes, you should hate and fear your neighbors.

On top of that, Sullivan asked a question that anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of psychology, or the skill to do an Internet search, could answer: “What were these people called 25 years ago before they came up with this Bipolar diagnosis?”  (He didn’t mean that as a question that had an actual answer, but in the sense that he believes Bipolar Disorder was dreamed up by psychologists and drug companies 25 years ago).

I could let Jimi Hendrix answer Sullivan’s question in a song from 48 years ago, but I’ll let the good people at Healthline take this one.  Read their answer here: Bipolar Disorder just may have been recognized more than 25 years ago.

In case you didn’t bother to check the Healthline article, it basically notes that the first modern diagnosis of the illness that was eventually deemed “Bipolar Disorder” was first established in the mid-1800s, but that the basic condition was recognized in one form or other going as far back as the time of Aristotle and even before.  And prior to the Bipolar Disorder moniker, it was common to call the condition Manic Depression or Manic Depressive Illness, among other, similar things.

Sullivan’s staggering ignorance of mental health issues (and classic rock) aside, the truly insidious question that he asked in all of this was, “So what are you going to do when the money runs out?” By “the money,” Sullivan meant the Social Security disability fund, which he claimed will be bankrupt by 2016.

Beyond the more obvious stigmatizing of people with mental health issues, Bipolar Disorder in particular, Sullivan’s big question, and his chosen targets, may just be another entry into the vast library of right-wing fear-mongering about Social Security, and why it needs to be privatized. I’m sure it is. But it’s also part of a discussion that’s (once again) rumbling up about “entitlements” and poor people defrauding the government.

In fact, it appears Sullivan’s ill-informed rant about Bipolar Disorder may have been inspired by earlier comments from Rand Paul. As “support” for the items on Sullivan’s show that day, Sullivan’s website features a clip of Rand Paul, Republican Senator from Kentucky/compassionate ophthalmologist, speaking to a crowd in New Hampshire about how at least half the people on disability payments are collecting those payments fraudulently. You can see the clip (from CNN of all places) on Sullivan’s website here: Rand Paul is a medical expert who knows you’re not hurt, you crybaby!

Paul tells the (New Hampshire) crowd that, “everybody in this room knows someone who’s gaming the system.” Now, I’m not the kind of person to show up at a Rand Paul event, but I have to wonder about the people who do, if they all know somebody who is “gaming” the disability system. Then again, maybe Paul is just jaded, since his home state of Kentucky ranks third among the states in terms of the percentage of total population collecting disability payments. (I got that information from looking at the actual source of some of the Social Security Administration stats that were posted in an incomplete image on the same page of Sullivan’s website with the Rand Paul video) One might also ask what those stats, and Paul’s claims of fraud, could possibly say about doctors in Kentucky, who are signing off on all those disability claims.

Among those actually deserving of disability payments, Paul counts only paraplegics, quadriplegics, and the “horrifically disabled,” noting that “half the people on disability” are no worse off than anyone else, only “anxious, or their back hurts.” Paul’s standard for not deserving any kind of disability payments: “if you look like me and you hop out of your truck.” So, I guess a whole lot of white males with trucks are headed toward losing their disability payments, unless they’re careful to avoid getting caught hopping out of said trucks.

One would think that Paul’s background in medicine, as well as his position as an elected official might lead him to realize it’s his job to productively address problems with the way government systems work—particularly if those systems are tied to an area of his expertise. Likewise, Sullivan’s background in economics, along with his national platforms on both radio and television, should mean that a discussion of how to fix the Social Security disability system’s funding problem might be in Sullivan’s wheelhouse.

But rather than seeking out ways to tackle, say, the potential of those receiving Social Security disability payments to find work through job training programs; or promoting ways of obtaining additional funding, like removing the income cap on Social Security taxes, we get more condemnation of the poor–calling them lazy thieves.

Instead of having an informed discussion about the needs of those on disability, and why somebody who doesn’t “look disabled” might actually be struggling with things that many of us take for granted, we get accusations that people coping with mental illness are faking it and claiming to have conditions that don’t even exist.

Hell, Sullivan and Paul could even look into ways to make the disability system more functional by addressing the ways disability payments are established and rewarded.

But, no—we get wealthy white guys complaining that people with disabilities are a bunch of cheats, stealing from their neighbors. We get those with tremendous privilege trying to pit the poor and middle class against those with disabilities—’Hey! Let’s all pile on people who’ve been injured! Let’s knock down those who suffer from mental illness!! Get ‘em!!’

There are plenty of other things absent from these discussions of the Social Security disability system, like that those receiving the payments have to periodically have their status as “disabled” validated by doctors or mental health professionals, or that many of them end up assigned to a “payee” who controls the way their money can be spent, or that they have limits on things like what portion of their disability check can be used for housing. They are often confined to extremely limited options for government-approved housing, where their homes are subject to inspections, including being warned with ‘corrective actions’ if they aren’t keeping things clean enough.

Perhaps Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Paul think that those taking in, say, $1100 a month for being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (which is roughly the average monthly payout) are scamming us all, and stealing our tax dollars because they’re lazy. But the amount of money one can earn is hardly worth the effort that goes into obtaining it in the first place, or keeping it over time.  It might be a fun and entertaining exercise to have either Paul or Sullivan attempt to live on that amount of money for a month, and under the same restrictions.

Yet when one is so completely ignorant or out of touch as to think that Bipolar Disorder is make believe, or that we are surrounded by people stealing from the government through the Social Security disability system, then one has given up any credibility in the discussion of how to address the problems of vulnerable populations in our society–or even the discussion of how to address the possibility of fraud in the Social Security disability system.

Demonizing fellow citizens by claiming they have phony injuries or fabricated mental illness is a great way to stir up righteous anger among the poorly-informed. It may even achieve the goals of getting votes, or making disability requirements even harder to meet, or of having Social Security privatized or partially privatized.

So, don’t be surprised if you start hearing more and more about scammers bankrupting the Social Security disability system, or even more about mental illnesses being phony. Even if Sullivan did attract the ‘wrong’ kind of attention with his obnoxious comments, all he needs to do is get the poison in the stream. Then, Rand Paul and his ilk can still seem educated and rational and folksy enough that they appear sensible by comparison.

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One thought on “Bipolar Illusion: Tom Sullivan, Rand Paul, and the Economics of Disability

  1. Pingback: Yes, Gina, There is a Bipolar Disorder: Tom Sullivan’s Pretend Apology | Respect the Blankie

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