It is impossible to ignore the plethora of issues facing the world today that need highlighting and dialogue. This page reflects my personal opinions on current events. I offer these thoughts in the hopes they will provide information and will ignite reflection, discussion, and an active response on a personal level that will contribute to the shifting of the current paradigm of societal unhealthiness toward a more balanced and healthy mind-body-spirit experience. I'll be adding a "comments" box in the next few weeks, please check back.
PERSONAL THOUGHTS ON CURRENT EVENTS
Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - The Kavanaugh Hearing
Thoughts on a Wednesday night regarding recent events:
One of the most influential people in my life was my 7th grade homeroom, English, and first drama teacher, Miss Lincoln. I remember vividly an English lesson on communication that she gave, which was a life lesson that has stayed with me my entire life.
Our classroom was set up in two U-shaped formations, one inside the other. Miss Lincoln walked to the first person on the left-hand side of the classroom (the girl sitting there was Karen “Kitty” Norris) and whispered something in her ear. Miss Lincoln then instructed Kitty to lean to the boy next to her – Kirk Rogers – and whisper what she had heard in his ear. Kirk then was to whisper to the next person (yes, I remember her name, too – Kim McGuire), and so on, all the way around the room.
When the last person in class, Steve Karman, had heard the “secret message,” Miss Lincoln directed him to remain silent. She first asked Kitty to tell the class what she had been told at the beginning of the lesson. Then, Miss Lincoln asked Steve to tell us what had been whispered in his ear after the message had gone around the room. The entire classroom collapsed with laughter when Steve told us what he had heard, as it was nothing at all whatsoever like what Kitty had been told.
Politics today is no different.
The strength of the fabric of American government also contains the possibility of its unraveling. Our country was founded on the principles of the freedom to disagree through our ability to speak freely, after having lived in a country where speech was oppressed; of the accessibility to government after fleeing governments ruled by monarchies who were unavailable to the common man; of the opportunity to succeed based on effort and intellect, not birth right and lineage, by giving each person the Constitutional right of equality.
And yet, during the two hundred plus years of America’s history, despite the impassioned speech of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address in 1864, it has been self-evident that while all people may have been created equal, they still have not had equality. It wasn’t until February 3, 1870, that Black men were allowed to vote under the 15th Amendment; August 18, 1920, that women were allowed to vote under the 19th Amendment; and unbelievably to today’s thinking, it wasn’t until August 6, 1965, that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Johnson, provided the legal power for African-Americans to exercise their Constitutional right to vote that they had already been given under the 15th Amendment, when laws in many southern states that were enacted only to prevent the African-Americans the right to vote were finally abolished.
In reality, our country has always been a divided one, and it is naïve to think this is a new circumstance. The difference today is that with the availability of the Internet, the proliferation of untrue, unfounded, and inflammatory information has taken on a legitimacy by sheer virtue of numbers, and as a result, the power of the supposed “truth” is having a toxic effect on our society as a whole.
Think about it. If enough people like, share, or comment on a tweet, an online article or post, a YouTube video, it becomes the “last secret message,” so to speak, being touted as “truth” in many people’s eyes; people rarely go back to the first person, the source, to find out where it all started. And if the person publicly promoting the last secret message is in a position of authority, especially governmental authority, there is another layer of seeming truth and legitimacy to the message for many people,simply because of that person’s level of authority.
Here’s the conundrum: The travesty of our current circumstance lies in the fundamental freedom of our existence. Anyone, can say anything, at any time, and find an audience of people willing to believe it and strengthen its power, just by repeating it. The infinite and eternal platforms of repetition feed, strengthen, and multiply their viability. In essence, we, as a society, have created the ultimate propaganda machine, because we are all a part of what makes it work – and that guarantees the continuation of its impact.
Our Constitutional strength is thus a dual-edged sword, a power that has the potential to be harnessed for good, while also being a vehicle of societal decline. The scales today seem to be tipping toward decline, the visible tears destroying the strands of community connectivity, slowly splintering our nation like an axe to a fallen tree.
The flames of passion of our Forefathers that empowered us to fight together for individual rights have ignited, instead, a firestorm of destruction today that is similar to the Civil War. Family is again fighting against family, with sabres of ideological differences now wielded in words and acts of hatred that are rooted in pious righteousness, unyielding to respectful reason and discourse. Our nation’s anger and suspicion of one another, of one representative party or another, now openly released from its Pandora’s Box, fuels the firestorm as well.
What do we do?
You cannot fix a problem unless you recognize it needs to be fixed. It’s time to look at the harsh reality of our present circumstance. Ironically, the strongest enemy in America today is the same enemy for everyone - divisiveness. Its power is deeply entrenched in inveterate prejudices: Racial, gender, religious, political, financial, cultural, geographical, educational, it doesn’t matter – anything that can give rise to the “Us vs. Them” mentality, of identifying with a particular group with common goals, similarities, is ripe as fertilizer for the garden of hate that is now being harvested.
Why? Why do we do this to ourselves, when the ultimate outcome is detrimental to us all? The answer may be a part of the theory of the Minimal Group Paradigm (Henri Tafjel, British psychologist, 1970), the psychological tendency for people to favor a group bias, i.e., to want to be a part of a group, and to act according to the good of those within the group, often at the expense of those outside the group. This tendency is most probably a throwback to the days where survival was vested in being a part of a community, a tribe, of similar beliefs. It does not have to be a bad thing – cheering for your favorite sports team as one benign example – but it also can, and does, lend itself to irrational thinking and the inability to recognize any legitimacy outside your group when ideologies are at stake.
When I speak about my intuitive beliefs, I always begin by saying that I believe there is a Wall of Faith somewhere, built from the bricks of individual beliefs. Each person has a brick in that wall, which is the individual, finite representation of a person’s spiritual and/or religious beliefs. It is formed from the family belief system in which you are raised, the independent inquiry you may have made as an adult, and the life experiences and choices you may have made (marrying a person of another faith and converting, for example). It is totally unique to you, and I have never believed I had the right to disturb, criticize, or in any way attack a person’s personal brick, a person’s belief system, as long as that belief system did not advocate harm or disrespect to others. I have no right, no position higher than any other, to disturb that brick.
However, a wall is not only made of bricks, it is created by the mortar that binds the bricks to one another – and in the Wall of Faith, that translates to the commonality that touches all bricks, which is the belief to believe in something; even the belief not to believe (agnostic/atheist) IS a belief.
In my work, I try to speak to the human commonalities, not the differences; to the mortar, and not to the brick. And I always tell my clients, my audiences, to listen with an open heart, and to trust that when your heart hears the truth, it rings true; to go with your heart, and not what I say, if there is a difference. I would never tell anyone I know his or her heart better than the person him or herself, I don’t have that right.
In society at large, I would advocate a similar approach to its healing. Our nation needs leaders at every level whose goal is a rallying cry of tolerance and cooperation, not intolerance and fear; of kindness and respect, not mockery and judgment. We need to proactively seek out the similarities among us – the mortar, so to speak – and not to fear the differences, or to advocate and/or promote small-mindedness. We need to discard the labels, the stereotypes, and the need to force our individual views on others; instead, we must be willing to offer our views respectfully for consideration, with the knowledge they may or may not ring true to someone else, and if they don’t, not to be threatened by the difference, not seeing it as personal rejection or a call to force change in the other person.
Importantly, in alignment with the theory of Intellectual Spiritualism, it is imperative to step back and categorize the emotions around an issue into two camps: Light and Dark. Sample “light” emotions that promote a healthy culture are patience, respect, openness, compassion, understanding, love, and tolerance (“PRO-CULT”); and sample “dark” emotions that tear down a healthy culture are apathy, negativity, treachery, impatience, close-mindedness, underhandedness, loathing, and toxicity (“ANTI-CULT”). All of these emotional energies are powerful; all are in opposition, light vs. dark. Which one ultimately prevails will depend on which energies are fed, by individuals, by communities, by our nation, and its leaders.
This is all theory, I suppose, and many may believe achieving a respectful, cooperative society is not even possible. The cynicism has its merit, given how things are today. Yet, I choose to believe it is possible; that ultimately, the understanding that the strength of the whole is dependent upon the strength of its parts will prevail. It is in the smallest steps that the longest journey is accomplished.
I pray for America, for all of its citizens, for its leadership, and that a “PRO-CULT” understanding will take root in the hearts of all its citizens.
Monday, June 11, 2018 - Do Fewer People Believe In God Now vs. In The Past?
I was struck today by the results of a large nationwide research study that indicated fewer people now consider themselves identified with a certain religion as opposed to a study in 2007, and it concluded that therefore less people now believe in God. It implied that there is a shift away from people believing, people having faith. This is not my experience over the last ten years of doing my spiritually-based work; quite the contrary. To me, the research questionnaire erred on both its questions and its conclusions.
Oftentimes, I see that people's religion has gotten in the way of their faith, where what they have been taught in their religion does not resonate with what they have come to believe in living their lives. The research study missed the point that there is a fundamental difference between 'religion' and 'faith' - the words are not necessarily interchangeable. Religion is a collection of external doctrine according to differing belief systems; faith is the internal belief and personal reliance on that information and/or - most importantly! - a person's own inquiry and experience.
When there is a conflict between religious doctrine and internal belief systems or experiences, you will move away from the external doctrine that makes you feel uncomfortable toward the internal truth that rings true to your heart. This accounts for the apparent 'decreasing numbers of people having faith' in the research study, and it is incorrect. The numbers of people who are searching for faith-based answers is increasing because the lack of answers and/or conflicts in many religions has created a void that demands to be filled.
When the shift away from religion happens, you may think you are having a 'crisis of faith,' when in actuality you are having a 'crisis of religion,' even as you are growing stronger in your faith. To be solid in your personal belief system without the framework and support of religious teachings requires internal spiritual reliance. To live a faith-based life in your daily choices without the support of a faith community requires a strong belief and resolve.
You are not less faithful if you choose to be less religious. Faith resides in your heart; faith is the personal relationship you have with your Higher Power (I call mine "God," but it doesn't really matter whatever name you ascribe to that which is greater than we are), and no one can tell your heart how to feel. Only you know what resonates with your heart; it is a very personal decision. If a certain religion fulfills that calling of faith, that is truly a beautiful thing. If it doesn't, then it is also beautiful to nurture a faithful relationship with your God that is true to your heart outside the confines of any religious doctrine.
I long to see a world where there is respect for all choices of how faith exists in a person's heart, as long as that faith is rooted in love and respect for others. I ache to see the wall of judgment that is so divisive, so much a part of many religions (the 'what I believe is more right than what you believe' mentality) disintegrate, and instead be replaced with open doors of understanding and respect between differing beliefs.
The research study has it all wrong - faith is actually increasing; the growing desire to live in peace, harmony, and respect is a powerful connective belief that can truly move mountains.
Second follow-up to my Commentary post on June 4th: Anthony Bourdain
"Commentary" - The sad, second "follow-up" posting this week: The Suicide of Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain left this physical world by his own hand earlier today while in Strasbourg France, another sad high-profile ending to a life that seemed full and successful. News outlets are scrambling, focusing on the devastating loss of yet another cultural favorite, just four days after well-loved designer Kate Spade ended her life. They are spending competing sound bytes talking about suicide - statistics, warning signs, and the general consensus that yes, there's a problem, and yes we need to do something about it.
It's about damn time.
To put the problem in perspective, let me also start with the statistics: Over the last decade, according to the CDC, there has been a 25% increase in suicides in the U.S. alone. Think about that – a 25% increase. The raw numbers are that in the last decade, 44,965 people in the U.S. have taken their lives. Multiply that number by how many parents, siblings, children, and friends are forever touched by the loss, and you begin to understand the magnitude of people affected by this problem in our country. And remember - this is not a finite number, because the pain over the loss of a loved one by suicide never abates, the implications are ongoing tentacles that affect well beyond the death itself, with the unknown questions, guilt, and regret, in addition to the loss itself, touching the generations that follow. Your parent commits suicide, years later you have to tell your child why Grandma or Grandpa isn’t there to see him or her playing in the soccer game or being in a school play, to be a witness to life milestones like graduation or a wedding. The pain, the loss, and yes, the stigma, of a suicide, remains alive, even as the person who has transitioned is not (in the physical sense).
By comparison – and please, I am not offering an opinion on the politics of war, or comparing the devastation of which loss is worse by saying this, I am only sharing the numbers to create a perspective – in the last decade, our country has, tragically, lost 612 soldiers in active combat. But having mentioned war, it must be noted that war is a part of the overall suicide tragedy, too. Statistics from 2014 show that 18% of U.S. suicides were by veterans. (For more statistics on the general U.S. population and military suicides: https://www.realcleardefense.com/…/veterans_society_and_sui…).
The epidemic is not limited to the United States. Globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), ONE MILLION PEOPLE ANNUALLY die from suicide, which translates to a mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000, or a suicide death every 40 seconds, worldwide.
Today, it's headline news. But what about tomorrow? And the next day? What will replace the headlines and front page news articles next week, leaving the problem of mental health – not just suicide - relegated back to where it has always been: A low priority for funding, research, compassion, care, and understanding, until the next celebrity suicide makes news again. That’s an ugly truth, but it IS the truth, borne out by the ever-increasing suicide statistics, as well as the lack of headline news coverage about suicide in the last 3 ½ years – when beloved star Robin Williams took his life.
Can you imagine the worldwide outrage if there were a virus, war, or even terrorist organization responsible for one million people dying annually? And here’s the salt in the proverbial wound – dying unnecessarily? This global societal problem needs massive global funding and attention, or it will only continue to increase.
It’s important to understand that the road to the decision to take one’s life is not a snap decision. People who have healthy brains, or support mechanisms in place, such as counseling, medication, and an atmosphere to pursue help free of the fears and stigmas that accompany mental health challenges, do not end their lives.
Another suicide myth needs to be eradicated: People who end their lives are not selfish. They are not abandoning those left behind. They are in such emotional distress and pain, that they can no longer function, let alone live. Function. Can you even begin to imagine the magnitude of personal pain that is necessary to override the survival instinct? The hopelessness of believing that the pain will never stop, and will probably worsen, drives the decision to end a life in order to be relieved of the pain. Those who would stand in judgment whether the pain was “bad enough” to warrant the decision are short-sighted and are being unilaterally unfair. If you don’t live with the pain, how can you possibly know the depths of that pain? Blaming someone for ending his or her life is not the answer. But then, blaming yourself for not preventing it somehow isn’t either.
So, what IS the answer?
I would never be so presumptuous as to say I know, but as discussion and brainstorming can lead to solutions, I offer these thoughts, and invite you to do the same. It is only in the collective sharing of experiences that such a complicated problem can be tackled. I am writing with the perspective that suicide is a sub-set of mental health, so my comments are targeted at overall mental health and are not limited to the subject of suicide:
1. Redefine the problem – I am reminded of the scene from the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion discover Scarecrow lying in a field, his straw scattered in a wide arc, where he has been unceremoniously trampled by the evil flying monkeys: “They threw my arms over there, and they threw my legs over there!” The issue of mental health is the same, as the definition of, and available treatments for, mental health seem disconnected to me. The issue of mental health requires a coordinated multi-disciplinary approach, and the starting point must be, out of logical necessity, accurately defining (or, more to the point, redefining) the roots of the problem. Perhaps drawing on my own prejudice, I advocate a mind-body-spirit approach to do so, casting the widest net to embrace the parameters and impact of important sub-sets of issues, which I submit could be identified under the following categories:
The Mind -
Areas to consider are the thinking and feeling areas: (a) The perception/distortion of a person’s place in society; (b) bullying; (c) prejudice (race, gender, sexual orientation); (d) societal disconnect (including social media, personal isolationism); (e) education (including disparities, content, availability); (f) fear; and (g) mental health stereotypes and stigmas.
The Body –
Areas to consider are the physiological impacts to the body: (a) The organic brain structure and chemistry: (b) nutrition; (c) external environment (water, air, noise, war [where applicable]); (d) personal environment (physical home, community, crime, safety, domestic violence); (e) Abuse (sexual, mental, emotional, vermbal); (f) addiction (food, drug [prescription and non-prescription], alcohol, sex, gambling, spending, other); (g) financial; (h) exercise (or lack thereof); and (i) disease.
The Spirit –
Areas to consider are the needs to understand self and the “why” of life in relation to self and to others: (a) Faith (including religious and spiritual belief systems); (b) relationships (spouse/partner, family dynamics, friends, co-workers); (c) self-worth; (d) life purpose; and (e) attitudes toward death.
2. Identify and create a panel of experts from each of the three categories – This gets tricky. What makes someone an expert? Who decides that someone is an expert? Who puts together a panel of experts? Who pays for the coming together and collective work of the experts? If government-funded, then politics may enter the fray. If independently-funded, then personal agendas may affect the equation. The time factor figures in, as well. This is a global crisis, and considering how many lives are lost and/or ruined each and every day, in addition to the cost – financial and human capital – to society as a whole, the need for a swift response is critical.
I’m sure there are many more learned people than I who have ideas on this point. However, I believe a taskforce under the auspices of the World Health Organization (“WHO”) would facilitate the most comprehensive, swift, response. The problem is global and requires a global response. There is a watchdog organization to oversee the functioning of the WHO that, in theory, keeps it in check. Funding could be made available, because the success of the findings equally benefits the world community, which (also in theory) levels possible political agendas or biases.
3. Identify and rank the reasons people end their lives in order to assess the commonalities – Forensic psychiatry/psychology can provide a lot of this information, but with due respect to this fascinating science, I have yet to see a comprehensive research project that focused on the responses from people who attempted suicide, but did not succeed. They are the richest resource for understanding the mindset of those who were successful, because at one point they were all part of the same group of people – those who were seriously contemplating taking their lives, who actually started the process. By determining the most common factors of greatest risk, a framework for solutions can be created, with the most critical aspects targeted first.
4. Share personal stories – In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, the brilliant “Me, too” campaign illustrated how widespread the problem was, while simultaneously empowering those who had hidden their stories in undeserved shame. The sense of personal empowerment to not keep the horrific events secret any longer led to much healing and peace among many. Perhaps a similar campaign for those struggling with mental health challenges would likewise bring awareness and empowerment. The collective power of the many is a force of strength that I truly believe can transform lives.
In closing, having dedicated the last fifteen years of my life to helping people understand the “why” of their lives from a spiritual basis, I would be remiss if I stepped aside from that reflection in this personal Commentary.
Like a three-legged table, the issue of mental health must be looked at from a mind-body-spirit perspective; all three of these areas must be addressed. From my view as an observer, what is, and has been, missing in the quest for solutions to the mental health crisis is the third leg – the Spirit “leg.” Every news outlet this week has had a physician (psychiatrist, internist, etc.), and/or a psychologist, commenting on the Spade and Bourdain suicides. Scientist guests have commented on advances in the understanding of the brain function in mental health. This is all well and good, and very important.
However, have you seen anyone talk on any news shows about the celebrity suicides this week from a spiritual perspective? Has there been anyone on air to address the impact on the healing of the surviving souls’s internal confusion and anguish when a loved one dies before completing his or her soul contract due to suicide? Discuss the impact of the life lessons against the life circumstances of the person who ended his or her life, in order to gain insight into the person’s choice to end one’s life? Has there been any talk about the stigma of suicide under religious doctrines? Or how the spiritual understanding of why you’re here could be a tool – not the only answer, but a tool like any other – in supporting a better understanding of life, which would then empower the individual through spiritually-based intellect and inquiry, to feel empowered instead of helpless; understanding instead of hopeless; faithful instead of fearful? Normalized discussions on the benefits of meditation are now being widely promulgated, because IT WORKS, though there was a time that meditation was relegated to the “whoo-whoo” end of the spectrum. Isn’t it time to bring the spiritual impact and understanding of why you’re here to the forefront of mainstream discussion as well?
For example, which I write with tremendous sadness and respect, with only the intent to illustrate the point that mental health is a mind-body-spirit problem, not just a mind-body problem. Kate Spade’s spiritual life lesson plan had only one lesson: Completion. For someone with completion as the sole spiritual reason to be here, the thought of a marriage ending would be more critical on a soul level than someone who didn’t have that life lesson. The sense that she and her husband were not done yet, that a divorce would mean her life was not complete, would hit her very, very hard. The tendency with people who have completion in their lesson plan is to think about outcomes in the future (a “story”), which then becomes their truth in the present, and as a result they respond today based on the story of tomorrow that may or may not ever occur. What is the psychological response to this soul-based feeling? Anxiety, fearfulness, depression. Completion also carries with it the need to be in control; being out of control will be a “trigger” that will likewise drive feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. A possible divorce looming, with her husband having moved out of their marital home, is a huge out-of-control situation that will have also been a spiritual trigger for her anxiety and depression. Yet another piece that would have helped is the discussion of the spiritual types of relationships, and the role significant relationships have in a soul’s overall life vs. the seeming immediate circumstance.
Many may dismiss this line of understanding, but the truth is, talk therapy didn’t work, and medication didn’t work, to give Kate the tools she needed to be able to stay here. How saddened I am that she did not have another piece of the puzzle – not the only piece - to help her through this difficult life transition. In my experience, if people understand the spiritual reason why something is happening, it helps tremendously to deal with it, with an outcome of greater success when combined with what are considered the more traditional modalities. In the absence of the third leg of the proverbial table, the imbalance, and the risk to the person, is greater.
We are a product of all three aspects of our life: Mind, body, and spirit. How can we continue to ignore the spiritual aspect and impact of the lives we lead? Why exclude the possibility of any mechanism that could help those in pain? The conversations to date on the topic of mental health haven’t stemmed the tide of despair from rising. Maybe it’s time to consider new perspectives when framing the problem so that new modalities can be employed to help find solutions.
Sending love and prayers for peace and healing to the family and friendsof Anthony Bourdain, and to all of those touched by the pain and loss from suicide and ongoing mental health struggles.
Follow-up to my Commentary post on June 4th: Kate Spade
The news of Kate Spade’s death has come as a shock. Those who didn’t know her personally cannot imagine how life could be so painful for someone who seemed to have it all; who was, by all accounts, such a lovely, successful woman, wife, and mother. Those who knew her, aware that she had had some challenges with depression, are saddened for not realizing the extent of Kate’s pain, for not doing more. Suicides evoke such thoughts, because the topic of death by choice - and not by external means - still carries with it an extra layer of questions, guilt, and regret for those left behind.
In an ever downward spiraling vortex, the fear of what others may think if a mental health challenge is talked about openly, adds to the mental health challenge itself. Kate did not publicly disclose her troubles for fear that it would negatively impact her brand, her business. In her husband’s statement to the NY Times, he shared that Kate had been treated for depression and anxiety for the last five years. While she was certainly entitled to her privacy about her struggles with depression and anxiety, what is heartbreaking is that it went well beyond privacy to the point of feeling it was necessary to hide her condition, out of the concern that there would be negative implications of how it would affect her business if word got out. Even more heartbreaking is that her concerns were legitimate.
Another part of the judgment and/or uncomfortableness in talking about suicide is the spiritual aspect of taking one’s life. Many religions teach that those who die from suicide are segregated in death, relegated to a different place, though thankfully such damaging dogma has lessened over the years. Spiritually, suicide comes under the umbrella of “free will/free choice” transitions, NOT because it is the soul’s choice, but because it isn’t a “soul contract” passing – the only other category of transitions – which are due from old age and/or illness. Car accidents, fires, drownings, weather-related deaths, etc., also all come under the “free will/free choice” designation because the death is a result of events in this world, of harm, and not from a pre-arranged date with a Higher Power (the commonly held belief, “when it’s your time, it’s your time”). God/Higher Power/Universe/Source (choose the word that represents that which is greater than you) will never use harm to end a soul’s physical life; such losses are about this world, and not the next. As such, all those souls passing from a free will/free choice transition will trigger the "spiritual do-over provision,” which I discuss at length in my “Why You’re Here” coursework, and is not the focus of this Commentary Follow-Up. The bottom line is, the spiritual work Kate Spade came into this world to accomplish, which will now not be realized, will ultimately be done at a later time. Importantly for the family and friends of those loved ones who end their lives, in my experience as a Medium connecting with those who have made that choice, every soul has regretted the choice at the moment it became clear that staying in physical form was no longer an option; from that vantage point, there is clarity that the soul did not have while here.
When something horrible happens, especially in the case of a loss due to a suicide, it is normal to second-guess and “what-if” endlessly, but perhaps there may be some good to come from this devastating news. As I wrote about in my Commentary, ironically just the day before Kate took her own life (See the Commentary, below), the stigma attached to diseases of the mind - even segregating them and calling them “mental illnesses” as opposed to the truer moniker “brain disease” - is so strong that it prevents people from talking about it, for fear of how people will react. Perhaps with this most recent high-profile suicide, only 3 1/2 years after beloved Robin Williams also hung himself, the discussion of researching, assessing, properly diagnosing, and treating diseases of the mind will finally get the attention it desperately needs, devoid of the stigma attached to the issue of mental health, and the unfair and unfounded prejudices about those with mental health problems will start to dissolve. It desperately needs to. As a society, we cannot continue to set apart those battling diseases of the mind from any other kind of physical disease fight. We cannot expect people to will themselves to feel better, or blame them when they can’t. We cannot afford to hold onto antiquated stereotypes of those who are "crazy,” instead of seeing those with mental health issues as they are - people with a physiological health concern of the brain, needing medical help. Period.
Sending prayers to Kate’s family and friends for healing from this devastating loss.
June 4, 2018: The case for "Brain Disease" and not "Mental Illness"
When I was in my early elementary school years, an oft-asked question on standardized testing contained a set of pictures, such as a car, boat, airplane, and a banana, followed by the question, “which one doesn’t belong?” It felt like a game, but it was actually a measurement of the ability to assess similarities, differences, what was common to a series of items, and what set them apart, which is an important part of cognitive functioning.
In society, we continue to play this "game" as adults: Heart disease. Liver disease. Lung disease. Kidney disease. Mental illness. Which one doesn’t belong? Which one does society set apart with the implications – subtle and otherwise – that because the part of the body organ responsible for thinking and feeling has a problem, it is also responsible for regulating its own health? Do you expect the heart to decide to feel better on its own when there is coronary artery disease? Do you expect diseased lungs to have the capacity to breathe better by thinking differently? Even as to the brain, do you expect someone with dementia to just “get over it”? So, why do we not say “brain disease” instead of “mental illness” when referring to all of the miswiring/misfiring of the physiological functioning of the brain that affects decision-making, thought processes, perceptions, and even the difference between reality and delusion? And why is there a difference between the designating of brain dysfunction between organic problems and psychiatric problems?
The politically correct term for "organic" problems within the brain (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, dementia, meningitis, encephalitis, to name a few), is literally segregated by definition from anything having to do with psychiatric disorders. Think about that. Here’s a representative quote from a medical website: "Neurocognitive disorders aren’t caused by a mental disorder (emphasis added). However, many of the symptoms of neurocognitive disorders are similar to those of certain mental disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and psychosis. To ensure an accurate diagnosis, healthcare providers will perform various diagnostic tests that can differentiate symptoms of neurocognitive disorders from those of a mental disorder” (emphasis added). So, let me see if I get this straight: Neurocognitive disorders are problems in the brain that affect its functioning, but psychiatric disorders are…problems in the brain that affect its functioning? They are the “banana,” because they are different, so they are a "mental disorder." To be honest, I’m not even sure I understand the use of “disorder,” though Webster’s Dictionary explains it as follows: “[a] physical or mental condition that is not normal or healthy.” NOT NORMAL OR HEALTHY! Still confused. When my mother had breast cancer, no one ever said she had a “breast disorder,” though I can assure you that her "physical condition" was “not normal or healthy,” especially considering she died from it.
The separation of the physiology of all things “mentally ill” from every other kind of disease adds and perpetuates both the stigma and fear of anyone having a psychiatric issue. The idea that people with “mental illness” (and I’m putting those words in quotes, because I believe it is a misnomer, but for discussion purposes need to delineate the topic) are “crazy,” “dangerous,” “nuts” - all of the judgmental, hurtful terms used to describe those with brain functioning problems – isolates a large segment of our society, treating them like lepers. It also prevents people from getting much-needed help because of the very real stigma and concern that seeking help could lead to a loss of a job, a custody battle, even the loss of a relationship. Stop and imagine for a moment the ridiculousness of losing a custody battle because you were being treated for cardiovascular disease or diabetes, then ask yourself how often someone with depression or who is bi-polar has his or her disease used as a weapon in court in a custody battle.
When it comes to other diseases that are tied to choices - the alcoholic who has liver disease, the smoker who has lung cancer, etc. - there is a sense of sadness or sympathy. Not so with someone who has mental illness, where there is almost always some sense of blame attached to it, or what results from it, as if the person had a choice about how his or her brain malfunctions.
You may be thinking that the difference is those with cardiovascular disease don’t put anyone else at risk, while all those with “mental illness” do. I beg to differ. With proper assessment, treatment, and medication, there is no reason that those with "mental illness" can't live happy and productive lives. The key is in the assessment and treatment, like any other disease - if left untreated, the symptoms will worsen. Likewise, if you don't treat other diseases, they will worsen. To cast such a blanket stereotype on all persons with all types of “mental illness” forces every person diagnosed with mental illness to prove he or she isn’t a risk, guilty until proven innocent, a presumption that is unfair and rooted in fear. I believe this is largely due to the horrific stories of “mentally ill” people randomly committing acts of violence. Follow the logic (or lack thereof) – are you less fearful of someone committing a violent act if he or she ISN’T mentally ill? Is not violence scary, regardless? And do you think all violent acts are committed by people who are mentally ill? Of course not. But the negative perception is so strong, so engrained in society, that the problem is growing; the costs to society – financial capital as well as human capital - are escalating; and the funding necessary to bring this issue in line with other diseases is nowhere to be seen.
In the interest of full disclosure, this Commentary was prompted by two circumstances: One, an article I read this morning in the NY Times with the headline, “Americans with serious mental illnesses die 15 to 30 years earlier than those without” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/upshot/mental-illness-health-disparity-longevity.html), with a sub-headline, "Patients with schizophrenia are at a greater risk of dying at any given age than the population at large, and this disparity has been increasing;" and two, one of my sons (34) has schizophrenia. I have personally witnessed and supported him and his struggles, which I will save for another day and another Commentary; there are millions who share my story of being a parent, a child, a sibling, of someone with “mental illness” - and that is precisely the point. It’s time to re-think and reframe the way we see those who have a “brain disease,” and not a “mental illness,” to have treatment available with equality, not disparity.
In a world with increasing tolerance and acceptance, understanding and compassion, of those outside the societal bell curve, it’s time to extend that same sense of openness and discussion to a segment of society that is vital to its vibrancy and underserved in its needs. Lincoln, Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Sir Isaac Newton, Hans Christian Andersen, Salvador Dali, Vivien Leigh, van Gogh, to name only a few, were able to rise above their brain disease challenges and make significant contributions to society; how many more people could add to the fabric of our society with the understanding, research, funding, and treatment that this brain disease – not mental illness – deserves? This is not “their” problem, it is “our” problem; and the shifting of perceptions, the releasing of prejudices, and the reluctance to allow fear to be the driving force on this issue is something everyone not only can do, but must do, if this critical health issue is ever to improve.
May 28, 2018: Memorial Day Remembrance
The celebration of Memorial Day is inextricably tied with family and memories, reinforced by American flag displays on lawns, grocery store picnic displays, and even mall “Memorial Day Sales Events.” The news is filled with beautifully-produced film footage, with images of war memorials, fallen heroes, and flags planted in rows at cemeteries. Memorial Day not only honors those soldiers who sacrificed their lives, it also is the first day the neighborhood pools open; the first weekend of the official “summer season” at the shore; the first family cook-out, replete with red, white, and blue napkins and paper plates, framed on the table by plastic utensils. It is a time to gather with family and friends to reflect, respect, and appreciate those who gave their lives to ensure the freedom our country enjoys, and to savor the first unofficial day of summer together. Not so, when you live in a foreign country. On this island where I do not even know another American, the day is only one of remembrance, and mine is tied to my Father’s military service. So, as I sit here looking out over the ocean toward the country of my birth, my thoughts reach out as well.
My Father enlisted in the Navy in May 1944 and served in World War II in the Pacific campaign. Just 18-years old, he landed on Iwo Jima on Day Two of the invasion in February 1945, and almost immediately thereafter fought at Okinawa. On Iwo Jima, he was part of the "Beach Patrol," picking up dead soldiers while under enemy fire from the Japanese snipers in the catacombs above the beach. That's about all I know; he didn't talk much more about it while we were growing up, other than to say that when the Japanese surrendered and came toward the Americans, they had orders to shoot to kill. I was horrified, even as a child, at what seemed so unfair and wrong, until he explained the reason: It was a common Japanese war tactic that the surrendering soldier in the front had a machine gun strapped to his back, the muzzle held in place by his hands in the surrender position behind his head. Approaching in a seemingly "surrender" position, he then bent over and the soldier behind opened fire on the Americans taking the prisoners into custody. That story haunted me, and haunts me still, so vividly illustrating the cruelty of war and not judgment of those who were in it; I remember the look on my Father’s face as he retold that story more than once, and I always wondered as a child if he had witnessed it himself, but I never dared to ask.
Once in a while, Daddy would open his top left bureau drawer that held a small, cardboard box filled with his service stripes, and campaign medals and ribbons, nestled beneath his socks. He would sit on the edge of my parents' bed and quietly reminisce about the meaning of each decoration that had been pinned to his uniform as I sat beside him, before he gently - always gently - closed the box and his memories, until the next random, privileged glimpse into that part of his life. If I were really lucky, he would then pull out the black leather case holding his harmonica that was nestled in that too-high-for-me-to–reach dresser drawer, a real treat that seemed to lift his spirits. I can remember his smile at my feeble attempts to make sound from the small instrument, which never, ever sounded like it did when he played. Once in a while, he would try on his uniform, which fit him his entire life.
We weren't allowed to approach the bed in our parents' room if we were sick in the night, we had to stand at the open door and call out to them, but we were never told why. I forgot in the middle of one night, a small child running a high fever, and I remember my Mother sitting up bolt-right, grabbing my Father's arm mid-swing at the sudden awakening, yelling,"BILL!" at him, to bring him back to the safety of his family from the flashback of being in a foxhole with an enemy intruding. I never forgot to call out from the door again.
My Father was one of the lucky ones; he came home from his time in the Navy and lived a long life until the age of 89, happily filled with a wonderful marriage and family, loving friends, and a career to be proud of. His service and all those who served and are serving in our military, are worthy of our deepest appreciation and respect.
On this Memorial Day, sending my deepest gratitude to the members of the armed forces – living, fallen, and those who have passed – as well as their families, for your service.
May 21, 2018: The Santa Fe, Texas Shooting
News from America doesn't always reach us quickly on the island. The English-speaking television is from Britain, and this weekend, British news agencies' coverage was dominated by the royal wedding and the FA Cup Finals.
Sitting here this morning and reading/watching videos of what happened in Santa Fe is making my heart ache and my stomach sick. This is the 22nd - read that again - 22nd SCHOOL shooting in the first 20 weeks of 2018. How many more students, teachers, and school administrators have to die, how much more carnage must there be, before there is a pro-active and effective response? More to the point, what can realistically be done when weapons are so accessible to minors, because of lax supervision at homes or lax laws in some states in the U.S.? And why are so many young men feeling such rage, that they feel their only recourse - or preferred recourse - is to shoot and kill? Violence anywhere is unacceptable, but the thought that no child or school worker is truly safe anymore, anywhere, is horrifying. Like a virus, the youth violence is infecting younger and younger populations, and poisoning the sense of safety and security that children should be able to enjoy during their school years.
When Columbine happened, our nation was shocked, it was such an aberration. Today, I witnessed a news reporter LITERALLY say, "the school shooting this week was at Santa Fe High School..." as if relaying the results of a dart thrown at the wall during the weekly "tournament of terror." Yet, the reporter was accurate, and that is the most chilling point of all. I am still sitting here, stunned, at the thought of 22 school shootings in the first 20 weeks of 2018. My sister was a teacher; my daughter-in-law is a teacher; the daughter of one of my best friends is a teacher; many of my friends are teachers. Should I fear for their lives each day? For the safety of my granddaughter, and what other grandchildren may follow, as they enter school in the years to come? What does a nation do, what can communities do, when random violence becomes commonplace? What is turning our young people into killers? Desensitization to violence because it is so prevalent? The proliferation of violent video games? Movies? Television? Role-playing? The sick hero worship that comes with the media attention of the killers? All of the above, and more.
Let us also not forget the lack of mental health services - when is the country going to pro-actively address the mental health crisis that is endemic - ENDEMIC - in America? Depression, anxiety, and suicide among our young people are all at an all-time high, yet available mental health services cannot even begin to reach all those who need it. Add to that cauldron of calamity the stigma of the discussion of those who are mentally ill. Would you expect a person with cancer to "suck it up" or "get over it"? No. Would you criticize a person with kidney failure because he or she was sick? Of course not. Yet, when the brain is diseased, because it controls thoughts and emotions, we think that THAT illness, that diseased organ (I.e., the brain) is somehow different; that the person who has a “brain illness” (my preferred term to “mental illness”) is responsible for that illness, in control of that illness, should be able to fix that illness. As a mother of a son who is mentally ill, the attitudes and disdain of those who would throw away - or step away from - anyone who has mental health issues is also a national crisis, hidden behind the fear and shame of being associated with someone who is "crazy.” And such attitudes only feed the disease by making the person who has a brain illness feel more disconnected, more isolated, more helpless and hopeless; the cycle deepens and the problems worsen.
The time has surely come where the violence among America's youth must be seen as a three-part problem, requiring a three-part response, not knee–jerk media flurried sound bytes about a horror in someone else's neighborhood that makes headline news until the next week's school shooting. First, there needs to be a well–funded federal task force comprised of multi-discipline experts to assess the full scope of the problem, looking at societal issues (media violence, weapon accessibility, bullying); environmental issues (nutrition, air, water, housing); and mental health issues (anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations, rage, drugs, alcohol). Without an honest assessment of how big the problem is, how can the response be determined? Next, we need to find out WHY so many feel so disconnected. If you don't know the nexus of the problem, you can't begin to come up with a plan of how to address it. Lastly, and only after determining the scope of, and reasons for, the problem, can a viable action plan be created.
In a country that is arguably one of the richest and most powerful in the world, we must stop ignoring the problem before us and have concrete, pro-active steps to first stem the tide of violence, and then turn it back. To put the problem in perspective: In 2018 so far, there have been 18 military casualties worldwide, according to data listed on the U.S. Department of Defense website. Sadly, seven of those fatalities were in a helicopter crash in Iraq that was not due to combat. In contrast, there have been 36 deaths and 40 injured in school shootings in America during the same time. (For a listing of where and when, see this website: https://globalnews.ca/news/4217703/school-shooting-u-s-2018/).
National leadership on this issue must be a priority, with information, awareness, and funding fueling the response.
My thoughts and prayers go to all of those personally affected by this latest school shooting, as well as for the healing of the nation.