Mental Health Awareness Month

Compared to other countries, the U.S. is definitely more accepting of mental health issues however, there remains a strong negative stigma associated with mental health issues. For anyone who has ever been treated for anxiety, depression, even flying phobias, your medical records will indicate that you were treated for a mental illness and thus labeled as uninsurable according to the health insurance companies. Health care is not considered a human right in the U.S., the land of the free.  I will table my tirade and comments on the U.S. health care system for another time. It is these types of obstacles that feed into the negative stigma of mental illness and further dissuade people from seeking help.

For some reason, it is seen as a sign of weakness to seek help for a wide number of things from help with parenting, relationship issues, depression, job issues, etc.  And that is just naming a very limited few of the issues that civilians may battle. How about individuals who work in high-stress jobs or jobs that may require the taking of another life or exposure to the absolute worst examples of humanity – i.e. air traffic controllers, police officers, firefighters, nurse, doctors, paramedics, and of course, our soldiers? If an individual who works as an administrative assistant views seeking counseling for anxiety as a sign of weakness, what about the individual who is expected to be the brave ones, the first responders, the defenders of freedom, the life savers? We need to eliminate this stigma.

Some may argue that they see no problem. It is up to an individual to take care of himself/herself. I disagree. This stigma has resulted in high unemployment for groups of individuals who may be viewed as mentally ill or unstable, which leads to high poverty rates and homelessness for these individuals (as a result of joblessness and inability to obtain health insurance to cover medical care and possible medications), and in a small number of cases, individuals may resort to violence. Unfortunately, the media plays a terrible role in all of this. By sensationalizing the small number of incidents of violence perpetrated by someone who may be suffering from a mental health issue, the media has stoked the fire of fear in our society against those who are suffering from mental health issues, even though most of them are non-violent. Further, by portraying only the violent symptoms that some (not all) soldiers, veterans, first responders, and others who suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), these men and women often find themselves discriminated against in anything from finding a job to adopting a child.

Some politicians have called for legislation to be passed that restricts the rights of individuals who suffer from mental illness. What they do not seem to understand is that mental illness is not a fixed, static category of disorders and conditions. The official classification system is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Since its first publication in 1952, it has undergone several updates and revisions. Over the years, conditions have been added and removed from the classification system of mental illness. For example, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until it was officially removed from the classification in 1986. Another example is with ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) which officially appeared in 1980 but partially appeared in 1968 under a different designation (hyperkinetic reaction of childhood). The next DSM will be released this month with several changes including the addition of gambling disorder and changes in the definition of PTSD. See the American Psychiatric Association website for more information.

The bottom line is that mental illness is viewed as a sign of weakness, a form of deviance from social norms, and treated with fear and avoidance. There is no shame in asking for help. The world has changed dramatically and even civilians may experience traumatic events that may forever change their outlook and mental health. Do we punish those who witness acts of violence? In theory, no, in practice yes and it is done through the continued discrimination and negative portrayal of mental illness. This needs to stop and the sooner the better. If the media insist on sensationalizing mental illness, they MUST get their facts straight and present all of the information, not just what will attract the most viewers and be considered the most scintillating. Society must be shown and educated about mental health issues. We need to spread the news about how inaccurate the media’s portrayal and resulting societal treatment of the mentally ill is damaging our society, not only socially, but within the judicial, economic, and education institutions among others. We need to promote tolerance and respect not fear and ignorance.  And for those battling with what may be considered mental health issues, remember that you are not alone.

Here are some links that may be of interest:

Bryan A. Wood “Sometimes The Hardest Part to Going to War is Coming Home”

Myke Cole “What PTSD Is”

Kate Holt “The ‘Dangerous’ Veteran: An Inaccurate Media Narrative Takes Hold”

Veterans Crisis Line

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Finding Help for Mental Illness

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Mental Health

Mental Health Help Hotlines

Aftermath of Tragedy

In the typical reaction to such unfathomable tragedies, our society seems to follow the same formula every time and every time, we end up nowhere closer to a solution. If anything, we end up with more problems. This is not about just gun violence at schools, but a wide range of tragedy from terrorist attacks to domestic violence.

We always start with the media’s constant recap of events, showing footage of victims, interviews with survivors and victims’ families, and then maybe several days later, actually address how to help children deal with the knowledge of such tragedy. The media machine is in such a rush to be the first to report, that so much misinformation gets sent out into the world and at times, this misinformation gets perpetuated and morphs into justification for further violence and intolerance.

The next step comes to trying to understand the motives of the perpetrator or perpetrators and identifying what precise thing led to the violence. It is rarely this cut and dry. After Columbine, it was an attack on trench coats. After 9/11, it was Islam. After Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown, we see an attack on mental illness. All of this scapegoating does is increase fear and intolerance in our society. Hate crimes against anyone fitting the description of the latest scapegoat rises after these events, even against those who are not truly connected. Look at the tragedy in Oak Creek, WI at the Sikh temple. It highlights our fundamental misunderstanding of the core values of our society.

Our society thrives on a quick fix mentality. Need to lose weight? Take a pill or have surgery, don’t waste your time on diet and exercise even though that is the best and healthiest way to lose weight in the absence of other medical problems. Feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious? Take a pill, don’t spend time in therapy or in self-reflection to try to understand what in your life is making you feel the way you are feeling. Child won’t sit still in class? Diagnose the child with ADHD and give the child pills, rather than have a teacher alter their classroom management and lesson plan approach to accommodate the needs of the individual student. Ignoring the issues of gender in our society, it was the prescription of minor tranquilizers to middle class, white women in the 1950s and 1960s to deal with what Betty Friedan identified as The Problem that Has No Name as depicted in her book, “The Feminine Mystique” and found within the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song “Mommy’s Little Helper.”

In specific regards to the issues of mental illness, we need to tread very carefully. What constitutes your definition of mental illness? If you take mild tranquilizers for a week after you parent has died, does that mean you are mentally ill? It does in the eyes of health insurance companies which then use these prescriptions and diagnoses to deny coverage (but that is an issue for a different post). If you are a victim of rape and suffer from excessive fear and night terrors, does that mean you are mentally ill? What about those who get depressed during the winter months either due to the holidays or lack of sunlight? Are they mentally ill? Limiting a person’s civil rights due to a vague definition of what it means to be mentally ill is wrong. All of this coverage on mental illness and its links to violence further stigmatize members of society. We want people to seek help if they need it and understand that there is nothing wrong with needing some help. Because of the stigma of mental illness, so many people exposed to trauma including first responders and soldiers do not seek the help they need. Humans are social animals and we cannot bear everything on our own. No one is actually normal and if we want to talk about what is normal in society, violence is the normal of our society not a form of deviance. Its pervasiveness is evident.

So how do we respond to this tragedy? There are calls to arm teachers in our schools in the aftermath of Newtown. This is such a bad idea it is hard for me to fathom where to begin. Let me begin by saying that I am not opposed to gun ownership, rather I only support responsible gun ownership. The number one concern with arming our teachers is that we truly do not know how we would react to a situation until we are actually in that situation. We like to think that we would act heroically, but in the words of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, “Heroes are rare in our society.” This has been documented in psychological research over time (see Zimbardo’s Prison Study and Milgram’s Obedience Study). If a child is laying on the sidewalk asking for help, would you stop? You want to say yes. But in reality, how many of you walk past the multitude of homeless of all ages and turn a blind eye? You say you support your veterans, but how many of you actually stop and thank them for their service and ask them how they are, not what they did? Even trained professionals such as police and soldiers may experience panic in response to the rush of adrenaline in a situation. How can we effectively train teachers to not panic, to not think of saving themselves above the lives of others? We cannot. This being said, I am not opposed to having trained, armed security at schools, perhaps even employing our veterans who struggle with finding work after their military service.

Furthermore, while most teachers are honorable, there are still a few that are not and molest or assault students. If armed, how could a child fight back or ever feel safe enough to confide in someone to get help? The bottom line is that by putting guns in the hands of teachers would be exacerbating the situation and ignoring the fundamental problem.

On the other hand, in some cases teachers are also attacked by students. While most would fear students in the upper middle school and high school ranges, it is not unheard of for one or more elementary aged children to attack an adult. If that teacher is armed and the child gets the weapon, what happens then?

Perhaps instead of arming our teachers with guns, we should look at having our teachers and children learn self-defense. Some may argue that engaging in martial arts is further violence but those who teach and study martial arts no differently. Martial arts have many benefits beyond self-defense including increasing self-esteem, self-control, self-confidence, and in the development of setting and achieving goals. It also teaches respect for oneself and others, reduces stress, and improves concentration. These are core values that should exist in every society.

This tragedy was not caused by mental illness or guns. It was caused by the fundamental lack of tolerance in our society as well as the pervasiveness and acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems. We live in a society where hazing is considered acceptable because the victim volunteered to participate and it serves as a rite of passage for entry into a social group, sports team, and workplace, bullying is the way to get ahead in this country, and it is considered better to turn a blind eye or imprison those less fortunate than take a critical look at our own behavior. We need to teach the fundamentals of tolerance and conflict resolution independent of violence beginning at birth and continue to hit home these issues throughout all school years, as is currently done with reading and writing. We want our children to learn to read and write so for their entire school career, reading and writing is included in all subjects for all years. The same MUST be done with tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. We need to engage in a path towards finding long-term solutions rather than scapegoating. Granted this will not solve our problems overnight but seldom do such complex problems have such a quick fix solution.

“Half the Sky” Documentary on PBS

As we embark on Domestic Violence Awareness month, PBS has begun to air a new documentary series based on the book by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”  This documentary brings to light the growing problem of violence against women world wide. Their message is extremely powerful and very important.  In the United States, a lot of individuals hide within their bubbles about what goes on in the world and even in their own communities. Unfortunately, violence against women and children are not solely perpetrated in the far corners of the globe among poverty-stricken nations.  It occurs everywhere, even in the United States, even among the affluent.  According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, 1 in 4 women in the U.S. and 1 in 3 women worldwide has experienced domestic violence within their lifetime, on average more than 3 women and 1 man are killed by their intimate partner each day, 1 in 7 men have experience domestic violence within their lifetime, and 1 in 5 teens have experience intimate partner violence.  Theses statistics support the argument that women in particular are under-valued in society.  Documentaries such as, “Half the Sky” bring these important issues to the forefront.  For many people, they may feel that there is little that they can do.  That is not so.  What can you do?  Educate, Take notice, Take action, Offer support.  These are small steps in the right direction.

Making people aware of such important social issues is the first step towards positive social change.  Be part of this step. After watching the first installment of the series, I immediately added it to my curriculum for my college students.  I encourage everyone to watch this PBS special and read the book.

For more information about Human Trafficking and Intimate Partner Violence, please check out my Favorites page.