You Might Get Shot. Now Enjoy the Show!

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

I don’t go out to movies all that often. My wife and I spend plenty of our down time at home staring at movies and TV shows. So when we actually have a chance to go out, and the energy to do so, staring at a screen is pretty far down the list of activities we choose.

Prior to Friday, November 3rd, when we went to see Blade Runner 2049, the last time we’d been to a movie in a theater was…oh, I don’t know, The Revenant? Maybe Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

So, it’s possible I’m just forgetting things, but before the showing of Blade Runner 2049, there was an announcement about knowing where the exits are, and exiting the theater in an orderly fashion in the event of an emergency which seemed like a new and different thing to me–or at least a new and different tone to an old thing.

There may have been similar announcements prior to movies back when I was a kid, mostly suggesting or stating that the expected emergency would be a fire, but, again, I might be forgetting things, or misremembering them. Still, I’m pretty sure that, despite the long-ago shooting of a President in Ford’s Theater, we weren’t being prompted to think that we might be the victims of a gun-toting psychopath, politically- or otherwise-motivated. Getting shot in a theater was something reserved for really important people back then.

This time, though, the announcement about the emergency exits came after an announcement with the catch phrase “If you see something, say something”, which came after an M&Ms-sponsored announcement not to use cell phones during the movie.

So, in the complete context of the announcements, there was a request to be polite despite modern technology, followed by a suggestion that terrorists might target the movie theater, followed by a none-too-specific reminder that at least one well-known mass-murder had taken place in a movie theater.

In other words, merely by being at a movie theater, we had all become Presidential in our desirability as targets for people looking to make something happen…even if that something was just racking up an impressive body count.

Given that Thor: Ragnarok was playing in the much larger, opening-day, capacity-crowd theater just through the wall to our right, and I was in a much smaller theater, with only about 12 other movie-goers, I figured we were not a prime target.

theater target

But still, with the presentation of those announcements, a twinge of panic surged up in me. I quickly dismissed it. (Hey, I’m a trained mental health professional—and in addition to the NRA thinking I’m responsible for stopping mass shootings, I know how to stop anxiety). And by the time the previews were over, and the movie started, I had almost entirely forgotten about the notion of danger. I’m not one to live in (too much) fear, or (too much) paranoia, or to imagine (all that much) danger is around every corner. I know that the chances of being killed in a mass shooting are pretty slim, despite the great deal of attention that is paid to them.

Yet, I was saddened to think that this is what we’ve allowed to happen, what we’ve chosen to accept…that we need to be reminded, before watching a movie in public, (or attending any other event, of any other kind) that we need to be prepared for the possibility that we might get shot, or blown up, or…okay, mostly that we might get shot.

We’ve been directed to think that because guns are a sacred American right, that we all have to live with the possibility that guns will be brought into any situation, anywhere, and that we should be prepared to duck down and slip out in the event of a mass shooting…er, I mean, an emergency.

We’ve been directed to think that because guns are a sacred American right, we should all just start bringing guns into every situation, so that if someone starts shooting at us, we can all shoot back.

We’ve all been directed to believe that this madness is normalcy, the expected price of freedom, although no other developed countries have to live with the expectation that any random citizen—not somebody connected to an extreme political movement, not somebody connected to a network of other like-minded terrorists, not somebody who has to engage in a great deal of planning in order to inflict maximum destruction to make a point—but just anybody, by right of birth into a particular geographical area between Mexico and Canada, can stock up on guns and ammo, and create a name for her/himself (okay, it’s almost always a him) by entering a public place, guns a-blazing.

We’re told that people being murdered in movie theaters, their workplaces, malls, nightclubs, and even in churches and schools, is the price of freedom…to be addressed with thoughts and prayers…to be ignored by lawmakers, who tie the hands of law enforcement, and who then blame counselors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers, for not fixing the problem…all to ensure the profitability of the NRA/gun lobby.

So, sit back, relax, and do your damnedest to enjoy the show (or your day at work, your stop in the food court, the music and dancing, the sermon, your math lesson…), because you never know when your average, everyday, American outing might turn into an average, everyday, American mass shooting.

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The “Mental Health System” is NOT Responsible for Stopping Mass Shootings

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

If your power was out, would you call up your dentist and cuss her/him out for not fixing your wiring? If your car wouldn’t start, would you say it was a problem for your plumber? If your spouse filed for divorce, would you seek the help of your dog-walker?

I’ll assume your answer is, “No.”

Yet, it has become a routine part of the American dialog that when mass shootings are committed, not only are we all immediately told by politicians not to ‘politicize’ such situations–politicians being those people in our society who are tasked with establishing law. But we are also told that such killings are a problem of the ‘mental health system’–which has no power to enforce law or even to make anybody get mental health care. All while law enforcement—which is, well, the means by which laws are enforced—is left out of the picture, except to say that if current laws were enforced, then we wouldn’t have such situations, and that no new laws are necessary.

In other words, pro-gun/pro-gun-lobby forces tell us that an issue properly dealt with by the legal system and law enforcement is actually a problem of the mental health system.

Think of all—or even a few–of the forms of human tragedy that involve human actions inflicting harm—or even death–on human victims.

How many of those types of violence are attributed to flaws in the ‘Mental Health System’?

We could eliminate terrorism if only we could fix the mental health system!

Drunk driving could be eradicated if only the mental health system would address the problem!

Embezzlement could be ended if only white-collar criminals had access to appropriate mental health services!

Child molestation is, at base, a mental health issue, not an issue of…what? Access to children?

Granted, it’s possible that terrorism, drunk driving, child molestation and white collar crime could potentially be reduced if those people who engage (or potentially engage) in such actions had mental health supports or other forms of guidance that led them away from those behaviors and toward more positive actions. But exactly when does anybody expect those supports to intervene, and in what form?

Gee, ma’am, we see you’ve been looking up ‘jihadist’ websites, would you maybe like some counseling to help you get those bad ideas out of your head?

Son, I notice you’ve had quite a few drinks, and your car is just outside. Perhaps if I could help you clarify your goals around driving right now, you might see that Lyft would be the better option.

Ma’am, it appears you might be toying with the idea of skimming funds from your clients. Would you mind talking with me for an hour or so, so we can map out some better life goals for you, that you then might be able to share with your friends and co-workers?

Sir, we’ve noticed you frequently hanging out just outside the Claire’s, and it seems you might be taking an unhealthy interest in young girls. Would you, perhaps, like some counseling to prevent you from ever molesting a tween?

Just so we’re all clear, mental healthcare is not predictive, except in the very narrow aspect of identifying factors that might make someone more pre-disposed to one behavior or another. But mental health interventions are rarely brought to bear, unless a person who is at risk for committing a particular act has had the foresight to seek out help her/himself, or the legal system has gotten involved because of harms already inflicted.

How many of the people who blame the shortcomings of the ‘mental health system’ for gun violence and mass shootings could give even a rudimentary explanation of what that ‘mental health system’ consists of, or offer any kind of reasonable, fact-based, evidence-based ideas that might offer even minimal improvements in the ‘mental health system’s’ ability to stop gun violence? How many of the ‘mental health system’ blamers can even explain how anybody would access mental health services…or be pushed into those services if they were a potential risk for mass shooting?

Lucy bullet

I’d guess that number is hovering somewhere between the number of arms on a rattlesnake, and the number of good sequels to ‘The Godfather’.

One major problem with the argument that the ‘mental health system’ can stop gun violence is that there is no way for the ‘mental health system’ to know who has guns and who does not, aside from the owners of guns (and perhaps their friends and family, where privacy laws don’t get in the way) telling providers in the ‘mental health system’ that they own guns—and that they intend to use them.

That is to say, unless the client of a mental health provider makes a fairly specific threat to use a gun or guns to kill somebody, or multiple somebodies, and the mental health provider knows that the client has access to those weapons, the mental health provider has very few options to stop such violence.

Hell, even in the presence of a specific threat, the mental health provider has few options other than to inform police, and hope the police can act to stop the person making the threats.

And, in case you’re wondering, the police have very limited powers to intervene where potential ‘mass shooters’ have a legal right to own guns, or when those potential shooters have not done or said anything that is actionable by police—like having made a specific threat to use firearms against specific people, and/or in specific places.

So the option to inform law enforcement is often little more than a mental health provider covering her/his own ass.   ‘I made the call to 911 at exactly 8:19 p.m. on September 29, 2017, and spoke to operator #224.’ It goes in the client record, just in case it becomes relevant in a court case.

But the cops, like mental health providers, are not some pre-cog, future-crimes superstars, able to cull out dangers just by looking at people. And even those police and mental health providers who might be extraordinarily perceptive are often hobbled by the actual law. It’s rare that somebody can be arrested or put into mental health treatment for something they might do. You see, law enforcement works on principles of catching people who have already broken laws, not on the idea that people could or might break laws. I’m not sure changing those principles would be good for any of us—getting locked up or thrown into mandator treatment based on what our personal profiles suggest we might do.

The ‘mental health system’ and the people working in that system, are there to help people overcome problems across the broad spectrum of all human problems that people can address with some psychoeducation and guidance aimed at improving self-awareness and promoting behavioral changes. The providers in that system rely solely on the communication of the people they are treating (verbal and otherwise) to convey information that might help to understand those problems and find solutions.

It’s rare for 1) a person intending to commit a mass shooting to relay that information to a mental health provider, or 2) for such a person to even be in treatment at the time s/he (okay, it’s essentially always a he) entertaining such thoughts.

On top of all that, it’s ludicrous that the gun-loving citizens of the U.S.A. somehow see the ‘mental health system’ as the solution to this problem, given their penchant for stereotyping mental health providers as a bunch of uptight women and effeminate men, and mental healthcare itself as being for the weak and obviously insane.

But then, the idea is that the people who would commit mass shootings are the type of people who would obviously be identified and locked up by professionals—because, well, that’s just how things work—right?

It’s as if the pro-gun/anti-gun-control forces simultaneously see mental health providers as the prime movers in the ‘wussification of America’, and, at the same time, super-badass profilers, who can somehow identify, and then take out, the trash that preys on innocent Americans who only want to enjoy a movie, or a day at school, or a concert, or a church service, or any other kind of public gathering, without having to fear being shot.

So what is it, all you opponents of gun control? Is ‘the mental health system’ the only thing standing between you and a bunch of violent psychopaths, hell-bent on shooting up all that is American? Or is the mental health system run by a bunch of anti-American, ivory-tower, namby-pamby know-it-alls who want to take your guns away?

You can’t have it both ways.

The real failure isn’t in the mental health system—or in law enforcement–it’s in the foolish idea that arming everyone leads to greater safety by ensuring the ability of everyone to stop everyone else who shouldn’t be allowed access to arms, and a legal system propped up by people that allow such foolishness to continue.

 

 

“Suicide by Cop”—Mental Illness and Law Enforcement Response

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Georgia Tech engineering student and Pride Alliance president Scout Schultz phoned 911 at 11:17 p.m. Eastern last Saturday night to report a dangerous, armed individual—Scout Shultz. All indications are that the call was a suicide attempt, which the police, lamentably, completed.

In the world of crisis intervention and suicide prevention, we routinely assess for plan, means, and intent. In other words, we ask if someone expressing suicidal ideation has a plan to harm themself; if so, we ask if they have the means to carry out the plan; and we also seek to determine how determined the suicidal person is to actually go through with the plan.

For instance, if an adult male says he is suicidal and has a plan to shoot himself, but he has no access to a gun, there is a plan but no means. If that same person has a plan to shoot himself, and access to a gun, but says he is not going to do it because he would never do that to his family or has religious reasons for avoiding suicide, then he has a plan and means, but the intent is absent or lacking. If that same person has a plan to shoot himself as soon as he finishes his drink, access to a gun, and no reasons he identifies for not shooting himself, then plan, means and intent have all come together in a rather urgent fashion.

In the case of Schultz, the plan, means, and intent might be characterized in the following way.

Plan: suicide by cop; means: a call to 911 to anonymously report self (in the third person) as an armed danger to the community; intent: plenty enough to make the call and brandish a weapon at the police.

Scout and the cops

Crisis intervention or crisis escalation?

Schultz apparently knew enough to indicate the possible presence of a gun, rather than just reporting the knife (which turned out to be a “multipurpose tool”—something that is generally less fatal than a gun, or even, say, a hunting knife or kitchen knife). The threat of a firearm is likely to put officers in a different frame of mind prior to even arriving on scene, even if protocols are still essentially the same.

Even so, it is puzzling that an officer, with a second officer nearby who was also aiming a gun at the allegedly dangerous individual, would choose to stop said multipurpose-tool-wielding individual with a bullet to the chest. Granted, even with the best training available, professionals can panic in novel situations, or situations where they feel threatened. And, generally speaking, the sense of feeling threatened is the main criteria for police officers to be excused for fatally shooting anybody, regardless of what that anybody may be armed with, or why they may be engaging in some form of threatening behavior.

For those not familiar with the dynamic, I suppose there could be questions about how being shot by the police is a form of suicide. But for people in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, and, I suspect, for a majority of law enforcement officers out there, it’s far more common than one might imagine. Deliberately provoking an armed person into killing you is, arguably, less difficult than taking the steps yourself. For instance, if you don’t have access to a gun, shooting yourself is rather difficult. Getting shot by someone else is, perhaps, more within reach.

Beyond that, any method of suicide where you have to push yourself into that final, fatal act forces you to overcome eons of ingrained animal behavior that drives you to keep yourself alive. With the right threats, a suicidal person can turn that same instinct in someone else into a means for suicide completion.

When it comes to crisis intervention, and 911 dispatch, suicide by cop is also a bit of a conundrum. If a person calls to report suicidal ideation and refuses to ‘contract for safety’ (essentially, agree to do something other than killing him/herself), the person can report any of a number of intended means of suicide, including “suicide by cop”, knowing that the standard protocol in any report of intent to complete suicide is to send police out for a ‘welfare check’. Whether or not the person reports “suicide by cop” as the intended means, he/she is likely to know that the right provocation can lead to the use of deadly force. The police will get almost always get dispatched one way or another, because of the threat of suicide, and the directives to get suicidal people to an Emergency Room for a mental health assessment.

Schultz found a way to bypass some of the usual protocols by going straight to 911 and exaggerating the threat. No crisis counselors engaging in a clinical assessment. Deliberately misleading information provided to 911 dispatchers, which was, in turn, relayed to police.

But the entire situation begs plenty of questions about how Schultz’s plan, assuming Schultz was fully intending to die, could have been brought to fruition with what was essentially a minor manipulation of information.

Why was a shot to the chest the means the officer chose as self-preservation and to subdue the threat? If a gun needed to be the tool of choice, why wasn’t a debilitating, but non-fatal shot attempted instead? Why did the officers not use a taser or pepper spray to disable Schultz?

But, perhaps most of all, we need to ask if there are there police officers who aren’t trained to recognize and address attempts at suicide by cop? Police officers, so divorced from knowledge of mental health issues and basic human behavior that all threats are considered deadly? Police officers who are not trained to reasonably assess the threat level any given individual represents and to respond with non-lethal force in every instance possible?

Granted, when they are sent out on a call, law enforcement officers never know what they are walking into, or how any particular situation may unfold, and only have whatever information has been provided dispatchers, and then been filtered down to them. Such an information chain most certainly adds to the stress of police officers’ jobs, and the potential for error.

This post isn’t intended as an anti-police rant. In crisis intervention, mental health professionals have to work closely with the police in coordinating appropriate responses to potentially dangerous situations—which are most often about clients putting themselves at risk more than anyone else. That said, Police are the ones who put themselves in harm’s way as first responders, to ensure that nurses, doctors, social workers, and counselors can then step in to engage in assessments and treatment.

But we need to make sure that police aren’t bringing guns to a multipurpose-tool fight as part of a routine and accepted response, especially when that fight is against people struggling with mental illness—lest the need for mental health assessment and treatment is removed by a fatal, law-enforcement-administered gunshot.

My One-Tweet War with Tyrannosaurus Rump

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

It was a glorious day in early October, 2015. It seems a lifetime ago. Or perhaps an alternate universe ago? Definitely a different reality.

Anyway, a Twitter notification popped up on my phone, letting me know that @realDonaldTrump was following me.

Really? The “real” Donald Trump was following me on Twitter?

Assuming it was a parody account, I hopped over to check it out. And Hoe-Lee Ess-Aitch-Eye-Tee—it was really the for-real real Donald Trump following me.

Okay, maybe he let his youngest kid play with his phone. Or maybe his handlers were busy following everybody that fell into his “target demographic” of middle-aged white males. Or maybe it was all a game to get a follow-back and then dump me.  Who knows?

Current events at the time were mostly swirling around the recent Umpqua Community College shooting. Tyrannosaurus Rump was tweet-defending Dr. Ben Carson’s suggestions that people hit active shooters with chairs.

Out on the campaign trail, the T. rump was getting massive amounts of free media coverage for talking about how there is no gun problem in the good ol’ U.S. of A., only a mental health problem. Here’s just one, tweet-based piece of that coverage from a Washington Post reporter:

philip-bump-on-trump

So, mere minutes after realizing I had a titan of industry as one of my Twitter followers, I sent this tweet out to my newest fan:

my-trump-tweet

I sat and waited a bit for a response from Trump or any of my fewer-than-400 followers. If only I’d known the trick of putting a period before his address. Okay, I still probably wouldn’t have gotten all that much of a reaction, but I can dream, can’t I?

The minutes turned to more minutes, and soon I went off and did something else…like took a nap, or maybe put away some laundry. The TV was on. I know this because that’s where I heard the Tyrannosaurus Rump going off about the mental health vs. guns stuff—the stuff that prompted me to send my not-all-that-clever Tweet.

I saw no further notifications. I hadn’t provoked some backlash from the T. rump’s followers, leading to a ‘blowing up’ of my phone.

I popped onto Twitter an hour or two later, and quickly realized I was down a follower from the last time I had logged on.

Could it be?

No!

Not only had the T. rump given up on following me, the man who would become the leader of the free world (barring any religious-conversion-inspiring results from election recounts) had done this:

blocked-trump

Blocked.

I was blocked.

The tweet that I had thought was a total throw-away, a barely-conceived idea that I’d bounced out into the world, because of some audio of T. rump I’d heard over the local news–had upset the Tyrannosaur (or had alarmed his handlers) to such an extent that I was no longer allowed to even view the stream-of-garbageness that flows from his fingers, into his phone, and out to the worldwide web.

To this day, I cannot even see the wit and wisdom the T. rump shares with the world…I mean, except by looking at any other media outlet anywhere, all of which seem to be obsessed with reporting on tweets from the Tyrannosaurus Rump, or by logging into my dummy Twitter account that I set up mostly for the purpose of playing along with @Midnight’s hashtag wars.

Still, it hurts to know that I caused so much strife to someone who was just reaching out, looking for a friend. How could I have been so careless as to cause so much hurt? Why did I let my mean spirit provoke an instant blockage?

Yes, the man who would unthinkably become the leader of the free world had been so traumatized by my nasty comments that he would cut himself off from me for good. Citizens be damned.

Remember–your President Elect will not tolerate disrespectful tweets.

No, really, remember it.

And if I go missing, well, I regret nothing…well, at least not where that tweet is concerned.

But, really?

That’s what got me blocked?

My friends say worse sh*t to me on a daily basis.
Daily.
I kid you not.
And he’s going to have access to nuclear weapons?
Oh, good god, I probably shouldn’t have made those Tyrannosaurus Rump comments.

Yes, Breitbart, 33,000 People ARE Killed with Guns Each Year

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

There is absolutely nothing controversial about Hillary Clinton’s claim that, in the United States, “We have 33,000 people a year who die from guns”–except maybe to those who don’t understand how words and numbers work.

Yet, AWR Hawkins, breitbart.com’s “Second Amendment Columnist,” posted a “Fact-Check” column, titled “No, 33,000 Not Killed with Guns Each Year” following the third presidential debate, claiming that Clinton deliberately inflated the CDC numbers of firearm deaths by adding in suicides. This is not the first time Hawkins has posted similar complaints.

What Hawkins fails to do is explain how suicides by firearm somehow fall outside of the “33,000 people a year who die from guns.” Certainly, Hawkins must understand that somebody who uses a gun to kill him/herself is dead, and did use a gun in order to die—making that person someone who ‘died from a gun.’

Using Hawkins’ preferred language of people “killed with guns each year” still doesn’t change anything. A person who commits suicide with a firearm still was, in fact, killed with a gun.

suicide-gun-mouth

Hawkins also strikes out by putting the phrase “gun violence” in quotation marks, saying that the use of that phrase (which Clinton did not use in the quote he complains about) somehow plays into Clinton’s strategy of fooling the public. But, again, killing oneself with a firearm does qualify as “gun violence”–first of all, because it involves an act of violence; and secondly, because it involves a gun. Or you can reverse that so the gun is first and the violence is second—still doesn’t change anything.

I don’t want to get into speculation about things that Clinton didn’t say, but perhaps if she had used the phrase “gun crimes” or had referred to murders using guns, then Hawkins would have a better argument. But Clinton didn’t. So Hawkins doesn’t.

And, in case you’re wondering, the 33,000 figure is dead-on. Here’s a chart, showing the CDC numbers of gun deaths for the years 2010 to 2014 (2014 being the most recent year statistics are available) clearly showing that gun deaths have reached well above 33,000 per year for 2012, 2013, and 2014, and averaged 32,964 per year for the five-year period.

avg-gun-deaths-2010-to-2014

A handy chart of CDC statistics on gun deaths, lifted from Everytown for Gun Safety at  https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/

Now, I get that gun-loving Americans, including the Breitbart crowd, don’t like to believe anything negative about guns. They also don’t like to believe that they may, at some point, end up so distraught, or so deep in the throes of mental illness, that they might use their guns on themselves, and/or their family members or other loved ones—or perhaps even neighbors or random strangers.

By pushing the suicide statistics aside, or pretending they ‘don’t count’, Hawkins ignores a harsh reality here: that people who own guns tend to kill themselves with those guns far more than they kill an intruder in their home, or otherwise defend themselves from the big, bad, scary world out there. People who own guns kill themselves with those guns more often than criminals use guns to kill innocent citizens; and more frequently than ‘gang violence’ leads to gun deaths.

There is also considerable overlap in the “murder/suicide” category—where gun owners kill their significant others, family members, co-workers, or random strangers, prior to turning their guns on themselves. And because guns are such a quick and effective killing tool, the decision to use them in an act of violence on loved ones or oneself is often impulsive—a few too many bad days in a row, a bad argument following a few too many beers, or even a partner deciding they want out of a relationship, and the gun comes out as the ultimate way to put a stop to whatever is so aggravating.

As for mental illness, Hawkins’ argument becomes even less convincing in the face of all the clamoring about how we don’t have a gun problem in the U.S., but we have a mental health problem. Of course, people who make such an argument are usually talking about the mental health issues of mass shooters. Yet, if we (properly) view suicide as a mental health issue, then the numbers of firearm suicides become that much more disturbing. Gun owners kill themselves at a rate roughly twice as high as the rate of gun murders. That’s a vast mental health issue that’s not being addressed, and that is being exacerbated by guns.

Yes, I know that many of the people who want to argue in favor of guns like to point out that people who commit suicide will find the means to do so, even if you take their guns away–an argument which is demonstrably false in terms of overall lethality. There are many ways to map out the evidence showing this falsehood, including the high rate of suicide by firearm–roughly 50% of all suicides in the U.S. are completed using guns. Another way to conceptualize the difference in suicide methods is to compare suicide completion rates using firearms relative to suicide completion rates using other methods. For instance, plenty more people survive suicide attempts by overdosing on pills than survive suicide attempts using guns.

Those who are willing to brush off the connection between firearms and suicide also sometimes argue that suicide is a matter of personal freedom—of being allowed to end one’s life when one chooses. I will say that I’m not completely opposed to people being able to end their own lives on terms they choose. However, I’ve learned enough to know that people are least equipped to make that decision quickly, impulsively, or while in a deep depression (among many other factors). Very few people attempt suicide while they are thinking in the clearest of terms, or making a rational decision based on a comprehensive review of the facts.

Depression and many other forms of mental illness are notorious for their association with cognitive distortions, aka, “thinking errors”—misinterpreting the world around one, the impact one’s actions have on others, and the view other people have of one (again, among many other factors). As I’ve pointed out before, the idea that a gun keeps one safe is, itself, a cognitive distortion. The suicide-by-firearm statistics make that clear.

There is also, perhaps, a great irony here, in that Hawkins believes he is advocating for gun ownership, when the “mental health” approach to suicide prevention involves removing the means for suicide. That is, safety planning for suicide prevention involves taking away those means most likely to be used in a suicide attempt, while the person at risk for suicide gets treatment.

So, how do we address the mental health problems associated with guns and suicide? Take the guns away, at least until the person moves beyond risk for suicide. Of course, mental health treatment is not predictive. Risk factors can be weighed, and support systems assessed, but given the ease with which a person can use a gun to end her/his own life, a dip back into depression, a few more bad days, a drift away from regular engagement with one’s (positive) coping skills, and the risk can escalate once again.

Hawkins thinks he is supporting gun rights by poo-pooing the statistics on firearm deaths in the United States. But what he is actually doing is pointing out that suicide is twice as big a problem, where guns are concerned, as murder is. His solution is to pretend the people who commit suicide with guns aren’t really people who “die from guns.”

At base, he is arguing that people who commit suicide with guns aren’t really people…or perhaps aren’t really people who deserve the support to go on living.

 

Grousing Into The Void

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

I’m in one of those spells where everything writing-wise is coming out all wrong. It’s not writer’s block, as such. I’ve been writing—some. But I get partway into something and it ends up sounding muddled, or just heads off in its own direction.

When writing goes off in its own direction, it can be a pretty great thing—if it works or is at least interesting. Lately, though, it’s just been frustrating and boring. And all of the recent writing that’s chosen its own direction has just walked away. As in, it’s been very pedestrian.

For instance, a few weeks back, I started in on a piece about how the Fifty Shades of Grey movie promotes gross misunderstandings of human sexuality, along with committing the possibly worse sin of being bland. But what I managed to cobble together sounded almost as ill-informed as the screenplay, and nearly as tedious. Not to mention, Fifty Shades wasn’t exactly a hot topic by the time I got around to it.

Another piece on equating authenticity with a lack of personal growth came across as snobbish—and not in an entertaining way. I set it aside.

Writing on anti-Millennial stereotyping in the media led me to make generalizations nearly as pointless as the ones I was attempting to challenge.

The politically-motivated shootings at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Clinic, followed shortly thereafter by the politically-motivated mass murder in San Bernardino, might normally have prompted me to write pieces challenging pro-gun-violence myths. Instead, I squandered some of my time and energy arguing online with pro-gun-violence folks, some so completely irrational that I fear they might be Trump supporters.

Grouse

Grouse…

void

…meet void.

This is not to say that the time and energy I spend writing my blog is anything other than a squandering.  It’s just one that provides me with some focus and enjoyment—or, rather, some enjoyment when I can actually focus. At some level, we all know that if we stop whatever we’re doing, the world will continue on—although we hope a part of the world might be impacted, or at least notice.

Of course, as I’m puzzling through all of this, perhaps I should mention that I got a promotion at work. I love the new role, but it came with a major upheaval in my schedule. I’m still struggling to functionally organize my time away from the job.  That said, the writing travails started to take hold before I was even offered the new position.

At base, I think it might come down to a fear that the time spent writing is wasted, or at least that its standing in the way of me getting other, more practical things done. More and more lately, the writing sessions, have ended up with frustration, leading me to move on, with the intent of doing something ‘productive.’ Unfortunately, that productivity hasn’t exactly materialized.

So for now, I’m going to go do something really productive—like stringing up Christmas lights (much later in the season than I intended) that I’ll have to take down in a few weeks’ time.

Anyway, thanks for reading.

 

Guns Don’t Kill People. Stickers Kill People!

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

For decades, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” did the job of letting tough guys/tough gals let everyone know that they viewed more gun violence and the threat of gun violence as the number one solution to gun violence.

But, with the Internet opening us up to increasingly contentious arguments with complete strangers, and with gun violence reaching into more and more corners of American life—claiming the lives of children at school, moviegoers, and people coming together to worship, to name just a few, the National Rifle Association (NRA) had to get more creative in promoting their simplistic ideology that guns are always the answer.

After all, how do you sell mass murder to people? How do you continue to convince people that guns are the answer to guns? How do you adapt the idea of mutually assured destruction—so effective in the global arms race—to the micro level, getting people to think it’s a great idea right in their homes and neighborhoods?

Well, you come up with more dumb slogans that are effectively meaningless, mostly untrue, and promote the continued stockpiling of weapons among the decreasing percentage of American homes where people actually keep guns.

Just read any comment thread on any article about gun violence or gun control, and it’s guaranteed you’ll see the tried and true “outlaws” and “guns don’t kill” slogans in there right alongside the NRA’s other branding strategy updates: killers will find a way to kill even if they don’t have guns; we just need to enforce the laws that are already on the books; Chicago has strict gun laws/high gun violence; mental illness is the problem, not guns; and so on.

One of the latest buzz-concepts is that “Gun Free Zones” are the problem, not guns. Put that little “gun free zone” sticker in the front window of a business or school, and it will attract mass shooters like fruit flies to old fruit.

Of course, just like every other NRA-sponsored motto, it defies logic, and isn’t actually true in any demonstrable way.

First of all, let’s take a quick look at the origins of the “gun-free zone” campaign. Of course anyone arguing on an Internet comments thread could look up the “Gun-Free Zone Act of 1990”—say, on Wikipedia which shows how completely stupid the “gun-free zones kill” argument is, but why bother knowing anything when it’s so much easier to get angry while being completely wrong?

Beware citizen!  Steer clear of this sign or you might get shot!

Beware citizen! Steer clear of this sign or you might get shot!

Basically, the act was put in place 25 years ago to keep high school students from bringing guns to school and shooting each other. Sounds pretty reasonable. Of course, gun lovers jump off at that point and say it didn’t work.  Kids are still shooting each other.  And, of course the only way to make sure kids stop shooting each other is to make sure more kids have the means to shoot each other.

Yet, as much as it may or may not have kept little Bobby from sneaking a gun into school in his Incredible Hulk backpack, one thing that the Gun-Free Zone Act did NOT do was prevent armed security personnel—and other authorized parties—from carrying guns in schools. In other words, gun-free zones are not actually gun-free. Ideally, they are free from guns in the hands of people who are not supposed to have them—just like the rest of the entire country.

That is to say, The Gun-Free Zone Act, and all of its attendant signs and window-stickers, was a politically-motivated band-aid measure that really didn’t do anything except make a few bucks for businesses that print signs and stickers.

Before the Gun-Free Zone Act, it was illegal for kids to bring guns to school and shoot each other. After the Gun-Free Zone Act, it was still illegal for kids to bring guns to school and shoot each other. The big change was that after the passage of the law, kids could get in lots and lots of trouble for bringing a gun to school, even if they didn’t actually get around to shooting anybody with it.

Due to other situations of gun violence, like mass shootings in post offices and office buildings, numerous business officials, and government bodies also decided they would declare their workplaces “gun-free zones”—basically meaning that employees were not supposed to be packing heat at their cubicles, or while stocking shelves, or sorting mail.

Somehow, though, we’ve gotten to the point where the NRA, and all of the people who parrot the NRA talking points, apparently think it is somehow unreasonable to prevent, say, junior high kids from bringing guns to school, or to keep Jerry in accounting from having a loaded weapon tucked in his waistband while he microwaves his Hot Pocket in the breakroom.

Despite the proliferation of numerous “gun-free zone” signs and stickers, schools and businesses were still free to have armed security personnel on site. And, thanks to “concealed carry” laws, which exist in several states, and often contain provisions to explicitly allow concealed carry in gun-free zones, plenty of people can actually take their guns into “gun-free zones.”

And lets be clear. Umpqua Community College—the latest site of a well-publicized mass shooting, if I get this posted before another one happens—was NOT a gun-free zone, as so many pro-gun folk are claiming. That is, concealed carry is allowed on the Umpqua Community College campus, so long as people are legally allowed to have their guns with them via concealed carry permits.

Still, there are plenty of pro-gun folk, even those who are aware that concealed carry is allowed on the Umpqua Community College campus, who inexplicably–even immediately after acknowledging that concealed carry is allowed on the UCC campus–cannot stop claiming that UCC is a gun-free zone. Apparently, allowing guns in a gun-free zone is not enough to appease some people.

Perhaps what the NRA is pushing for, with it’s blame-the-gun-free-zones campaign, is to allow open carry in schools, and everywhere else.

But what the NRA is actually demanding is the removal of gun-free zone stickers and signs. After all, the NRA has already crafted and passed many laws that have rendered the gun-free zone laws moot.

Sure, plenty of mass shootings, and just plain old shootings have happened in areas that were labeled “gun-free zones,” just like numerous shootings have taken place in areas with no such labels.

But there is zero evidence that any mass shooter ever chose a target specifically because it was labeled a gun-free zone.

And despite the frequent existence of “good guys with guns” in the very same locations where mass shootings take place—whether those are labeled gun-free zones or not—there has not been some sharp increase in citizens preventing mass shootings as the number of guns has proliferated in the United States, or some great reduction in the number of mass shootings as mass shooters get scared away at the possibility that there might be people with concealed carry permits on hand.

In other words, as much as the NRA pushes the idea that more people with guns means that mass shootings will be stopped, there are still a huge number of mass shootings, and just plain-old shootings, taking place in the United States. As much as the NRA has succeeded at establishing more concealed carry and open carry laws, the shootings haven’t stopped, or even decreased.

But it’s so much more convenient to for the NRA to launch polly-wanna-cracker slogan campaigns to its ready audience of parrots than it is for the NRA to engage in any substantive reform of laws that might actually improve the safety of all the “good guys with guns,” as well as those of us who really don’t feel the need to keep guns.

Of course, the NRA exists to provoke gun sales, not to concern itself with public safety.

In fact, the good folks at the NRA have gotten so desperate to distract the American people, that they are blaming an ineffectual band-aid law for gun violence.

So, let’s do it. Let’s take down all of the “gun free zone” signs and stickers tomorrow. All of them. Everywhere. And let’s repeal the gun-free zone laws. They’re nothing but a symbol anyway. It won’t do one stinking thing to stop gun violence, just like taking down the Confederate flag did nothing to stop gun violence.

But maybe we can shut down the talking point about gun-free zones a little quicker.

Then all the people who are suddenly so fixated on stickers and signs as the source of gun violence can get back to working on all those fixes for the mental healthcare system.

No, Swimming Pools Are Not More Dangerous Than Guns

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

With summer coming to its official end in a few days, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Less time spent around swimming pools means less chance that swimming pools will kill us—because swimming pools are more dangerous than guns—right?

I hadn’t heard this particular claim from the pro-gun embracers of NRA misinformation until fairly recently. But, then, after a bit of poking around on the Internet, there it was—turning up in all kinds of discussion threads, with no citation of the information source, and rapidly morphing further and further from the truth to the point where pro-gun folks were saying only that ‘Swimming pools are more dangerous than guns’ or ‘More people die in swimming pools than from guns.’

Repeat a lie often enough, and people (who don’t bother to look into the facts, and who like the sound of the lie) will repeat it along with you.

With a few well-spent minutes with the latest Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics, I quickly realized that the claim was completely false.

Now, if you want to say that more U.S. children, age 14 and under, die from drowning than die from being shot, that is actually true. Of course, this is something like saying more U.S. children, age 14 and under, die from drowning than from heroin overdoses.  More nine-year-olds go swimming than are shooting up or packing heat.

However, once you add in the next age-based demographic group, which is 15- to 24-year-olds, the total number of deaths by drowning is easily eclipsed by the total number of deaths by firearm.

For a quick comparison of the 2013 CDC statistics:

Age 14 and under, deaths by drowning: 625

Age 14 and under, deaths by firearm (intentional and otherwise): 408

Age 15 to 24, deaths by drowning: 501

Age 15 to 24, deaths by firearm (intentional and otherwise): 6085

So, by including those people over the age of 14 in the statistics, the numbers skew undeniably toward guns being much more dangerous than swimming pools. Including all age groups in the U.S., there is a total of 3,391 drowning deaths to a total of 33,169 deaths by firearm.

Also, keep in mind that drowning does not only include swimming pools. It includes all drowning that is non-boating-related. Anybody who drowns in a bathtub, a lake, a river, an ocean, or any other body of water is included in the statistics. So, really, swimming pools would appreciate it if you would quit blaming them for all of the drowning deaths.

But, even if the statistics weren’t so blatantly obvious in spelling out the relative danger of guns versus drowning, the assertion of the relative danger of swimming pools versus guns is, on its face, rather stupid.

For instance, I could not pick up a swimming pool and walk into a school, a movie theater, or a church, and start drowning people with it.

Similarly, when a woman asks her estranged husband for a divorce, there’s something of a greater threat that he will get a gun, shoot her, all their children, and himself, than there is that he is going to drug any of them and pitch them into the backyard swimming pool. And, in case you hadn’t thought about it, a big chunk of those homicide-by-firearm statistics for the 14-and-under crowd involve fathers murdering their families.

We can even use the pro-gun folks’ favorite (albeit highly unlikely) scenario of a home invasion to show the ridiculousness of weighing the threat level of swimming pools versus guns. Your front door is kicked in, and three men storm in—shoot them (with the gun you keep at your side at all times in your home, just in case anybody kicks in your front door), or try to lure them into the swimming pool?

Just by the stationary nature of swimming pools, it’s relatively easy to steer clear of them, as well as most other bodies of water. But with the NRA pushing for everybody to have access to guns everywhere and at all times, concealed or open carry, who knows when you’re going to find yourself dealing with some Frank Castle wannabe or an aspiring Dylann Roof–who, by the way, thinks he’s one of the good guys with guns?

I suppose I could throw a bone to the pro-gun folks and say that in terms of accidental deaths, there are more deaths by drowning than deaths by accidental discharge of firearms across all age categories. Those totals—drowning: 3,391, accidental discharge of firearms: 505. Even if we add in the 281 deaths by firearm that may or may not have been intentional, deaths by drowning win by a pretty hefty margin over accidental and possibly-accidental deaths by firearm.  Still, a swimming pool, even in your own backyard, is less likely to be involved in the death of a family member than a gun you own, especially when you factor in the extreme number of suicides by firearm—21,175. Again, the swimming pool (or, I should say, bodies of water) could have an edge on killing your kids who are still under the age of 14, but after that age, the gun surges ahead by thousands.

Okay—I know that actually citing statistics with pro-gun people is about as useful as, say, asking my dogs to brush their own teeth. In fact, I can easily imagine the pro-gunners reading the paragraph immediately preceding this one and taking it as evidence that swimming pools are, in fact, more dangerous than guns. But I included it anyway, so that the overall picture is hopefully clearer, and so that any readers will have all the information they need to refute anyone who wants to claim that swimming pools are deadlier than guns.

But, if actually trying to provide information in a verbal argument becomes rather difficult, I put the information into some memes you can readily share. Just drag and drop to your desktop, and you can copy them into any comments-section argument where the swimming pool stats come up.

Here’s effort number one:

Pool_and_Gun_Long_form

So, that was a bit wordy. Trying to be factually accurate in short format is kind of tricky. Let’s try that again.

Pool_and_Gun_Next_longest

Well, that was definitely better for brevity, but lets make it even simpler.

Pool_and_Gun_short_form

Or, you could take the quick and rude approach.  But be careful.  Gun lovers can be very sensitive.

Pool_and_Gun_rude

Happy (and safe) swimming!

Another Round: American Roulette

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Pour another round.

Put another round in the chamber.

And let’s play another round of American Roulette.

Dizzy?  Go ahead and get off.

Dizzy? Go ahead and get off.

I’m not talking about felt and chips and all that. I’m talking about American Roulette—where we add more and more rounds, to more and more chambers, in more and more guns, point them all at our own collective head, squeeze the collective trigger, then act all surprised when anybody dies.

Then as the bodies are cooling, we start in on a round of all our favorite follow-up games.

Of course it starts with a round of “America’s Next Top Mass Murderer.” This is where media outlets decide what becomes a national story. It’s a complex formula, involving body count, victim age/status, and location. We have so many shots fired so often, in so many places, that we just can’t let any old killings grab hold of the public imagination.

Hell, the public doesn’t have enough imagination to keep up.

Adult males getting gunned down in the “bad part” of town—doesn’t rate unless there’s an insanely high body count. Okay, that’s pretty much true of any killings in the “bad part” of town.

Nightclubs—the same.

Men wiping out their families? Pffbbt! We’ve grown surprisingly numb to the idea of an “estranged husband” gunning down his wife, kids, and maybe a few additional members of his extended family. But moms gunning down their families? That just might work.

Schools—you can maybe get some traction there, although college shootings are getting pretty passé, as are high schools. Elementary schools—still pretty damn shocking.

Churches—those rate pretty high.

Movie theaters—those practically ARE churches.

So, how about grocery stores? public parks? malls? restaurants? Maybe a library or a museum? How about a nursing home? But, really, I have to defer to the experts for how to rank all of those.

Then, once we’ve determined that a mass-shooting is heinous enough to warrant a spot in the public imagination, we move to a round of “Wheel of Blame,” sponsored by the good, pro-murder folks at the National Rifle Association.

Really, it’s just another form of rigged roulette—38 spaces on the spinning wheel, at least 30 marked “mental health” or “mental illness.” When we get lucky, the wheel stops on one of the random spots marked with something we can really get mad at—like racism, or pop culture, or some “foreign” religion.

Because when the wheel lands on something we can get mad at, then we can do something symbolic in lieu of doing something that might actually lower the body count—like take down a flag that hasn’t had any business being associated with any part of ‘the government’ in the 150 years since that cluster of slavery-supporting traitors failed in their effort to destroy the Union. Or we can blame some movie, or some TV show, or some rock star for inspiring a murder spree. Or we can yell at the President to bomb ISIS, or to stop talking to Iran—because that will fix problems right here at home, where we like to kill our own.

Of course, the Wheel mostly lands on “mental health” or “mental illness” and we don’t have to do anything except say “fix the mental health system”—as if there is some magical way to grant psychotherapists the ability to pluck out those who are going to commit mass murder, plop them into a treatment program, and prevent them from ever getting their hands on all the readily-available guns and ammo out there.

But remember that when you spin that Wheel of Blame, you absolutely must avoid the spaces marked “guns”—those spots just go to the house—instant bankruptcy. Go ahead and say guns and lax laws that allow easy access to guns had a role in gun violence. You’ll get nowhere. Our gracious NRA sponsors, the politicians and media they own, and the screaming devotees of the Cult of the Shiny Metal Bang Bang will all see to that.

And even though it’s gotten pretty tired and unnecessary, we’ll run another round of “Not the Time”—wherein such insightful luminaries as draft-dodging, teen-loving, rock-n-roll has-been Ted Nugent, along with other NRA pets, can tell us that now is not the time to talk about gun control—not in the wake of such a tragedy—as they question the patriotism of anyone who would politicize the deaths of people killed by guns—oops, I mean killed by people with guns—oops, I mean killed by bad people with guns.

What’s so great about “Not the Time”—even though it’s getting really tired—is that we’re almost never more than a few days away from a mass murder, even if we are more than a few days away from a mass murder that really caught the public’s attention.

Oh, hey!  Now give it up for a round of our newest game show: “Open Carry Chucklehead Brigade”—y’know, that trending ritual where gun enthusiasts decide to go stand outside recruitment centers, or in malls, or near schools, or wherever the latest killing took place, brandishing their big, long weapons out of some bizarre sense that such behavior is supportive of those who are suffering the aftermath of gun violence. Hey…uh…guys…we’ve all been talking, and…uh…nobody feels safer because of your presence. For most people, a group of sweaty guys standing around with big guns does not look like safety. It looks like a meeting of the local chapter of the Future Mass Murderers of America.

I know there are plenty of rounds of plenty of other games I’ve left out—like the obligatory round of “False Equivalencies” (people die from using cars, and knives, and dental floss, and ice cream, and…), and the round of “Enforce The Laws That Already Exist” (as if the NRA hasn’t already made sure that most of those laws have no teeth), and the round of “There Are Already Too Many Guns Out There to Fix the Problem” (got it–too tough, don’t try!). But, damn! Those games are getting so dreadfully boring.

So, where were we?

Oh, yeah—pour another round.

Somebody else is picking up the tab.

Or maybe you are.

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

by

J.C. 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.