Tag Archives: Mental Illness


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.


Posted by on July 21, 2012 in Cultural Critique


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We Got Trouble*

A study has been conducted which examines depression and computer usage.  The researchers evaluated participant’s indications of depressive characteristics and correlated those to computer usage.  People who viewed email compulsively, or viewed a lot of videos on-line also showed signs of depression.  The report concludes with recommendations for a software to alert users of depressive behaviors.  Any intervention or awareness regarding mental illness is a good thing.  But before we start organizing a keyboard awareness day or choosing a color for our ribbons and rubber bracelets, let’s consider this study.

Isn’t the very crux of depression that of an inward orientation?  Are we at all surprised that people who are depressed are not out in the world socializing?  Isn’t the desire to turn on the computer actually a positive sign?  (Versus drawing the curtains and taking to one’s bed?)  Virtual connections are virtual, but sure beat cutting off all contact with the world.  Why would the researches make such a concerted effort to ignore the possibility that increased screen time leads to depression?  I’m not trying to start a rumor or anything, but could it be that they were funded by a mental health software company.

In the end, all this internet sound and fury is reminiscent of the Great Television Scare or Video Game Scourge of years past.  Comic books, dime store novels and packs of sen-sen conjured these same fears once. None of these trends/novelites have the power to ruin.

Depression is an illness it is not an allergic reaction to circumstances.  Do people enter a depressive state due to cataclysmic life events?  Certainly.  But that is a depressive state not depression.  Potato Potahto?  Not exactly.  There are many serious differences between a normative response to sad and/or traumatic events and that of a state of being.  For one thing a depressive state has a beginning, middle and end and a cause.  Knowing there is a cause to feeling so bad is the difference between night and day.  Having your world close in and become gray and fuzzy for no discernible reason is both frightening and self-perpetuating.  Our natural inclination is to move towards pleasure and away from pain.  If you can not see pleasure, if everything you see and feel is dark and thick and unrelenting, you’ve no reason to believe that there is a different world.  The darkness is the reality and it can be difficult to claw your way towards something you can’t detect.

Social isolation can certainly exacerbate depression.  Humans (even the most anti-social of us) are meant to interact.  (As a species we would perish without the desire to mingle.)  However people with depressive tendencies are a diverse group.  Their depression can be triggered or worsened by physical changes (hormonal transitions, illness, sleep deprivation, etc.) by life changes (moving, job changes, marriage, divorce, etc.) by nature (cycles of the moon, seasons, etc.) or by a myriad of other triggers/events.  That said, as an illness whose hallmark is inward focus, forced external interaction can be very effective.  Volunteer work can alleviate symptoms of depression.   It would seem that the very act of doing something for someone else, gives the brain a break from its persevering.

Living in a culture which extols the virtue of self above all else is powerful nourishment for the growth of depression.  If we were to pay attention to all the messaging, we should be painstakingly obsessing over every body part/function and moment in our lives.  We are to chronicle every; party, meal, trip, pee stick, grade promotion, softball game, and sonogram to the world and thereby give us the patina of great significance (Because It Happened To Us.)  We are encouraged not to experience life and its many moments, but to “create memories.”  So much self-consciousness is not good for the self.  Isn’t it a culture of; “your special day” “best snack provider-friendliest-rookie-player trophy” and general sense of entitlement that is far more socially isolating than technology?

When the first books were mass printed, the townspeople were up in arms.  What would happen to communal oral storytelling traditions.  There goes the neighborhood!  The first home radios caused some anxiety no doubt.  Families were now holed up in their living rooms staring at a box.  Little did they know, that box-staring was just beginning.  Television took people out of communal movie theaters (which were/are communal only in the sense of shared germs, smells and noise, not in any actual ‘communing’)  Personal music devices were said to be bad, yet I have never seen a campaign to bring back the boom-box, and I’ve never quite understood how the iPod affects behavior any differently than transistor radios did.

Invention and innovation do not come from the sky to do evil to our land.  They are not the flying monkeys.  Products/progress succeeds because there is a hunger that it satiates.  The fact that consumers represent the population and are thus diverse and include those with mental illness, is expected.  How one behaves, with or without technology will always be a lens into an individual’s inner workings.  Unfortunately it will always be far more tempting to design research or blame which looks to demonize the new and inanimate.  Mental illness, criminal behavior, gambling and pornography obsession are real issues.  Spending our valuable resources to shout; “No, no, look over here, the internet is to blame” does not seem wise.

*The Music Man – Meredith Wilson (1957)


Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing


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Next To Normal – Review

This is not a complete review of Next to Normal, but rather a review of Act I.  That’s right dear reader, this reviewer walked out.  While it pains me to be a quitter, it pains me more to subject myself to misery.  This is a life philosophy that I embrace.  I know how terribly unpopular this negative opinion of the show is.  I am not a stranger to this phenomenon.  I saw (and hated) Rabbit Hole!
Next to Normal is a rock opera centered on a family, focusing specifically on the mother who has been diagnosed (for 16 years) with bipolar disorder and delusions.  What little dialogue there is, is made up for in copious cliches and cheap sentiment.  It is a loud, seriously over-miked, “high school musical” “very special Growing Pains” confection.  I was prepared to love this show, billed as cutting edge and compared to _Spring Awakening_.  Given that every show that is not produced by Disney seems to be compared to Spring Awakening these days, you’d think I would have been prepared.
The amplification is such, in the diminutive Booth Theatre, that I felt as if I was listening to the soundtrack and the cast was lip synching.  The score is not awful (even screamed at a constant intensity) but the songs are indistinguishable.  Every tune sounds exactly the same. The storyline (at least of Act I) is utterly unconvincing.  The family is at a crisis.  Why?  The mother (Alice Ripley) has been ill for 16 years!  Why is the teenage daughter only now falling apart?  Why would the girl fall apart at a recital because her mother didn’t show up?  Her mother has never shown up.  Why would the over-achieving Yale-bound girl suddenly start taking her mother’s medication?  To create drama no doubt.  It rang as false as the girl singing about her family not being normal.  A senior in high school, especially one with a mentally unbalanced mother and a dead sibling (oh, didn’t I mention that after school special conceit?) would most certainly be spending as much time out of her house as possible and certainly not sing treacly lyrics about her quirky family.
The characters are one dimensional and utterly unconvincing.  It speaks volumes that the only fully formed character is the figment of mommy’s imagination.  Alice Ripley (mommy) surprised me.  She is a seasoned performer, and I did not expect such an awkward and cartoonish performance.  Her physical performance was primitive, she actually resembled a primate at times.   I realize there wasn’t much physicality called for in her most famous role (Side Show) as a conjoined twin, but we should believe that she can walk across a stage upright. The costuming added to the cheapness of this production.  Characters were dressed in nearly identical outfits at times to alert us to the synergies.  It wouldn’t have been such an overbearing device if it didn’t always occur while the scene was also spelling out the synergies.  The piano-synching that director Michael Greif indulges in is grating.  Jennifer Damiano (daughter) has obviously never been near a piano, but plays a serious player.  Instead of helping her by hiding the keyboard from the audience, he exposes her awkward and clumsy fingers. What irritated me most was the sense I had of the creative team’s arrogance.  Did they genuinely think that mental illness, dead children and substance abuse were such novel theatrical fodder?  It’s as if they thought they could get away with just simply delivering the topic without artistic integrity.  It was disrespectful to the audience.

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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


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