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.

 

Escaping the Groundhog Trap

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

I’m not a big fan of Groundhog Day—the holiday or the movie.

As a kid, the holiday just confused me. Why a groundhog? Can’t you just see if you cast a shadow yourself? Or if a bush, a stone, a dog…anything casts a shadow? I wondered at the particular properties of groundhogs, and why their shadows might be somehow different than those of any other thing on the planet. I suppose I never quite felt like anybody adequately explained the magical properties of particular varieties of burrowing rodents for me to really get behind the holiday or its alleged meaning.

The lack of a real explanation is one of the things that keeps me from enjoying the movie, Groundhog Day as well. What caused this to happen? And why is the resolution what it is? What would make any magical powers of time control so interested in getting Bill Murray’s character, Phil, together with Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita? Perhaps a resident of Punxsutawney is one of the aliens from Edge of Tomorrow who accidentally infected Phil with the time control powers. But that can’t be it, because then Phil would’ve had to die every day, and he only died on some of those days.

Beyond that, the movie just follows the theme of so many movies from the 1980s about how great small-town America is, and how some cynical guy from the big city needs to learn to appreciate that. As for Murray’s arc in the movie, it’s rather similar to Scrooged.

The audience is also expected to root for Phil to ‘get the girl,’ even after he uses his powers of time repetition to manipulate one of the local women into sleeping with him, and then trying to manipulate Rita into falling for him by pretending to like everything she likes—information he gathers from her in conversations she will never remember.

Ultimately, Phil has to get through one day being kind and helpful, rather than acting like his usual, egocentric self (but, again, why is this the resolution—and would it really matter whether Rita decided she liked him or not?). But that last, single day of generous Phil doesn’t feel much different from the videogame-style resets that go on through the rest of the movie, or in Edge of Tomorrow, and hardly seems like a long-term change to his character as much as it feels like him resigning himself to being a decent human being for one day if he ever wants to get out of Punxsutawney. How is his decency not just more manipulation—another possible route out of the repetition he is trapped in?

Many people have labeled Phil’s situation in Groundhog Day an “existential dilemma” or otherwise termed the movie as existentialist. Properly speaking, though, if Phil’s was an existential problem, he wouldn’t have a long period of being able to make whatever decisions he wanted with no thought, responsibility, or consequences at all, only to be pushed into making the “right” decisions–as judged by whatever power kept him perpetually trapped in Punxsutawney on a particular day–until he did what was deemed correct by that power and the “spell” was broken. He would be responsible for whatever he did, and nothing would compel him to do anything.

groundhog drive

The most important lesson of all–Don’t drive angry.

Still, it’s something of a tribute to Groundhog Day, the movie, that it has become synonymous in our culture with repetitive behavior or situations. And it is perhaps the fantasy that we could relive a particular day until we did it right, managing to impress everyone around us, and connect with our one true love in the process (as well as the opportunity to indulge in a great deal of irresponsible behavior along the way), that has led it to this level of popular recognition. Or perhaps it’s the underlying idea that we are trapped by our own behaviors in repetitive cycles, and that we can change ourselves in order to achieve a better life—along with the wishful notion that we need to be good people if we really want to get what we want.

After all, the idea of breaking out of repetitive cycles and habits, or perhaps of creating better habits and repetitive cycles, along with being better people…good people…our best selves, is what underlies much religion, philosophy, and, yes, therapy.

We all struggle through our own behavioral patterns, habits, and the potential sameness of our days, the rut of weeks, months, seasons, and years. But no bizarre fluke of time is going to trap us in a loop and push us to do things differently and become better people, or pursue what we want. That’s on us.

Whatever I might think of him, Phil found out that it wasn’t a groundhog, or the celebration that surrounded a groundhog’s shadow, that was at the core of his problem. Rather it was his own shadows, the darkness he threw out into the world.

So maybe Groundhog Day is the perfect time to look around at our own shadows and what they say about our forecasts—how much more winter we may have in store—and then think about what, if anything, we want to do to change that.

Happy Groundhog Day.

 

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.

Happy Anniversary: Flagpoles and Drawers

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

On the night I first met my wife, M, I climbed to the top of the flagpole outside the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. As I reached the top, one of our fellow party-goers shouted out, “Go, monkey-man!” So I did what anybody would do in those circumstances. I clung to the pole with only my legs and feet, and beat my chest, gorilla-style, then threw out a few flex poses before shimmying back down.

It was a display of bravado, born of a desire to show up two younger men at a party. Both had attempted, and failed, the climb. As a pair—perhaps one as the interested party and the other as “wingman”—they had attempted, and failed, to initiate multiple conversations with M that evening, never making it beyond an exchange of pleasantries.

M has no recollection whatsoever of the pole-climbing stunt.

What she remembers of me from that night is what she refers to as my ‘patience’ at speaking with her throughout the evening. M was born and raised in Japan, and her English was imperfect. Add in a raucous party soundtrack, and the swirl of a crowd, and communication could get choppy.

But patience didn’t figure into my perspective of the meeting. Having the attention of a beautiful and (per her own description) weird young woman was not the kind of thing that required a great deal of patience on my part. If seeking out mutually understood vocabulary extended the conversation, and scored me points for being attentive and ‘patient,’ then so much the better.

Out of control party people.

Out of control party people.

The guest of honor at that birthday party, our mutual friend D, had driven both M and me to the party. Shortly after our arrival, M set to work on the birthday gift she had brought–a sort of origami kit that formed a miniature chest-of-drawers. At first, D had intended to share in the crafty construction, but was frequently drawn away by other guests and obligations. After the umpteenth interruption, D suggested I take her place at the table where the paper furniture was being assembled.

The DIY furniture that brought us together--more complex and much smaller than anything from IKEA.

The DIY furniture that brought us together–more complex and much smaller than anything from IKEA.

In previous months, I had been subjected to some of D’s other attempts at matchmaking. And, at the time of the birthday party, possibly unbeknownst to D, I was casually dating the host of the party, D’s soon-to-be-ex-sister-in-law (hey—I had nothing to do with the divorce—that marriage fell apart before I even met her).

After the initial, obligatory background questions, M and I quickly learned we shared an affinity for writing, hard rock, and violent cinema. It was a stiltedly animated conversation, with small bursts of excitement at each common reference point, and a fair amount of laughter over our often-clumsy attempts to bridge the language gap.

origami drawer

The actual miniature chest of drawers–still alive today.  Thanks, D!

The flagpole incident took place hours after the chest of drawers was completed, when we had all filed outside in the final moments before the party dissolved into various groups loading into separate cars and heading out in multiple directions.

I didn’t see M for another two months after that—when a family emergency led to D gifting M her ticket to an Alice in Chains concert that I was also attending.

The night of the concert unofficially marked the start of our ‘courtship’—a shaky period of largely reckless interactions, tempered somewhat by fortunate circumstances, that ultimately necessitated a definition-of-us conversation. To even our own surprise, that talk led to us abruptly moving in together and setting a wedding date—in no small part due to the impending expiration of M’s student visa, and the uncertainty surrounding her ability to return to the U.S. if she were to head back home to Japan.

Looking back, I’m still awed by the strange urgency of our coming together—a time I still picture as the two of us tumbling along on the front edge of an avalanche.

But I wouldn’t hesitate to ride that avalanche again, or to climb any number of flagpoles, in order to embark on that same path of mutually-sought understanding and love–a path we’ve been traveling for over half of M’s life, and almost half of mine.

Happy 22nd, M!

Happy Birthday to Me: Camp Pooparazzi

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Mos Eisley Spaceport: You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…or a more kickass birthday present for an 11-year-old!

After a week at camp...Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, where the droids wait outside.

After a week at camp…Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, where the droids wait outside.

There’s probably a photo somewhere of this Mos Eisley Cantina playset (and, yes, nerds, that is a blue Snaggletooth figure in there) with me posed proudly behind it. I was going to joke that my mom took the picture of the playset without me because she got tired of waiting for me to get out of the bathroom. You see, I had been at Outdoor School for the previous week and was emptying my bowels of a week’s worth—well, five-ish days worth—of camp food, over the course of several emergency trips to the bathroom.

TMI? Well wait, there’s more.

Anyway, I was going to joke about my absence from the picture, but the truth is, my mom was really cool about letting me stage a scene with my new toy and take a picture of it. Keep in mind that this was back in the days of film rolls, which were a bit spendy to buy and to print, and with no guarantee that the pictures were going to turn out. You couldn’t just delete the file and take another. No, you snapped those precious pictures carefully, over the space of however long it took to complete a roll of 20 or so pictures, then popped the roll out of the camera, took it to the store and waited days for the lab to process them. The stamp on the back of the photo shows that it didn’t get developed until April of the following year.  And, as you can see, I didn’t quite get the focus right.

Don’t get me wrong. The story of the excessive time in the bathroom is true. As I said, it was the week of Outdoor School at Camp Yamhill—meaning I had been away from home on my actual birthday, which fell on a Thursday that year. They brought us home on Friday.

Outdoor School was ostensibly to get 6th graders out into the wild to learn about the miracles of nature all around us—although I can’t remember a single part of the curriculum, aside from a lesson on erosion.  The lesson was memorable to me for what we didn’t learn, or, perhaps for how we didn’t learn it.  the camp counselor took us out on a hike, stopped along the trail by a fairly steep embankment that rose up and away from us, and then emptied some water out of a cup onto the embankment. The small group I was with had no idea what the counselor was getting at by showing us this.  And he got really annoyed when one of our group asked if he could show us again—because the counselor had already emptied all the water out of the smallish drinking cup he’d carried all the way out to this point on the trail.

Being something of a teacher’s-pet-type, I really wanted to be able to answer the counselor’s questions. But also being of a perfectionistic bent, I didn’t want to offer up mere guesses that may have been wrong. I finally said something, in response to him asking me a direct question. That led to him asking me follow-up questions. But I just didn’t know the answers. I hadn’t read up on erosion prior to the hike, and wasn’t particularly familiar with the concerns involved. Ultimately, exasperated at our lack of inquisitiveness and inability to follow the lesson as he presented it, the counselor just told us the answers we would need to fill out the worksheet on erosion that we had brought along in our camp folders.

To be sure, I have scads of memories of the week—just not about the stuff we were sent out there to learn.

For instance, there was the terrifying moment when, during dinner one night, they announced the birthday girls and boys for the week. Those few of us were supposed to go up to the front of the dining hall and stand there while the rest of the campers sang “Happy Birthday.”

I froze, despite the heat of a deep blush rising in my face.

Painfully shy, even around most of my own classmates, we were at camp with sixth graders from multiple schools—people I had never met before, and would experience only for a few short days, and in a largely cursory manner. My tablemates urged me to go bask in the attention. One of the female counselors came around in an effort to weed out the birthday campers. But the counselor from my own cabin, who went by the name “Lightning”—a name I had previously associated with a horse from Nebraska—quietly waved her away and shot a look at my tablemates, with the message to leave me be. I was immensely grateful in that moment—until a sense of regret crept in at my deliberate avoidance of what was supposed to be a fun and kind gesture by the camp organizers.

But there were plenty of things I dove right into.  We made “hobo stoves”—unthinkably unsafe tin-snipped coffee cans, with cardboard tightly rolled into tuna cans and set ablaze—to cook hamburger patties.

There were the camp crafts, and camp games—and, hey trendsetters with more energy than me, if there aren’t already adult Capture the Flag leagues, somebody needs to get on that.

And then there was Alan—a camper from another school who landed in the same cabin I was assigned—the mighty brown pelicans (all the cabins were named after endangered species)—and who almost immediately got into an argument with one of my classmates. That escalated into a physical fight by Tuesday, which resulted in a cabin-transfer for Alan. The loyalty of sixth-grade boys being what it is, I, of course, painted Alan as the villain in the situation. But regardless of my perceived need to choose sides, it was alarming and confusing for me to see two complete strangers develop such an immediate and intense animosity for one another, over essentially nothing, and hang onto it with such energy.

There were the camp sing-alongs including the camp theme song, which, as far as I remember, consisted solely of repeating “Camp Yamhill” over and over again at varied rhythms and pitches.

In perhaps the ultimate shot at provoking horrible embarrassment in the campers, each cabin group had to take turns performing skits on different days. We, the brown pelicans, did a skit so profound and accomplished that I can’t remember a single thing about it—aside from various cabin members arguing about the details of the skit until the absolute last minute—details still undecided as we took the stage in a swirl of hushed, urgent, and contradictory orders given by multiple self-appointed artistic directors. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, ‘we are not being graded on this.’

And there were the campfires each night—where I frequently caught myself staring through the darkness at one or the other of two crushes, there faces illuminated by the yellow-orange light of the fire, as acoustic-guitar-toting counselors led us in songs. I’m guessing we sang classic rowboat songs, like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” and rounds of “Row Row Row Your Boat.” But the song we sang at camp that stuck with me most as I reached the landmark of wisdom that is age 11, was Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” A counselor or two would sing the various verses, campers joining in on the chorus:

“And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game”

…which would be a lovely and poignant place to end this post if I didn’t feel obligated to point out that, not actually knowing the title of the song, or the correct words, for years I sang that last line as “The circle again” as well as substituting “captured” for “captive.”

Also, I still haven’t explained that bathroom situation.

So, on the first day of camp, shortly after arriving and heading up the hill to get settled in our assigned cabins, I walked across the open space to the communal bathroom. Multiple other boys were cycling in and out. I procured a stall and began to relieve myself. A sudden commotion interrupted the peace of my flow, as an eruption of shouting, laughing, and the banging and slamming of the (lockless) door rocked the stall adjacent to mine.

From the various yells, I quickly discerned that a classmate—the occupant of the next stall over—was now the subject of a sneak-attack photo.  The horror!  Captured on film in the act of pooping!

At that very moment, already wary of having to use public restrooms as a general rule, and arguably allergic to the very thought of actually sitting on a public toilet, my sphincter closed itself off to business for the remainder of the week, lest any other bathroom paparazzi (pooparazzi?) turn up.

Now, the human body can do some amazing things, especially when prompted by fear. I have no recollection of feeling any ill effects over my defecation-avoidance scheme. It’s possible I may have made my way to the toilets once or twice during low-traffic times. Being a teacher’s-pet-type generally meant an absence of suspicion when requesting to use the bathroom.

Still, I was way off of any regular routine I may have had, so much so that by the time I made it back home, despite my tremendous joy and excitement at receiving the Mos Eisley Cantina playset, what may have been the best gift that year–well, for at least a few hours–was immediate access to a full bathroom, complete with a locked door, as my sphincter re-opened for business with an hours-long, albeit sporadic, inventory liquidation.

Ahh…memories.

Bed of Snakes

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Sleep fell away and I knew something was wrong.

Grogginess held me down.

Pain. Tingling pain in my feet.  I moved my legs, and the tingling turned to stabbing.

Awake enough now to see it was definitely nighttime, the nightlight somehow making things scarier—casting just enough light to intensify the shadows.

I was frozen, a panic starting to take hold. If I moved, the pain intensified. Or did it?

Try again.

Yow! Bad idea. But what? Oh good grief! Snakes! It had to be snakes! If I moved, they would bite!

I had to get away, but how to avoid more bites? If I stayed, things would certainly get worse. But I already knew I couldn’t move without provoking more bites.

I could call out, but who knew what that might provoke? Might I only draw some other family member into danger? And what if they were all similarly under siege–nobody to help?

Stay absolutely still.

With one burst of energy I could be free of the bed and flee the snakes!

This would have to happen just right.

I prepped myself, trying to control my breathing, trying to work up the courage.

I had to go.

Go now!

Pitching off the blanket, I swung my feet off the bed and rolled out, narrowly maintaining my balance as I landed and staggered forward.

The snakes, wholly imagined, the memory real?

The snakes, wholly imagined, the memory real?

Stabbing, tingling pains in my feet, uncooperative legs and rubbery knees conspired to create a lurching journey across my bedroom and out into the hallway. I had no idea if the snakes were at my heels, or if more were in wait along the path.

Afraid to look down at my feet, certain of the terrible mess they must be. I staggered on until—dad!

I huffed and sputtered an incoherent explanation, grabbing at my feet.

Startled awake, he rose slowly and turned on his bedroom light. He crouched to examine my feet briefly. Each touch was tingling torture. But, he pointed out, there were no bite marks.

Scooping me up, he carried me back to my bedroom, despite my panicked insistence that it was a death trap, teeming with snakes. He flicked on the lights, prompting only mild stirring from the siblings who shared the room with me, and who were in their own, possibly snake-infested, beds.

The light revealed no additional snakes.  Perhaps they were all confined to my bed, although there were plenty of other hiding places.

I could not believe the sense of calm dad had as he approached my bed. I wanted to be released, to escape out of there. He had no idea–just marching right into it.  With me in one arm, gravely limiting his ability to respond appropriately to threats, dad reached for the blankets, peeling them back in one grand gesture that caused them to puff out like a parachute…revealing…nothing but my sheets, my stuffed toy dog, and my Teddy bear—or, rather, my Cindy bear. Oh, the pangs of guilt at the realization I’d left them behind to be devoured by snakes.

But where were the snakes? I looked wildly about. They must have moved to other hiding places!  Were they under the bed, coiled and ready to strike away at dad’s feet?

Dad set me down on the bed, again pointing out that I hadn’t been bitten. He surmised that my legs and feet had fallen asleep. The fading of the tingling sensations bore out that conclusion.

Dad pulled my blankets back into place, tucking me in, despite my insistence that I had truly been in danger. He flicked out the lights, and before long I was out again.

In that instance, my father was like a magician, disappearing the snakes with the sweeping flip of the sheets; or perhaps like Saint Patrick, driving the snakes from the island of my bed.  How had he swept away such evil with so little effort?

***

And that, dear reader, is a rather embellished version of what is not only my first (narrative) memory of any sort, but also the only memory whatsoever that I have of my father. As with almost any memory, especially early, unclear ones, I have no idea what percentage of it, if any, is real. Assuming even some portion of it is real, I was not even three years old at the time it took place. This I know because my father died a week before my third birthday, when a young man ran a stop sign in the tiny, Nebraska town where we lived, crushing my father’s rather poorly-engineered car.

As I write this, it’s the anniversary of that day. Had my dad not been taken from us on that day, or any time in the interim, he would be in his 80s now. Earlier this year, I had intended to (finally) commemorate his birthday, rather than to remember him on this more somber occasion. But, after checking the date, I neglected to write it on the kitchen calendar, and it slipped my mind in the great wash of trivial things that are forever plaguing all of us.

Of course, when the bulk of your remembered experience of a person is the loss and absence of that person, forgetfulness isn’t all that unusual a tribute.

At any rate, the memory of the foot-biting bed-snakes–real or imagined or somewhere in between–is the one thing I’ve clung to about my father throughout the years—that I went to him in a moment of confused terror, and that he set things to right.

That’s not a bad thing to hang onto.

Happy death-day, pops.

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.

What? Me Network?

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

A few weeks back, as a favor to a friend, I was invited (compelled?) to speak with a small group of victim advocates—county employees who serve as a kind of official support system for those people directly impacted by a crime. The topic: sex offenders and sex offender treatment.

I agreed to the meeting several months prior, when I was still working directly in the field of sex offender treatment. Having moved away from that field, I hadn’t exactly been immersed in relevant information. As ‘luck’ would have it, though, the Josh Duggar situation provided plenty of focus on issues of law and treatment regarding sex offenses, and an easy access point to discuss much of the involved information.

I had not prepared an actual presentation–the kind with Powerpoint slides, and handouts. Rather, the victim advocates sent me a number of questions via email, and I spent the allotted hour attempting to provide straightforward answers. As with any specialized field, though, nuanced and complex answers are far more the norm.

A quick sampling of some of the (paraphrased) questions and the (overly simplified/incomplete) answers:

Q: What are recidivism rates for adult offenders versus juvenile offenders?

A: Much lower than most people think, in both cases.

Q: Is treatment for offenders a “one size fits all” program, or is it tailored to the specifics of the offender and the offense?

A: There are standardized “assignments” and program requirements, but, as with any form of therapy, it works best when the particulars of the people involved are taken into consideration.

Q: Do you see a lot of commonalities among offenders?

A: As with any ‘diagnosis’ or behavioral category, there are going to be a great many similarities—or those points where behaviors, and justifications for those behaviors, share many similarities—for example…

The lunch hour actually went by pretty quickly. And, despite feeling a bit nervous about providing accurate information without delving into boring details, nobody fell asleep. (Which reminds me, I promised to email some information about various psych tests, which I never did—and I also meant to ask about doing a quick once-over of my friend’s notes to make sure I hadn’t misspoke or inadvertently conveyed any muddled or inaccurate information).

At any rate, the lunchtime meeting was a good refresher about how necessary, and how difficult, it can be to properly ‘network’ within one’s chosen field. It’s quite easy to sit back and complain that people know so little about the specialization you’ve devoted a great deal of your working life to, without doing anything to address that lack of knowledge.

Happy face mad

Of course, it can be extremely difficult breaking through all the noise and confusion to relay one’s own specialized understanding of specific issues, or to have the patience to let the specialized knowledge of others in.

After all, we can all get bogged down in our day-to-day life. And going to trainings or other networking opportunities can feel like just another professional obligation—more about checking a box on a form, than about gaining knowledge and understanding that can truly help in one’s ability to help others—not to mention, the opportunity to meet and connect with other people who are potentially valuable allies and resources.

Still, I suppose we all have our fair share of networking disaster stories.

Take, for example, the time that I went to a breakfast fundraising event for the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center as a special guest of the Seattle Archdiocese (damn, that sounds important, doesn’t it? But, truth be told, I was actually the ‘plus one’ to my boss’ invitation as a special guest of the Seattle Archdiocese). Anyway, after the program of speakers, ranging from local media luminaries, to elected officials, to experts in the field of sexual assault treatment, to the families of sexual assault victims, as the time arrived for everyone to mingle and/or make a quick getaway to avoid mingling, I managed to upend a glass of water, which drained directly into the chair where I was sitting. Mingling in wet pants—not really a comfortable experience, or a good way to convey anything you want other professionals to remember about you.

Beyond various faux pas, I think many professionals go to trainings and seminars with those colleagues we already know—potentially insulating and isolating ourselves from other attendees. Whatever your impressions of people in the mental health field, plenty of us are actually introverts who find crowds and forced socialization to be extremely draining. For some, the same skills that make us effective in a one-on-one or group session, or even a phone-based intervention—such as being able to focus not only on a person’s words, but the whole of what people are communicating non-verbally—can make it very difficult to just mingle in a large crowd.

There is also the potential for fumbling when you’re on the ‘turf’ of some other specialization. I mean, imagine how potentially uncomfortable it can be when you work in the field of sex offender treatment, and are attending a conference for providers who treat the victims of such offenders. Ultimately, the goals are the same—to reduce the impact of such trauma, and combat the underlying causes of such offenses—but you’re definitely working different sides of the same street.

There are also several forms of specialization that can reach into most other areas of treatment—substance abuse, personality disorders, suicidality, and on and on. No practitioner has the ability to become truly well-versed in every possible situation they encounter. Ideally, though, they will learn enough to recognize when they need to refer out, and how to recognize the signs of those areas with which they aren’t particularly familiar.

I suppose this is all weighing on me a bit heavily, as I have my licensure renewal coming up, and need to make sure I have all of my trainings in order. I’ve done plenty of trainings, and perhaps a whole lot more personal study, over the past few years, but not all of that counts for official training credits.

On top of just staying abreast of one’s own field, and finding trainings of interest that fit one’s schedule and budget, the state instituted a requirement that all counselors have to have training in how to deal with suicidal clients at regular intervals. I’m trying to approach this positively. I get the reason for its necessity (although the real reason for the change in requirements had to do with previous problems in the state’s credentialing process that allowed people with little-to-no education in mental health to call themselves “counselors”—which led to multiple tragedies and other less-than-ideal outcomes).

Still, having worked in suicide prevention for years makes the requirement a bit redundant for me. I know and respect many of the people conducting the trainings, and certainly learn from them each time I have occasion to encounter them. But as a general topic area, I could be brushing up on or exploring other areas where I haven’t already spent years of professional focus, particularly given that the trainings are aimed at practitioners who aren’t particularly sturdy in their suicide prevention/intervention skills.

Mental Health practitioners are also required to take regular ethics trainings—I suppose for those therapists who can’t remember not to force their own views on people, not to run around blabbing about their clients, and not to sleep with their clients.

That said, I will look to make the most of my remaining trainings, try to be pleasant and sociable, and pay attention so that I might actually gain some new insight. And I vow not to be one of those terrible bores who offers up one’s own experiences during question-and-answer periods, just to show how knowledgeable one is, rather than actually seeking information from the experts providing it.

And perhaps I should just schedule one of those suicide prevention trainings ASAP—or maybe after I cast about a bit to see if any of my friends in the field have been blowing off that training too, and want to go along.

Elonis and the ‘Art’ of the Online Threat

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that making threats on social media isn’t always making threats on social media.

Call it the jk standard.

Or don’t call it that. That’s not really what the Supreme Court decided.

In this particular case, (Elonis v. United States, 13-983 U.S. ___ (2015)) a rather sad and unpleasant man named Anthony Douglas Elonis took to calling himself “Tone Dougie” on Facebook, where he wrote and posted “lyrics” and “comedy routines” involving threats to his ex-wife, former co-workers, an FBI agent, and elementary school children. But the Supreme Court really only decided whether the jury that convicted Elonis of criminal offenses was given the appropriate instructions for deciding that conviction.

So, the Supreme Court was not looking at whether Elonis legitimately acted in a criminal fashion, but whether the jury was instructed to apply the wrong standard in his case. In the court that convicted Elonis, the jury was asked to apply the “reasonable person” standard that is used in civil cases involving threats, when they should have been asked to apply the “criminal intent” standard that is used in criminal cases.

In other words, it’s as if the jury was instructed to decide whether Elonis should be forced to pay a financial penalty to the people he antagonized, and the jury said ‘yes,’ so Elonis got thrown in prison. The question the jury was asked did not match up with the penalty Elonis received—legally anyway.

So, while “reasonable persons” might recognize that Elonis was deliberately threatening his wife and numerous other people, a criminal conviction generally requires a standard of “criminal intent”—or proof that it was Elonis’ intent to threaten his wife, and the others.

The jury should have been instructed to decide whether Mr. Elonis had intended for his posts to be viewed as threats by those people who were the targets of those threats. Elonis argued that his posts were just “art” and a “therapeutic” way of working through his pain after his wife took their children and left him. Elonis and his lawyers pointed to Eminem as an artist who has built much of his career on songs threatening violence against his ex, and to the other posts on Elonis’ facebook feed where he asserted he was engaging in protected free speech, joking, or that otherwise had nothing to do with the threats, as proof that Elonis was not deliberately threatening anybody.  That is, Elonis argued that he had artistic and self-soothing intent, not intent to threaten anybody. And, although reasonable people might call bullshit on Mr. Elonis’ argument, reasonable people don’t count here.

There is ample evidence to suggest that Mr. Elonis did, in fact, intend for his targets to feel threatened. For instance, one of his jaunty little poems/rap songs questioned whether his wife’s protection order–granted because a judge saw that there was legitimate reason to keep Mr. Elonis away from his wife and their children–would, when folded up and stuffed in her pocket, be “thick enough to stop a bullet.” That same “poem” included claims that Elonis stood to earn plenty of money in a “settlement” against the police, and claims to own explosives that could be used against state police and sheriffs.

A little background from the court opinion, highlighting Elonis' 'art.'

A little background from the court opinion, highlighting Elonis’ ‘art.’

Another of Elonis’ quirky little fantasies involved slitting the throat of the (female) FBI agent who was sent to his house to question him about a Facebook post wherein Mr. Elonis suggested he was going to gain fame by shooting up an elementary school.

Elonis also posted some “art” suggesting that he could easily sneak into the Halloween events at the amusement park he was fired from, in order to engage in violence.

Such fun. So expressive.

Grammar fans are also upset by Elonis’ use of the botched phrase, “if worse comes to worse,” in his poem about his wife’s protection order.

There were other posts involving insults and threats against his wife, calling her a slut and a whore, indicating he should have smothered her with a pillow, posting floor plans of the house where she was staying, and describing how, from a nearby cornfield, he would have a clear shot in through some glass doors at said house.

And beyond just the words that Elonis posted, there were plenty of other indications that his words were meant as more than just artistic expressions.

For instance, Elonis called his sister-in-law to make sure his wife had seen his posts on Facebook. And, prior to threatening his co-workers online, he was fired, in part, because he had begun to undress in front of a female coworker after cornering her in her office one night.

But—and this is a big but—the Supreme Court wasn’t deciding whether Elonis’ actions were A-OK, or whether he was engaging in acts of protected speech. In fact, the Court declined to address the issues of free speech, since the main question was about whether Elonis had been wrongly convicted.

Simply stated, the Court decided that, because Elonis was convicted on criminal charges by a jury using the standards for a civil decision, Elonis had been wrongly convicted of a criminal offense.

This is not to say that the jury would not or should not have convicted Elonis had the jury been given the appropriate instructions–to decide Elonis’ (criminal) guilt based on whether he had criminal intent to threaten his wife and other parties—rather than deciding whether a reasonable person would have recognized Elonis’ words and actions as threatening.

"Ammo Can Kiss."  Media: Selfie.  Artist: Tone Dougie

“Ammo Can Kiss.” Media: Selfie. Artist: Tone Dougie

So take heart, reasonable people. The Elonis case does not mean that threats are now a protected form of speech. I would guess that a jury would likely see Elonis’ behavior as meeting the criminal standard of having legitimate intent to threaten—given the specificity of the targets and actions laid out in his ‘rap lyrics.’ That the targets of Elonis’ behavior took his words as legitimate threats, and lived in fear of what he might do, and that his “art” provoked the necessity for a visit and monitoring by the FBI, suggests that Elonis was not somebody who was just a misunderstood artist.

Yet, that’s a question for another day. Or, put a different way, the Supreme Court makes decisions based on the questions it gets, not the questions the public wants answered. And the only question the Court really decided here was whether the jury got the right instructions to make the decision they were tasked with making in the Elonis case.

To be sure, the Supreme Court’s decision leads to a shift in how cases like Elonis’ will have to be prosecuted. Plenty of lower courts have allowed criminal convictions using the same “reasonable person” standard that was used in the Elonis case. And the “criminal intent” standard can be much harder to prove.

There is much to be said about how to successfully address online threats, and questions of how our slow-moving legal system can adequately respond to rapidly- changing technology and online environments. For practical advice on those issues, Crash Override, started by Gamergate target Zoe Quinn, is an excellent resource

And in related entertainment news, I’m guessing Tone Dougie’s album drops around the 12th of Never.

Really Lowes? and Sherwin Williams? and HGTV? Mocking Mental Illness as an Ad Strategy

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Lowes decided to announce its rollout of Sherwin Williams’ line of “HGTV Home” paint by crafting an ad that plays on popular ideas about some of the most well-known artists in history (and pop culture), each jealously challenging the notion of who is “the most legendary name in paint.”

Well, okay, “Mr. Happy Little Trees” Bob Ross doesn’t come across as jealous.

But Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol, and Michelangelo all do.

Vincent van Gogh just comes across as…well, you can watch it here:  

Get it? It’s funny because you think he’s saying “what?” because he cut off his ear. But then you realize it’s actually funny because van Gogh is suffering from psychosis or whatever would make him talk to a pigeon.

Hilarious—right?

He talks to pigeons.  How clever.

He talks to pigeons. How clever.

Of course, nobody diagnosed van Gogh with a particular mental illness during his lifetime, particularly not from a current understanding of mental illness. Perhaps the most popular theory of van Gogh’s troubles is that they stemmed from Bipolar Disorder. Whatever the case, eventually van Gogh died of complications from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, following numerous other episodes of emotional difficulties and self-harm.

I want to be clear that I don’t have any particular axe to grind with any of the businesses in question (even if I should for one reason or another). I shop at Lowes regularly.  And even though Sherwin Williams has that terrible “Cover the Earth” logo, cover the earth all of the paint we’ve used in our home has come from our neighborhood Sherwin Williams store, except for the paint in the upstairs bathroom, and the stain on the deck, which we got at Lowes. And I watch HGTV (and the DIY Network) enough that M wishes I would just get off the damn couch and make our house more beautiful (or at least just quit talking about all those projects and do them).

Still, it’s disappointing to see that the big punchline for the combined Lowes-Sherwin Williams-HGTV commercial involves mocking, specifically, somebody who suffered from mental illness, and, more generally, the idea of psychosis, particularly given that the commercial was rolled out at the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month:  NIMH’s “Mental Health Awareness by the Numbers”

I suppose I could also point out that all of the artists in the commercial are white males. But given how the myriad options for art “jokes” involving white male artists were handled, I don’t have a lot of faith that a woman artist, or a non-white artist, would have fared much better when reduced down to a humorous reference that might be commonly understood.