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Protecting Those Who Serve

 

Congress is poised to enact legislation to make it legal for military mental health counselors (and commanders) to discuss personal firearms with soldiers considered at risk for suicide. That’s right, it is currently illegal to discuss ownership (and any use of) personal firearms with soldiers identified as potentially suicidal. 6 out of 10 military suicides are by firearm (similar to the rate of non-military suicides.) Now before we all collectively smack ourselves on the forehead and exclaim a universal; “Duh” let’s think this through.

The military is acknowledging that there are mental health issues that need to be addressed. The Pentagon and Congress are willing to even consider wading into “don’t you come near my gun” political territory. The military culture is showing signs it is willing to change. Culture is not easy to change. A culture whose very existence is based on rules, regulations, defense, solidarity, and yes; firearms, is showing some flexibility. They seem to be willing to admit that there is a problem that needs to be addressed holistically.

At first blush discussing (personal) gun ownership with someone who may be a danger to him/herself seems rather straightforward. No one is confiscating the gun(s) or demanding they be relinquished (perhaps that will come with time.) The potentially lifesaving measure being considered by Congress is merely a conversation about guns. But this is the military we’re talking about. There are people who consider personal gun ownership to be a very important part of who they are and of their patriotism. Knowing that the subject may not be private could have an effect on a soldier’s willingness to discuss mental health issues. Living in a closed environment (a military base) one might guard his/her privacy. Living on a base (with a gun store!) surrounded by people openly carrying guns, it could feel very stigmatizing to have your gun ownership questioned.

All of this is not to suggest that there should ever be any gag rules around mental health and safety. But it is worth noting that military+mental health+right to bear arms= a minefield. Any move towards open and direct conversation about military mental health and safety should be encouraged. Could this step (of removing the speech restraint) be the first of many necessary steps? Will soldiers identified as being at risk have all firearms confiscated? Could we someday live in a world in which people with mental illness do not have access to guns? Why not? Think of all the changes in safety and in illness awareness in just the last thirty years. Seat belt use was once optional (if they existed at all,) the words “breast cancer” were whispered (if uttered at all,) the intellectually and physically challenged were definitely not mainstreamed, and many people with mental illness suffered in silence. As a culture we’ve demonstrated we are capable of change. If an organization defined by tradition and rigidity can take this first step, just think what the rest of us could do!

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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Over Here

It’s Memorial Day and somewhere between the sales, barbecues, summer rentals and beach, we will honor those who died while in the military.  There will be beautiful and touching ceremonies and some lovely parades.  If you are lucky enough to come upon a person in uniform, you might even have the opportunity to give thanks.

And tomorrow will be Tuesday, and we will go on with our lives and joys of summer.  Wouldn’t it be great if we really did honor those who serve?  Thousands have died in Iraq and Afghanistan but hundreds of thousands have returned.  Due to advances in medicine and weaponry, some of these soldiers have survived devastating injuries.  Head injuries alone, account for survival of injuries previously unknown.  Advances in mobile medical treatment and robotics, mean soldiers with severe and multiple amputations are coming home.  For the soldiers’ families, and often for the soldiers themselves, it’s a blessing to be home.

For some, coming home is only a euphemism.  They may have joined the military, partly to have a place to live.  They may be coming back to families who have lost their home.  They may have injuries that prevent them from being in their home.  (Most homes are not wheelchair accessible.)  They may not be able to find any work, or work that is suited to their new self.

The number of Iraq and Afghanistan homeless veterans are rapidly rising.  (You can understand why the Veteran’s Administration doesn’t have actual data on this phenomenon.)  Like any homeless population there is not one path to the status.  Soldiers with head injuries (the invisible injury) can have a very challenging time resuming a normal life.  Some soldiers may have entered the military with a sensibility unsuited to the shock and awe they experienced over there.  Some soldiers return to civilian life feeling overwhelming unsettled by now being a civilian.

There are some injuries and experiences from which one never recovers.  But every person, most of all those who have put themselves in danger in the name of national security, deserves basic help.  A soldier deserves a home.  Whether we need to modify their current home, or create veteran housing (perhaps with all those empty military bases and prisons.)  A soldier deserves job training and placement (cue W.P.A.)  And perhaps less sexy and sound bite, a soldier deserves lifetime mental health care.

These are not difficult or even expensive undertakings.  These are not “sending a man to the moon” or even “war on drugs” expenditures.  These are basic human rights.  All the flag waving in the world doesn’t change the fact that for many returning soldiers, our country has let them down.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Holiday

 

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It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Super-ego!

State Troopers are being investigated for frequenting prostitutes.  A second wave of Secret Service agents (engaging in the same recreation) has come to light.  John Edwards’ trial is now in full swing (with charges revolving around an adulterous affair and cover-up.)  Since January, eight public school employees have been accused of inappropriate behavior.  Recently more photos of soldiers humiliating “the enemy” have been brought to light.

No, I don’t think we’re headed towards a fiery spiral of demise, but I do find it interesting.  It’s safe to say that the vast majority of the cited (above) indiscretions have been made by men in power.  Certainly men in power behaving as if, well, as if they’re in power, is nothing new.  Many of these men occupy rather insular environs.  The military is the mother of all insulation, with law enforcement being a close runner-up.  Anyone who has ever been in a public school (as a child or adult) can attest to the “alternate universe” quality.  And politicians?  The ubiquity of the joke about elected officials not knowing the price of a gallon of milk, tells a story, doesn’t it.  They all work in a parochial world.

Clearly there is a certain lulling into entitlement that goes with this territory.  The risks seem diminished when you believe you are special.  But what is increasingly baffling is the fact that these people do live in the same universe as the rest of us.  Even the most sequestered and protected has heard of photographs!  They may have even heard of the internet (gasp!)  In this day and age, how does anyone go through life not knowing they’re being watched?!  When you add bad, sinister and/or illegal behavior to the mix, shouldn’t that just heighten any awareness/paranoia?  Is there anyone who is arrogant enough to believe they actually have a cloak of invisibility?  I don’t think so.

Something else is afoot.  Unless one is building a career on bad behavior (insert D list starlet name) most people do not engage in nefarious behavior with the hope of exposure.  It is more likely that, like the child sneaking a cookie, they simply want the cookie.  Understanding repercussions comes with maturity, and for some, never at all.  Certainly there are personality disorders whose hallmarks are not being able to process beyond the moment.  But then there’s everyone else who simply wants what they want when they want it.  Everyone and everything else be damned.  Unfortunately the damned in these cases, include children, and national security.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2012 in Cultural Critique

 

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A Higher Education Wake Up Call

There was a horrific fatal stampede this week for a chance to attend college, in South Africa.  A line over a mile long, waited at the gate for a coveted seat in the University of Johannesburg.  High school graduates (and some parents) crowded together, arms filled with blankets and other supplies, desperate for a chance for a better life.  One third of that country is unemployed and high education is only recently available to all.

This heartbreaking story needn’t suffer any disrespect to serve as an allegory for us.  We have reached a point, for better or worse, at which a four year degree has taken on mythic remedy.  A bachelor degree may not be the ticket to upward mobility it once was, but you’d be hard pressed to gain employment without one.  We need only to turn on an old movie to remember that high school degrees were once a coveted commodity.  Independent of the swelling middle class and higher education accessibility, I’m not sure a high school degree today bears any resemblance to that of pre-World War II.  However thanks to the G.I. Bill and the major shifts in American industry, a college education has become an increasingly normative expectation in the world of work.

Today we expect the vast majority of high school graduates to attend college.  We can probably agree that high school graduation standards are not what they once were.  Everyone is expected to graduate, and every measure is taken to ensure that will be the case.  Bluntly put, a high school diploma is not the proof of mastery it once was.  In addition to potentially ill-prepared students, we have the skyrocketing costs of college.  It is no secret that students (and their families) are incurring crippling debt with absolutely no guarantee on investment.  For every college graduate with a marketable degree there must be at least one who paid for five or six years of school, or has graduated with a degree in a traditionally non-income earning field (i.e., art, dance, etc.)

Now before we all start waxing poetic about the priceless nature of a liberal arts degree, and the beauty of learning for learning sake, let me just say; It’s over.  The only people who still have the luxury of pouring over great works of literature in gorgeous libraries (for enjoyment’s sake) and sitting on grassy quads discussing Plato, are those who know they will not be supporting themselves.  Higher education has become a means to employment.  Trust me, I am none too pleased either.

Aside from the romantic dream of a liberal arts degree withering in front of my eyes, it is the more practical matter of expecting all students to succeed in college, that worries me.  One size never fits all.  However we really do expect every high school graduate to either attend college or enlist in the military.  Yes, there are a few “trades” jobs in this country, but the unemployment rate would suggest that any available jobs would not be going to teenagers.  What we need is a viable alternative and lucky for us, we have one!  Americorps has existed for twenty years, yet it has not been integrated into our culture in the way the military has.  If business were under the same guidelines to hire Americorps veterans as military veterans, and high schools offered Americorps as an equal option to the military, people would see the experience as a viable path to employment.

I am not anti-higher education, far from it.  I am not, however comfortable with the tail wagging the dog, and colleges (and I use that term somewhat loosely) cropping up to service remedial learners and (for a hefty price) provide them with a degree.  We’ve already gone done this road with high school.  I am not comfortable with the crippling students loan debt and the national economic implications.  I am not comfortable with telling every high school student that they have such limited options.  Let’s take a step back and think of what our economy and our teenagers need.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Education

 

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Mind The Gap

As the college visit tours wind down and collected brochures, flashdrives, t-shirts are filed, many family’s thoughts turn towards next steps.  Never before have so many high school seniors had so many choices.  For all our national bemoaning of the flaws of higher education, we have in fact an embarrassment of riches.  I have no doubt that the majority of ambitious and motivated teens will find themselves just where they need to be.

But what of those teens who may not have much support, and/or exposure to a world larger than their own?  Across this country there are teens; in foster care, in chaotic homes, in shelters, in insular communities and in survival mode.  What’s to become of them?  Four centuries of public education in this country, speaks to a collective consensus that educating our society is a good idea.  Most of us would agree that a high school degree is not what it used to be (either in substance or in currency.)  And despite the plethora of college choices and amounts of students attending, it is still its own unique experience.  Being a college student is actually quite different from being a high school student.  The choices alone are mind boggling.  What school?  What major?  Where to live?  How to pay?

As daunting as these choices are to many, they are a luxury that teens in survival mode rarely have.  We have all heard or seen stories of the teacher, case manager, caring adult, who intervenes and changes a teenager’s life.  It happens, it does.  But the reason these stories make for (potentially) compelling television or film, is their rarity.  We do not have a national systemic approach to caring/mentoring/guiding teenagers post-high school.

So what if we instituted a national mentoring system?  Adults could volunteer to be trained and then serve as mentors.  The “corps” would be comprised of; financial advisers, education experts, life-skill advisers, counselors.  (I picture a “peace corps” experience for retirees.)  Identifying at-risk teenagers is a bit more challenging.  Certainly high schools would be a good place to start.  Like anything, the earlier we catch the problem, the better.  But mimicking our military should not be ruled out.  Clearly we already have a national program that has mastered outreach to a segment of our young population.

Politics aside, we really can’t afford to have any ‘child left behind.’  For every teen who ages out of our current support system, there is potentially one less adult contributing.  The waste of human potential and the implied economic toil should not be acceptable.  Most health insurance policies now cover dependent children until age 26.  What I propose is not that much different and potentially much more impactful. Done in a thoughtful manner, this “gap” program would draw attention to inequities and systemically combat them.  It might not be the sexiest of administrative programs, but I believe it could change our world.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2011 in Education

 

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