MEDIAState Rep. Tom Burnett (R-Bozeman) (photo: Tom Burnett for Legislature HD 67 Facebook page).
Montana state Rep. Tom Burnett (R-Bozeman) found himself the object of scorn from left-wing bloggers and the media last week over a leaked email to fellow members of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.
The email, which was first published on the left-wing Montana Cowgirl blog, laid out a six-point plan of ” preventing seriously disabling mental illness, depression, addiction, obesity, low-income status, and dementia.” Burnett’s point was that, if at-risk people were encouraged to follow the six points laid out in his email, then they might be healthier and the state might spend less on social services.
However, two items on the list, in particular, had the left up in arms. Burnett dared to suggest in his email that weekly church attendance and staying away from pornography might help at-risk people. Cowgirl — which often enjoys making a target out of Burnett — called the suggestions “nonsensical” and “offensive.” Even Burnett’s hometown newspaper, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, ran a story with the headline “Bozeman lawmaker advises more church, less porn as budget solution.”
While Burnett — who is known for being an opponent to greater welfare spending — has been thoroughly mocked for the email, Media Trackers found there is actually a large amount of research that backs up Burnett’s claims.
Here is a short analysis of each of Burnett’s 6 points:
1. Exercise: 6-10 hours each week of aerobic exercise.
The link between exercise and good physical and mental health is well documented. From the Mayo Clinic:
“Exercise helps prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research on anxiety, depression and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help reduce anxiety and improve mood.”
2. Eating: Home cooked meals of simple, nutritious ingredients like rice, hot cereal, fruits vegetable, and moderate meat intake, eaten with other, at a table, not on a couch.
There is a large body of evidence that proper nutrition is is vital to all aspects of a person’s well-being. From the UK Royal College of Psychiatrics:
“Eating well helps us to prevent many diseases which are linked with being overweight. Diseases include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, heart problems, stroke, cancer joint problems and sleeping difficulties just to name a few. Eating well also makes us feel emotionally well.
People with mental health problems are more likely to have a weight problem. The reasons for this are not fully clear. For instance, some people always feel tired and just not up to any activity. Others always feel hungry.”
3. Substances: Zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or porn.
The idea that people at-risk of addiction, mental illness, or other health problems should avoid drugs, alcohol, and tobacco is simply a matter of common sense. However, Burnett’s inclusion of pornography on this list is what has generated the most controversy. Yet, again, there research to back up these assertions. From a Princeton University Witherspoon Institute Study:
“More studies are necessary, but a growing body of evidence suggests that for some users pornography can be psychologically addictive and can negatively affect the quality of interpersonal relationships, sexual health and performance, and social expectations about sexual behavior. Widespread pornography consumption appears to pose a serious challenge to public health and to personal and familial well-being.”
4. Spirit: Weekly church attendance, reading from holy books, forgiveness.
This is the other of Burnett’s more controversial claims in the email. But, once again, there is research supporting the claim. From Stanford University anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann writing in The New York Times:
“One of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance — at least, religiosity — boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life.”
Continued: “On average, regular church attendees drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous than others.”
5. Relationships: Sacrifice to have a loving marriage. Visit friends, help with their house projects. Honor parents. Bring up children with high moral standards. Associate with those of high moral character.
Burnett gets very specific with types of relationships and emphasizes those that help build strong “moral character.” While finding data to match the specificity of Burnett’s claims, it is well established that strong interpersonal relationships are a vital part of a person’s health and well being. From the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota:
“Healthy relationships are a vital component of health and wellbeing. There is compelling evidence that strong relationships contribute to a long, healthy, and happy life. Conversely, the health risks from being alone or isolated in one’s life are comparable to the risks associated with cigarette smoking, blood pressure, and obesity.”
6. Work: Obtain life’s necessities by long, hard work. Seek training that increases the value of work.
“A substantial body of empirical research documents the beneficial relationship between employment and mental health.1–5, 12, 13 Studies particularly show strong associations between paid employment and reduced levels of depression, greater life satisfaction and higher self-esteem (see: Aneshensel, et al 14). Graetz found that the case rate for psychological distress was 23 percent lower among those who gained employment relative to their peers who remained unemployed.15 Others have shown that returns to employment can reverse the negative effects of prior unemployment, restoring the level of mental well-being that existed prior to job loss.16–19 In a southeastern Michigan community, Kessler and colleagues found that significant elevations in depression symptoms among the unemployed were largely reversed by re-employment.20″
Burnett’s email itself makes no policy recommendations, rather he is emphasizing that certain behaviors can make people healthier and less likely to be dependent upon the state. Burnett also admits that the six points are not guaranteed to be successful.
“There is no guarantee that this six facet model of life will forestall dementia, depression, or diabetes,” Burnett writes. “But research and a few thousand years of human experience has shown that the odds are greatly reduced. Following it seems prudent.”
“Social spending could be a fraction of what it is presently if this recipe was followed by those at risk (all people!), or those presently in crisis,” he concludes.