Monday, June 29, 2015

Family Values

Lessons from two very different flags

Our family is complicated. Like many other Americans, my second husband Ed and I are both divorced from our first spouses. Ed has no children of his own and thinks that “our” four (plus our very lively cat) are more than enough. My children’s father has also remarried, so my children have step-siblings and a half-sibling to add to their postmodern family tree. We are all white and middle class, and we live in one of the most politically conservative and the least racially diverse states in the nation: Idaho.

One of the biggest challenges of raising children after a divorce is navigating the space between very different sets of parental values. My younger two children are being raised in a faith tradition that historically discriminated against blacks and that continues to prescribe rigid gender roles.  I support their father’s decision to take them to the Mormon church because I don’t think religion is worth fighting about, and because my own Latter-day Saint parents managed to raise children who were respectful and tolerant of others. But I cannot remain silent about my values, even when they conflict with what my children learn in church.

In light of a landmark week for gay rights and racial discrimination, I asked my children what they knew about two very different flags. “A flag is a symbol,” my 11 year old told me. “It represents a country or an organization.” As we talked about the Confederate flag, I asked them what it symbolized. “Isn’t it the Civil War or something?” my 10 year old daughter said. I explained that for many people, the flag was associated with slavery and oppression.

“But didn’t Dr. Martin Luther King fix all that?” my daughter said. “I thought he made it so that black people and white people were equal.”

White people say things like this all the time. They say, “Oh, we have a black president now, so we can’t be a racist country,” or “Oh, we have affirmative action policies, so white males are actually the victims of discrimination” (Yes, I have actually heard this phrase come out of more than one white man’s mouth).

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over and over again these past few years, from the Trayvon Martin shooting to the tragedy in Charleston, it’s that Americans are decidedly not “over” racial discrimination. As a parent of white children, it’s my duty to teach them to use their privilege to be allies to those who do not share that privilege. My children were shocked as I explained to them how black mothers and fathers were afraid for their teenage sons, because they could actually be shot and killed, just for being teenagers.  “That’s not fair,” my son said. “That’s not right.” Exactly.

Then we talked about another flag: the rainbow flag that symbolizes the LGBT pride movement.  The Mormon church, along with many other conservative Christian churches, has been and continues to be a vocal opponent of gay marriage.  I actually do feel some empathy for people who fear that their deeply held religious convictions are being challenged by last week’s Supreme Court ruling supporting gay marriage. But in listening to some of my conservative Christian friends, I think there’s a basic misunderstanding of what the ruling really means. No church is going to have to marry gay people. The decision does not at all impact their religious freedom, any more than the long overdue imminent removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state capitol impacts individual freedom of speech.

I told my children that I think the First Amendment is one of the things that makes America a great country. Every person who wants to display the Confederate flag on his or her front lawn or white Chevy pickup truck should unequivocally have the right to do so. But any person who wants to fly the rainbow flag should and must have that same right. The government should not sanction discrimination of any kind. And as a parent, I have the power to teach my children tolerance and respect for differences and to encourage them to speak up for those who are oppressed.

That’s one thing I have learned from my conservative Christian friends: We shouldn’t be afraid to share our values. In the end, no matter what your family looks like—black, white, gay, straight, or some combination of all of these—the love you share is what matters. Love wins.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

It's Time to Talk about Fear and Love

What do guns, race, and mental illness have in common?
Charleston shooting demands difficult conversations about guns, race, and mental illness

James Holmes was obsessed with Batman. Elliott Rodger thought all women hated him and he needed to exact revenge. Adam Lanza killed innocent first graders, an act that shocked the collective national conscience. Now, in a country already reeling from racial turmoil, mass shooter Dylann Roof has targeted black churchgoers. All of the shooters were described as “quiet bright boys” who became increasingly isolated in their teens.  For all of them, numerous red flags were raised.

In his national response to the tragedy, President Obama observed what many have been saying for years: “This type of mass violence doesn’t happen in other advanced countries.” 
That’s not entirely true: Norway’s 2011 massacre, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France, and the Germanwings crash show that other nations experience unpredictable and senseless violence as well. But Obama’s still-valid point is essentially the same one muckraker Michael Moore made in Bowling for Columbine (2002). There’s something different about guns and America.

Let’s look at what we know about gun violence.

Fact: Mass shootings account for only about two percent of all gun violence in the United States. In 2015, only 133 of 5,767 deaths caused by gun violence were the result of mass shootings. In fact, you are much more likely to die in an airplane crash than in a mass shooting event. 

Fact: Blacks are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Though blacks make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 55 percent of all people who died by homicide in 2010 were black

Fact: To date in 2015, there have been 2,025 reported and verified shootings involving law enforcement. It is hard to know exactly how high this number is because the government does not track police shootings. The Washington Post has reported 385 fatalities this year so far; The Guardian 470. According to a Pro Publica study, young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than young white men. 

Fact: Suicide completion is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-34, with 41,149 deaths by suicide completion across all age groups in 2013. Almost 60 percent of deaths by gun violence are completed suicides; the vast majority (87 percent) of suicide gun violence victims are male.

Fact: Based on studies of mass shooters, about half of the shooters suffered from serious mental illness. But the most common form of violence associated with mental illness is self-harm; more than ten percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia and 15-17 percent of people with bipolar disorder die by completing suicide.

President Obama acknowledged that gun control is not going to happen, not even when a Bible study group is gunned down by a young man obsessed with white supremacist dogma. That’s why it’s up to each of us to face up to what guns, race, and mental illness represent in America. The seemingly endless and unproductive debates are really about our fear. It’s time to change that conversation.

How do we solve the gun issue?

We all look in the mirror and admit that we are afraid to die. We acknowledge that we likely will have no control over the time, place, or manner of our deaths. Then we start living. As part of our commitment to overcoming fear, we educate ourselves, practice responsible gun ownership, and teach it to our children. (Also, we start tracking data about law enforcement and gun violence.)

How do we solve the race issue?

We all look in the mirror and say, “I’m human. So is everyone else, no matter what color his or her skin is.” Then we start to treat people the way we want to be treated. We hold doors open for people of all genders and races. We write thank you notes to each other and buy each other’s coffee in the drive through lines. If we’re white, we recognize that we have privilege, and we fight even harder for the rights of those who do not share that privilege.

How do we solve the mental illness issue?

We all look in the mirror and say, "Mental illness is not a choice or a character flaw." Then we end stigma and provide treatment. Mental illness is a costly public health crisis, in both financial and ethical terms.  U.S. Representative Tim Murphy has reintroduced his “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” with significant revisions that can help individuals, families, and communities to improve access to care. 

In the wake of mass shootings, I used to write about the need to provide treatment before tragedy. My new message is this: enough about tragedy. Let's focus on treatment. Treatment provides hope, and love overcomes fear.

The American writer Thomas Wolfe wrote, “To believe that new monsters will arise as vicious as the old, to believe that the great Pandora's Box of human frailty, once opened, will never show a diminution of its ugly swarm, is to help, by just that much, to make it so forever.” Let’s stop believing in new monsters and start hoping instead for an America that can overcome its fear—of guns, of race, and of mental illness. Today we may feel lost and hopeless and afraid. But as Nelba Marquez-Greene, a grieving mother who lost her six year old daughter to gun violence, said one month after her daughter’s senseless death, “We choose love. Love wins in Newtown, and may love win in America.” 
I'm betting on love.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Same Old Stigma

Brian Wilson’s Biopic Shows Little Love or Mercy for Psychiatry

As the mother of a teenager who has bipolar disorder and a mile-wide creative streak, I was pretty excited to see the new Beach Boys biopic, Love and Mercy.  Composer and musician Brian Wilson has been completely and heroically transparent about his struggles with mental illness. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Wilson works tirelessly to promote an end to stigma through creative projects like the SMiLE sessions.  

But sadly, the movie was not at all what I expected. As an all-too-familiar modern fairy tale of the evil psychologist overmedicating and imprisoning a creative genius, Love and Mercy contributes to the merciless stigma that surrounds mental illness. Most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Love and Mercy, with its deliberately framed stories of Brian Wilson’s success and subsequent mental illness, oversimplifies Wilson’s journey, pitting Eugene Landy (note: Landy is not a psychiatrist) against the fairy princess Cadillac saleswoman who becomes Wilson’s wife. The middle of the story, where Landy coaxed Wilson from three years in bed and a 150 pound weight gain 
to regain some semblance of his creative life and artistic promise, is only alluded to in the film, and the post-Landy period is a mere blurb as the end credits roll. 

Yes, Landy was a bad guy. Love and Mercy’s Paul Giamatti does a brilliant job at showing Landy’s failures, but the fact that the story is true does not make it any less damaging, at a time when the profession of psychiatry is desperate to attract talented physicians in the face of a growing public health crisis. Worse, it's not the whole truth: While what Eugene Landy did to Brian Wilson was truly horrible, Brian Wilson's life before Landy was arguably worse, which is certainly not a justification, but it does show just how awful life can be for people with serious mental illness.  

For the many thousands of children and adults who are in prison, or live homeless on the streets, a mental health professional can be a guide on the path to help and hope. Contrary to myriad negative media portrayals of psychiatrists, most mental health professionals are dedicated to improving their patients’ lives. That has certainly been my son's experience. Yet a 2014 study concluded that “medical students enter medical school with distinctly negative attitudes toward a career in psychiatry compared with other specialties,” which explains why only three percent choose to specialize in psychiatry each year. 

Love and Mercy is just the most recent example of an unbalanced cinematic portrayal of mental healthcare professionals, what Sharon Packer has termed “cinema’s sinister psychiatrists.”  In a study of mainstream movies, Wedding and Neimic (2014) found that for every balanced portrayal (Antwone Fisher, Ordinary People), there were four times as many unbalanced portrayals (What About Bob, Silence of the Lambs, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc.) . 

The whole Love and Mercy story is this: Brian Wilson regained his life because of his family, his mental healthcare providers, and his own desire to seek recovery. As he told Ability Magazine in a 2014 interview, "Yes, I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist once a week for 12 years now, and he’s become a really close friend of mine. We talk and he helps me out.”   He also takes medication to manage his condition 

I'm not suggesting that Eugene Landy’s treatment of Brian Wilson was anything but unethical and immoral. It's just not the whole story. For every bad mental health professional like Landy, there are many more good mental health professionals, like the UCLA doctors who correctly diagnosed Wilson, or his current psychiatrist. All I’m asking is that Hollywood tell that story—the story where Wilson is correctly diagnosed, finds the right treatments and supports, and lives the life he deserves.