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

The Case Against Torture

I have struggled with whether to write about this subject on this particular blog for several months now, but I am itching to get my opinion out there beyond my student and colleague base. To start with, I must admit that I still have not seen the 2012 film “Zero Dark Thirty” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which has brought the effectiveness of torture to the attention of the mass media.

Let’s start with what is torture. Torture is the when emotional, psychological, and/or physical stress is applied to the body. The goal is to not only produce pain (physical, emotional, and/or psychological) but to increase the anticipation of future pain and distress. In some cases, torture is employed as a method of extracting information. Additionally, it is done as a form of entertainment for the torturer or others. It may also be employed as a method of revenge. I have tried to define torture to encompass all forms that are found not only in contemporary times but in historical times.

There is a long history of the use of torture in human history and in many cases, the torture and response of the tortured has been well documented, i.e. during the Spanish Inquisition. Torture has been used by governments and other powerful groups to extract information and has been purportedly employed by the British Government, the Argentinian Government, as well as the U.S. government in the battles against paramilitary organizations, terrorist organizations, and against the general populace to discourage seditious ideologies.

The main argument with torture is: do the ends justify the means? In my opinion, NO. The general thought experiment is if you have someone in custody who has information about a bomb or attack that may lead to the deaths of thousands of civilians, would you use torture to get the information to prevent this attack? First of all, this is a highly unlikely and completely hypothetical scenario. Secondly, how do you know this person is indeed reliable, meaning having the desired knowledge? While you may encounter situations where valuable information is gained for the short term, in the long term, this tactic will undermine the legitimacy of your movement and ideology. I refer you to the 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers” directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, in particular to the Criterion Collection’s three-disc special edition. Included is a roundtable discussion of torture by Richard A. Clarke, Michael A. Sheehan, and moderated by Christopher E. Isham.

In any conflict, victory not only relies upon the exertion of power and domination over your opponent but also in gaining the support of the sympathizers of your enemy. Torture does not gain sympathy. In many cases, in the pursuit of information, innocent and uninvolved citizens may be tortured. What happens to those individuals upon release if they are released or even to their family members and social groups once they become aware of the torture? They tend to sympathize not with the side of the torturer but the other side. What you effectively do is promote the ideology and build the support base for your enemy by demonstrating the barbaric methods you employ to gain information.  The conflict in Northern Ireland would be a good example. When overt violence is perpetrated against a civilian or group of civilians, you lose legitimacy and support. On January 31, 1972, the event known as Bloody Sunday occurred in Derry, Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association planned a peaceful march to protest gerrymandering of election lines and inequality among employment and housing practices. The British government responded by sending paratroopers to overlook the march. At one point during the march, the paratroopers began firing upon the unarmed crowd, successfully ending the peaceful civil rights movement and building the ranks and support for the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Several inquiries later over several decades, it was finally uncovered that indeed the civilians were unarmed contrary to initial reports by the British government. This was a black spot in British and Irish history and marked the beginning of one of the most deadly years in the history of the Troubles. I refer you to the writings of Tim Pat Coogan, John McGarry, and Brendan O’Leary and the 2002 film “Bloody Sunday” directed by Paul Greengrass. Please note that I have many more references for this information, but for the sake of space and time, I am noting just a few. A fictional depiction of the impact torture has on a movement can be found in the 2006 film “Catch a Fire” directed by Phillip Noyce which takes place during the time of Apartheid in South Africa.

Finally, the issue of reliable information comes to the forefront in any discussion of torture. Any well-organized paramilitary organization, government-sponsored or trained or otherwise, will train its soldiers in methods to survive torture without compromising the overall mission or information. It may not have the capability to train all soldiers, but certainly the ones with the most valuable and accurate information will be trained to withstand torture while maintaining the integrity of their mission and movement. How does one do this? First by providing information that is of low value but may be verified as being true, and then give information that might be of high value (true or not) but cannot be appropriately verified. Thus, the torturer has a problem with deciding to act on the information they have procured because it is unclear whether this information is true and accurate.

In regards to the issue of the U.S. war on terror and the use of torture, I stand by my statement that torture should not be used if we want to avoid future attacks. Ultimately, this will defeat any attempt the U.S. makes in trying to demonstrate that the democratic values that we uphold are superior or in the best interests of human rights than our enemies. By using torture, we automatically become hypocrites in any suggestion that we stand in defense of human rights. The only way to gain ground in this protracted conflict is to demonstrate how our ideology supports human rights and life-affirming and life-enhancing peaceful initiatives.

As someone who has lost friends in the September 11, 2001 attacks as well as in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following these attacks, my personal resolve to find justice for the loss of life is quite strong. However, whenever we are embroiled in an emotionally-charged situation dealing with issues that we are passionate about, it is important to step back and think about the issue from a rational perspective if we truly want redemption and not simply revenge. So much attention since 2001 has been placed on international terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda but the bottom line is that the U.S. has suffered more attacks and more loss of civilians perpetrated by domestic terrorist organizations than international terrorist organizations. We need to set our emotions aside and step back to look at this issue from a distance. Not only should we consider any short-term gains from the tactics employed but also the long-term consequences of our choices in tactics. We need to consider the experiences of other organizations engaged in similar conflicts and assess the effectiveness of the approaches and tactics used. Bottom line, torture is not effective as a method of extracting information. Its long-term consequences will inevitably erode our legitimacy, the information procured may not be accurate and reliable, and finally, we will continue to support the use of violence in its most barbaric forms as a method of solving problems. It is no wonder that so many individuals in recent times have resorted to the use of violence as a method of revenge or making some type of personal or political statement. The cost is the loss of innocent lives from Aurora, CO to Newtown, CT.

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.

Tragedy in Newtown, CT

With the media spending all of their time not only focusing on the violence of today but rehashing and showing the violence of the past, an important part of our humanity is being ignored. What about the survivors? What about those who are watching from afar, especially the children? At this time, I have only found one local news source that spent any time dealing with how parents should go about talking to their children about the tragic events that occurred today. In contrast, some of the major media outlets have spent time interviewing children. To those journalists and parents who allowed these interviews to occur, I say shame on you. We need to put the children ahead of any personal desire for 15 minutes of fame or to beat a deadline. Not only have the horrific events and loss of innocent life today have made me sad but the reaction has truly tested my faith in humanity.

Please note that i f you have children and are watching the news coverage of this tragedy, be mindful of where your children are. If they are with you, turn the television off and spend quality time with your family.

What I am offering are links for parents and teachers to help with talking to children of all ages about such tragic events.

Helping Students Navigate a Violent World by Sean McCollum

National Association of School Psychologists Resources

American Psychological Association “Talking to Your Children About the Recent Spate of School Shootings”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Coping with Stress”

SAMHSA Coping After Traumatic Events Helpline 1-800-985-5990

Listen, Protect and Connect: Psychological First Aid for Teachers and Schools (www.ready.gov)

Talking With Kids About News

Remember that for many who have survived tragedy, the media coverage of new tragedies may trigger emotional distress. There is nothing wrong with asking for help or needing someone to talk to.

I hope you find these resources helpful and I further hope that the media will focus on how to help the survivors and the rest of society deal with such a horrible act.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families of the victims and survivors as they cope with this horrific event. My thanks go out to all of the first responders who risk their lives every day and face the horrors that some members of society insist on perpetrating on the innocent.