With the incessant string of government policies that have been proposed and enacted over the past month, it's important to remember laws aren't just documents promoting abstract principles. When the law changes, the lives of people living under it change. As such, there are many ways the law affects our mental health and our physical health — and it's well worth considering them before making or voting on legislation and policy decisions.
The people most affected by government decisions are often among the most vulnerable populations, like women, LGBTQ people, racial minorities, low income people, and people with disabilities. The rights of these citizens are disproportionately in danger, and they also have less recourse if a law that endangers them is passed. You can't just up and move to Canada, after all, if your survival depends on a job based on the United States or you have people here to take care of.
So, often, the people who laws hurt the most are also the same ones forced to live under them. And they can suffer for that profoundly. They can also, of course, benefit from legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable people's rights.
Here are some ways laws and policies can affect our mental health, for better or for worse (but nowadays, unfortunately, mostly for worse).
1. Fewer Teens Attempt Suicide Where Gay Marriage Is Legal
A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that teen suicide rates — especially among LGBTQ teens — dropped in states that made same-sex marriage legal between 1999 and 2015. On average, the introduction of this legislation preceded a seven percent decrease, likely because our mental health is better when we're afforded dignity and equality.
2. Abortion Restrictions Harm Mental Health
A study published in JAMA Psychiatry last year found that women who were unable to get abortions were less happy, more anxious, and less self-confident immediately afterward than those who were able to receive them. It's not surprising: being disempowered to make major life decisions and becoming a parent against your will are incredibly scary.
3. Workplace Discrimination Could Lead To Anxiety And Depression
A study published in Social Science & Medicine found that the greater the difference between a woman's salary and those of men who do the same work, the more likely she is to suffer from anxiety and depression. While this doesn't directly relate to one particular law, it does suggest that laws aimed at combatting workplace discrimination — like the Lily Ledbetter Act, which lets women sue employers for unequal pay at any point — could also affect the mental health of people disadvantaged at work.
4. Inadequate Sexual Assault Policies Can Make Trauma Worse
One possible reason more women than men have PTSD is that they're more likely to experience sexual violence. (This isn't to say that men do not experience sexual violence; women, however, are affected by it disproportionately.) And in addition to sexual assault itself, the process of being doubted by police and lawyers and failing to see justice served can re-traumatize the victim. In countries where spousal rape isn't illegal and U.S. states where its legal status is unclear, for example, victims may experience even more trauma for not being able to escape or get help.
5. Allowing Conversion Therapy Can Harm Many LGBTQ People's Mental Health
Currently, only five states and Washington, D.C. ban conversion therapy for minors — even though the American Psychiatric Association is against it, the American Academy of Pediatrics believes it "can provoke guilt and anxiety," and the Pan American Health Organization says it creates "a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people."
6. Trans People's Mental Health Depends On Access To Healthcare
Access to treatments like hormone therapy and surgery can have a huge influence on trans people's well being. "Transgender persons not uncommonly seek medical services to make their bodies more congruent with their gender identities," reads the American Psychological Association's website. "Involvement of mental health professionals is often necessary or desirable in arranging such services." And the law has a huge affect on what they can access. It wasn't until 2015, for example, that trans people were entitled to hormones while in prison. And an Affordable Care Act repeal could harm trans people's access to such treatments.
7. Healthcare Policy Affects Who Can Get Care
In addition to impacting our mental health itself, the law determines who can access mental healthcare, and once again, the populations that most need it are often left without it. The Affordable Care Act, for example, required employer-provided health insurance to cover mental healthcare for those who need it. Without it, seeing a therapist could become extremely expensive.