Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘public policy’

The School Shooter Problem and the Mental Healthcare System

It’s been reported lately that there is a mental health crisis among young people in the US. Depression and anxiety are on the rise. Some claim they know what causes it, and some don’t. The usual suspects include social media, bullying (especially bullying on social media), academic pressure, the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, and uncertainty about the future. Fear of and reactions to school shootings are in the mix, too. The problem has garnered interest among the people who have the capacity to address, if not actually solve, the problems.

President Joe Biden announced in his 2023 State of the Union address that the Department of Education will divvy up $240 million in grants to help schools tackle the crisis. If you average that by 50 states, it comes to around $50 million per state. A more accurate estimation considers that, since there are 16,800 school districts in the US, that, on average, each district would get roughly $141,000 for youth mental health to be spread around all the schools in each district – not really very much. That money, plus the billion dollars invested last year, is earmarked for more mental health counselors and mental health professionals in the schools.

All that is well and wonderful, but what are the problems that lawmakers want those funds to solve? Apparently, many lawmakers and public policy boffins think that preventing school shooters should be the primary goal. Identifying the kids that are likely to resort to weapons to settle their differences with schoolmates and teachers seems to them to be the most effective use of the funds. The basic debate is whether those funds should be used to identify and treat potential school shooters or help the students who are traumatized by the incidents and by the looming threat of more – prevention of violence versus reaction to the threat itself. In general, Republicans want to address finding and preventing the shooters, while Democrats seem to prefer ministering to those affected by the shootings – and enacting gun control. (I’m not getting into the gun control debate right now.)

Democratic senator Chris Murphy raised the issue in the wake of the school shooting deaths in Uvalde, Texas. “Spare me the bullshit about mental illness,” Murphy said. “We don’t have any more mental illness than any other country in the world. You cannot explain this through a prism of mental illness because we’re not an outlier on mental illness.” Biden also played up the necessity of dealing with the repercussions of the school shootings: “Address the mental health crisis deepening the trauma of gun violence and as a consequence of that violence.”

When it comes to getting shooters into treatment, though, there are problems. Differences in opinion are rampant on whether psychological treatment can prevent school shootings. Partly, it’s a problem of anosognosia. The potential and actual school shooters do not think they have a problem – and the same can be said for many of their parents – so they’re not very likely to make it into the mental healthcare system or gain any benefit from it if they do.

Another reason is that CBT, the currently favored treatment option, really doesn’t have anything that would address the incipient violence of students who are so troubled that they think it would solve their problems of anger, isolation, revenge, desire for fame, bullying, or whatever other factors may be implicated. It’s also worth noting that many, many students are bullied, mocked, ostracized, or otherwise demeaned. The vast majority of them do not go on to become school shooters, or the problem would be worse than it already is. (Personally, I was subject to some extreme bullying in school – and had access to guns and no access to mental healthcare at the time. I never shot anyone or ever thought about it.)

Perhaps the best that can be expected of mental healthcare right now is ministering to the bereaved and the traumatized. Until or unless we come up with some way of more reliably identifying and treating potential shooters before they become actual shooters – something that has yet to be accomplished – we’ll be more adept at cleaning up the aftermath.

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How Do We Talk About Mental Illness?

Language matters. What we call things matters. Does language shape thought or does thought shape language? Either way, both are important when it comes to brains.

The latest discussion in the debates over language is what to call mental illness (which is what I’m used to saying). Many of the words and phrases that have been in use for years no longer seem quite accurate.

Take mental health, for example. When policymakers talk about subjects like mass violence, they often speak of “mental health issues” and what should be done about them. The thing is, if someone is mentally healthy, nothing really needs to be done about that. But mental illness is a term that doesn’t sound so easily addressed. Policymakers are notorious for using language that soft-pedals actual problems. Not to mention the fact that when they talk about mental health, they’re usually talking about addiction issues or homelessness (though they still aren’t particularly effective in addressing those either).

Mental health is still a better term than “behavioral health.” I remember when community treatment centers and insurance programs were called behavioral health plans. Again, there was a lot of lumping psychiatric illnesses and addiction together. It was also wildly inaccurate. It was not the behavior that was unhealthy (the way smoking is). Behavior may have looked like the problem, but it wasn’t the cause. Something to do with thought or the brain was. Also, there was no equivalent term “behavioral illness.” That wouldn’t even make sense.

So. We have mental illness as the term currently most used, with SMI (Serious Mental Illness) often used for disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia. Lately, though, there has been a push to replace those terms with “brain illness.” (The companion term is “brain health.”) It hasn’t caught on yet with the general public, though it’s gaining some traction among practitioners, advocates, and those affected by assorted conditions. I’ve heard some people are frustrated that it hasn’t caught on more widely already. They feel the process is going too slowly.

Calling schizophrenia, bipolar, and other disorders “brain illnesses” certainly makes one sit up and take notice more than “behavioral health.” And it jibes with the notion that these mental disorders (there’s another term) are caused by something going wrong in the brain. This is not without controversy, however. There are those who think that referring to depression or bipolar disorder as “chemical imbalances” in the brain or faulty neurotransmitters (or their receptors) is inaccurate. There are various theories as to what causes these conditions, all the way from childhood trauma to gut bacteria. To me, the most likely scenario is that there’s a combination of brain-related factors and environmental influences at work here. Nature and nurture, in other words.

Brain illness is certainly an attention-getting term. That should make it more likely to catch on with policymakers, but I suspect it won’t. It’s not a comfortable concept and there are no easy-sounding solutions to it. I doubt that it will catch on with the general public either. We still haven’t gotten people to move away from crazy, insane, maniac, psycho, or even nuts and stop throwing them around indiscriminately. Hell, we haven’t even been able to convince people that psychiatric institutions don’t use straightjackets anymore.

Does “brain illness” make these conditions sound more treatable? Is it likely to increase compassion for those who have them? Is it likely to make any kind of a difference? I don’t think we’ll really know until it penetrates the consciousness of the person-on-the-street. And I have my doubts about when or if that might happen.

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One thing I’ve noticed about all the political rhetoric about plans to deal with mental illness is that they always lump it in with drug abuse. Like the two were the same thing. Like the solutions are the same. Like the causes are the same. Like the two are somehow related.

It’s true that many people with mental illness have substance abuse issues. And lots of drug abusers also have mental disorders. But people with varicose veins also have acid reflux. That doesn’t mean they’re related.

Of course there are similarities. Drug abuse seems to be controlled by the pleasure or addiction centers of the brain. And mental illness has to do with a malfunctioning brain. But just because the same organ is affected doesn’t mean the causes – or the treatments – are related. The causes and treatments for the lung ailments cystic fibrosis and asthma are not the same.

The various conditions that we call mental illness may be centered in the brain, but we’re a long way from knowing exactly where. Serotonin receptors? Maybe. Other neurotransmitters? Possibly. Drug treatment seems to work by trial and error, at least in my experience. Every time I’ve asked a psychiatrist how a psychotropic medication works, the answer is invariably “We don’t know.”

Treating drug abuse with other drugs is counterintuitive. Besides, it largely doesn’t work. Antabuse merely makes alcoholics so sick when they drink that they prefer to remain sober. Narcan can pull an opioid abuser back from an overdose, but it does nothing to prevent the next one. And methadone has its problems as well, especially since it’s an opioid too.

Many people break the chains of alcohol or drug addiction with the help of 12-step groups. Such groups have no effect on serious mental illness. Even therapy groups have limited results with people who suffer from psychiatric brain disorders. Support groups can help some of them cope with the problems associated with mental illness, such as loneliness, frustration, fear, and, well, lack of support. But healing is a hard thing to come by, and seldom is found in a circle of people with similar severe psychiatric conditions.

Part of the 12-step approach to addictions is surrender to a Higher Power – not technically the Judeo-Christian God, but the functional equivalent for most. God has not proven to be a reliable cure for mental illness, though of course prayer can help sufferers deal with their suffering and find comfort amid their troubles.

So why do politicians make the assumption that what will be good for one condition will be equally effective for the others? That funding directed at mental health problems and drug abuse can be used for the same types of treatments and treatment centers? Admittedly, politicians are not generally well educated about either mental illness or drug addiction. That’s why they have advisors, who should be able to explain the differences and the nuances to them. And that’s why there are organizations with members who have studied the problems – or who struggle with the conditions themselves – who can inform those who control the pursestrings as well as the general public about what is needed.

It’s convenient to want to deal with mental illness and drug addiction in the same way. Treatment centers, hospital beds, and halfway houses may play a part in dealing with both problems. But hospital beds for detoxing, for example, are different from hospital beds needed for those with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or psychosis, which may necessitate a long, difficult stay.

This is not the place to discuss involuntary commitment or AOT (assisted outpatient treatment, also called “outpatient commitment,” a form of involuntary treatment in the community) for severe mental illness, except to say that involuntary commitment is not an option applied to drug abusers, however much the conditions are conflated. They are complicated issues, and ones that I am not qualified to speak to.

But until we can convince people, and especially those who pull the political strings, that alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness are separate subjects that need different kinds of attention and support, we won’t make sufficient progress on either problem.

Ten Opinions That May Offend Someone

Recently I noticed that I have been reluctant to offend people, particularly on Facebook. I keep my opinions to myself, especially on social and political matters, and dread being “unfriended” or starting (or continuing) a “flame war.”

This is not just a matter that relates to my bipolar disorder, though it is certainly that too. I have written a number of times about how having bipolar disorder and the behaviors it has brought out in me have cost me friends, even ones that I thought were “forever-friends.” These losses have affected me greatly, at times pushing my anxiety and depression buttons nearly as far as they can go.

Just as I have toned down my comments on subjects such as liberal vs. conservative issues, I have also let pass by posts in bipolar support groups and mental health memes on people’s general Facebook timelines that I’ve disagreed with. Oh, when I see a particularly incorrect or egregiously stigmatizing remark, I’ve been known to smack the person on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, but often in a soft, “In my experience, you may not be correct” manner.

There are also conflicts within the bipolar world that I have strong opinions about but have not jumped into, for fear of offending someone. And I have to ask myself, what would be the consequences of offending someone in such a discussion?

Yes, I might be unfriended. More likely I would be ignored. Or (virtually) yelled at. In other words, if I offend someone with my opinions, they may in turn offend me with their opinions. And while that’s not a productive state of affairs, it’s hardly the end of the world. In an ideal world, I might cause someone to question or consider or engage in fruitful discussion. Not likely, but possible.

So, if I am trying to overcome my fear of offending people with my positions on guns, abortion, health care, climate change and the like, what am I to do about my opinions regarding bipolar disorder and mental health in general?

Well, first of all, I can state where I’m coming from: straight, white, female, married, childless, bipolar type 2, 60 years old, diagnosed for years and on any number of medications for years as well. Not much controversial there. That’s just facts about me and hard to deny.

But here are some things I believe that I know are sometimes subject to differences of opinion. And for what it’s worth, here’s my take on them.

  1. Psychotropic medications are good things. Yes, they can be overprescribed or improperly prescribed, but when dispensed and used correctly, they help.
  2. The Scientologists are way off base. Mental illness exists, and so do treatments for it.
  3. “Natural” or “holistic” treatments for mental illness are not enough to replace medication and talk therapy.
  4. Sunshine, exercise, and positive affirmations are good things, but also are not enough to replace medication and talk therapy. They do good for a number of people, less for others, and not much at all for some.
  5. We’ve got to change the popular dialogue about mental illness and violence. We must not let it go unchallenged. For that matter, we must change the popular dialogue about mental health in general.
  6. While it’s a good thing if those with mental illness take their medications properly, it is absolutely their right to refuse treatment.
  7. Health care (and insurance plans) should cover mental health care at the same levels as physical health. (Okay, that one’s not really controversial among the mental health community.)
  8. Emergency responders including police should all receive training in dealing with mental health issues, but they probably won’t.
  9. Most people don’t/won’t/can’t understand mental illness until it touches their own life in some way, and maybe not even then.
  10. Education about mental health issues should begin in grade school.

There. If you disagree with any of those statements or feel that I am an idiot for stating them, so be it.

Oh, and while we’re at it, persons with a mental health diagnosis should not automatically be prevented from owning guns, but people with domestic violence convictions should be.

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