Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘public perception’

Mental Health Privilege

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These days we hear a lot about privilege – class privilege, white privilege, first-world privilege, male privilege, and, I’m sure, many more. The idea is that people who have privilege don’t have problems that other people deal with every day and. In fact, they don’t usually realize that they have this privilege and benefit from it.

I know that I am privileged in many ways. I am white and heterosexual. I have a house, a husband, and work I can do. I have an Ivy League education and grew up in the suburbs, the child of loving parents who never divorced.

But what I don’t have is mental health privilege. I have bipolar disorder.

When a person has mental health privilege, they don’t have to take multiple medications just to keep their brain functioning in something like a normal manner. You won’t get pill-shamed for the meds you take or have random people suggest your problems will all be solved with prayer, yoga, apple cider vinegar, or acupuncture.

(I do recognize that there are many people who take meds for a variety of disorders, including life-threatening ones. I don’t mean to discount their struggles. Physical health privilege and ableist privilege also exist.)

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to question whether or when you should inform a boss, a potential employer, or a friend or romantic partner that you have a mental disorder. You don’t have to fear that that one fact will make it more unlikely that you can achieve a stable work situation (or any work situation) or a stable relationship.

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to try to find a therapist who specializes in your problem and can actually help you. You don’t have to repeat your whole psychiatric history every time your therapist gets another job, causing you to start all over with a new therapist. You also don’t have to ask your primary care physician, who may or may not know much about psychotropic meds, to prescribe for you until you find a psychiatrist or when one isn’t even available to you.

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t worry that people will avoid you because you act “peculiar,” miss appointments and dates, or can’t handle crowds or even family gatherings. 

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to fear that you may have to stay for a while in a mental ward or have treatments like ECT.

When you have mental health privilege, you won’t get shot by a police officer just because you have a meltdown or a really bad day or a psychotic break.

Of course, the privileges I do have protect me some. Realistically, there is less chance that I will be killed by a police officer than would a person of color. In fact, my race and income make it easier for me to access mental health care.

The Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, in its July 3, 2017 editorial, makes clear that mental health privilege affects not only people who have mental disorders, but also the people who care for them.  The piece, written by Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN and Paula J. Brown, MBA, points out, “More than 70% of all health care providers in the United States are White (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017), and many, if not most, have unconscious (or conscious) biases (Institute of Medicine, 2003).” Their level of privilege may interfere with their treatment of their clients. The authors of the editorial encourage those with privilege to use it to help others.

Racial privilege is particularly problematic when considering mental health providers and their clients. NAMI Illinois “reported studies found that ‘black professionals make up only 2.6% of mental health clinicians in the United States, which is low considering that approximately 20% of black Americans seek mental health specialty treatment within a 12-month period.'” “While access to culturally diverse providers is low, the cost of mental health treatment remains high,” they add, “which serves as an additional impediment to bridging the gap between the onset of symptoms and accessing professional care.”

Education about mental health privilege may or may not help. Many people pooh-pooh the idea of any kind of privilege and bridle at the idea that they themselves have privilege by virtue of their health, sex, economic status, or other attributes. Some people’s eyes can be opened. (My husband didn’t recognize male privilege until I pointed out that no one suggested he change his name when we married or that we were “shacked up” because he didn’t.)

It’s understandable in a way.  People have a hard time envisioning that they themselves might ever be mentally ill or poor or homeless or denied work or discriminated against in any number of ways.

But with mental health privilege, it’s even more difficult to get people to understand. Until a close friend or family member faces mental or emotional difficulties – suffers from PTSD, experiences major depression, develops schizophrenia – people will not usually have the opportunity to realize the mental health privilege they have. And they may not even then.

As with any kind of privilege or stigma, if there is to be any improvement, people need to be educated. It’s not easy to open their eyes. But doing so can make a difference in the lives of people who do not share that privilege.

My Mental Illness Is Real

By gustavofrazao via adobestock.com

Five years ago this month, Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, vetoed a bipartisan mental health bill because he didn’t believe mental illness existed. He was influenced by Scientologists, a group founded by writer/guru L. Ron Hubbard, that opposes psychiatry, among other things. Abbott is still the governor of Texas.

Aside from Scientologists, what leads people to deny the reality of mental illness, when the signs are all around them? After all, one out of every four people will experience a mental disorder at some time in their lives.

I can think of several reasons. Not good reasons, but reasons.

The first is the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome. People who suffer mental illnesses just keep on suffering them, darn it. It’s not like they have one episode and then it’s gone, like a broken arm. After the second uncompleted suicide attempt or the fourth episode of cutting, the observer concludes that the person with mental problems really has none and the symptoms are just “cries for attention.” In other words, the only thing wrong with the person is that they want to be seen as mentally ill, but really isn’t. They are dismissed as “crazy,” but not mentally ill.

Then there is caring burnout. A person may be sympathetic to a friend or family member with depression or PTSD or whatever, may help them through a number of episodes. But at some point, they get tired. They simply can’t continue expending the considerable effort it can take to deal with a mentally ill person. “If she cancels or doesn’t show up to one more coffee date, that’s it!” they think. I have lost friends for this reason.

Another, more complicated reason is the denial of a person’s reality. I may be suffering internally, but it may not show on the surface. Many of us with mental disorders try to hide the symptoms and sometimes, especially among the high-functioning, it even sort of works for a while. The reality is that the illness continues “behind the scenes,” as it were, and is not apparent to others. This is a double whammy. The disorder exists, but is denied by observers – and maybe even the person who has it.

The truth is that my mental illness is real. It is mine to live with and mine to deal with and mine to experience. What you think about it or whether you believe in it does not affect the reality of it at all.

Well, that’s not quite true. Denial of mental illness does cause pain to the person who has one. Not being believed, being discounted, being blamed for various behaviors can be at the least wearying and at the most, soul-crushing. It feels like gaslighting to have someone say, “You’re not really ill. You’re just making it up/a drama queen/overreacting/going through what everyone goes through. Snap out of it!”

Just imagine what those people in Texas felt when they couldn’t get the help they needed because the governor “didn’t believe” in mental illness. The bill would have given “more resources to medical professionals that help residents dealing with mental health problems. The bill in question was widely popular, supported by many large medical associations in the state and both political parties,” reported the Greenville (TX) Gazette.

Far be it from me to wish a mental disorder on anyone, including Abbott or his family, but sometimes the only way a person can truly understand the reality of mental illness is when it strikes close to home – especially to a family member. One of my own relatives didn’t really believe until she saw up close what I was going through. She now at least believes, though she doesn’t really understand.

Real understanding may be too big a leap for some people to take who have not experienced mental illness for themselves. Belief in its existence ought to be much easier. Apparently, it isn’t.

Resource

http://www.greenvillegazette.com/r/texas-governor-vetoes-mental-health-bill-because-he-doesnt-believe-mental-illness-is-real-103158/

I Don’t Need a “Pep Talk”

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Here’s the thing. Many people, when you mention a problem, feel obliged to help you fix it or fix it for you. When the problem is related to mental illness, though, that can be counterproductive.

The fact is, most serious mental illness can’t be fixed, at least not by a friend or loved one. To try is to invite frustration on the part of the fixer and worse feelings on the part of the fixee.

Some of the worst help we are offered are pep talks, which are meant to be encouraging. Smile more. Keep trying. Other people have it worse. Everyone goes through this.

No, says my stubbornly glitchy brain. Everyone does not go through a major depressive episode. And when I’m having one is not the time I can concentrate on what constitutes “worse.” I can try all I want, but my bipolar disorder isn’t going to just go away. And smiling when I’m ready to cry is a suggestion that denies my perception of reality and encourages me to lie about my feelings.

You can see much of this kind of advice on Facebook, for example. There are always memes that exhort you to look on the sunny side, have a positive mental attitude, or choose to be happy. But it’s easy enough to scroll by them.

These pep talks hurt more when they’re offered in person by someone you know or even love, especially when that person knows you have a mental disorder. You can’t just scroll by someone you love telling you that, in effect, it’s your own fault that you don’t get better.

I know these sentiments are kindly meant (except for the ones that blame you for your own condition). But the reality is that we can’t cure ourselves of SMI by smiling, or jogging, or thinking happy thoughts, or eating turmeric. We can’t cure ourselves at all.

But we can make things better, through therapy and medication, and yes, through some things that are not cures themselves but adjuncts to healing – physical activity, engagement, mindfulness, self-care, and the like. Who knows? Maybe even turmeric.

So, if pep talks don’t work, what can you do instead? What might actually help your friend or loved one? Here are a few suggestions.

Treat the person with mental illness the way you would treat a person with any other illness. I’m not suggesting sympathy cards are appropriate, but a phone call or text message saying you care is usually welcome.

Listen without judgment. Don’t offer advice. If the person opens up to you, respect that. Don’t minimize the problems. If the person doesn’t respond, wait a while and try again.

None of that will “fix” the person, but you know what? Neither will a pep talk. My brain, for one, is simply unable to process them, digs in its metaphoric heels, and says, “Oh, yeah?”

So, what are some things you can say instead of giving a pep talk? Try these.

I’m here for you.

You can always call me.

I’m sorry you’re hurting.

Tell me if you need anything.

Do you need distraction?

Do you need to be alone for a while?

Do you need to talk?

What can I do for you? (The answer may be, “nothing,” but at least you cared enough to ask.)

If you are also suffering from SMI, there is even more you can do. You can say, “I understand how you feel,” and mean it. You can recommend a therapist. You can congratulate the person on any accomplishment, the kind that wouldn’t seem like an accomplishment to anyone else.

In general, stay away from platitudes, feel-good sentiments, and quick fixes – unless you know that the person responds well to that kind of encouragement. They’re too easy to say and too hard to follow through on. Save them for people who are simply having a bad day, not someone who has mental illness.

The Experiment That Changed Psychiatry

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The experiment was famous in the annals of psychiatric history. As I put it in a post in 2016:

A professor at Stanford University devised a simple experiment. He sent eight volunteers, including both women and men, to psychiatric hospitals. Each person complained of hearing a voice saying three words – and no other symptoms.

All – all – were admitted and diagnosed, most of them as schizophrenic. Afterward, the “pseudopatients”  reported to their doctors and nurses that they no longer heard the voices and were sane. They remained in the psychiatric wards for an average of 19 days. They were required to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release.

Rosenhan’s report, “On being sane in insane places,” created quite a stir. Indignant hospital administrators claimed that their staff were actually quite adept at identifying fakes and challenged Rosenhan to repeat the experiment.

This time hospital personnel were on their guard. They identified over 40 people as being “pseudopatients” who were faking mental illness. Rosenhan, however, had sent no volunteer pseudopatients this time. It was a dismal showing for the psychiatric community.

Except now the wind seems to be shifting. Many psychological experiments from those long-gone days have been called into serious question, some because of reports from participants and others because of unreproducibility. The Rosenhan study, which is widely featured in psychology textbooks, is no exception.

I picked up Susannah Cahalan’s book The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, expecting to find more details of the experiment – maybe the reports written by the test subjects. Instead, I found a piece of journalistic research that attempted to track down the pseudopatients, and used Rosenhan’s notes for his unpublished, half-finished book extensively.

The author’s conclusion? That the experiment, though published in the prestigious journal Science, was at best dubious and at worse fraudulent. Rosenhan, the author says did not get volunteers from among his grad students, teach them to “cheek” pills so they wouldn’t actually be taking psychotropic meds, and turn them loose on several unsuspecting mental institutions.

Instead, the author says, Rosenhan himself was one of the pseudopatients and so were two friends of his. A sample size of eight or nine is small, but one of three is anecdotal in the extreme. Rosenhan’s write-up of the experiment used an even smaller sample – two, himself and one other. The third was relegated to a footnote as an outlier, one who found his assigned mental hospital to be a kind, helpful, and nurturing place. The sample of two related that the biggest problem on the wards was boredom, barely relieved by the occasional group session, and brief, infrequent drop-ins by a psychiatrist. Nurses remained in “cages” where they could view the floor of the dayroom and hand out meds at the assigned time.

There is doubt, too about how the three pseudopatients got out of their situations. They were all voluntarily committed, so could walk out any time they wanted, but Rosenhan’s notes say that the were released AMA (against medical advice), but with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia, in remission.” (Only one of the alleged pseudopatients had a different diagnosis of bipolar disorder.) Apparently, Rosenhan claimed to have had a lawyer draw up writs of habeus corpus, should the pseudopatients need to be “sprung,” but according to the lawyer involved, this did not happen, but was only briefly discussed.

So, after all this time, what difference does it make whether there were nine pseudopatients or only two or three; whether Science was hoodwinked into publishing a paper the author knew to be deeply flawed (to put it kindly)? We all know that such a situation could not happen today. It takes much more than a self-report of brief auditory hallucinations to get into a psych ward these days. There are extensive interviews, the MMPI test, various screeners to go through. Many of these procedures may have been put in place because of the influence of Rosenhan’s experiment.

But Calahan says that the most far-reaching effect of the experiment was that, not only did it put the entire field of psychiatry in doubt, it was cited again and again in other papers. Those papers – and thus the experiment – were influential in the massive closing of psychiatric hospitals, leading to the current situation of actual people with serious mental illness (SMI) with no place to go, a lack of psychiatric beds in hospitals, sufferers forced to live with untrained relatives, no supervision of medication, and various other breakdowns in the system.

It would be unfair to say that Rosenhan caused all that, but according to Cahalan’s reporting, his paper contributed significantly to exacerbating the problem.

 

Do I Need Advice or Do I Need to Vent?

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Sometimes we need advice. But sometimes we just need to vent. This is true of all people but especially true of people with mental illness.

Venting is the act of getting something off your chest. It may come explosively if it has built up for a while. There may be one final incident, however tiny, that sets you off. All you really want is to feel heard, that someone acknowledges your distress and understands it. All you really need is a sympathetic ear and maybe a pat on the shoulder.

Venting acts as a safety valve. It allows you to “let off steam” that might otherwise build up pressure until it comes out violently, or at least excessively.

Why do I say this is particularly true of people with mental illness? So often we have feelings we can’t articulate, thoughts we don’t understand, or events that trigger us in both large and small ways. It’s natural to want to keep all these things inside. We’re taught to do that – not to “let the crazy show,” to keep all those messy thoughts and feelings to ourselves. Eventually, we get to the point where we think that no one will understand anyway, so there’s no point in giving voice to these feelings.

Then, when we do finally vent, inevitably someone says we’re overreacting. Because, you know, crazy.

If I’m venting, the wrong thing to do is to give me advice. Unless I specifically ask for advice, that is. But even well-meaning advice can easily go wrong. People who do not suffer from psychiatric conditions often offer advice regarding what works for them when they feel a certain way. And yes, a walk in the fresh air and sunshine can certainly be uplifting. But when I’m too depressed to get out of bed, it can be an impossibility. It can even make me feel worse about myself.

To me, suggestions for possible remedies for my disorder are even worse. It’s taken me and my assorted doctors years to assemble the right medications at the right dosages to tame my bipolar disorder down to something livable. When someone tries to tout the latest remedy they heard about – Pilates, elderberries, juice cleanse, probiotics, or whatever – it feels to me like “pill-shaming,” like I’m being blamed because none of my meds will “fix” me thoroughly enough. Add the fact that these suggestions come from questionable sources – laypersons or bogus “studies” – and I’m likely to dig in my heels and feel offended.

At times, though, I do need advice. When I do, I usually get it from my therapist, someone else who shares my disorder, or an old friend who has been there for me on my journey. Sometimes I need a reality check – am I just catastrophizing or is it really true that something bad might be happening? Sometimes I need help dealing with a specific person – what can I say to my sister to help her understand my condition? Sometimes I need a reminder that I really ought to make an appointment with my therapist and get a “check-up from the neck up.”

And it should be understood that advice is just that – a suggestion that I am free to take or leave. Even my therapist, who usually gives very good advice when I ask her, sometimes suggests techniques or approaches that just don’t work for me. And even she knows that sometimes I just need to vent, to feel the feelings of sorrow or hurt or rage and let them out in a safe place. To quote Jimmy Buffet, “It cleans me out and then I can go on.”

Flap My Arms and Fly

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m not a big fan of positive thinking memes. In fact, they have the opposite effect on me. Someone who claims that a positive attitude is all that I need to change my life is likely to get only a “pfui” from me. As a person with bipolar disorder, I sometimes have major depression, and no amount of thinking is going to pull me out of it. In fact, the only thinking I can do at times like that is likely only to pull me farther into the depths.

If affirmations and positive thoughts work for you, I say, good. If mindfulness and meditation are your jam, then I say, whatever works. But please don’t try to deny my perception of reality.

That perception is that there are some things that positive thinking can’t do. That there are some situations that are immune to positive thinking. That positive thinking can’t change the outcome of everything.

Admittedly, positive thinking can change one’s attitude toward one’s circumstances. One can choose, as my father did, to be determined, stubborn, and positive in the face of his diagnosis with multiple myeloma. It likely helped him live long past what his doctors expected.

But not everyone can do that, and maybe not everyone should. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that acceptance was the final stage of the process of dying, not the first. The same, I think, is true of grieving. Anger, denial, bargaining, and depression are natural responses to cataclysmic events, including diagnoses, and in this case, particularly diagnoses of serious mental illness.

Although my father was well-known for his “positive mental attitude” about his cancer diagnosis, I remember a time when he could not even say the word.  He swallowed it, leaving out the vowels: cncr. And I remember that at times he was in denial about his illness and tried to do things he was physically not capable of doing – even, at one point, walking down the short hall to the bathroom. Even positivity could not help him there.

I watch a lot of competition shows on TV – Chopped, Forged in Fire, etc. – and I often hear the contestants say that they are doing it to prove to their children that they can do anything they set their minds to.

A part of me always says, “Okay, then. Flap your arms and fly.”

I know that sounds cynical and bitter, but it’s also the truth. The contestant who was cut in the first round has not done what he or she intended to or believed he or she could do. After that, they espouse the more reasonable and attainable lesson that their children, or others, should try to follow their dreams and take that trial as a noble effort, even if it doesn’t end in victory.

I have bipolar disorder. There are some heights I can never fly to, no matter how hard I flap my arms. I know I will have to take medication for the rest of my life. I know that, even with medication, I will still experience mood swings. I know that I will never be able to really trust my moods – that a setback might send me teetering over the edge or a triumph might make me imagine that I can indeed fly.

And, you know what? I’m okay with that. What I’ve accomplished with the help of medication, therapy, and the support of my family and friends, is good and is good enough. My dreams are down-to-earth, not grandiose. I do not dream of flying, but of remaining as stable as I can, right here and now. I choose not to delude myself with unattainable goals.

My father didn’t think he was going to live forever, but he was determined to live as long as he could, and to enjoy what he could in spite of the pain. I think that’s as ambitious as someone with a catastrophic illness can get. I admire him for his sustained effort and his stubborn resistance to despair. I admire those of my friends – and there are some – who can choose not to be dragged down by the circumstances of life.

Maybe it’s different for me because my disorder by its nature involves a component of lowered mood. But my expectations are not to flap my arms and fly, but just to keep on keeping on.

I Can Hardly See the Scars

Scars from self-harm are reminders of dark periods in our lives, times when we felt too little or too much. Times when we thought that feeling physical pain could distract us from emotional pain. Times when we felt so numb that we self-harmed to reassure ourselves that we were still alive.

Tattoos can be a lot of things. They can indicate membership in a tribe, be a reminder of a happy occasion, commemorate the passing of a loved one, be a work of art, be a relict of a drunken night, espouse a cause, or have a personal meaning that no one else is party to.

Self-harm is something a lot of us have tried, in one form or another. And the scars produced by it have many meanings. They can be reminders that we lived through a really bad time or reminders that we chose a really bad coping mechanism. Some people look at their own scars and feel lucky to have survived. Some look and feel shame.

Now, a Philadephia tattoo studio, Crown and Feather Tattoo Co., is offering to cover up people’s self-harm scars with free tattoos. The service is so popular that the studio has had to hire more tattoo artists to keep up with the demand.

They call this effort “Project Tsukurou,” a word derived from Kintsugi, a Japanese art form that involves repairing broken pottery with resin and gold dust. I wrote about Kintsugi recently (Beautiful at the Broken Places, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Yj). Rebuilding oneself after a breakdown and thinking about making it a work of art was very empowering to me. Apparently, the tattoo artists and their patrons felt the same way.

I have scars from self-harm and I have tattoos. The tattoos don’t cover the scars but are located in close proximity. The scars have faded, nearly invisible now since the dozens of years since they were created. I am over that, healthier than that now. (Once someone asked me how I quit self-harm. I replied, “I didn’t need to anymore.”)

At first, I was ashamed of those scars. I tried to hide them with wide bracelets and watchbands. Later, I made my peace with them. They were now a part of me, a reminder of a time of despair and despondency. They were a reminder never to let things get that bad again. That there are things I can now do to alleviate the pain or the numbness, should it ever get that bad again anyway.

Mostly, I don’t look at the scars anymore. But my tattoos are right there next to them. One is a semicolon, a symbol and reminder of suicide prevention. (See projectsemicolon.com for more information.) The other is the :): symbol for bipolar disorder. When I look at these tattoos, I think of the reality of both my disorder and my new, better, life-saving coping mechanisms.

Of course, tattoos are not a choice that everyone is prepared to make. Some people feel that they shouldn’t modify their body in that way. But for someone who has already modified their body with scars of self-harm, tattoos can possibly give them back a measure of dignity and pride that their self-harming days are over. They can look at their bodies and see, not mutilations, but life-affirming works of art.

So far, the only tattoo studio that I know of performing this service for free is the one in Philly. But most tattoo studios are used to covering over regretted tattoos with new ones. They should be able to cover the scars of self-harm as well. And if they don’t do it for free, well, one could think of the money as an investment in healing or moving forward or creating a work of art where once there was only a reminder of pain.

 

Reference:

https://scoop.upworthy.com/tattoo-studio-covers-up-self-harm-scars-for-free-it-totally-changes-your-outlook?fbclid=IwAR0sjb_G3sS_P3FsXmImsBtRaIrFkak_8OHjcNJJjocnnSrrL1X-bBqgSlc

The Worst Side Effect of Psychotropic Drugs

I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of side effects from the various psych meds I’ve taken over the years, and some of them were bad enough to make me ask for something different. There’s been insomnia, sleeping too much, twitchiness, vivid nightmares, and others. But as far as I can see, there are only two side effects that would make me completely quit taking a prescribed medication, even before I could ask my doctor about it.

The first is Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. It’s what they mean when they say on TV commercials, “a fatal rash may occur” (I didn’t even know rashes could be fatal). Indeed, your skin starts to come off. I think it’s always a bad sign when your insides suddenly become your outsides, like in that Simpsons episode where everyone turned inside out. Among the medications that can cause SJS are anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, and other psychotropic drugs, at least two of which I take daily. When he prescribed them, my psychiatrist told me to stop taking the meds instantly if I got a rash around my mouth and nose, and go to the emergency room. It’s that serious.

Apparently, the anti-smoking drug Chantix and maybe some others can also cause SJS, which I guessed from the “fatal rash” warnings on the commercials and later confirmed. I idly wonder if the rate of Stevens-Johnson has increased now that more of these drugs are being used.

The other side effect that I truly fear is tardive dyskinesia. Tardive dyskinesia means involuntary, repeated muscle movements, which can affect the face (tics, twitches, grimaces) and other parts of the body (legs, arms, torso, and fingers). Think John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. These movements appear after taking medications such as antipsychotics. Worst of all, the movements may become permanent and a number of people are disabled because of them. There are now medications that treat tardive dyskinesia, but I still wouldn’t want to have it.

Yet, what is the most feared, the most despised side effect of psychotropic medications?

Weight gain.

I see countless comments in online support groups asking about weight gain on particular medications and posts that say such-and-such a drug caused weight gain. A number of people post that they will not take these medications, or will stop taking them, because they can cause weight gain.

Admittedly, weight gain is not often a good thing. It can certainly lead to other health problems. But my point is that many people are more concerned about their appearance than their mental health. 

I’ve struggled with my weight too over the years, and I have written about it (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-7o). But I’ve struggled more with my mental health, which could kill me just as surely as obesity.

There is vast stigma in our society surrounding fat people. That’s undeniable. Fat people are stereotyped as lazy, sloppy, unattractive, unhealthy, and more. Despite recent body-positivity messages and a few clothing commercials that now feature more plus-size women (I haven’t seen plus-size men), this stigma continues virtually unabated.

Of course, there is stigma around mental illness, too. Those with mental disorders are stereotyped as out of control, violent, dangerous, suicidal, and a burden on society. I can see that people are reluctant to add the two stigmas together.

But honestly, is weight gain so very bad compared with the chance to alleviate the misery and suffering that accompany serious mental illness (SMI)? Personally, I prefer to weigh more and not live my life in despair and hopelessness.

Some of the medications I’m on can cause weight gain. Some of them can cause Stevens-Johnson Syndrome or tardive dyskinesia. Fortunately, weight gain is the only side effect I’ve had, and I can live with that. Stevens-Johnson is potentially deadly and tardive dyskinesia is potentially permanent. There are things I can do about my weight if it really concerns me, or I can chalk it up to a side effect of being content, stable, and productive.

Frankly, of the possible side effects, I fear weight gain the least.

Systemic Breakdown and Involuntary Commitment

I don’t often review books in this blog, but Lynn Nanos has written one that has caused me to think long and deeply about an important topic, so I felt compelled to share my take on it.

The book, Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry, deals with the involuntary commitment of people who experience schizophrenia, psychosis, some mood disorders, and anosognosia (lack of understanding or awareness of one’s own mental condition). Nanos lays out her thesis logically yet compassionately, with lots of references to back up her opinions.

What Nanos says is that involuntary commitment should be more widely available and easier to accomplish. Her experience as a clinician in Massachusetts involved many instances when she was involved with administering “Section 12” orders for involuntary commitment.

I’ll confess my bias up front. I’ve always been leery of involuntary commitment. As a person with bipolar disorder which was long untreated and un- or misdiagnosed, I have suffered with the fear that I might be committed at some point in my life. I’m a great believer in civil rights and believe that patients should have the right to refuse treatment.

Nanos is changing my mind, at least in the case of psychiatric disorders which prevent victims from knowing their own needs and taking care of themselves. She makes an excellent case that schizophrenic and psychotic patients, especially those with anosognosia, are the most likely of all psychiatric patients to commit violence and be victims of violence. This she refers to as “dying with their rights on,” a powerful phrase.

As it currently works – or doesn’t – forced commitment often leads to a revolving door of hospital emergency department stays, early release from psychiatric units, and the patients who most need help being discriminated against by psych units that turn them away because of their potential for violence and the difficulty in treating them. This results in homelessness, overuse of emergency services, release to relatives ill-equipped to handle a schizophrenic or psychotic person, and other potential dangers.

Nanos thoroughly discusses Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) and other versions of court-ordered therapy and medication. Though these strategies are not without their flaws, Nanos indicates that her experience with them is that they are substantially beneficial and reduce violent behavior significantly.

Breakdown does not imply that there are simple or one-size-fits-all solutions to the serious problems with emergency psychiatry. The part insurance companies and hospitals play in not supplying adequate treatment is not ignored.

Lest one think that this is a dry, academic tome, though, Nanos fills the book with empathetic and sometimes searing stories of people that the system has failed – both patients themselves and the victims of their sometimes violent behavior.

How has Nanos’s book affected my opinions on involuntary commitment and related areas? The criteria she recommends for the procedure are far from superficial: She posits that involuntary commitment should be used only for those who are actively schizophrenic or psychotic and are unable to recognize the nature of their disorder and are unable to care for themselves – especially if they have shown signs of violent behavior or serious threats. (“Unable to care for self” takes the place of the older “danger to self” and includes conditions like homelessness, malnutrition, etc., not just being suicidal.)

Do I now think that involuntary commitment and/or AOT should be easier to accomplish? Yes, with the understanding that easier does not mean easy. We’re still talking about people’s civil rights, and those should not be broached with serious thought and safeguards in place. But my own fears of being involuntarily committed are revealed to have been irrational, a product of my bipolar disorder.

Has the psychiatric “system” broken down to the point where involuntary commitment is a necessary and even a beneficial thing? The answer, sadly, is yes. Lynn Nanos’s Breakdown has convinced me of that.

 

Young Children and Involuntary Commitment

Involuntary commitment. In California, it’s a 5150. In Massachusetts, it’s a Section 12. In Florida, it’s the Baker Act. But right now, we’re talking about Florida. Whatever the Baker Act was meant to do, it wasn’t meant to do it to six-year-olds. Yet in Florida, a six-year-old girl was involuntarily committed for two days of psychiatric evaluation after a temper tantrum at school. The child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a mood disorder.

According to CBS News, a sheriff filed a report, and a social worker stated the girl was a “threat to herself and others,” “destroying school property” and “attacking staff.” Duval County Public Schools told CBS that “‘the decision to admit a student under the Baker Act is made by a third-party licensed mental health care professional'” and that the response was “‘compliant both with law and the best interest of this student and all other students at the school.’”

Florida’s Baker Act was established around 50 years ago and allows authorities to “force such an evaluation on anyone considered to be a danger to themselves or others.” Danger to self or others has long been the standard for involuntary commitment, but until recently, it has seldom been used on young children, especially without immediately notifying their parents.

“The number of children involuntarily transported to a mental health center in Florida has more than doubled in the last 15 years, to about 36,000,” according to a 2019 report by the Baker Act Reporting Center. In another such incident, a “12-year-old boy with autism was taken to a facility in a police cruiser. It was the boy’s first day in middle school and during a meltdown, he scratched himself and then made a suicidal reference,” according to CBS. The boy’s mother says that the school had a plan to follow if the boy made threats, but the plan was ignored.

It’s certainly true that six-year-olds have threatened suicide and some, unfortunately, have completed the act. And 12-year-old boys definitely have the potential to harm themselves and others. But for schools – with the help of law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals – to “Baker Act” children is an extreme interpretation of the law. “The law specifies that minors can only be held for 12 hours before [a mental health] examination is initiated. For minors, notification must be provided as soon as the child arrives at the facility,” according to the Family Center for Recovery. The law does not say that parents must be notified when the child is taken away from the school.

The Family Center adds, “The statute specifically calls for ‘substantial’ evidence, which is [a] much higher bar than simple suspicion. As a result, people cannot be involuntarily institutionalized simply because they’re acting strangely, refuse to seek psychiatric examinations, or have occasional mood swings or outbursts.”

Need I point out that all children, not just special needs children, experience occasional mood swings or outbursts? School personnel are supposed to be trained to handle these situations.

But “zero tolerance” policies for “acting out” and threatening school property have led to such excesses and others, such as the use of in-school restraints and seclusion. Restraints and seclusion are now being called into question, especially since they have been used capriciously and brutally, especially on children with special needs. IEP plans that specify procedures to follow if a child has a meltdown, as with the 12-year-old, and in schools that supposedly have staff trained to handle special needs children, like the six-year-old, are too often not communicated to staff or simply ignored.

Of course, such treatment is the exception rather than the rule. Some states are beginning to enact laws regarding restraint and seclusion. And many well-trained special needs educators would never countenance such treatment of mentally ill or neurodivergent students. But 36,000 children is a lot. Two-day commitment away from parents is excessive for a six-year-old. Police officers taking children away in cruisers before notifying parents is unconscionable. The law specifies that minors can be held for only 12 hours before [a mental health] examination is initiated. For minors, notification must be provided as soon as the child arrives at the facility.

Florida state lawmaker Jennifer Webb has introduced a bill to reform the Baker Act. It includes training for school officials and resource officers and establishes rules on when a parent should be notified that their child might be committed.

“[The Baker Act] should only be used as a last resort,” she told CBS.

 

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