Thursday, January 27, 2011

Victim Blaming in the Justice System

Salutations, New Mad Nation.

This Thursday finds me particularly exhausted, so I may be somewhat lacking in my usual personality, but I must try to keep to my promised once-a-week schedule, and moreover, this week's subject matter is of paramount importance.

This week, we'll be taking a look at one of my biggest frustrations with our society - the way that our justice system and a tremendous portion of our thinkers deal with victims/survivors of traumatic crime.

To set the tone, a quick compare and contrast.

A few years ago I was sexually assaulted. Horrible though the experience was, one of the things I could be thankful for was that I was able to deal with it in my own way and at my own pace. Because I have male genitalia and no real evidence or supporting witness testimony, I supremely doubted my ability to make any kind of case against my female adversary. Moreover, I didn't really want to. Even if it could have protected one or two other people, it seemed like it would only end up hurting /me/ much more - this was in a college setting, and only one or two people involved were on my side. The remaining five or six, who were much better networked, and with a demonstrated intent to be total jacks about it, were clearly in support of my assailant. So trying to do anything, even if I had actually had a case to make, would have been an extremely painful experience of rejection, disbelief, and trying to convince authority after authority - college staff, legal representatives, possibly even a trial court - of my role as survivor in all of this, with the end result being the possibility of an insanely damaging backlash smear campaign from the supporters of my assailant.

Some would argue that, for Justice's sake, the perp must be punished for their breach of the Law, no matter the cost. In doing this, they implicitly and often explicitly argue that the person who is victimized by their assailant is chiefly responsible for initiating and assisting in this task of punishment. Some people (I believe that Bill O'Reily is one of them) have even gone so far on occasion as to suggest that rape survivors who do not report their rape are actually as guilty as the rapists themselves, should that rapist ever repeat his or her crime.

In what way or universe does it make sense that, after being so incredibly hurt by someone, through no fault of your own, you now bear the burden of hunting that person down - even when it is entirely possible that you will not be believed once you actually make the accusation, and moreover, the whole process promises to simply reinforce the trauma, even if you win your case?

I should stop for a moment here and say that to those of you who have ever been in a situation like this and decided to stalwartly report, I do honor that decision and I respect your courage. What I think is important is that your courage be recognized and noted as an exception to what could normally be expected. It was not your responsibility to stop this person - it was society's.

Yes, you are a part of society, but that's not what I mean. What I'm saying is that we should take a look at the unfairness of a situation where someone who has already been victimized is being asked to jump back into the emotional fray on behalf of a society that is privileged enough to view this as an abstract issue of "justice," or at best as an issue of preventing harm to others, while refusing to look at the harm already happening. The important thing to do in case of a rape or other traumatic crime, in my opinion, is not to catch the perp, but rather, to take care of the survivor. If taking care of the survivor features catching the perp, then by all means, go all out and get them - but it doesn't always, and on other occasions it takes time. The last thing we must do is take away the agency of someone who has already had it forcibly taken once (or more).

And yet we do this ALL THE TIME, especially when it comes to minors. If we don't take away the agency of victims by pressuring them into reporting, going to trial, etc., with misplaced "encouragement" and other forms of guilt and manipulation, sometimes our system simply takes it away by force. When minors are discovered by authorities (police, school counselors, doctors, etc.) to have been the victims of rape, for example, most states if not the entire U.S. require by law that the crime be reported to the police. IMMEDIATELY.

If you are fortunate enough to have never been raped or sexually assaulted, then I ask you to try to imagine this scenario from the survivor's point of view. You are afraid, and you are alone. You are probably trying not to think about it too much because you aren't ready to yet - or maybe you are, but you're trying to do it on your own or with close help that you can trust. But you certainly aren't ready to start justifying yourself to the police and maybe even a court of law. Maybe some day but right now....even thinking about the person is enough to put you in a really, REALLY bad place, the kind where even basic functionality is pretty difficult. But, you finally seem to be putting together the necessary pieces to stay on top of it, at least for the moment.

Then - BAM - out of nowhere, you hear that one question that means an authority is on to you. Desperately, you scramble to come up with someway to explain away that scrap of information you let leak, but they can see the panic on your face and they know. It's too late, the secret is out, and you are forced to admit what you have been hiding. And then you are briskly whisked away to tell the police - if it was recent, you will probably be whisked away to a hospital for a rape kit/DNA testing, whether you want to go through the process or not (and for women, this process is often highly invasive, incredibly triggering, and may cost as much as 3000 dollars). They ask you questions without any real care for your well being, as they are now in "file report, identify suspects, assign justice" mode. Okay, I'm sure there are some cops out there who are better than this - if you are one of them, again, I applaud you - but that is not how I hear the story from my peers and friends who have gone through this.
The detective appears and starts pushing photos at you, and eventually there is that photo of a person you never, EVER wanted to see again, much less think about in relation to the event itself. Now you are alone, with a stranger, who doesn't care about you, and being asked to reveal this terrible, frightening truth, while confronting an image that has become to mean everything horrible and hateful to you.
It's not a pleasant experience, to say the least - and that is just day one of what will now become a public record of your battle for belief. Your decision about when and how to ask for justice is gone, out of your hands. You will have to tell people you maybe didn't want to tell, and maybe for good reason - unsupportive parents, for example, will want to know why you were at the police station.
Following may come a day in court. Or days. It's the same process as before, but now instead of one uncaring stranger, it's a crowd of uncaring strangers with a smattering of your most loathed enemies, and you are battling them to prove your truth against theirs, even after they have taken so much from you. Honestly, even thinking about the prospect makes me kind of sick....again, all the more reason I wish to honor the courage of those who opt into this. 

But all of this is generally a very bad situation for a survivor, as you can probably see. The very threat of it contributes to feeling like the rape itself is a dark secret that must be hidden - and indeed it must, or else something like the above will happen - which can only make the survivor feel infinitely worse about the fact that they have been so hurt. Keeping secrets causes festering of these things.

The thing that really boggles my mind about all of this is that after we drag out minors into court to fight a battle they don't want to fight and by all rights should never have to, we then proceed to give them virtually zero protection and in fact give tons of protection to the perpetrator in question. "Innocent until proven guilty" has an always true inverse: that the accuser is malevolent until proven righteous. Backlash from the friends and family of the accused is a threat to the survivor, especially if the survivor and the perp actually knew each other before the crime. The survivor making the accusation gets no anonymity, no real protection of any kind - and if there's anything worse for processing a traumatic experience than keeping it secret, it's having it forced out into the open where everyone can examine it and make their own judgments without actually talking to the person in question, where everyone can then judge the survivor and their truth, completely unmitigated. It is a form of being destroyed.

Even for those who do wish to testify and take their assailants to court, the way our system handles it is totally outrageous. And I believe this is because our system doesn't actually care about protecting the victims - as I said before, it's chief concern is the abstract concept of "justice." They pressure, coerce or even force victims into taking action, going so far as to blame the victim if the crime should be repeated elsewhere - all this for "justice." But if you take one thing away from this rant, take this:
There is no Justice when victims are being blamed.
It is one of the biggest problems of our society in general...we see something going wrong, and tell the victim what they should be doing to fix it. While it is important for someone in a bad situation to be willing to do what they can to get out of it, it is also important for those not actively in the situation to recognize that this limits their perspective. More importantly, perhaps, is the general sense of responsibility that our society is in need of adopting. When we see a situation like rape, instead of saying, "That survivor NEEDS to report this," we should be saying, "I should be renewed in my vigor to stand up to behavior that shows signs of leading to sexual assault in those around me." You see, rape is not the fault of the victim. It is the fault of the person who commits it. But it is also the fault of those close to that person who see that person behaving in a way that suggests rape-like tendencies, and don't say anything about it. If you can possibly help it, do not be that person.

It's similar to our response to suicidality. Rather than examining the social situation that leads to this event and trying to offer a constructive solution to the situation, we turn to the person who is hurt and start mining them for answers, often at great emotional and sometimes physical cost to the person who has already been so thoroughly beaten down. You want to talk about "mental illness," well, that right there is pretty sick if you ask me.

Please post rants of a similar nature in the comments, or anything else you feel might be related to all of this. If any of my arguments have confused you or seem to be missing something, please feel free to politely/gently probe/challenge them. I assure you the answers you seek are there, I am just a bit too tired to get them out tonight.

To the New Mad Nation, I bid my fondest salutations.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

One danger of labels: social misconstruance and the stigma cycle

Salutations, New Mad Nation.

First of all, I offer my sincerest apologies for uploading this rant a few hours late. I was distracted by many things that can make a person mad - most notoriously, my pending job search. Of course, I only have about 4 people who actually give a damn about my posts at present, so I'm sure you won't be too much deterred by my tardiness - but nonetheless, a blogger must have standards! (<-- ::completely outrageous statement::) At the very least I have to keep in good practice for when this blog does invariably become the sign post I dream it will be.

That preamble out of the way, let's dive into this week's topic: labels about "mental illness," how people fail to use them correctly, and the consequences of this failure.

To begin any discussion relating in any way to "mental illness," I must insist on my discomfort with the term; and I do promise that some day I will take it apart, piece by tiny piece, until society at large recognizes its uselessness. Until then, however, it is the language that people know and so, when analyzing social trends, it is a language we must use. People who decry "mental illness," I hope you will bear with my use of the term; people who believe in "mental illness," I hope you will bear with my use of quotations around it.

So then, what exactly am I Mad about today on the topic of labels and "mental illness?" Well, if you turn on the radio to your local rock station, and wait for a few hours, chances are you will hear Puddle of Mudd sing a song about how they are "the one who is a schizophrenic psycho." Flip through your pop and variety stations and you may have to wait a bit longer, but eventually you'll hear Katy Perry chide you (her boyfriend) for being "so bipolar." Actually, on a similar note, if you listen to your hip-hop/KDWB station for long enough, especially late at night, you may even hear an artist urge you to "get retarded in here." (The radio friendly alternative is "get it started in here," but we all know that isn't the artist's intent.)

Now wait...did I just compare using terms like "schizophrenic" and "bipolar," terms that people use very casually to describe things that are "crazy," to using the word "retarded," which is known to be hateful, hurtful, and downright stupid to do? Actually, I did. And though I haven't had the stomach to do the research for it, I'd be willing to bet that Puddle of Mudd and Katy Perry are not the only offenders.

Popular songs have a storied history of attempting to "speak the people's language," and this often takes the form of using slang, or in these cases, hurtful, idiotic slang. And when people hear their favorite artists using these terms in these casual ways, they get the clear impression that it's completely fine for them to do the same. I think this is especially true since radio edits have now removed words like "retarded" from songs, while leaving the terms "bipolar" and "schizophrenic." People believe the GODS OF RADIO will remove any offensive language, and everything left behind is safe, requiring no thought whatsoever. So they eat it up and spit it out.

Is the above going a bit too far? Well, perhaps - I do like to use hyperbole to illustrate my points. Which reminds me: the point. Why is it so bad for people to say these words in a casual setting? Oh, man....where do I begin?

I guess I should start with an example. As I have probably mentioned before, I am diagnosed with Bipolar Type II. If you knew there were multiple types of Bipolar Affective Disorder, pat yourself on the back! If you didn't, well, there's always time to learn. I'll probably talk all about it in another blog, but let's focus on my reaction when I hear someone use the word "bipolar" in a casual setting. Most frequently, this word is used to describe something rapidly switching between one extreme or another. Katy Perry uses it to describe her "Hot and Cold" bf. Casual observers use it to describe the weather lately, when it rapidly switches from cold and snowy to warm and sunny. But this is NOT what the actual diagnosis of "Bipolar" denotes. The rapid personality shifts of Katy Perry's bf are more akin to what you find in the outdated-nomenclature of "Borderline Personality Disorder," and the weather shifts are vaguely similar to the somewhat rare case of a "rapid-cycling" period of Bipolar, but only in an extremely abstract sense. So, when I hear this word, which has been so closely associated with who I am, be used to describe something so inaccurately, it tells me that people do not give a damn about my diagnosis or what it means, and are content to let that term mean whatever other thing they choose.

Well and so, if we lived in a society where labels didn't mean so much, I might not care. But we don't live in that society - we live in one where my diagnosis is permanently attached to me as surely as a "pre-existing condition" on my medical records. And even if I had a friend who DID know what my diagnosis meant, and "was just using the term in a different context," or whatever, there is still the disquieting sensation that these words are being used to make observed phenomenon into villains. "OH MY GOD, the weather has been so random this week! It's like, totally bipolar or something." The preceding suggests a disdain for the weather so profound that a "mentally ill" term must be used to describe it. People are using a mental health diagnosis to indicate that the weather is at fault. Even if a person "knows better" than to assume that an actual diagnosis has anything to do with this casual use, it is still linking this sense of negative responsibility with the term; this sense of outright wrongness, this sense that anything that is "bipolar" is obviously a problem that can be blamed for whatever is going wrong.

Hey man, did you ever stop to think that the weather might only be acting that way because of all the goddamn smog the city has been throwing up at the sky lately? Give the weather a fekking break!

It's just that, when you actually are "Bipolar," it kind of hurts to hear people using the very same word to describe something immature, irresponsible, or downright hated. It kind of makes you feel unwanted, regardless of what people may say about their intentions - it reveals a deep-seated preoccupation with the "insane," one that is used to amplify feelings about situations. Essentially your existence becomes reduced to a superlative, in the moment that that word is used. It's usually a very dismissive feeling.

I am not a superlative, I am a person, and even the things that have earned me my diagnosis are far more complex than these casual uses imply. You want to describe the weather as Bipolar? Show me a weather pattern that spends all of its money (for sake of argument, we'll say precipitation) because people thought some rain might be nice, but then completely drowns an entire county, and then feels so bad about what it just did that for the next several months to a year, you never see the fekking sun again unless you move to a different state. Don't talk to me about some pleasantly surprisingly shifts from sun to snow.
But more to the point, don't forget the fact that Bipolar is just as much a response to external stimuli and is NOT to be blamed as a characteristic of someone inherently random or untrustworthy. That's what your weather-description implies...and frankly, it kind of hurts.

I have little to zero personal experience with the diagnosis "schizophrenia" so I am hard pressed to give a similar first-person viewpoint on how the term is interpreted, but I can only assume it is similar. Aside from those who are deeply lost in the veils of mental decay that "schizophrenia" causes, (and I am not convinced that there is a disorder called "schizophrenia" actually responsible for this, but for the sake of argument, we'll continue as such), it is very possible for those with the diagnosis to lead happy, healthy lives. In fact, the experiences of such a life might offer exciting new perspectives on things; possibly very important perspectives. But such a life is undoubtedly filled with challenges. And it can't be made any easier by having people like Puddle of Mudd continuing to stigmatize the word "schizophrenic" by associating it with sub-par grimy south-rock "angry crazy."

I hear people use the term "schizophrenic" to describe anything that is "out of control" or "dysfunctional" or "not working right." Especially objects/events. Rock concerts...malfunctioning computers. How are these things even remotely similar to the actual experience of schizophrenia? Do people even know what that experience is? Why are they so insistent on using these words that are totally inaccurate? Honestly, I suspect laziness. They are too lazy to break out of this destructive habit and find new words, words like "thrilling," "ridiculous," "completely frustrating," or even the vague "crazy" which has been more or less detached from any real meaning - although that would be an interesting topic of discussion.

The thing that boggles my mind about this whole process the most is how frustrated and defensive people get when you call them on this subject. You'd expect (well, before accepting how doomed humanity is, anyway) a reasonably intelligent person to respond, "Oh, that's offensive? I guess I didn't realize it could be interpreted that way. Hey man, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be a jerk." Instead you get "I don't see what the big deal is, it's not like I think the computer is medically schizophrenic, obviously..."

Right, and it's also not like you think your boss not giving you the promotion is actually an act of homosexuality, and it's also not like you think your favorite athlete missing that great score at the end of the game qualifies him for mental retardation, but if you're a mature human being you recognize that using the words "gay" and "retarded" as slurs to demonize human failure or frustration IS WRONG.

It's time everyone realized the same is true of other categories of humanity. Depressed, bipolar, schizophrenic, and OCD should be added to the list.

"But R, what if I'm someone with a diagnosis? Can I make jokes about other people with the same diagnosis?"

Ah, interesting question! This leads me into the overall moral of this particular rant.


You don't get to make a joke about something being like something else if you hold privilege over the group or concept you are lampooning in the process. PERIOD.

White people should probably never make jokes about black people unless in extremely specialized circumstances; straight people should follow the same observance with gay people; men with women; etc. etc.

And if it's not clear, then err on the side of caution.

A common come back to this from people in a position of privilege is "But all humor comes at someone else's expense." The biggest danger here is if that expense is fallacious. Let's look at jokes that a privileged person could make: a rich man might choose to mock his fellow rich men by saying "Oh yes, we'll tee off for a half course at 10...and meet you at the bar at 3," jokingly implying that it will take a whole 5 hours to finish 9 holes of golf (substitute a bigger number if necessary, I don't play golf). This is humor at someone's expense, but is playing off something that may be true about the fellow, that he is a slow golfer, and coming from people of approximately equal privilege; especially if there is a retort to the effect of "Yes, and I'll be happy enough if there's anything left to drink!" implying that another of the fellows is an avid fan of alcohol. See, slightly mean, but all in good fun because these things are amongst people of equal privilege, are more or less harmless, and are BASED IN TRUTH. If, instead, they were to start making jokes about how their wives ought not to be golfing with them, but instead making lunch in the kitchen, we would have jokes that were not only against a less privileged group, but based on something completely sexist and therefore untrue. This is totally unacceptable.

Imagine if they started making jokes about how black people should go back to being their caddies! Oh wait, you don't have to, that still happens. Feck. And they claim this is okay because "it's all in good fun," "we don't actually think this," etc. etc. Some hipsters do this too, by the way, which is really shocking. To those hipsters, pay attention here: you're doing the same thing that my rich relatives do when they golf. Check yourself carefully now.

Which brings me back to the topic of this post and Madness in general: social misconstruance. Even if YOU know that calling the weather bipolar is completely inaccurate, do all of the people around you know? Do all of the people they go and repeat the joke to know? Chances are they do not. Chances are they may have a vague idea but subtle impressions are being reinforced about how bipolar really is as simple as rapidly changing your mood for no apparent reason, which is almost totally inaccurate and misses some of the much more important themes and sub-themes of the diagnosis.

Why is this misconstruance dangerous? Not only does it reinforce stigma against people with a diagnosis by demonizing the term "bipolar," but it makes it much more difficult for a person who actually has the diagnosis to come out about it. I remember trying to be very open about this diagnosis when I was in college, but after being repeatedly met with awkward blank stares and a few "Oh so is that why sometimes you're quiet and sometimes you're like 'WAUUUUUUUUUUUGH?'", I gave up pretty quickly.

(By the way, the answer to the above question is not "yup, that's my bipolar alright," it's, "no, that's because sometimes people are quiet and sometimes they are loud. It's called reacting to a situation.")

You see, when faced with things like that, and basically being asked to explain the chief modality of your existence, it gets pretty tiring. When you have to correct misconceptions already in place by people like Katy Perry, it gets even harder. And when you get frustrated by the process and don't want to talk about it, people's misconceptions usually get reinforced even more. So, we have a "cycle of stigma." You just feel even MORE ostracized, and their ostracizing assumptions grow even stronger.
It's kiiiinda like this.

What's the answer to this problem?

As I've mentioned before, it might be nice to start with asking popular artists not to be so damn ignorant with their use of the terms. They certainly aren't helping.

If anyone has any other good ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Katy Perry, your list of jack-hole sins is very long...I'll be giving you a proper analysis soon enough. But next week I'll probably dive into "mental illness" in full.

Thanks as always for your attention, everyone. Feel free to leave comments and suggestions.

To the New Mad Nation, I bid my Fondest Salutations.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Phoebe Prince

Salutations, New Mad Nation.

Today, I have decided to speak with you about something that I frequently get very mad about - victim blaming in suicide. In particular, there is one case that has mobilized my feelings on this matter, and that is the case of the above listed young woman: Phoebe Prince.

For some relatively recent reporting on the matter, I turn your attention here:
The purpose of this article, (which was published before the pre-trial hearings whose proceedings I assume are still confidential, as the trial itself has yet to occur), is apparently meant to be to illustrate the complexities surrounding the case; it is meant to de-mystify the "untouchable mean girls" story circulated by the Boston Globe shortly after the fact in Spring last year. It is meant to indicate that the accused teens are perhaps not as malicious as they have been made out to be, indeed to generate sympathy for some of them, and it is meant to shift some of the responsibility for Phoebe's tragic suicide onto her own "mental illness."

As far as I am concerned, this is all basically victim-blaming at its core.

On the surface, it presents an image of care and academic concern, but you can read between the lines to see clear indications that "depression" and "mood disorders" are what the author thinks are the true culprits; that "teens are just going to be nasty to each other, and what can any of us do about that?" That "the school is trying but there are just limits to what they can be expected to accomplish, after all. " Though the author speaks down on our human desire to point fingers in the wake of suicide, she is clearly pointing one of her own, but at the "safe" target of a medical disease that no one else can take responsibility for - except, we may assume to be suggested here, for Phoebe herself. This relentless investigation into Phoebe's history of mental and emotional health is clear evidence of a rampant and dangerous paradigm in our country, that mental illness is some monolithic thing to be blamed for our troubles and fought with all our might (1st Edit: which often translates to fighting the beliefs and feelings of the people being most hurt). This approach conveniently removes the burden of personal, moral responsibility for our own harmful behavior, and illustrates the deeper poison of our society, which is a general unwillingness to take responsibility for our own failures and fuckups. (1st Edit cont.: And, all too often, blame the victims instead.)

10 bucks says the author of this article was either a bully and is covering for their kind, or was painfully bullied herself and is in serious denial.

The truest victims of suicide are those who commit it. DO NOT BLAME VICTIMS. They do so (almost always) because they feel they have no other choice. It is not some kind of immature decision inspired by a mood disorder; it is a last option forced upon them because absolutely everything else has failed. People sometimes do impulsive, dangerous things to harm themselves, or even make suicidal gestures (though this is a very dicey territory which I will get into further in "personality disorders") as a form of manipulation or even just impulsivity, but actual suicide takes something a bit more serious than that. People who have never seriously considered it themselves probably don't understand how the actual thought process of "damn should I actually do this?" works. For one thing, it completely stops most impulsiveness.To go through with the thought process to completion and execution takes zen-like focus in most cases. Every fiber in your being is genetically programmed not to die, and will resist that impulse. You have to really want it. And anyone who is driven to desire their own death more than anything else is not an unstable, impulsive immature child, they are a victim. And the people who have hurt them should be held responsible.

Our author asks, "Should we send teenagers to prison for being nasty to one another?" Frankly, I think we should. If all our money that we spent on the war on pot was re-allocated to a war on bullying, something that ACTUALLY harms people on a regular basis, I think we might see some significant improvement in the general quality of people's lives.

I'm not here to lay out the actual specifics of this plan. It's just an idea. But I don't think that people being horrible to each other is something we should just tolerate, and even when schools like South Hadley are willing to suspend a student for a few days, it just isn't enough. Schools are not considered reputable authorities and being suspended doesn't actually inhibit your ability to succeed all that much. Prison, on the other hand, sends kind of a clearer message.

Perhaps this is too much. But I like it better than what we have now. And is it really such a stretch? We imprison people for assault and battery, and the physical damage done by these actions could easily have less long lasting repercussions than the malignant seeds planted by verbal assault. If your support network is seriously profound, and you have the great bright armor of self-esteem, verbal assaults will probably ping off you harmlessly - but if you are like Phoebe Prince, surrounded by people who seem to be your friends but don't understand the depths of your pain at all (isolating), and the few people you have trusted have often turned around and started betraying you for very poor reasons (you don't know who you can trust), your father is absent and your mother is your mother while you are a teenage girl (obvious), you don't have that kind of armor. Verbal assaults cut deep in this situation. Easily worse than a random mugging, for instance - but people caught in the act of mugging will be thrown in jail no questions asked, or at least in holding for a little while.

Many detractors of Phoebe's cause would respond to this sentiment by saying "No one knew how psychologically hurt Phoebe was, so they can't be held responsible."

I have several rebukes to this.
1. A wise mage from the pre-Renaissance period, by the name of Abramelin, taught that Ignorance is the greatest sin that a man can commit. Do not be ignorant if you can avoid it.
2. BULLSHIT. She was in relationships, or at least confidante situations, with two of the men implicated in this situation. They knew. Why did they never say anything to the girls, who seem to have launched the worst of the verbal assaults? Maybe they even did. Didn't stop the bullying.
3. Saying that you can't blame bullies for bullying someone into suicide because the victim already had depression, is no different than saying that you can't blame bullies for beating someone to death because the person was already half dead. 'Oh, have mercy, we only meant to beat them half to death, we didn't think it would actually kill them!'

Now, I will own, as more details come to the surface of this case, more testimony collected, more angles exposed, it does become less clear just how involved various students were. Personally, I remember highschool all too well to believe some of the feel-good descriptions of these students; the star of the football team goes out of his way to help others, just because they need it? BS. But hey, I could be wrong. And because of that, I am glad that there is going to be a trial, and hope that appropriate blame is placed on appropriate shoulders. If one or two students were drawn into this mess because of a single passing comment or a few dirty looks, then I hope they will get a lesser sentence. 
But I am sad that Phoebe's mental health will almost certainly become one of the primary witnesses to be cross examined, when as far as I can see, it is a virtually meaningless entry. 
And I DO think everyone involved should receive some kind of punishment. 

Don't blame victims of suicide. Don't make excuses for the people who drove them to it. Don't be afraid to look deep in the heart of humanity and say "Goddamnit, we do horrible things to each other...all the time." And don't be afraid to say "No more." This will require you to break yourself down - we all do hurtful things, and all the time, unless we are actively working on not doing this. For some, this isn't a problem - some have great armor. But you never know who might not have such great armor. Tragically, many who lack armor lack the freedom to show it, and so have to force on a smile every day, and never let anyone know - don't assume that a smiling face is a happy one. There is always a story behind the smile. Why are they smiling? Think about it. And when faced with someone who is smiling to protect themselves, you must be ready to not be a jack.

Break yourself down, and from the pieces, make a better self. Sounds painful and scary, and it is. But it's necessary to break out of the patterns instilled in us by life in a society that would rather blame nebulous, non-existent entities like "depression" than actually point fingers at emotionally damaging acts. To be perfectly honest, I think machismo could be to blame here. I once heard someone say that physical courage is so much easier than moral courage, and I don't think this is inherently true - I think it is true of a society that values physical bravery over emotional bravery. And that has been true of us for hundreds of years. Because we value physical bravery over emotional bravery, we are also more willing to punish acts of physical transgression than emotional transgression - this punishment is seen as standing up to the archetypal physical threat and quashing it. Punishing emotional transgression is seen as validating a weakness in our collective psyche and not allowed. are remembered. I'll never let the press convince me that you were anything other than a victim here. 

Feel free to discuss any of the above, or even challenge some of the lines of thinking. Be warned though, I reserve the right to totally shred you if you are not paying attention to the guidelines of privilege as laid out by 

Next week we'll probably be looking more closely at just what the hell "mental illness" really is, anyway. But as always, I am open to suggestions.

Thank you for reading, everyone. To the New Mad Nation, I bid my Fondest Salutations.


For additional reading on the subject of victim blaming and suicide, I refer you to a note I wrote a while back on a related subject.!/note.php?note_id=438824286827

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Some observations on psychiatry's role in distress

Salutations, New Mad Nation.

Katy Perry will have to wait - tonight, I role with the big dogs.

I'm talking about the big P - Psychiatry itself. Perry is just a little "p" and will have to wait her turn.

Gosh, where do I begin on a subject as storied as psychiatry? I suppose a simple definition of terms might be helpful, especially since psychiatry and psychology are often confused for one another, and their meanings have shifted over time. For my purposes, "psychiatry" refers to the branch of psychology that deals with medicine and other clinical means of treating "mental illness" and generally dealing with distress. In other words, what is traditionally referred to as "therapy" - talking it out, learning techniques, etc. etc. - is not what I intend to deal with (today). Instead, I want to focus on the awkward chair in the awkward office, often in the awkward hospital, where the person in the fancy suit across the room from you decides what kind of drugs and/or "treatments" would best help you out - and the hospitalizations that sometimes go hand in hand with this process.

I will freely own from the start, as I have said earlier, that I am very biased against this entire system. It has caused no little discomfort to me and many for whom I care very deeply. Its representatives have belittled me, even insulted me, ignored my concerns outright and substituted their own, and probably gotten me addicted to medicine whose actual ability to help me is HIGHLY questionable. If any other medical practitioner was responsible for this kind of mistreatment they would be fired immediately, or possibly even sued. But psychiatrists tend to get away with it for two reasons:

1. They are harder to come across, since they are frequently booked solid for months on out.
2. They are "sane" and you are "mad." Ergo, your point is moot - and everyone agrees.

Psychiatry can get away with treating people like shit because as soon as you admit to having seen a psychiatrist, people already assume you are wrong, and you have no agency for challenge. After all, if your mental faculties were all about you, why would you be seeing a psychiatrist?

This happens in a variety of ways and on a variety of levels. Your closer friends may trust you implicitly and be on your side, but others will assume "it was just a misunderstanding, I don't think he really meant to insult you. You need to stop being so defensive, you know?" And the more degrees of separation you have, the more likely it is that anyone who hears about the situation will simply assume you are nuts and not to be trusted. This fact, this social reality, weighs very heavily on the minds of those who are dissatisfied with their psychiatric service. It is made worse by the fact that we are often chastised, or even ostracized by those around us if we are not seeing a psychiatrist. So it becomes difficult to cast them off, even if they are infuriating.

Some of us end up without any choice in the matter.

(1st Edit: Please note, the following hypothetical has a somewhat facetious tone to it. For anyone who has actually gone through this experience, please know that I have nothing but sympathy for you, and mean only to convey the harshness of the feelings to those who are unfamiliar; I also do not mean to suggest that they are the only possible feelings in that experience, just an example of what someone might feel based on testimony and my own knowledge.)

For example, let's say one night you take a look at the world and get totally sick of everything you see. Your family wants to think.... but they really aren't getting it right, and by and large everything they do hurts more than it helps. You have a friend or two but they never listen and even when they do they just meet it with platitudes like "Try to cheer up" and "You can't dwell on these things so much." You sometimes enjoy spending time with them in your "better" moods but it's just too damn easy to be reminded of all the pain and outright evil in this world, especially when everyone other than those one or two "friends" are living incarnations of everything that hurts you - greed, wrath, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth; take your pick. You take a look at your own prospects and don't see things improving very much - surrounded by darkness and without a torch, much less a spark to light it. Yeah, it's a bad night one's around, you're feeling it stronger than you usually do. Maybe you haven't been getting enough sleep because you've been in too much emotional pain to lie still for long enough to sleep. Maybe you haven't been eating because food tastes horrible to you these days. Maybe the constant bombardment of political malady and human atrocities has finally just become too much to take. For whatever reason, you decide that there's no point in continuing, and indeed you would be better off getting off the ride right this second. Maybe the next life will be better than this; maybe eternal oblivion seems preferable. Maybe you're just too sad to think straight about this bleak prospect. But you go for it.

You attempt suicide.

Next thing you know, you're in the hospital. Bright white lights, strange faces, unfamiliar noises all around, your personal effects taken away as you are ensconced in their system: scrubs, no shoes, bracelet ID; if you swallowed something, you have charcoal paste on your lips and in your stomach; if you tried to go by way of injury, you are stitched up or otherwise mended in what can only be described as some awkward blend of the tiniest bit of relief (Oh...alive still...huh....) and a heaping load of shame. Because guess what? YOU FAILED.

Couldn't even kill yourself. Now THAT'S depressing.

As you work to recover from this most recent crushing blow to your ego, you discover you are in what is called an "involuntary hold" at your local hospital's mental health ward. You cannot leave. You are viewed as a list of symptoms. And you are grilled, over and over again, on the who-what-when-where-why's of your emotional history and your decision. You are treated as an immature child who should have known better. You are just a step above cargo, being dispassionately freighted and evaluated from one nurse or intern or doctor to the next, in between lackluster "group meetings" with your fellow failures where you discuss "stress management" and pick music that helps release your feelings.

At long last, they arrive at a diagnosis. Doesn't matter what it is. You have one. You are now permanently and forever the Property of Psychiatry because YOU ARE MENTALLY ILL. Now before they can let you leave you must become "balanced," and they will do that by throwing meds at you.

Don't want them? You won't think to muster that kind of argument because they will be VERY insistent that you take them, won't even really ask you if that's what you'd like, just go right in for it. If you insist on not taking meds, they can't force you....but you might end up taking them anyway because a) You don't realize the danger or b) It will help you get out faster. And it will - it makes your "safety plan" more convincing.

Now that you are Mentally Ill and On Meds, you need an Outpatient Psychiatrist. And you will be stuck with them (or someone like them) for as long as you are on meds. Which will be until a) You are "cured" (this almost never happens) or b) You go cold turkey and suffer some horrible withdrawal symptoms.

All because the world just wasn't doing it for you one night...

Am I being melodramatic here? Maybe the teeeeeeeeeeeeensiest little bit. But my point stands: psychiatry is often thrust upon us unwittingly or even unwillingly because it is revered by the entire culture as the only effective means of dealing with distress, especially when severe enough to cause you to be "a danger to yourself or others." In the Culture of Psychiatry, suicide is illegal, and punishable by internment, followed by medication. Sounds radical, but talk to some people who have been through this process and I'm sure that many of them will agree with me.

Which leaves me with just one big question: does any of this sound like it is actually decreasing the distress of the people it is supposed to be helping!?!?!

No, it doesn't, because psychiatry isn't actually about that. Psychiatry is about creating and maintaining categories of "wellness" and "illness," pursuant to the mental and emotional state of its subjects. Many of its practitioners think they are trying to help people...some of them are probably succeeding. But the institute of psychiatry on the whole is a system of containment, as evidenced most clearly by the Psychiatric Hospital, as described above.

On behalf of psychiatry, I can say this: Meds do something, usually. But whether or not they actually "help" is often a matter of measly guess and check between the doc and the patient. Are the meds helping, or is the person just getting better at dealing? Do they make the person feel better, or just less able to feel pain? Many people suffering from what is called "depression" take their meds because feeling nothing is better than feeling abject misery. Some people take their meds because they work for a few weeks, (and there is a very good chance in many cases that this is simply a placebo effect), and then keep taking them after they stop working because doing so makes them feel even worse.

Sometimes, meds seem to help. There are some cases where they seem to actually, truly keep people's minds more sorted and allow them to deal with their issues. But dealing with the issues, in my opinion, is what is most paramount - and psychiatry often distracts from this issue by focusing on meds, and foisting the burden of "chemical imbalances" on people suffering. This label, "chemical imbalances," says "you are Psychiatry's property and only Psychiatry can fix you," thus effectively blocking out any and all possibility of distress being the result of environmental factors, like trauma or no support structure. Psychiatry does occasionally check for these things, but it is usually under the guise of "these things are making your chemical imbalance worse." Why is there never an investigation into the possibility that this supposed "chemical imbalance," (virtually impossible to prove, by the way), is a result of the circumstantial factors? Because Psychiatry has to own the discourse, and admitting that our society itself is responsible for the patterns they call "mental illness" would be to give its patients over to sociology. Instead of deviants in need of treatment, they would be victims in need of advocacy and activism.

Hmm. What a thought! I might be on to something there....

This brings me to the subject of "mental illness" and what Psychiatry is doing with it, but sadly, I think I will have to save that for another rant as this one is already getting pretty ranty. (I dare say I'm competing with Mo Willems' "Ranting Swede," if not for eloquence, then certainly for candor. (^.^)b)

I would love to hear anyone's stories about how Psychiatry has actually made them more distressed than anything else; how medication interferes with healing; articles/studies that expand on these threads of discussion; or any questions/comments and yes, even (respectful) challenges about the ideas I've presented here. Thank you very much for reading, and as always, I am happy to accept suggestions for future posts.

To the New Mad Nation, I bid my salutations.