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Shameless

The University of Colorado, Denver has been conspicuously silent about their former graduate student turned gunman. There’s nothing particularly surprising about that. Universities are loath to discuss their students or alumni unless doing so will bring glory to the institution. Universities are also part of the elite group of organizations known as suffering from acute “litigation paranoia.” But onlookers accept the silence as being a vague yet misguided attempt at protecting someone’s privacy.

If what we were discussing was a physical disease or impairment, patient privacy would be a valid and even laudable motivation. As a society we’ve determined that patient privacy, even when a diagnoses could involve potential contagion, is necessary. We’ve also determined that when a disease poses an imminent public threat the afflicted will be quarantined (and thereby outed.)  In other words; public good trumps the individual. On the most basic level we apply this same principal to mental health as well. If a person states (unequivocally) that he/she is going to hurt him/herself or others, they are held (usually for a very short period) until they can be examined and either sent on their way or hospitalized.

This flaccid approach to protecting individuals and the public stems from the deinstitutionalized of mental healthcare several decades ago. The “expression of specific harm” is employed to prevent people being hospitalized against their will. One only need sit with the preceding sentence a bit to see the absurdity of this approach. People struggling with mental health issues rarely are clear and conscientious enough to seek hospitalization on their own. We leave it to the ill to state clearly their intentions to do harm before highly trained professionals are allowed to intervene. That’s a problem.

Adding to that little issue is the fact that we are freaked out by mental health issues. Yes, we’ve been Oprahfied enough to (sometimes) toss around the right terms. But we are glaringly uncomfortable dealing with real life mental health. If we see someone, day in and day out, who we consider odd, what do we do? Maybe we mention it to a friend, but beyond them who would we actually tell? And what is exactly do we say? Is the guy who only comes out at night and keeps his door covered in aluminum foil a danger to anyone? Are his odd behaviors actually highly honed coping skills for his illness? Maybe he sees a psychiatrist every day and is adequately medicated. Maybe he’s just eccentric (versus ill.) More often than not, we say nothing and just hope to avoid someone who makes us uncomfortable.

There is somewhere where aluminum foil should send an observer directly to the phone, and that’s at a university. Most students (graduate and undergraduate) are under 30 years of age; a primetime for the onset of very serious mental illnesses. Students are often sent away to school already presenting symptoms and perhaps fully medicated. The beauty of a controlled environment (like a university) is that elaborate and accessible systems are in place. A professor who observes disturbing behavior knows exactly how to report it immediately. No doubt, they sometimes do. But too often we err too heavily on the side of our own discomfort (which we shroud in “patient privacy” rhetoric.) It’s very unsettling to be the person who may upend someone’s life. However it’s far worse to be the one who stayed silent.

When we stop seeing mental health issues as being somehow shameful we will be a safer and more humane society. When newsreaders no longer intone (in sotto voce;) “He even spent time in a mental hospital” we will be further ahead. When a political candidate gains sympathy points for a spouse with a physical illness and looses popularity for one with a mental illness, we will be further ahead. When we stop using the word “rehab” (invoking images of large sunglasses and hangovers) as a euphemism for mental health facility, we will be further ahead. And when celebrities stop claiming to be suffering from “exhaustion” (as if it’s the 1900s) versus having depression, we will be much further ahead. There is no shame in illness of any kind. The only shame is silence.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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A Moment Of Outrage

It is inevitable that shortly after a massive shooting the volume of the gun control debate increases. It’s not that shootings don’t occur every single day. It’s not even that victims don’t amount to the double digits every day. Our response is more connected to how and where a critical mass was attacked. We are understandably shaken to the core to consider the fact that we too have been to; movie theaters, high schools, daycare centers or grocery stores. It is completely natural and normal to respond strongly to something to which we can personally relate. We may (fortunately) have never lived in a neighborhood rife with gun violence. We may have never played in parks where gun toting teens hangout. But when violence happens to people not associated with “unfortunate circumstances” we pay attention. Headlines are rarely grabbed for what we consider commonplace. (Case in point: a house fire that killed three children and two adults in Connecticut was on the front page [literally and figuratively] for days if not weeks. A house fire killing three children and two adults in Newark is on page 17 today.) Considering that change often occurs when people in power decide to make a difference, we have the luxury of seeing this inequity in a positive light.

Most of us would agree that there are people who enjoy guns. They like to hunt, or collect or grab this particular right as if it’s all they have left of the American Dream. But anyone who states (with a straight face) that how we should deal with a mad gunman using semi-automatic weaponry is by arming everyone with a handgun is not a gun enthusiast. They are lots of other things; but not a gun enthusiast. Even if all those teens (and babies) and suburban adult moviegoers were sharp shooters they could not neutralize the affects of a madmen with semi-automatic weaponry. Even movies that glamorize violence are more realistic than that. There is no legitimate reason (which I can discern) why semi-automatic weapons fall under any right to bear arms protection. There is no rational reason that it is so very easy to purchase such weaponry.

We would be much further along in the gun control conversation if we focus on classes of firearm. If we decide as a society that we as individuals are not “entitled” to weapons of warfare we would be much further ahead.

As critical as examining the sanity of the weaponry ‘free market’ is how we examine and treat the mentally ill. How many times do we turn a blind eye to that woman or man who seems off? How many times has a seriously mentally ill person been turned away from a facility because they are not in immediate danger? How many institutions employ or teach very fragile individuals without providing them support? Why are we so frightened of mental health issues? We were shamed into tearing down the worst of our nation’s snake pits and walked away relieved. “Well, that’s done!” We have done nothing concrete or systemic since deinstitutionalization. People of good intentions try to help individuals and are often left in a labyrinth of closed doors and catch-22s. The system is designed to protect the rights of the mentally ill individual. By definition someone experiencing mental illness is not in his/her right mind. Somewhere between the snake pits of yesteryear and the benign neglect of today lie compassion, humanity and a solution.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2012 in Cultural Critique

 

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