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Posts tagged ‘mental illness in the news’

The Fire and the Window

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When Anthony Bourdain died by suicide and I told someone the news, he asked me, “Why?”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘why’?” I replied.

“You know,” he said. “Did he have money trouble? Break up with his girlfriend? Have some disease?”

That’s a common reaction to suicide and it’s uninformed. Real-life stressors can contribute to suicide, but they are almost never the whole story. People die by suicide when the pain of living seems greater than the pain of dying.

Gregory House, the misanthropic, genius title character of House, M.D., once said, “Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.” People who kill themselves don’t believe that. They believe the opposite.

The best metaphor I ever heard for suicide was the plight of people in the World Trade Center’s upper floors on 9/11. There were the flames. There was the window. And that was the choice. Suicide happens when a person sees only two alternatives and both are equally horrible, or nearly so.

The bullied child does not take her own life because she was bullied. She was in pain, for a variety of reasons that included bullying. It was a factor, but it wasn’t the reason. She was hurt. She was isolated. She was depressed. She couldn’t believe that things would improve. She wanted the pain to stop. She believed she faced the choice between the fire and the window.

The politician who dies by suicide in the face of a major scandal does not kill himself because of the potential scandal. He dies because he sees his choices limited to shame, humiliation, despair, and ridicule. He believes that what happens to him will be as bad as dying. He is caught between what he sees as the fire and the window.

Mental illness can make it difficult to see that there are other choices. The distortions of thinking associated with serious mental illness can make us see only the fire and the window.

The one time that suicidal ideation got the better of me and I was close to making the choice, my thinking was just that twisted. I was faced with a choice that seemed to me would ruin someone I loved. I thought that I could not live with either choice. One was the fire and the other the window.

My thinking, of course, was severely distorted by my mental disorder. The thing that I thought might rain destruction on the other person was much smaller than I believed. There were ways out of the dilemma other than dropping a dime or killing myself. If we continue the metaphor, the fire was not that big, or that implacable, or that inevitable, but I couldn’t see that. In the end, I hung on long enough for my thinking to clear and for me to see other options.

I don’t actually know what was going on in the minds of the souls who were trapped in the Twin Towers. I don’t mean to lessen the horror of their deaths or wound their families by speaking of suicide this way. The reality of their choice is so far distant from the choices that other people who consider suicide face.

But that’s kind of the point. People who die by suicide don’t see any other way out. If they seem to be responding to what most people see as survivable hurts or solvable problems, people say they can’t understand how someone that rich, that successful, that beloved, that full of potential could have not seen that help was only a reach away.

The person who dies by suicide doesn’t see the hand reaching out. Only the fire and the window.

 

If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Mental Illness and Voting

people standing with signage on street

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No, I’m not going to tell you how to vote. And I’m not going to say the country is bipolar just because we’re so divided. What I am going to do is talk about the issues you should be concerned with during these mid-term elections and what you need to do in order to make your vote count.

Despite the fact that mid-term elections are usually boring, plagued by low turn-outs and minor local issues, this time they are likely to have national significance. This time we are voting on people – representatives, senators, and governors – who will make the policy for our states and our nation, including policies that affect the mentally ill.

Health policy. We’re not voting directly on national health policy, but we are voting for or against the people who make those policies. Those policies include support for the ACA (Obamacare), especially its protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

This has become a hot-button issue this year and you will likely hear and see ads that tout the various candidates’ support for insurance that covers pre-existing conditions. The key here is to do a tiny bit of research. Whatever a candidate says now, has he or she always supported coverage for pre-existing conditions? Or does the candidate have a history of trying to do away with such insurance coverage? Promises are not the point here. Past actions are. Given the choice between an incumbent and a newcomer, I personally will go for the newcomer if the incumbent has a track record of trying to dismantle coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Another important issue for the mentally ill is safety net programs, particularly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Many people with mental illness depend on these programs to cover their basic living and medical expenses. Believe a candidate who wants to gut these programs. Many of them see the people who benefit from these programs, particularly SSDI, as “moochers,” “freeloaders,” and drags on society. If you or a loved one needs this kind of assistance, vote accordingly.

There may also be local issues regarding police training, housing, and the homeless that are relevant to persons with mental illness. Spend a few minutes researching before you vote. Some Internet sites such as BallotReady.org and Vote411.org can help.

Your vote. Your vote only counts if you actually cast it and that can be a problem for those with mental or emotional disorders. Going to the polls can seem an impossible feat. But given the significance of the coming elections, spending some spoons to do so can have long-term repercussions.

If you have trouble getting to the polls, first make sure you know where your polling place is this year. It may have changed since the last time you voted. Then ask around. Some cities, like mine, are offering free bus rides to polling places and some services like Uber are offering discounted fees. Neighbors who go to the same polling place or members of support groups you belong to can potentially provide transport. Don’t forget to ask friends and family, if you can. They may not realize how important voting is to you or the difficulty you have getting to the polls.

If your difficulty is not getting to the polling places, but being at them, plan ahead. There are likely to be crowds this year and you may want to have a support person with you, especially one who also plans to vote. You may even be able to call the polling place ahead of time and find out when their peak voting times are so you can avoid them. If possible, avoid the noon rush, when many people take a voting break from work, and just after local businesses close for the day.

You may have heard rumors of intimidation at the polls this year. These are likely exaggerated, as are predictions of civil unrest after the results are known.  If anyone tries to interfere with or influence your voting, find an official poll worker or ask for a provisional ballot, which is your legal right. Call the police if you have to. Rely on a support person to help you get through the process.

Remember that this year’s elections are important. If at all possible, VOTE.

 

What Schools Are – and Aren’t – Doing About Mental Health

I believe that mental health education belongs in schools. I’ve written about that (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Jw). There’s good news about the subject and there’s less-good news. I’ll let you sort out which is which.

First, two U.S. states are now required by law to include mental health in their curriculum – New York and Virginia.

New York’s law mandates teaching the subject as part of the K-12 health curriculum, which has only two other specifically required topics: alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse and the prevention and detection of certain cancers. According to the law, the new education requirements seek to “open up dialogue about mental health and combat the stigma around the topic.” Free resources for New York schools, such as teacher training, are available online. These include lesson plans, though schools and teachers are free to design their own curricula.

In Virginia, mental health education is required only in grades 9-10. Huffington Post reports that the legislation came about “after state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) saw that three high school students had researched, developed and presented the proposed legislation, which struck close to home for the legislator, who had lost his son to suicide in 2013.”

Indeed, those laws are good things, though one could wish that the other 48 states would take note and do likewise. They are, of course, not forbidden to teach mental health education, and many do, especially around the topics of drug and alcohol prevention and suicide prevention. Some of them even require education on those two topics, along with bullying. Many of these efforts are sincere, significant, and even life-saving, but it is worth noting that bullying and student suicide are events for which schools are at risk of legal liability. One might wonder whether that has influenced the laws, rather than supporting more comprehensive mental health education.

Contrast the U.S. experience with England, where all secondary school teachers and other school staff are being given training that will help them identify mental health issues in children, including depression and anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders. This is thanks in part to Prince Harry’s openness about needing counseling to help him deal with the death of his mother, Princess Diana, which happened when he was 12. The Prime Minister has said that the prince’s disclosures will help “smash the stigma” regarding mental illness and the need for getting help.

“The programme is delivered by social enterprise Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, backed by £200,000 in Government funding,” notes the Telegraph, “and will be extended to primary schools by 2022.”

The campaigns around the mental health mandate, especially those featuring Princes William and Harry, have focused on the need for Britons to abandon their “stiff upper lip” image and to accept that men can and do need to seek help for mental difficulties. While that is indeed a vital message, one hopes that girls and women do not get left behind in the efforts.

What about U.S. states where mental health education is not a fact of life?

For schools in the U.S. that have not mandated mental health education, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) has developed resources that can help districts, schools, teachers, and families address the problem through the NAMI Parents & Teachers as Allies program of training.

They have also developed a presentation for students called NAMI Ending the Silence, “designed for middle and high school students that includes warning signs, facts and statistics and how to get help for themselves or a friend.” These programs are offered free to schools and communities. For more information, go to https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Public-Policy/Mental-Health-in-Schools.

For a more DIY approach, youth.gov (https://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/school-based) recommends that schools “partner with community mental health organizations and agencies to develop an integrated, comprehensive program of support and services.” Among the actions they recommend are for schools and partnerships to:

  • develop evidence-based programs to provide positive school climate and promote student skills in dealing with bullying and conflicts, solving problems, developing healthy peer relationships, engaging in activities to prevent suicide and substance use, and so on.
  • develop early intervention services for students in need of additional supports such as skill groups to deal with grief, anger, anxiety, sadness, and so on.

In other words, for schools to spend the time and energy to do for themselves what the state and national governments are unwilling or unlikely to do.

To me, this is one of those times when a national curriculum makes sense, or at the very least a mandate in every state. Mental health education should be comprehensive, freely available, easy to access, and scientifically accurate for all schools and schoolchildren. The education this would provide and the statement it would make would be invaluable. Drug and alcohol, bullying, and suicide prevention are just a start, but a start that many states have not made.

 

 

Healing From Gaslighting

Apparently, gaslighting has become the new “thing” in pop psych circles. We see article after article warning of the dangers of gaslighting and how to spot a gaslighter. I have written a few such articles myself:

Who’s Crazy Now? A Guide to Gaslighting (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm)

Gaslighting and Bipolar Disorder (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2)

When Men Aren’t the Gaslighters (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu)

Is it time for another? I think so. Now that more people know about gaslighting, they need to know how to heal after the experience, as they would after any kind of emotional abuse.

Because that’s what gaslighting is – emotional abuse. But it’s a specific kind of emotional abuse. In gaslighting, one person in a relationship (romantic or familial) denies the other’s perception of reality and works to convince the gaslightee that he or she is the crazy one in the relationship. As in other forms of emotional abuse, the gaslighter may try to isolate the victim from friends and relatives, give intermittent reinforcement (insincere apologies) that draw the victim back into the relationship, or denigrate the person with insults.

But the heart of gaslighting is that denial of the other person’s reality. The abuser says, in effect: You can’t trust your own feelings. My view of the world is accurate and yours isn’t. You’re crazy. (Of course, the gaslighter may also use the familiar techniques of emotional abuse as well: isolation, insults, projection, and belittling.) But gaslighting is unique because the perpetrator distorts a person’s world view, sense of self-worth, and belief in him- or herself.

Healing from gaslighting is not easy, but it can be done. Here is some advice from me, a person who was a victim of gaslighting but is now healing.

Get as far away from the gaslighter as you can. Yes, this may mean cutting off contact with a family member, if that’s who is doing the gaslighting. It may mean leaving town. It does mean making a sincere and lasting emotional break.

Do not maintain contact with the gaslighter. You may think that once you have broken free from the gaslighter, he or she can do no further harm. This is just an invitation to more emotional battering.

Name the abuse. Say to yourself – and possibly to a trusted person – this was gaslighting. I was emotionally abused and tricked into thinking I was crazy. My worldview was denied and my thoughts and emotions were said to be invalid.

Feel the feelings. It may be some time before you can admit to or even experience the emotions that gaslighting brings. Your first reaction may be relief (at least I’m out of that!), but there may be years of anger, frustration, fear, and rage lurking behind that. It may take work to surface those feelings and feel them and recognize that they are valid.

Get some help. This can be a therapist who specializes in treating victims of emotional abuse or it can be a supportive friend, family member, or religious counselor. It should be someone who can listen nonjudgmentally, validate your perceptions of reality, and sympathize with your situation.

Do not try to get revenge. This is just another way of reconnecting with your gaslighter. It gives the person another opportunity to “prove” that you are crazy.

Develop new relationships. It may seem like there is no one in your world who will understand and be supportive. For a while, you may not be able to trust enough to have another close friend or lover. You may have a lot of healing to do first. But remember that gaslighters are in the minority; most people don’t do that to people they profess to care about.

Give it time. It may take years to fully get over the experience. (I know it did for me.) Maybe don’t go directly into a rebound relationship. You need time and space to work through your feelings and rebuild your perception of reality.

Just know that gaslighting doesn’t have to be a way of life. It can end when you gather the strength to break away from it. You can heal and take back what you know to be true – that you are a person who is worthy of love. That your perceptions and feelings are valid. That you don’t have to live by someone else’s view of what is real. That you are not crazy.

 

Low-Jacked Pills and High-Tech Mental Health

I’m a known geek and ordinarily a fan of technology – though not technology for its own sake. It has to do something useful and needed.

Imagine my surprise to learn that tech companies are now doing what so many of our public institutions aren’t, and devising possible solutions to assorted mental health problems. Stat reported (in their Business section) that now:

with an influx of funding, companies are revamping pills with digital sensors, designing virtual reality worlds to treat addiction and other conditions, and building chatbots for interactive therapy.

But are these techno-wonders likely to be any help? Let’s take the innovations in reverse order, shall we?

Chatbots. We already have remote counselors, which may be a godsend for people with no access to mental health clinics (although they charge a fee, which may be prohibitive for some). I’ve never investigated this service, so maybe some of you who have can tell me how they work and how well.

Remote counselors rely on already existing technology, however, and are therefore not of interest to tech innovators (or potential funders). Chatbots are something else. They are, essentially, computers that respond to human input with output that is supposed to simulate human responses.

To my knowledge, no computer has ever passed the “Turing Test,” which means that a person has no idea whether they’re chatting with a real person or a computer. A psych computer is likely to respond with generic responses such as, “Why do you feel angry with your sister?” “What do you mean when you say anxiety?” “Explain how depression affects you,” and “Tell me more about your mother.” The supposed AI is in no way trained in psychology or any therapeutic techniques.

One company that received funding for “telepsychiatry” (called Regroup Therapy and Woebot Labs) brands their idea as “Your charming robot friend who is ready to listen, 24/7.” Admittedly, many persons with mental health issues need someone who’ll listen, but that’s far from all they need.

Virtual reality for addiction (and other conditions). Startup Limbix wants to sell its programs to therapists and clinics. According to Stat,

Among the company’s VR programs is an exposure therapy for patients with phobias or trauma associated with driving. While patients strap on the headset, clinicians can work with them to introduce different conditions (a clear or rainy day) or different road situations (a bridge or a tunnel or blind left turns).

This sounds promising, though the cost of VR headsets and the programming for various conditions again might be prohibitive for your average community or campus or rural mental health clinic. I’m not clear on how it would work for addiction, unless combined with aversion therapy, which is generally brutal.

Pills with digital sensors. Aren’t psychotropic medications already too expensive, especially for people who have no insurance? Now we need technological pills that must make a profit for both drug and tech companies?

And what a pill they’re talking about. Basically, it’s a pill that rats you out if you don’t take it, or rather alerts your doctor when you do take it. Presumably, your doctor has enough staff to monitor whether clients take the pills and record it if they don’t. Then what? A robocall telling you to take your meds? A visit from a social worker?

Admittedly, such low-jacked pills might have a place in situations where schizophrenics are court-ordered to take their medication, but again there is the problem of what to do about non-compliance.

Another company plans to sell “a cardiac drug meant to be popped like a mint to people anxious about public speaking and first dates.” Would people need prescriptions for those, or will they be dispensed like Tic-Tacs? Even anti-anxiety drugs aren’t meant to be “popped like a mint.” And a cardiac drug? I can’t see any possible downside there.

If only the ingenuity and investment that goes into these products were instead available to fund and repair the shaky mental health system instead. What we need are more psychiatrists and therapists, more hospital beds for psych patients, less expensive drugs, better insurance, more education for the public about mental illness, and an end to stigma.

But those would require systemic reform and political backing, not just some new-fangled gadget. And good luck getting investors for those.

Reference

https://www.statnews.com/2018/07/20/tech-developers-tackle-mental-health/

Where Churches and Mental Illness Meet

bible black background book chapter

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Lately, I’ve been thinking – and writing – about the place where faith and mental illness intersect. (See Mental Illness, Faith and Sin – https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-DB; Prayer and Bipolar Disorder – https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-B6.) I’m still thinking about it, so I’m still writing.

Churches, among other groups, have outreach ministries to the homeless mentally ill, providing sandwiches, socks, and hope of salvation. And the stereotype of the soup kitchen is that patrons “pay” by listening to a hymn or a sermon.

But what about the rest of the mentally ill community – those like me who have homes and families and a certain degree of function? What are churches doing about us?

The answer is: They struggle, but at least some of them are doing something.

Of course, some of them are doing the wrong thing. Andrea Jongbloed reported in Relevant magazine:

I sat in the chair in my pastor’s office, listening to him list off strange things I had done recently. My pastor informed me, “the church leadership is not convinced you are mentally stable enough to continue leading your bible study.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I had come here to talk about the book I was writing, on mental health and spirituality. Instead, I felt bombarded with accusations…. I left feeling judged and misunderstood.

An article in Christianity Today notes, “In many ways, the church, the supposed haven for sufferers, is not a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness.” The author adds:

The more Christians struggle with how to deal with mental illness, the more we fail to create a safe and healthy environment in which to discuss and deal with these issues. As a result, many of our Christian churches, homes, and institutions promulgate an aura of mistrust, guilt, and shame.

Amy Simpson, writing at qideas.org, outlines what is wrong with churches’ relationship with the mentally ill:

In general, the church tends to handle mental illness in one of three ways: ignore it, treat it exclusively as a spiritual problem, or refer people to professionals and wash our hands of their trouble.

Like it or not, the church is the first place many turn in crisis. And fair or not, the church’s silence or rejection feels like rejection from God. We cannot keep turning away from the most vulnerable among us.

According to Lifeway Research, however, 66% of pastors speak to the church about mental illness in sermons or large group messages “once a year, rarely, or never.” And 74% of pastors say that they are “reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because it takes too much time and resources.”

But some churches are taking on the challenges, or at least trying to.

In a PBS interview, Deborah Potter, a correspondent from Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, explores how Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta and St. Catherine-St. Lucy Roman Catholic Church in suburban Chicago are providing not just outreach, but community to the mentally ill.

According to Potter,

Holy Comforter responded … when a group home opened nearby and the priest at the time invited the residents to church. Today, almost two-thirds of the congregation is made up of people with mental illness—including bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and schizophrenia—who worship together and pray together.

The video also features Connie Rakitan, who founded the program at St. Catherine-St. Lucy, “helping to design worship that’s welcoming to all.”

Rakitan explains:

Walking into a church with a long service and a long sermon and lots of music and lots of people could just be so overwhelming that it’s just not doable….We would never, ever use a healing passage, because we would not want to set somebody up for an unrealistic disappointment, because the fact is not everybody gets cured.

Rakitan also points out that the church community offers something that the mentally ill may not find elsewhere: “Their families might be alienated from them or estranged or whatever. They might not have work communities. What do they have left but their faith in God?”

Lorrie Lattimore, of the Baptist Press, tells about a weekly “combined Sunday school and worship time” at First Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

It’s not an ordinary class. Some get up and pace during the Bible lesson. Some rock steady in their chairs. Some mumble to themselves. But all love God and know God loves them in spite of being consumers [sic] of a mental illness, those who have schizophrenia, for example, or depression or bi-polar disorder. Jimmy Tilley, the leader of the class, who also suffers from depression, chronic anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, wouldn’t want the group to act any other way.

She adds:

Few Baptist churches offer some kind of outreach for mental illness consumers. Jim Hightower, minister of pastoral care at First Baptist Church…. noted more churches should have education programs and even ministries because “every church has members who have a mental illness.”

The best advice for churches? Amy Jongbloed sums it up nicely:

Be open to learning about mental illness. Have potentially awkward conversations with newcomers who struggle with their mental health. You won’t regret stepping outside your comfort zone. You will be blessed with stories of struggle, resilience and redemption. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even become part of someone’s story of recovery and reconciliation with the Church.

References

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2012/06/22/june-22-2012-churches-and-the-mentally-ill/11386/

http://qideas.org/articles/mental-illness-what-is-the-churchs-role/

http://www.villagelife.org/church/archives/baptist_mentalhealth.html

https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/may/christian-struggle-with-mental-illness.html

https://relevantmagazine.com/god/church/4-misconceptions-about-mental-illness-and-faith

Would You Try Electroshock?

Photo by Mike T

In the course of dealing with my bipolar disorder, I had a near brush with electroshock. I managed to avoid it, but I did give it serious thought.

Now 60 Minutes has come out with a piece called “Is Shock Therapy Making a Comeback?” You can see the segment here: 60 Minutes.

ECT(electroconvulsive therapy, the modern name for the procedure), which is often done on an outpatient basis, works by inducing a brief seizure in a patient. The seizure, which lasts about a minute, releases multiple neurotransmitters in the brain, all at once. The patient is required to have someone to transport them to and from the appointment. Treatments are typically applied one or two times per week for 6-8 weeks.

In a brief article excerpted from the news show segment, Dr. Charlie Welch, of McLean Psychiatric Hospital, explains how ECT differs from how it was performed in the past: “What’s different first of all is that it’s done under general anesthesia with a muscle relaxant. So when the treatment is done, the patient is sound asleep and completely relaxed.” Call it a kinder, gentler shock treatment.

That was the procedure that my psychiatrist offered me after he had spent a number of years trying me on various medications that either didn’t work, or helped only partially.

My immediate reaction was negative. I recall thinking, “Fuck, NO! Keep away from my brain, you Nazi sadist!” After I calmed down a bit, I did some research.

ECT, my sources said, was a long way from the cruel, stigmatizing procedure portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Internet was little help, though. The opinions and experiences of people who had undergone electroshock ranged from “It was hideous” to “It was a miracle.”

Truthfully, I was appalled by the notion of electrical jolts surging through my brain. My precious brain, which had both sustained me and betrayed me throughout my life.

Then I thought some more. So ECT sometimes causes memory loss. I already had that, thanks to some of my meds. I would be altering my brain with electricity. But hadn’t I been altering it for years with chemicals – medications that no one seemed to know how they worked?

So I went back to my doctor and said I would at least talk to the doctor who would perform the procedure. And I lined up a journalist friend to write about my experiences if her editor approved. (Note: In the 60 Minutes piece, former Massachusetts First Lady Kitty Dukakis gave permission to have her treatment filmed and broadcast.)

My psychiatrist, however, had one more medication that he wanted me to try before we took that next step. And it worked. So much for electroshock.

Now as to that side effect of memory loss – Dr. Sarah Lisanby of the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland has developed a new treatment that seems to avoid that particular consequence.

The procedure is called Magnetic Seizure Therapy (MST) and it uses magnets (duh!) to stimulate more precisely focused seizures than ECT does. These focused seizures seem to avoid the parts of the brain associated with memories. As Dr. Lisanby told the 60 Minutes reporters, “For some people, ECT may still be needed. But if Magnetic Seizure Therapy could be effective without the memory loss who wouldn’t want to try that first?”

Would I try MST if I relapsed into treatment-resistant depression? I would certainly consider it, if it were out of the testing stage by then. And I’d do that before I signed up for ECT. While I have memories I’d prefer to forget, with my luck, those would be the ones left unaffected.

The cynical side of me says that these seizure-causing therapies are becoming more popular because insurance companies like the notion of a short course of 6-8 weeks of treatment instead of years of talk-and-medication. (Although Kitty Dukakis said that she has done ECT for years now and expects to continue into the foreseeable future.)

But I could be wrong. It is possible that some kind of treatment could be short in length but longer-lasting in effectiveness. I’m not ruling it out. At this point I’m not ruling out anything that could aid in my progress and my healing.

 

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