By Tom Baxter
Georgia Online News Service
Life is full of misery
Tears so many
I can’t see
I never can be free
Blues stay away from me
Blues why don’t you let me be
Don’t know why
You keep on haunting me
(“Blues Stay Away from Me”)
The Centers for Disease Control last month released what amounts to a map of the blues, though befitting a government study, it was wrapped in a colorless title: Geographic Patterns of Frequent Mental Distress.
The map and the report it’s in, published in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, are based on data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which bills itself as the world’s largest on-going health survey system. During 1993-2001 and 2003-2006, the BRFSS asked some 2.4 million Americans how many days over the past 30 they would say their mental health had not been good, and mapped the results by county.
The results show that the land where the blues was born still has a lot of it.
Two Southern regions, Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley, had particularly high and increasing rates of Frequent Mental Distress (FMD), while the Upper Midwest, for all its dour Scandinavians, had low and decreasing rates. Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia had the biggest increase in FMD over the two survey periods, and Kentucky had the highest overall rate: 14.4 percent, compared to 6.6 percent in Hawaii, which had the lowest rate.
The study’s authors note a number of factors – poverty, obesity, domestic violence, smoking, drinking and drugs – which go along with FMD and could affect the geographical distribution. However one accounts for it, the distribution has been consistent over a very long survey period, and there’s a good argument the map would have looked much the same in 1930 or 1870. Those lowdown blues and mournful country songs didn’t materialize out of thin air.
On a purely wonkish note, this means that the need for public mental health services is greatest in some of the states where the budget for these departments tends to drag the national average.
From a political perspective, there are interesting similarities between the FMD map and that often referred-to map of the counties that voted more Republican in 2008 than in 2004. People in this swath of the American heartland were dealing with a lot before Barack Obama got elected, as the FMD map reflects. Their mood today is likely to be darker than in the nation at large, to judge from recent national polls showing a positive response to the new administration and a surprising degree of optimism about the direction the country is headed in, despite the frequent economic distress.
Politics in the South generally awards cheerfulness in its politicians, even in the worst of times. Kentucky had Happy Chandler, and Louisiana’s songwriting Gov. Jimmy Davis wrote “You Are My Sunshine.” But as the next political season approaches, the South has more than its share of mentally distressed voters.
This article originally appeared in Southern Political Report: http://www.southernpoliticalreport.com/
Tom Baxter is editor of the Southern Political Report and senior vice president of its parent company, InsiderAdvantage, a media and polling firm. He was the chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 20 years. [full bio]