Mental Health & Gun Violence are Public Health Issues

This is a hard time for me to be trying to write, personally and in context of the constant barrage of bad news.

What could I possibly write that brings any insight into the events of the day? Lately I can barely read a full article. I swipe through my RSS feed, scanning headlines.

I get angry so much, but this week, it’s sorrow and confusion that fill me.

I worked in policing and have had a laser focus on mental health issues since realizing in high school my moods were probably depression.

I have spent hours reading about the trend to deinstitutionalize residential mental health centers in the middle of last century, a move that shifted the burden of the severely mentally ill to the criminal justice system.

I have ruminated over the practice of police officers responding to a mental health crisis, some with guns raised, being put in a position to make judgments about the psychology of a person, with very little training in psychology.

Police, probing the minds of people at their breaking point, looking for keywords they can use to show a danger to self or others to justify slapping on handcuffs and forcefully transporting them.

I’ve watched the videos of people gunned down in a moment of chaos by officers unequipped to handle the situation, or too jaded to see the human being at the other end of the gun.

I’ve spoken to people who have experienced involuntary committals. When the help we need comes at the hand of untrained, unsympathetic enforcers with weapons, is it helping, or does it traumatize those already hurting?

There are no monsters here.

Violence is committed by human beings. Glossing over the messy, complicated disasters that bring about the kind of violence that happened in Florida does us no favors.

Sure, it’s easy to say he was deranged or crazy. Hindsight tags him weird. We can’t come close to imagining the motivation behind such a heinous act, so we put it in a box with a simplified label.

Nothing in this life is so simple, and people spend lifetimes trying to understand why people behave the ways they do. But it is clear to anyone who looks, our institutions are failing to address mental health (and spiritual health) as a basic, necessary, and underserved part of an individual’s holistic well being.

Mental health is not adequately supported by our health care systems. It is a public health issue that is being fumbled by a broken criminal justice system.

The only time we seem to raise the issue is after an avoidable act of violence. Our policies are not in line with our problems. This is a societal problem, not one that can be isolated to any one individual or group of individuals.

Gun violence, too, is a public health issue. The rate of gun violence is many times more than variables like our wealth as a nation would predict. We need laws and policies that reflect this. The current laws are not effective, and our current lawmakers are deliberately not addressing it. There’s an elephant in the room, and it has lots of dollar signs.

Where mental health issues and gun violence intersect, we find a chorus of voices decrying the mentally ill who have access to weapons of mass slaughter. That tiny slice of the full picture is not enough to solve this problem.

We have to hold our representatives accountable for the actions they are taking.

We have to address the money that lubricates the political process.

We have to fund our public health responses, reform the institutions that are ineffective, and start supporting our most valuable resource and greatest power — our fellow human beings.

Some of those human beings need more help than others, but that is the point of a society. We all thrive, or none of us do.

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A Natural Response to Deprivation

Last night as I struggled to find sleep, taking time to flip through my article feed, an article on the stories we tell about mental illness began to pull me in. 

Johann Hari discusses his experience of depression in an excerpt from his his new book. This is not the first time I’ve seen a call to reframe our discussion of mental health, but it was a timely reminder to pay attention to lived experience.

I was a child when I first experienced symptoms of depression. Anxiety came later, creeping in sometime around college then settling in for good after grad school.

By the time I knew the name psychologists had given this dark cloud, I was fixated on the “science” of it, on understanding the why behind this chronic condition that stole months and years from my active, happy life, giving a label to what was “wrong” with me.

Like the author of the article (and book, added to reading list), I clung to the idea that something biological and impersonnal was the cause. Unbalanced chemicals in my brain, not my actions, behavior, or underlying character, were to blame.

Sure I’d seen the studies that admitted they didn’t understand why anti-depressants worked, or the admission that long-term effects of the drug were anyone’s guess. For that reason, that acknowledged and brushed aside uncertainty, I resisted drugs as the answer to my pain. 

Even when I did finally request a prescription from my PCP and signed up for therapy, I went off after about a year. Each time I returned to meds to address my issues, I became more certain the cure was worse than the disease.

I’m angry every time I hear about shortcuts made by pharmacuetical companies and the marketing push that suddenly normalized a pill for everything and the purchase of fake science by companies to support their bottom line.
It was Abraham Maslow and his emerging branch of Humanistic Psychology that began to ask what healthy, whole, self-actualizing human beings had going for them, shifting the focus away from abnormal psychology. 

Something about this narrative makes sense, emotional and behavioral states that are natural reactions to trauma and deprivation of basic human needs. Humans are complex, intelligent, social animals, to accept that we each need more than food, water, air, and shelter to thrive is intuitive. 

We need to connect to others, to feel we belong. We need to know our actions have meaning, make a difference, and provide us with purpose. For each of us, that drive and purpose is our life’s story, our unique experience of this amazing gift.

Maybe we can get by missing out on one human need if we have others, but what if the pull of modern society wears away all sides? 

Our jobs feel pointless, dull, maybe even counter to our own values. 

The growing economic divide in the US makes our security uncertain, personal debt threatens the future.

In growing cities we feel alone, the shifting social landscape divisive, connections hard to find. Technology grabbing our attention away from deep and meaningful relationships.

Humans have lived for millennia experiencing a connection to the earth and their tribe — now we are individuals alone and adrift in an indifferent sea of others. 

Those of us who experience that disconnect and deprivation as grief, as mental anguish and pain may be more well-adapted than we have been lead to believe. 

Resistance: The Big NO in my Head

I just stumbled on a a book looking for something entirely different, but it was what I needed to read: 

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles 

The terminology is new, but the experience is an old one for me. A few years back I started to become aware of the default NO that kept me from participating, rejected the ideas and advice of others, and just generally shut me down to the outside world.

I attributed it to anxiety, to laziness, to fear most of all. I called it procrastination, avoidance, the flight instinct. I’ve not studied Freud much, but his Death Wish theory sounds about right.

For me, it’s been a lifelong dance with creative pursuits – I reach for opportunities to create or perform, then never follow through. This invisible but solid force holds me back and fills me with an overwhelming malaise, restlessness, and self-doubt. I get so caught up in process and planning, and somehow find bursts of energy to do everything but the creative work.

I’ve come to realize creation requires a regular practice, a putting in of work. The message in this book hit heavy and gave me a jolt.

Letting this negative force, this Resistance, win in stopping the creative flow that comes from being present and sitting down to do the work may be easy, but the effects of denying who we are meant to become is torture. Resisting our creative potential is a long, drawn out suicide.

Perspective and Gratitude

Today I was thinking about recent changes in my life that have been both oppressive and freeing. I find myself living in a low population area, where opportunities are limited and my own fortunes (or lack thereof) keep me from moving on.

I have spent countless hours combing through job posts, and as my despair grew I opened a little more. I imagined myself doing jobs I never would have considered, accepting wages so low as to not fit the realities of rent and utility costs. 

I have submitted so many applications and forwarded resumes for future consideration, that when the call came this weekend to interview for an opportunity, it seemed like an unexpected gift.
My significant anxiety has always made job interviews like short torture sessions. Yet today, I feel light and grateful for an opportunity that fits my path.

When I lived in the city and opportunities were plentiful, I didn’t always see the open doors. I was so shut off to the energies of the living world. I was so out of tune with my own self. I imagine I met many opportunities with a No and a closed mind, without even realizing what I was doing. I probably never even took the time to look.

Now I see what I was missing, in job postings in my former cities, comparing what I could be doing to advance my goals in those other places. How easy it could be! 

Regardless of those missed opportunities, I am grateful that I see the potential in myself, grateful to know that there are always open doors, even in out lowest moments. 

Every experience in this life has something to show us. 

Art is Life

I read a fantastic article today detailing the research by Christina Blomdahl of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden regarding the efficacy of art therapy for depression.

I was not surprised by the reported lack of research into such treatment, nor the trouble recruiting candidates because doctors were skeptical that it could work.

Having suffered from bouts of depression since I was a child, I’m always tuned into solutions that make intuitive sense. 

Medication always struck me as a flimsy cover, with no understanding by doctors as to why anti-depressants work to improve symptoms or what long-term effects might linger in the patient.

But turning inward, to art and creativity, the stuff of the soul and the inner life, feels substantive in a modern world that has turned its rational mind from such things.

“The therapeutic goals in phenomenological art therapy have been described as: enhancement of self-awareness; viewing and evaluating current lives in new ways; promoting an increased understanding about one’s life; acceptance of one’s limitations and strengths; and to prioritize these based on self-knowledge.”

Man painting on a beach

Self-awareness and self-expression as treatment for depression, achieved through the process of creative exploration of one’s internal life — sounds much more human than the lived side effects of drugs, which numb one’s sense of self, turning us into emotionless zombies. 

Joseph Campbell, in his master works The Masks of God, pointed to the arts as the stuff of the soul. Mythology once worked to ground us in the human condition and help us to plumb the depths of our being. It is no wonder we have trouble addressing the unquiet mind in this day when faith has been claimed to be the realm of organized religion and the secular arena refuses to address the human spirit.

When creativity is not given space to thrive, our true energies are blocked, our actions and thoughts stagnate, and our being suffers.

This article and line of inquiry is close to my heart at this moment, when I’ve spent the last few years in what I see as both theraputic healing and spiritual discovery. There was never one without the other, as opening myself to a therapist or self-understanding invariably meant an opening to creative energy. 

The inner life, the spirit, the soul, the creative energy that connects all things, art is the language by which we understand it. Art is the process by which we build cultures and inspire true progress. Art is the medicine that makes us whole.

Read the Mad in America post here.