Suicide at the Oscars, part two: ‘The Phone Call’

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

It was a great year for crisis lines at the Oscars—or, rather, for films involving crisis lines. Not only did the documentary, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 take home a statue, but so did the short, live-action film The Phone Call. And, while Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 tried (perhaps a little too enthusiastically) to convey a sense of the actual drama that can occur at a crisis line, The Phone Call comes across as a disturbingly simplistic endorsement of suicide-on-demand and irresponsible behavior by crisis line workers, all while portraying a dangerously inaccurate view of the function of crisis lines.

I will begin with the same bit of disclosure I placed at the beginning of my piece on Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1: Having spent more than five years working full-time for a crisis line, and continuing to work in a position sideways from, and occasionally overlapping with, such work, I can’t help but come to these films with something of a bias. And I will also offer up a spoiler alert for The Phone Call: if you haven’t seen it, and you don’t want to know exactly what happens, stop reading now.

The Phone Call seems to have generated most of its praise based on the acting of Sally Hawkins (as Heather) and Jim Broadbent (as Stanley/John)—which is undoubtedly solid, even given the ludicrous material. But most reactions seem to ignore any other critical angle—like the crass manipulations taking place in order to make The Phone Call happen at all.

To begin with, the call center where the story takes place seems to be lost in time. Despite the opening shot of the movie panning by a sign that reads “City WiFi Zone,” the crisis center apparently has no computers and no Internet hookup.

Now, I don’t know the current state of crisis line call centers in the UK, or really the state of any such call centers aside from the ones I’ve worked in, visited, or seen in documentaries—all in the United States. But I will say that if a call center in this day and age equips workers only with a pad of paper, a pen, a phone, and a lamp—they are verging on worker abuse. Absent the most dire of funding situations, failing to provide crisis line workers with computers and Internet access is simply unacceptable, given the relatively low cost of such amenities—and the necessity of such items in making it possible for workers to track down lifesaving information—or even to assist callers who are simply trying to access other services.

At one point in the movie, we see Sally Hawkins’ character, Heather, get up from her desk—thankfully she sat at the front of the room near the bookshelves—to try and look up the “mystery caller” in the notebooks where past call records are kept—handwritten on paper.

Add to that the script manipulation of having absolutely minimal staffing. Despite there being numerous desks in the call center, when Heather arrives, there is only one other worker there–Daniel.  At the only time Heather even considers enlisting Daniel’s help with Stanley/John, Daniel is talking with another caller, back turned to Heather, and flipping through a phone book, or some other reference material. She immediately (and completely irresponsibly) determines she can’t get Daniel’s attention—as if muting her phone and calling across the room would have been too much trouble to stop somebody from dying.

'Would you look at that?  Daniel's busy.  Guess you really are going to die today, Stanley.'

‘Would you look at that? Daniel’s busy. Guess you really are going to die today, Stanley.’

Stanley/John is also supposed to be a sympathetic character, the main reason being that his wife, Joan, died two years ago after a long struggle with cancer. As Heather questions Stanley/John about other family members he may have, we also find out that he and Joan tried to start a family, but had only one stillborn child, 25 years ago, and then were unable to have any children after that. Certainly, it’s a sad tale. Certainly, we can understand Stanley/John’s despair.

But just imagine being in the same situation as Heather—or really any crisis line worker—being treated the way Stanley/John is treating her. Stanley/John has decided he is going to die, and has decided that whatever random worker answers the phone is going to have to listen as it happens.

John/Stanley sobs, makes vague statements indicating he has taken actions to kill himself, and refuses to provide information under threat that he will hang up to prevent anyone from tracing the call and sending an ambulance. The audience has to accept that either the call center does not utilize caller id—further putting workers in a terrible situation—or that John/Stanley blocked his information, in order for the whole ‘hanging up’ thing to really work as a threat.

Stanley/John eventually reveals that he’s taken “Antidepressants” that he got “from the doctor.” But killing oneself with pills tends to be a lot trickier than most people realize—at least to do it in the calm, and apparently quick way that Stanley/John manages, all while allowing for a conversation and a quick death before the ambulance crew can arrive and try to revive him—and without his body doing its damnedest to try and expel the deadly pills he’s ingested. Then again, perhaps Heather waited a good long while before calling for the ambulance, as she was looking through notebook after notebook to find the right person named John who lived around the corner from the Boston.

The big moment of connection for Heather, where she (mostly) accepts Stanley/John’s decision to die, is when Stanley/John asks in a pressured tone, “Can you just stay there and talk to me? Are you allowed to do that? Can’t you just stay there and talk to me and hold my hand? Isn’t that alright?”

Heather’s answer: “Of course, I can. I’m not going anywhere.”

There are an infinite number of much better answers Heather could have given at that time. For instance: “No, that’s not allowed, Stanley/John. I’m not here to make you feel better about killing yourself. And, to be honest, if I was really doing my job, my co-worker, Daniel, here would know everything that was going on, and probably already have an ambulance heading your way.”

Instead, in the course of the short conversation, Heather passes up numerous chances to make more than just a conversational connection with Stanley/John. For instance, Heather and Stanley/John discuss jazz, including Stanley/John telling Heather he could teach her how to play tenor saxophone properly. Yet, rather than latch onto that, and suggest that Stanley/John maybe teach music, or otherwise get back into music, Heather doesn’t push on that point of Stanley/John’s ambivalence at all.

In fact, beyond asking about immediate family, Heather does nothing to find out if Stanley/John was involved in anything else in his entire life beyond his relationship with Joan. Work? Friends? Family? Hobbies? Pets?

Heather also does nothing to explore what Stanley/John has done to deal with his grief over the loss of his wife. All we know is that he got antidepressant pills from his doctor. Apparently, Heather takes this as evidence that Stanley/John really has made a valiant effort to deal with the kinds of normal struggles anybody feels at the loss of a long-time companion. ‘Oh? You got a prescription? Wow—that was very brave of you. I’m sorry you still ended up feeling something.’

And perhaps the most obvious thing Heather leaves out is asking how Stanley/John’s wife, Joan, might react to Stanley/John’s decision to kill himself. Or maybe we are meant to accept that Joan is the kind of person who would want her husband to die—that she’s something of a monster, and Stanley/John is really stressed out because he’s two years late on following through with their suicide pact.

Throughout the conversation, Heather lets Stanley/John bully her into not talking about the things she should be talking about, all with the threat that he’ll hang up, and the assertion of his ‘needs’—how he just can’t go on without Joan, but really needs someone to ‘hold his hand’ at the end.

We are supposed to find it comforting that once Stanley/John insists that it is, in fact, too late for a rescue, he compliments Heather, saying, “you’ve been wonderful. You’ve been a wonderful friend to me.”

But Heather is not Stanley/John’s friend, and isn’t supposed to be acting in that capacity. And really, if Heather was either doing her job right, or actually acting in a capacity as Stanley/John’s friend, she would have done more to try and help him.

And then we get the most maudlin endorsement of suicide ever committed to film—we see the ambulance arriving outside Stanley/John’s home. The camera switches to an interior shot of the home’s front door. We see someone arrive, and…it’s Joan! We never actually see Stanley/John, only hear him talking to Joan for a while.  She talks about how she’s “been looking for” him, and they both agree that they’ve missed each other. So, we get this reunited-in-death sap that makes this suicide seem cute, since it helped an old couple get back together.

'What, John?  You've gone and killed yourself?  You go to hell for that, don't you know?'

‘What, John? You’ve gone and killed yourself? You go to hell for that, don’t you know?’

It’s no surprise that director and co-writer Max Kirby comes out of the world of commercials and music videos. The Phone Call is practically a commercial for suicide, with all the depth of the average music video. It’s a concept piece that tries to press emotional buttons, while keeping the audience from engaging in too much thought.

As we watch The Phone Call, we are not meant to think about the value in going on with life, and finding meaning after loss. We don’t even get a serious look at suicide, depression, or mental illness, because we are given only the most surface reasons for Stanley/John to kill himself. We are supposed to take this all as somehow romantic—the sad, old man who just can’t go on without his wife. Isn’t it sweet that he’s killing himself?

And perhaps even more aggravating is the summation of the movie from its official website: “Heather works in a helpline call centre. When she receives a phone call from a mystery man, she has no idea that the encounter will change her life forever.”

I’m not sure exactly what we are supposed to take away from this tagline—that the big change in her life is that she is now carrying the burden of having sat through this man’s death, while being derelict about trying to help him? The big scene we are supposed to take as evidence of change is one in which we see Heather following through on part of the conversation she had with Stanley/John—to go back and visit a jazz club she used to frequent. We see her getting cozy with call center co-worker, Daniel, a potential relationship that was hinted at early in the movie. ‘Gee whiz, isn’t it nice that all it took was the suicide of an old man to make me get out and live a little? Isn’t this rosé delightful?’

To clarify, my reaction to the movie is not meant as some discussion about the right to die, but about the way crisis lines operate, and the absolutely awful way this is portrayed in the movie. It is simply not the job of crisis line workers—paid or volunteer—to just “hold a caller’s hand” while that caller dies by his/her own hand.

It is a hazard of working at a crisis line that one may end up on the phone with somebody as that person dies. But this is much different than such an occasion being the purpose of that work. A police officer has the potential hazard of being shot on the job—but it is not the police officer’s work to be shot on the job. A teacher may be subject to the hazard of being verbally abused or even hit by an angry child—but it is not the teacher’s job to be verbally abused or hit.

And what kind of horrible people would you be attracting to work at the crisis line if you told them that part of their job was just to listen as people die? What would be considered an appropriate level of intervention if just letting people die was considered an acceptable or even desired outcome?

Heather, like any crisis line worker, when confronted by questions of listening versus intervening, should make it clear that, as much as crisis line workers are there to offer support, they are required to intervene in order to prevent callers from completing suicide. And with experience and training, one will gain a better idea of just when that intervention needs to take place.

In the case of The Phone Call, there was an admission that a suicide attempt was already underway; and for all intents and purposes, Heather did nothing. We are supposed to see that as somehow touching, and even life-affirming.

Don’t just feel about that. Think about that.

 

And now for the obligatory ending: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the national (U.S.) suicide prevention hotline 1-800-273-TALK.

 

Suicide at the Oscars, part one: ‘Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1′

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

The topic of suicide came up in at least three acceptance speeches at the latest edition of the Academy Awards on February 22, 2015. (Okay, yeah, I’m late to the party again). And perhaps even more astonishingly, two of those acceptance speeches were actually related to films about suicide prevention hotlines. First up is the documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. (A post about the short film, The Phone Call will follow soon).

Having spent more than five years working full time for a crisis line, and continuing to work in a position sideways from, and occasionally overlapping with, such work, I can’t help but come to these films with something of a bias.

As a matter of fact, I first saw a portion of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 on a Sunday morning after coming home from an overnight shift at a call center where the crisis line calls represent only one of many mental health functions with which the staff is tasked. Having spent the bulk of my work week on understaffed shifts, I was perhaps a bit resentful at flipping on the TV to see a scene what Bob Hosk, one of the Veterans Crisis Line supervisors who features prominently in the documentary, described as “five hours here at the hotline” utilizing “about four personnel to help one guy.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that the resources were available and the effort was made, with (spoiler alert) a positive outcome for an active duty service member in Hawaii.

In the time since I first saw that segment of the documentary, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the military in addressing the epidemic of suicide among veterans and service members, and will say it is truly impressive to see the complete change that has taken place over roughly the last two decades—from an approach to suicide and mental health issues that could be described as ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ to one of increasing and highly-promoted access to counseling services, to working with suicide prevention specialists and investing in the crisis line depicted in the documentary, among many other avenues.

But, back on that summer morning, knowing that in similar situations (an unknown caller making a vaguely suicidal statement, then hanging up) rather than having a specific staff member on shift to call a special “law enforcement” phone number at cell phone company to get information on the caller’s location by pinging cell phone towers, and then being able to devote ‘five hours and four personnel’ to find the caller, whichever one of us took the call would typically end up trying to call back, and, failing any respone from that, doing a quick Internet search on the phone number (like they show in the documentary) and then making a call to 911 dispatch in whatever location the phone number (probably) originated, to report that somebody had called and threatened suicide—‘no, we don’t have a name; we don’t have an address; we don’t know how they might do it or if they tried anything yet; we don’t know if there are weapons involved; no, we don’t know much of anything about anything—we’re following our protocol, sorry to bother you.’ Then on to the next call—which could range from a hospital social worker inquiring about a client’s mental health history, to a client with chronic mental illness telling us about his dinner, to someone struggling to get help for a family member with a mental illness, to…

In the case of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, my sense is that the caller from Hawaii was truly coming from a place of desperation, and, perhaps, wasn’t aware of other options available to him, or just what sort of response might kick in as the result of the call he made. He may have thought that by hanging up, he could just drop the whole matter. He may have scared himself simply by voicing the thoughts he was having about ending his life, and so tried to walk away from that.

But beyond my initial reaction to the portion of the film I saw back on that sunny Sunday morning, and my somewhat-tempered-by-time-and-new-information response now, I have mixed reactions to the film.

I’ll say that, overall, I think it’s an excellent depiction of some of the most challenging types of work that happen at crisis lines, and at the Veteran’s Crisis Line Center in particular, which the film notes “is the only call center in the U.S. serving veterans in crisis.” (A more accurate description would be that it is the only call center in the U.S. specifically established to serve veterans, and specifically engaging the particular protocols of that call center in order to assist veterans. Any crisis line in the U.S. will take calls from veterans, and do what they can to help. Call centers affiliated with Lifeline routinely take calls from veterans and their families, in part because the callers don’t always ‘press 1’ when prompted to get transferred specifically to the Veterans Crisis Line Center. And, while Lifeline workers typically will explain to such callers that they have not reached the veteran’s line, they always offer to help.)

Semantics aside, not all calls to a crisis line are life and death—or even crises. Each time the phone rings, it’s not a given that the caller is a someone on the verge of taking her/his life, or a family member of such a person. But you wouldn’t know that from watching this film. You only get the slightest whiff of the lighter calls, when, early on, the camera moves through the call center, the sound of constantly ringing phones and poignant snippets of dialog, reaching the microphones at just the right time: “really proud of you…Where were you stationed?..So twice you tried to hang yourself before?…Do you want me to send someone there for you?…Did you get injured while you were out on active duty?…diagnosed with PTSD?…If there’s anything we can do for you…”

Okay, so those don’t come across as all that light. That particular scene is one of many subtle manipulations used by the filmmakers—layering audio to create a particular impression of an “always on” call center. For the sake of drama, the filmmakers leave out audio involving callers who are just seeking information or non-emergency services. They leave out the repeat callers who are really just touching base and giving a brief synopsis of their day. They leave out those calls having any of a number of angles that aren’t even remotely related to suicide.

The filmmakers also choose to escalate the drama in a completely unnecessary way. For instance, the music, most often quiet, involves drawn-out, high-pitched tones that add to the tension viewers are meant to feel—as if trying to talk a stranger out of suicide isn’t drama enough.

I love this woman: Maureen--Crisis Line Responder, Extraordinaire

I love this woman: Maureen–Crisis Line Responder, Extraordinaire

On top of that, the final segment of the film takes place on Christmas Eve. The scene opens with outside shots of the call center at night, American flag flying, trees wrapped in colorful, twinkling lights, as a soft jazz version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays–the song adding a sting of dark humor with it’s ‘all our troubles will be miles away’ and ‘let your heart be light’ emotions. The timing of the scene was undoubtedly selected because of the heightened emotions many viewers are likely to have around the idea of a “Christmas miracle” or notions of family togetherness at the holidays. But it also serves to reinforce the popular, but ill-informed, notion that ‘the holidays’—Christmas in particular—are a time of heightened depression and increased suicide, an impression reinforced by a shot of the notepad where the crisis responder has written a quote from a suicidal veteran: “Holidays are depressing.”

There are other things that could be taken as manipulation, but which I think were not only clinically sound decisions, but also place the focus where the documentarians wanted it: on the people working at the crisis line. Not hearing the callers, for instance–while likely done just as much for clinical reasons, as for legal and artistic reasons–provides for greater control over how the information will be presented to the audience, and also removes any impressions viewers might have of the callers based on their voices, or the tones they are using.  While I obviously don’t know the specifics of how any of the callers in the documentary spoke or sounded, anybody who has spent time working on a crisis line knows that many of the callers can come across in a way that, shall we say, challenges empathy. Responders need to be aware of the potential biases they bring to calls, and need to develop skills for de-escalating and connecting with difficult callers. At any rate, difficult or not, hearing the callers’ voices would create a completely different film.

Still, one of the most valuable aspects of the film is in giving voice to the crisis line responders, not only in their moments of calm where they appear to be completely in control, but when they are giving voice to frustrations as well. During one call, Robert, a veteran himself, complains that the response time from police is “ridiculous.” In a separate interview segment, Robert expresses the anger that crisis line responders can feel toward callers: “How dare you take your own life?” But part of the reason Robert’s rawness comes across in a potentially endearing fashion is that the filmmakers also let him speak about his struggles with questions of his own abilities, whether or not he has made the right decisions, or whether he made them in time—questions born of situations where the interventions failed.

There are other responders in the film with whom I had a harder time connecting—feeling a sense of kinship, or understanding their particular reactions, or the ways they tried to connect with callers. I don’t want to dwell too much on my snotty, hypercritical reactions, though—or even mention them in any specificity. For one thing, I know only a very limited amount about what was happening in those particular situations. And I don’t know how those people move about in daily life, or in their routine work at the crisis line.

But why I will most back away from potentially harsh or nitpicky-sounding criticism of any of the responders is because I can’t imagine having to work a crisis call with the knowledge that cameras are on me, and that whatever I do could end up on HBO.

That said, there is one responder in particular, Maureen, who comes across as the undoubted ‘star’ of the film. Little is explained about Maureen or her background, except, perhaps, that she reveals that she has sons, as she is complimenting a caller on her handling of a difficult situation.

Beyond that, Maureen demonstrates the perfectly complicated balance of compassion and detachment that is rare in crisis line workers. She is able to connect to the callers, but does not get visibly drawn into the drama, despite mentioning calls that ‘stay with you.’ Early on, we hear her say, “It’s ultimately the veteran’s decision if they are going to live or die…and as a responder, you have to have a really good grasp of that.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Maureen is able to deliver lines of perfect connection to callers–lines that may seem odd to those unfamiliar with such situations. After asking a caller about how his friend (who died in combat) would react to news of the veteran’s suicidal intent, she listens for a bit, then says, “He’d kick your ass? So he’s a good friend.” Maureen is able to drably ‘contract for safety’ with callers, getting them to promise that they at least won’t kill themselves while they are on the line with her, and then works to expand on that promise.

Maureen is the responder featured in the final scene of the movie—the one that takes place on Christmas Eve. Against this backdrop of heightened emotion, she is tasked with drawing a soldier with a gun out of the desert, and back to his parents, despite much of his life unraveling. She is further challenged by limitations on her involvement—having to direct the veteran’s mother on how to bring him home, and then sitting silently, listening, and hoping it all works out.

In the end, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 leaves much to contemplate—whether from a clinical or technical perspective—or any of the other myriad perspectives that could be brought to the film. It is incredibly effective in that it is able to provoke a range of emotions, and could, potentially, be used as a tool for training crisis line workers and volunteers, service members and their families, or really anyone who wants a better understanding of how crisis lines work, how the mental health system can be accessed, or how the military is responding to concerns of suicide among its ranks.

It remains to be seen if the film will help draw more workers and volunteers to crisis services, or perhaps scare more of them off. And this is where I have the most difficulty with the film. How much is too much when trying to convey the intenstity of real-life situations? What level of manipulation and film-making technique serves to create understanding, and what level serves to drive only emotional response?

Granted, the vast majority of people who see Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 will never work in a crisis line call center. But, there’s always a chance they might need one.

So (obligatory ending)…

If you are concerned that somebody you know may be struggling with thoughts of suicide, call (or get them to call) the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255—Veterans Press 1.

Clarity of Vision

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I need to get glasses. I’ve been saying for at least two years now that I need to get glasses. I’m not having terrible vision problems or anything. But every once in a while—like when trying to read the instructions on a medication label, or the code on a sim card to activate an iPhone—I’m reminded that I just plain can’t see teeny tiny print.

Offhand, I can think of plenty of reasons for the tremendous resistance I’m experiencing, or creating/enforcing.

For one, the last day of third grade, when I was able to cast off my glasses ‘forever’ was one of the greatest days of my life. Of course, in true ‘me’ fashion, I waited until school was out to retire those glasses. I didn’t want to go through the last school day of the year answering questions about where my glasses were, and (oh, the horror) hearing congratulations if I were I to say I no longer had to wear them. The attention was not something I wanted.

Now you see them, now you don't...the incredible disappearing glasses.

Now you see them, now you don’t…the incredible disappearing glasses.

Another element in all of this is just the general difficulty of eye exams. Back in my early elementary school, glasses-wearing days I had an eye doctor—an optometrist—who was keenly aware of the foibles of my vision—or more accurately of my left eye.

My left eye has the peculiar property of shifting out of focus more and more the longer I rely exclusively on it. It’s sort of like, over the course of about a minute, the world shifts from a slightly out of focus photo, to a Seurat painting, to the obscured logos of non-sponsors on the clothing of reality show participants. My optometrist referred to this as a “lazy eye”—not in the traditional sense that the left eye was moving or tracking more slowly than the right eye, but in the sense that my left eye was perfectly willing to let my right eye do all the work, the left eye apparently feeling that playing its part in allowing me to see in three dimensions was work enough.

For a time, I had to intermittently (read: as little as I could get away with) wear a patch over my right eye—and not a cool, Snake Plissken kind of patch–bug a beige piece of plastic that clipped onto the top of my glasses frame, over the right lens—the lens which had no purpose whatsoever, aside from maybe keeping my glasses from tilting too much to the left. (It just now occurs to me that perhaps that thicker left lens carries some of the blame for the uneven positioning of my ears, which always confounds anyone trying to even out my hair in the final stages of a haircut.)

The patch was the kind of odd instrument that caused some of that previously mentioned, unwanted attention, as classmates asked what it was, and why I had it—almost inevitably leading them to stare at my left eye to see if they could tell if something was wrong with it, or to them asking if I could take off my glasses and look from side to side so they could see just how bad this lazy eye was—leading to the necessary, “Not that kind of lazy eye” explanation.

Beyond the attention, the patch just caused me aggravation, as anything I tried to look at would shift out of focus in short order, even through the “corrective” lens.

Ultimately, I’m not fully sure why I was allowed to abandon the glasses. I think it had to do with my hating them so much, along with indications that the ‘corrective lens’ was doing nothing to improve my left eye. Nor was the vision in my left eye deteriorating at all. Since the defect in my vision didn’t bother me or cause any particular problems, I was set free from the need to wear a delicate contraption of metal and glass, of which my care was substandard.

And despite my sister and me having many a laugh over the nose hair of our optometrist—which, in a darkened room, as he tilted his head back to look into our eyes, would be illuminated by the various contraptions he was using—I trusted him like no other person who has ever checked my eyes. Perhaps those were just warm feelings aimed at someone who had the final say in whether I continued wearing glasses—and who chose the way I was praying he would.

Then again, there could be more than a bit of fear stemming from various encounters with other people who checked my eyes. One encounter in particular, with a school nurse, caused much consternation in our household.

First grade year, or maybe second, when we were getting our various health checks, a school nurse came around to each classroom, tacked a vision chart to a wall in one corner of the room, and we all got called up, alphabetically by last name, always keeping the line about three or four deep, to have our eyes checked.

Mind you, by this time in my young life, I had already been wearing glasses for some time, and went in for regular check-ups with our trusted family optometrist. (I never have asked my mom how she kept up with the optometry bills for herself and six kids, all wearing glasses.) So, from the get-go, I didn’t really see why it was necessary for me to get another eye exam, when I’d had one before the start of the school year.

Still, I went up and dutifully got in line. But there was something off about this eye test.

My own optometrist had eye charts with multiple letters. RSTLNE—my sister and I joked about how we had memorized this, the smallest-print line on one of the charts. But the chart the school nurse had brought along was populated with various iterations of only one letter: capital E.

Some of the E’s were positioned as they normally would be. Others were backwards, or lying on their backs, or face down. And rather than the school nurse just having us read off the letters on the chart, (E…backwards E…E…upside-down E) she instead had a stick with a small hoop on the end. The idea in this particular eye exam was that the examiner would position the hoop, encircling one of the E’s, and then the examinee was supposed to point in the same direction that the prongs of the E were pointing.

By the time it was my turn, I had picked up on the fact that we were supposed to be pointing (although that concept was, to me, rather weird for an eye test), but hadn’t quite picked up on the particulars of the pointing.

So when I got to the front of the line, and confirmed that I was in fact, the person connected to the next name on the clipboard, the school nurse asked only if I knew how to do the test. “Yes,” I’m sure I responded. After all, I knew how to do an eye test for Pete’s sake—maybe not this one; but I’d been through much more involved eye tests. And for this one I didn’t even have to know how to recognize multiple letters, just point.

I like to think that I had some particular system in mind when I went through the test—like ‘point in the direction the E is standing’—if it is right-side up, point up—that’s where the top is; down on it’s face, point to the right—that’s where the top is; on its back, point to the left—that’s where the top is; upside down, point down—that’s where the top is.

Then again, maybe I was just thinking, ‘just point in different directions each time she moves the damn hoop, and I’ll be done with this soon enough—after all, I’m already wearing glasses and see a real eye doctor multiple times a year.’

Clearly, by the alarm I caused the school nurse, I wasn’t doing the test right. Again, she asked if I knew how to do the test. Again, I said I did, although I was a little less than certain at this time, and pretty sure I was about to get in trouble.

I don’t recall the school nurse ever actually explaining the test to me—i.e., if the three bars of the E are pointing to the left, point to the left. Perhaps she felt that my vision was so impaired that she had no way of conveying such information to me. Or maybe, by the time she actually did explain it to me, her fear that one of the students in her school had gone blind on her watch was so palpable that I was entirely too caught up in her terror to pay attention to what she was saying.

Now, I don’t specialize in child psychology—and it’s a fair bet that the school nurse didn’t either—but I’d think that if you had to deal with young kids on a daily basis, you’d figure out that when a kid says he knows how to do something, but is really doing a bad job of it, then maybe that kid really doesn’t know how to do whatever that thing is.

When you’re faced with a few possibilities—one being that a kid doesn’t really understand how the eye test works, and the other possibility being that the kid is legally, if not totally, blind, I would think the obvious choice would reveal itself. I mean, I was able to get through my school work each day, and I ran around in gym class and on recess without my glasses on, and nothing terrible had ever happened that might indicate rapidly deteriorating vision.

But, all other evidence to the contrary, the school nurse assumed the worst. And my mom got a phone call. And I may just have had to go to an ‘emergency’ appointment with my optometrist.

So, yeah…I was going to call for an eye appointment today. But maybe I’ll do that tomorrow…or maybe next week.

 

Yes, Gina, There is a Bipolar Disorder: Tom Sullivan’s Pretend Apology

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I have a hard time believing anybody really cares about anything Fox News Radio Host/Fox Business News Anchor Tom Sullivan said two weeks ago, or a week ago, or ten minutes ago. But, after a segment on his radio show, wherein Mr. Sullivan expressed his belief that Bipolar Disorder is a made up malady, Mr. Sullivan got a bit more attention than he maybe wanted.  And then he apologized.

I feel compelled to share Sullivan’s apology in all of it’s glory, because it is such a perfect example of a non-apology, the kind that one writes when one is drunk, and mad at the people to whom one is being made to apologize–the kind of apology that would properly elicit a playground response of “If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t have said it in the first place.”

You can hear the questionable five minute clip of Mr. Sullivan’s rant–mind you, on the web site for his own show–here: Bipolar “not a problem” and “not a disability” says Tom Sullivan.

To access his apology, you need only scroll down through the Facebook-linked comments on the same page.

Sullivan’s apology starts off thusly: “Gina, Thank you for your email.” From the get-go, it’s just plain weird. Sullivan is apologizing via Facebook to an (alleged) email that nobody can see. I’m not sure if Gina’s email is presented somewhere on Sullivan’s Facebook page, or elsewhere. I have the feeling he doesn’t want anybody to see the alleged email he is pretending to respond to, because Sullivan isn’t actually addressing any concerns that any real person has about what he said. He’s interested in presenting himself as the victim in the ruckus he started, as a means to reiterate some of the same obnoxious points he made in his original rant.

He continues: “May I tell you I have received a number of similar messages but usually laced with profanity. Your message stood out for the kindness of your words.” Oh, poor Mr. Sullivan, bombarded with bad language from nasty people. But, lo—here is one kind soul, just one person moved to express words of concern and seek clarification about just what happened in this horrible controversy that was visited upon the abused Mr. Sullivan.

“First,” Mr. Sullivan goes on (in sharp contrast to his original words for which he is now apologizing), “I need to tell you I do believe in bipolar disease.” I won’t hammer on Mr. Sullivan too much for not using the proper term “Bipolar Disorder” rather than “bipolar disease.” But I do have to question what he means when he says that he ‘believes in’ Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar Disorder isn’t some mythical creature like the Yeti or the Easter Bunny to entertain or scare people or to serve as a fun part of some childhood tradition. It’s not, as Mr. Sullivan says in his audio clip, some disease made up by pharmaceutical companies and the mental health industry for the purposes of financial gain. But, I suppose when you work for a network that promotes the idea that climate change is a hoax, and white privilege is mythical, your sense of reality can get knocked out of whack.

And speaking of having problems with reality, Sullivan then writes, “There is a two minute clip going around of my comments out of a two hour discussion. It is easy to take comments out of context.” Sullivan’s complaint of a two-minute, out-of-context clip is just a few scrolls down from a five minute clip, again, on the web site for his own show, in which he says he does not believe Bipolar Disorder is a real thing, but a ‘created’ illness.

He then repeats his newly-found belief system: “Of course I believe bipolar is real and is a mental illness that needs to be treated.” Well, of course, Tom! Why would anybody think you would have any other view–I mean, aside from the five-minute (not two-minute) clip where you repeatedly say that Bipolar Disorder didn’t even exist 25 years ago, and is completely made up?

Sullivan does a 180 and becomes a champion for those with mental illness--asks why people think he said things he plainly said.

Sullivan does a 180 and becomes a champion for those with mental illness–asks why people think he said things he plainly said.

Sullivan clarifies: “The program began with the subject being the huge increase in disability claims made to the Social Security Disability Fund which is going broke in 2016.” Never mind that what Sullivan means is that the Social Security Disability Fund could be insolvent as early as 2016 if changes aren’t made to the structure or funding of benefits—saying it is going broke in 2016 is much more alarmist and easier for his audience to understand, so that they can get angry like he wants them to.

Then, explaining (well, sort of) why he chose to target people with Bipolar Disorder, Sullivan writes, “The increase in claims is startling and the number one reason for the big increase in claims is mental illness and a subset (according the way Soc Security categorizes) of mood disorder.” Sullivan doesn’t bother to explain that what now comes under multiple categories of “Mental Disorders” used to be categorized as two separate categories: “Mental Retardation” and “Neuroses and Psychoses.” It wasn’t until 2010 that Social Security broke down those two categories any further, to include numerous items, including the “mood disorders” that so irk Sullivan.

Sullivan pouts, “All I was trying to do was to point out that out of that big increase I suspect there are people who are not sick but looking for a disability check.” Yes, “all” Mr. Sullivan was doing was accusing people on disability of trying to cheat the government. No big, deal. Everybody likes to take pot shots at people on disability, right? But Mr. Sullivan didn’t just voice his ‘suspicions.’ He outright said that Bipolar Disorder is “not a disability.” In other words, Mr. Sullivan said that anybody receiving disability payments due to a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder is cheating the government. In fact, the title of the same page of Tom’s website where he posted his pretend apology is “Bipolar Woman Says She DESERVES Disability Benefits. Tom Tells Her She’s WRONG!”

The pout goes on: “My further point was by doing so, those people were hurting those who really are sick and need help, i.e. funding, treatments, etc.” In other words, people who get disability payments for mental illness are not really sick—people who can’t walk, or who have cancer are sick!! This is perhaps the best part of Sullivan’s whole apology—the part where he truly demonstrates that he’s learned nothing from the reaction he provoked with his ignorant comments by engaging in the exact type of behavior/speech/thinking that demonstrates classic stigmatization of people with mental health issues: the ‘you don’t really have an illness, you just feel bad’ way of thinking.

And then comes the righteous indignation of a true champion for those with mental illness: “I have for years advocated on my program for more funding and insurance coverage of mental illness. Too many have ignored it and as a result our jails are now the ‘mental institutions’ where the people get zero help.” First of all, if you have advocated so long for “more funding and insurance coverage of mental illness” but are now mad that there is more funding and insurance coverage of mental illness, what is it you really want? Where is this funding and insurance supposed to come from? What form is it supposed to take. Oh…I get it. You mean that when there have been mass shootings, you’ve complained that we do not need gun control, but we need more funding for mental illness. Got it. The jails…right. So, yeah, more mental health funding to stop people who might go on a shooting rampage—but anybody else can step off. Way to advocate, Tom.

Sullivan then writes, “I apologize to those who were hurt by the clip of my comments.” I think he might be apologizing to himself right here, as he seems to think he’s the victim in all of this, and the only one who was really hurt by the unfair “clip” of his comments—which he maintains is all out of context. It’s one of those classic ‘I’m sorry you got upset about what I did’ apologies. He doesn’t actually say he’s sorry for what he said—he says he’s sorry if you had a stupid reaction to it.

Mr. Sullivan then explains that he is just misunderstood: “I am a somewhat jaded person who thinks some people are gaming our system due to their greed.” Yes, plenty of people are out there pretending to have Bipolar Disorder because of their all-powerful greed–the kind of greed that drives them to want to live off of an $1100/month disability check. I can see how life as a corporate accountant and media figure has caused you to see the true evils in life and become hardened by them, Tom.

“But,” he goes on, returning to his sensitive side, “I also believe mental illness is a very serious problem that is ignored by too many.” Well, at least you aren’t ignoring it, Tom, like those “many” others.

Quick switch back to victim: “This episode shows how easy it is to distort a persons (sic) comments, especially when the subject is very important.” Wait, where’s the distortion, Tom? You do realize that there is a five-minute audio clip of you talking smack about people with Bipolar Disorder and mental health professionals, right on your web page, just slightly above your apology—don’t you?

Then, he brings the powerful close: “It will and has reinforced my commitment to making mental illness on a (sic) equal par with physical illnesses instead of the stigma it currently receives. Again, thank you for your email and your concern, Tom Sullivan.” Well, it’s a good thing Tom’s had his commitment reinforced, because in that five-minute clip there, it sounded a whole lot like he was super-supportive of stigmatizing people with mental illness—especially phony mental illnesses like Bipolar Disorder. And, really, could that sentence about stigma be any worse? It’s like somebody read over the rough draft and said—‘Not bad, just make sure you add in some bullshit about stigma and how mental illness is just as important as physical illness in there at the end,’ but Tom wasn’t quite sure how to properly use the word “stigma” in a sentence, and didn’t feel like taking the time to look it up.

In the end, Sullivan wants to be viewed as someone who is just the victim of vicious attacks, with his words taken out of context. Unfortunately, it’s hard to have much sympathy for someone claiming his words were taken out of context when, well, they weren’t, but also when he made no effort to provide any context for anything he said in the first place, such as by touching on the way Social Security disability operates, the different categories now used, and why those changes were made. The simplest explanation (although there are a wide range of factors) is that there has been an evolution in the way “disability” is viewed and understood—in terms of both physical and mental illnesses. And, in terms of Social Security disability, there have been changes in the ways statistics have been kept and various issues have been categorized.

To give some credit, there is support for Sullivan’s complaints that the number of disability claims for “mood disorders” is increasing substantially. However, that increase is not grossly out of proportion to the increase in overall numbers of disability cases, particularly when one considers that mood disorders such as Bipolar Disorder and various forms of Depressive Disorders are more widely understood today than they were 25 years ago (when Mr. Sullivan apparently thinks the mental health community, in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies, fabricated the idea of Bipolar Disorder as a way to make money).

So, as I said in an earlier piece about Sullivan’s original comments (which you can read here), we can either find legitimate ways to address issues like the funding of Social Security disability, and support those suffering from mental illness, or we can demonize them and…uh…let them…er…receive stigma like always. And now, at least we all know where Mr. Sullivan stands—right, Gina?

Bipolar Illusion: Tom Sullivan, Rand Paul, and the Economics of Disability

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Back on Wednesday, January 28, in a discussion of Social Security disability benefits on his Fox News Radio show, Tom Sullivan, who also serves as an anchor for Fox Business Network, said some incredibly stupid things about Bipolar Disorder. Sullivan, or whoever is responsible for the content of his web page, then proudly promoted Sullivan’s ignorance by posting what I can only hope is the worst part of that day’s show in a brief written piece, and a 5-minute audio clip, which you can see here: Tom Sullivan argues that Bipolar Disorder is a myth.

Among his statements, Sullivan called Bipolar Disorder “the latest fad,” adding, “We all have good days and we all have bad; and I don’t consider that an illness; and I don’t consider it a disability.”

Sullivan said plenty of other amazingly idiotic things, like suggesting people are talked into thinking they have Bipolar Disorder, and that it is a “made up” condition, as well as vilifying the entire “mental health business” and “big pharma.” (Wait–I thought Fox “News” liked big pharma.)

Broadcasting live from the Fox studios in the depths of hell, it's the Tom Sullivan Show.  Today's topic: Yes, you should hate and fear your neighbors.

Broadcasting live from the Fox studios in the depths of hell, it’s the Tom Sullivan Show. Today’s topic: Yes, you should hate and fear your neighbors.

On top of that, Sullivan asked a question that anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of psychology, or the skill to do an Internet search, could answer: “What were these people called 25 years ago before they came up with this Bipolar diagnosis?”  (He didn’t mean that as a question that had an actual answer, but in the sense that he believes Bipolar Disorder was dreamed up by psychologists and drug companies 25 years ago).

I could let Jimi Hendrix answer Sullivan’s question in a song from 48 years ago, but I’ll let the good people at Healthline take this one.  Read their answer here: Bipolar Disorder just may have been recognized more than 25 years ago.

In case you didn’t bother to check the Healthline article, it basically notes that the first modern diagnosis of the illness that was eventually deemed “Bipolar Disorder” was first established in the mid-1800s, but that the basic condition was recognized in one form or other going as far back as the time of Aristotle and even before.  And prior to the Bipolar Disorder moniker, it was common to call the condition Manic Depression or Manic Depressive Illness, among other, similar things.

Sullivan’s staggering ignorance of mental health issues (and classic rock) aside, the truly insidious question that he asked in all of this was, “So what are you going to do when the money runs out?” By “the money,” Sullivan meant the Social Security disability fund, which he claimed will be bankrupt by 2016.

Beyond the more obvious stigmatizing of people with mental health issues, Bipolar Disorder in particular, Sullivan’s big question, and his chosen targets, may just be another entry into the vast library of right-wing fear-mongering about Social Security, and why it needs to be privatized. I’m sure it is. But it’s also part of a discussion that’s (once again) rumbling up about “entitlements” and poor people defrauding the government.

In fact, it appears Sullivan’s ill-informed rant about Bipolar Disorder may have been inspired by earlier comments from Rand Paul. As “support” for the items on Sullivan’s show that day, Sullivan’s website features a clip of Rand Paul, Republican Senator from Kentucky/compassionate ophthalmologist, speaking to a crowd in New Hampshire about how at least half the people on disability payments are collecting those payments fraudulently. You can see the clip (from CNN of all places) on Sullivan’s website here: Rand Paul is a medical expert who knows you’re not hurt, you crybaby!

Paul tells the (New Hampshire) crowd that, “everybody in this room knows someone who’s gaming the system.” Now, I’m not the kind of person to show up at a Rand Paul event, but I have to wonder about the people who do, if they all know somebody who is “gaming” the disability system. Then again, maybe Paul is just jaded, since his home state of Kentucky ranks third among the states in terms of the percentage of total population collecting disability payments. (I got that information from looking at the actual source of some of the Social Security Administration stats that were posted in an incomplete image on the same page of Sullivan’s website with the Rand Paul video) One might also ask what those stats, and Paul’s claims of fraud, could possibly say about doctors in Kentucky, who are signing off on all those disability claims.

Among those actually deserving of disability payments, Paul counts only paraplegics, quadriplegics, and the “horrifically disabled,” noting that “half the people on disability” are no worse off than anyone else, only “anxious, or their back hurts.” Paul’s standard for not deserving any kind of disability payments: “if you look like me and you hop out of your truck.” So, I guess a whole lot of white males with trucks are headed toward losing their disability payments, unless they’re careful to avoid getting caught hopping out of said trucks.

One would think that Paul’s background in medicine, as well as his position as an elected official might lead him to realize it’s his job to productively address problems with the way government systems work—particularly if those systems are tied to an area of his expertise. Likewise, Sullivan’s background in economics, along with his national platforms on both radio and television, should mean that a discussion of how to fix the Social Security disability system’s funding problem might be in Sullivan’s wheelhouse.

But rather than seeking out ways to tackle, say, the potential of those receiving Social Security disability payments to find work through job training programs; or promoting ways of obtaining additional funding, like removing the income cap on Social Security taxes, we get more condemnation of the poor–calling them lazy thieves.

Instead of having an informed discussion about the needs of those on disability, and why somebody who doesn’t “look disabled” might actually be struggling with things that many of us take for granted, we get accusations that people coping with mental illness are faking it and claiming to have conditions that don’t even exist.

Hell, Sullivan and Paul could even look into ways to make the disability system more functional by addressing the ways disability payments are established and rewarded.

But, no—we get wealthy white guys complaining that people with disabilities are a bunch of cheats, stealing from their neighbors. We get those with tremendous privilege trying to pit the poor and middle class against those with disabilities—’Hey! Let’s all pile on people who’ve been injured! Let’s knock down those who suffer from mental illness!! Get ‘em!!’

There are plenty of other things absent from these discussions of the Social Security disability system, like that those receiving the payments have to periodically have their status as “disabled” validated by doctors or mental health professionals, or that many of them end up assigned to a “payee” who controls the way their money can be spent, or that they have limits on things like what portion of their disability check can be used for housing. They are often confined to extremely limited options for government-approved housing, where their homes are subject to inspections, including being warned with ‘corrective actions’ if they aren’t keeping things clean enough.

Perhaps Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Paul think that those taking in, say, $1100 a month for being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (which is roughly the average monthly payout) are scamming us all, and stealing our tax dollars because they’re lazy. But the amount of money one can earn is hardly worth the effort that goes into obtaining it in the first place, or keeping it over time.  It might be a fun and entertaining exercise to have either Paul or Sullivan attempt to live on that amount of money for a month, and under the same restrictions.

Yet when one is so completely ignorant or out of touch as to think that Bipolar Disorder is make believe, or that we are surrounded by people stealing from the government through the Social Security disability system, then one has given up any credibility in the discussion of how to address the problems of vulnerable populations in our society–or even the discussion of how to address the possibility of fraud in the Social Security disability system.

Demonizing fellow citizens by claiming they have phony injuries or fabricated mental illness is a great way to stir up righteous anger among the poorly-informed. It may even achieve the goals of getting votes, or making disability requirements even harder to meet, or of having Social Security privatized or partially privatized.

So, don’t be surprised if you start hearing more and more about scammers bankrupting the Social Security disability system, or even more about mental illnesses being phony. Even if Sullivan did attract the ‘wrong’ kind of attention with his obnoxious comments, all he needs to do is get the poison in the stream. Then, Rand Paul and his ilk can still seem educated and rational and folksy enough that they appear sensible by comparison.

Box Office Schadenfreude? Nolte, ‘Selma’, and ‘American Sniper’

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Full disclosure: I have not seen either ‘American Sniper’ or ‘Selma.’

An interesting item turned up in my news feed earlier in the week. And by “interesting” I mean “simplistic and misleading.” That item was John Nolte’s “Box Office: ‘American Sniper’ Breaks Records, ‘Selma’ in Death Spiral” on Bretibart.com. You can see the whole piece here: Nolte’s faulty stats prove America loves LBJ, hates Oprah

In the article, Nolte argues that Americans are refusing to see the movie ‘Selma’ because it “lies about race,” and the public is just plain tired of “race hoaxes.” In contrast, Nolte says that honest folk are rushing out to see ‘American Sniper’ because “God, family, and country are box office bonanzas.” God apparently makes a cameo in ‘American Sniper’ but refused a starring role in ‘Selma,’ after its makers reportedly told God that they absolutely refused to include anything about family and/or country in their movie.

Nolte’s earth-shattering evidence for ‘Selma’ being dishonest is that the film portrays President Lyndon Baines Johnson inaccurately. And, while I grant that, from my understanding of the film’s content as compared to actual history, Nolte has some support for this point, can anyone really imagine that historical inaccuracies are a major factor in the decisions of American movie-goers?

“Honey, I’d really like to go see ‘Selma’ this weekend.”

“Well, I’m all for going to see a movie, but I hear that ‘Selma’ isn’t historically accurate in its portrayal of LBJ.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, it’s true, unfortunately.”

“Those bastards!! Why would they do such a thing?”

“I don’t know. I think maybe they just hate white people.”

“Well, then we should just go see ‘American Sniper’!”

“I think it’s our duty as good citizens.”

One might note the weirdness of a Breitbart adherent championing the cause of a president who, by today’s standards, could only be considered an ultra-liberal Democrat. It’s also rather odd that Nolte labels ‘Selma’ as a “race hoax” despite not contesting anything else about the content of the film or its portrayal of events beyond LBJ’s lack of support for the Civil Rights Movement.

This is not to say that I think we should just ignore historical inaccuracies in films, but rather, that people need to understand that “based on true events” means that there are going to be elements that are altered for dramatic effect. Certainly, having discussions about such issues is worthwhile, much like the discussions that have been raised in regard to the accuracy of the portrayal of the main character in ‘American Sniper,’ which Nolte says is about “warriors…properly honored and honestly portrayed.”

I can't stand this victim mentality.  We're the real victims here.

I can’t stand this victim mentality. We’re the real victims here.

At any rate, Nolte gloats about how ‘Selma’ is tanking at the box office, compared to all other Oscar nominees for Best Picture that are still in theaters, and that ‘Selma’ is really getting trounced by ‘American Sniper.’

The problem is, that, aside from the resounding box office success of ‘American Sniper,’ none of what Nolte says is entirely true. Nolte has to cherry-pick box office statistics about fluctuations in ticket-sale-percentage to make his arguments appear true.  For instance, Nolte’s statistics about ‘Selma’ experiencing a downturn in sales/sales percentage is only true if you look at the ‘three day weekend’ (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday).

However, since Nolte claims that the Oprah Winfrey-produced movie about MLK allegedly tanked over “the Martin Luther King, Jr. 4-day weekend,” (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) many of his claims become rather shaky, some outright false. That is, while it’s true that, following the Oscar-nomination announcements, many of the other Best Picture nominees enjoyed larger percentage increases in sales than ‘Selma,’ when the whole 4-day weekend is considered, ‘Selma’ actually increased it’s box office draw by 22% over the previous weekend, rather than experiencing a drop in sales, as Nolte contends, with over $5 million in business on MLK Day alone. So, it seems that plenty of people, although not record-box-office-numbers of people, did decide to celebrate MLK day by going to see ‘Selma.’

In further contrast to Nolte’s claim that ‘Selma’ is in a “death spiral,” ‘Selma’ was the fifth-highest grossing movie in the U.S. whether you look at the 3-day or the 4-day weekend. Currently, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ and ‘The Imitation Game’ are the only films among the Best Picture contenders other than ‘American Sniper’ to have earned more total money than ‘Selma,’ with ‘Selma’ likely on the way to besting ‘The Imitation Game.’ But I guess actual earnings are not a metric that fits in with Nolte’s imposed reality.

And although Nolte crows that ‘American Sniper’ is now the top-grossing MLK Day weekend movie of all time, and highlights its box office dominance compared to last year’s MLK Day weekend top-grosser, ‘Ride Along’, Nolte doesn’t mention that the previous all-time earnings record-holder for the MLK Day weekend is ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’, a movie rife with historical inaccuracies.

I’ll leave it to you to ponder why, at the end of his historically/statistically semi-accurate movie-earnings rant, Nolte later tacked on a brief paragraph urging his readers to go watch the PBS Civil Rights Movement documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize’, or Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ or ‘Do the Right Thing’, just as I’ll leave it to you to contemplate the strangeness of a man gloating over a movie about a sniper earning more money than a movie about a black Civil Rights leader who was assassinated by a man using a scoped rifle.

Until next time, see whatever movies you want—and don’t be afraid to think critically about them, or to learn more about the events portrayed, or to question the accuracy of statements made by people who really should see a therapist about their anger toward Oprah.

The Great MLK Day Snack Experiment

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

My wife, M–, or Ms. M– to her students, is a Montessori-certified preschool teacher, and darn good at it. Each year in the lead-up to MLK Day, she teaches a (age appropriate) unit on Martin Luther King, Jr. that is largely built around discussions of treating people fairly, and all that good, old Golden Rule stuff. I absolutely love this exercise and the stories that come out of it.

The lessons typically start off with a “circle” (full-class lesson time) involving the ‘snack experiment.’ In this exercise, the class is divided in half, or roughly in half. Usually, the division runs along gender lines, as that’s the easiest split to make, and one that the children will easily grasp. It also speaks to other forms of false divisions in our society, but I don’t think they get into all of that.

Anyway, depending on the age and temperaments of the children, there may or may not be an advanced warning that circle time involves an exercise in fairness and feelings. Each year, M– switches whether the boys or the girls get the snack at the outset of the experiment. For 2015, the girls got the snack first.

The group with the snack is encouraged to go ahead and eat the snack, while nothing is said to the group without the snack about whether or not they’re getting anything.

Inevitably, the group without a snack starts into fidgeting, and then a bit of grumbling, about why they aren’t getting the snack. Or they start asking if they’re going to get a snack at all.

Most often, there is also some hesitation on the part of those who have received something to eat, or at least from some of them, about whether or not they should be eating before everybody has been provided with a treat.

MLK blue

M— sits silent for a while, then starts the discussion. She asks, essentially, how everyone is feeling right at that moment.

The hands start to go up—usually from the slighted group. This year, the big word among the boys was “disappointed,” since the first respondent used that word, and it apparently sounded pretty good.

“I feel disappointed.”

“I feel mad…and disappointed.”

“I’m angry…and disappointed.”

“I’m disappointed…and sad…and mad.”

The side that got the snack sometimes has to be encouraged to give some input, which usually starts with some hesitant, and sheepish remarks.

“I feel good.”

“I liked the snack.”

It can take a little goading to get some other responses. But this year, the big breakthrough came from one of the older girls who raised her hand and said, “I don’t like it. I’m not happy. Because ( ) is my friend, and { } is my friend. And if they’re not happy, I’m not happy.”

Before long, other girls were joining in, offering up their thoughts on why it’s better when everybody gets a snack, and how it’s more fun when everybody gets to join in, why it’s hard to be happy when others are deliberately deprived of that same happiness.

When those empathetic thoughts start to come out, there is the beginning of a transformation throughout the class. Even without a treat, the snackless start to feel happier, realizing that others care about them, and are sticking up for them.

Of course, balance is inevitably restored. The snackless become…the snacked? Okay, let’s just go with ‘the hungry are fed.’

The discussion continues on, the children offering up sentiments that are occasionally amusing, occasionally profound, and sometimes both.

And, this year, the discussion was closed out when the youngest boy among them, after being prompted several times to raise his hand if he wanted to share his thoughts, finally did so. Then, talking through full cheeks, said, “I want more crackers.”

Happy MLK Day!

Sylvia Frumkin’s Place

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I’d venture a guess that many who enter the mental health field, as with any potentially dramatic profession all the way from police to executives, do so with visions informed by Hollywood. One of the main Hollywood portrayals of the mental health worker is is that of the therapist/psychiatrist as a well-compensated genius, ensconced in a plush office, treating the worried well or other “eccentric” or “neurotic” types, while constantly being admired by clients for one’s observational skill and ability to call forth ‘breakthrough’ moments. The other end of the spectrum is the heroic social worker who, through sheer tenacity, overcomes all the problems an impoverished neighborhood can throw at her, overcoming multi-generational patterns, and very recent traumas, to really, really make a difference in the lives of an entire community.

Many in the field are drawn to books by Yalom, or Rogers, or perhaps even some acolytes of Oprah, who tell us that just by listening and accepting our clients, or by throwing the right bit of tough-love advice a client’s way, true transformation will take place, and clients will make huge leaps forward, forever changing their lives for the better.

Susan Sheehan’s “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” is perhaps the perfect antidote to the pie-in-the-sky visions of one’s brilliance and dedication making all the clinical difference in the world. It balances out the ideas about the wondrous gift of therapy with the reality of chronic and severe mental illness, and its resistance to ‘ah-ha moments’ and dramatic progress. It pushes past that “we don’t need no medications” mantra, which can, in fairness, apply to a lot of mental health issues.

“Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” was first published as a four part series in The New Yorker in 1981, then published as a book in 1982. For it, Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1983. A new edition of the book was released roughly a year ago, including a new afterword by Sheehan. On reading about the re-issue in the online version of the New York Times in January of 2014, and having never read it before, I put it on my ‘to read’ list, and eventually checked out an old edition from the library.

Frumkin cover

The book, written from the perspective of a journalist, and not of a therapist trying to convince the readers of the efficacy of particular approaches to treatment, is involved in ways that few case studies can be. Sheehan spent over two years with Sylvia Frumkin (not her real name), a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Sheehan had a great deal of access not only to the information on Frumkin’s treatment and behavior during the period when Sheehan shadowed Frumkin, but also to family members and others, getting a great deal of background on Frumkin’s life prior to her diagnosis, and the progress and setbacks that took place before Sheehan had ever met her.

Having had numerous contacts with clients diagnosed with schizophrenia, or suffering from other forms of psychosis, most often from a distance, it took me a while to get through the book. That is, the kinds of delusions, rants, and flights from treatment that plague Frumkin and those trying to help her, and which Sheehan documents in detail, were familiar to me—of course, with Frumkin’s behaviors being particular to her own case. Still, it was like trying to read about many of the most frustrating aspects of work during one’s down time.

For the uninitiated, I imagine the book is much more compelling, rather than overly familiar, and thus, somewhat draining. In discussing “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” with colleagues, I’ve most often likened it to Kafka’s “The Trial”—a book that is deliberately tedious in its depiction of a bureaucracy more intent on sustaining itself than serving any clear purpose—although, that comparison probably has much more to do with what I bring to the reading of Sheehan’s book than to what she has documented in such depth of detail. Also, I don’t think the mental health system—either now or at the time—is deliberately set up to be frustrating…it just frequently is, particularly for those most in need of help.

In addition to capturing the daily details of the behavior of a (this) client with schizophrenia, Sheehan also does a masterful job of explaining, simply and concisely, some fairly complicated legal, medical, and treatment-related concepts. For instance, Sheehan outlines the concept of “least restrictive” forms of treatment, both the bane and the beauty of our mental health system, which has been around since well before the current lack of options made it so completely mandatory.  In doing so, she answers that most familiar of questions about why we can’t “just lock up” people suffering from chronic forms of mental illness who can become rather taxing to a variety of public and private resources.

The most fascinating elements of Frumkin’s story to me, though, were the ‘side treatments’—pointless, and sometimes dangerous, programs that Sylvia was subjected to. Without going into a great deal of detail, the treatments ranged from moving in with a relative and his family who believed that all Frumkin needed was a good dose of Jesus and discipline to overcome her laziness and wicked ways, to a doctor who felt that manipulating the insulin levels of patients to extreme degrees could cure them of schizophrenia.

Ultimately, what works for Frumkin (or worked back around 1980) is what still works for clients today: a small number of medications that prove effective in treating schizophrenia, as well as (to greatly simplify things) a structured environment and supportive professionals. Unfortunately, said medications can lose their effectiveness over time, or the side effects can become increasingly detrimental to the clients. It is also quite common for clients to simply quit taking their medications, feeling them unnecessary or viewing them as the root cause of various forms of discomfort or other troubles in their lives. In addition, the structured environments can only be maintained for as long as clients are compliant with treatment, and as long as the treatment remains effective, and as long as funding and various programs allow. On top of that, anything from the restructuring of institutions, to changes in law and other policy, to the career changes of providers, to differences of opinion between providers and family members, can lead to new doctors and other providers making changes, sometimes rather arbitrarily, to a client’s medication regimen or support systems. In Frumkin’s case, alterations to her treatment and medications were made numerous times, in the most haphazard of fashions, often by doctors and other providers who seemed ignorant of her case history, or of how the medications work.

One might also note that this book was written back before the U.S., under President Ronald Reagan, decided that people with chronic mental illness enjoy the freedom that homelessness brings. So, Frumkin’s movements within the system are relatively easy in terms of her various forays into decompensation leading to fairly quick, and relatively long-term inpatient placements, with step-downs to semi-independent housing, and other supports that are much rarer today (and for most of the last three decades).

Ideally, Sheehan’s book would be taught in graduate schools, or maybe at earlier levels, by instructors who are familiar with the clinical aspects of schizophrenia; the current and historical treatments for it; and the current and historical state of affairs with regard to mental health facilities, available inpatient beds for clients with mental health issues, and legal and systemic complications to accessing those beds or other program options.

To be clear, it is necessary, as therapists, or in other capacities in the mental health field, to come equipped with a belief that we can make a difference. Without a bit of the dreamer in us, we would never head down this path to begin with.

But it is also necessary for providers at all levels to understand just what they are up against, particularly given that almost all providers in the mental health field will end up doing at least a round or two in the public mental health system–from practicums/internships to early jobs to entire careers–where the most challenging of clients often end up by default—frequently after being abandoned by families and other support systems, including insurance companies.

Frumkin’s family, as dysfunctional as they are, and as frequently detrimental to her treatment as they can be, at least hang in there to the extent that they can—which I imagine was at least somewhat less difficult when hospital beds and supported living options weren’t at such a premium as they are today. In the end, though, this isn’t a story of a family hanging together and triumphing over a terrible disease. It’s the story of a debilitating mental illness, and the toll it takes on the client, as well as those around her, and the wildly inconsistent efforts by a variety of people and systems to help her cope.

Welcome to Sylvia’s Place.

Merry Elvismas!

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Well, it’s Elvismas time, pretty baby.  And the snow is fallin’ on the ground…

In years past, I held Elvismas parties each year on Elvis’ birthday (January 8), as well as “Departure Day” parties, on the anniversary of Elvis…leaving us.

I won’t get into all the gory details right now, but will say that I do hope to get the house put back together enough to where I can get the shrine, or a version of it, put back up.

In years past, my dear friends over at Creepy Cult (see their web site–under construction–here: Creeps;  or their Etsy page here: And Creeps;  or their Facebook page here: And More Creeps–all with plenty of nifty things) would print up postcards for me on the occasions of the parties–at least when I got them the artwork on time and they had extra space on a print run to fit them in–because they’re cool like that, and because I’m cheap like that.

Elvis consumed

The image above is one such postcard from all the way back in 1993, when I devoted a bit more of my time to doing design work–if you want to call it that.  Elvis had a twin brother, Jesse, who never got to see the light of day; and Elvis easily had enough cool for at least two people.  So the image addresses that concept, along with Vernon Presley’s story that on the night of Elvis’ birth, he saw a powerful omen–the sky ringed in blue.

Peace, y’all.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.