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Today's Debate: Is mental health a middle-class luxury?

What I've found is that, to many people, mental health is a luxury good. If it can't be dealt with through discipline, or denial, or faith, many folks from poor backgrounds figure punishment is the only cure.

Donnie McClurkinI'm off in search of mental health today, and I'll offer details on that later.

But my search brings up an important point. What I've found is that, to many people, mental health is a luxury good. If it can't be dealt with through discipline, or denial, or faith, many folks from poor backgrounds figure punishment is the only cure.

You can see this most clearly in reaction to Barack Obama's embrace of Donnie McClurkin, a gospel singer who says he prayed-away his own homosexuality.

The question, in this case, is not whether homosexuality is a mental condition, or even a choice. It's the preference of many people for religion in dealing with mental troubles.

All of which goes directly to questions of policy. Despite long-term agitation from people like Tipper Gore, mental health is still not treated very seriously in our national health policy. There are agencies which do evaluations and hand out drugs, but real mental health benefits for the majority remain a distant dream.

The result is a circular logic which impacts all health policy areas. There is a large constituency which doesn't believe in mental health care, because they couldn't get it or their parents couldn't. And this increases the resistance of many institutions to recognizing mental health issues when they arise.

How many poor black kids might be saved from a life on the streets if we simply diagnosed their ADHD and got them the help they deserve? These are some of our best and brightest. If ADHD affects 5% of kids in Atlanta Public Schools alone, that's 2,500 mostly-black kids being treated with a strap when therapy might get results.

That's just one condition, albeit one I'm familiar with from a lifetime of dealing with it. How many mental diseases are becoming epidemics because we claim we can't afford to treat them?

Faith is a great place from which to get onto the road toward mental health. Most doctors face limited competition from faith, and in fact can use faith to buttress their own work.

But in much of America, mental health professionals face a different situation. Mental health there is a middle class luxury, faith the only possible answer. And it's not just the poor suffering from this prejudice.