Small Things You Can Do To Improve Mental Health In Your Community

[Content note: suicide, mental illness]

A few weeks ago Northwestern lost yet another student to suicide. There’s been pressure building all year for improved mental health services on campus, and I think that pressure will soon culminate in real, helpful changes on campus.

At the same time, some have been saying that what we need is not better mental healthcare services, but changes in campus “culture,” such as a reduction in the stigma of accessing mental healthcare and an increase in our willingness to discuss mental health which each other.

I don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive; I think we need both. People whose troubles are relatively minor will benefit from increased openness about mental health on campus without needing any improvements in mental healthcare, but those who suffer from serious mental illnesses–the kind that can contribute to suicide–need more than just supportive friends and professors. They need treatment. Right now, it’s becoming clear that many of those people are not getting the help they need.

Echoing these debates, a blog run by Northwestern students called Sherman Ave posted a piece called “A Reflection on Death, Privilege, and The College Experience.” (Sherman Ave usually sticks to humor, but this time it poignantly diverged.) The author wrote:

In writing these words and thinking these thoughts, I do not believe that a “call to action” here ends in throwing more money toward psychological services. As much as I believe that funding of psychological services at this university should be increased, I would hesitate to claim that another few thousand dollars would have stopped Alyssa Weaver and potentially Dmitri Teplov from committing suicide. Rather, I encourage everyone reading this article to think carefully about the state of those without the privilege of stable mental health.  We should seek to sympathize with members of our community instead of ignoring them for the sake of convenience. If we have the tremendous power to come together in grievance of a lost classmate, then there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be able to show the same love and solidarity for that classmate before they give up on our community.

And a commenter responded:

I agree with the need to come together to “show the same love and solidarity” to members of our community who need or want support and communication from others, but what does that practically mean? I find myself asking–how can I, as one person, contribute to a positive dialogue that moves our community towards supporting each other in the face of hardship? How do I even “identify” someone who needs my help? Or how do I make myself open to facilitating healing in my peers?

I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this. Practically speaking, changing a culture is like voting–it’s pretty rare that the actions of a single individual make an immediately noticeable difference. Westerners are used to thinking of themselves as individual agents, acting on their own and without any influence from or effect on their surrounding culture, and this is probably one of the many reasons it’s so difficult for people to even conceive of being able to make an actual impact when it comes to something like this.

You don’t have to be an activist, a therapist, or a researcher to make a difference when it comes to mental health. The following are small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued. Although I’m specifically thinking about college campuses here, this is applicable to anything you might call a “community”–an organization, a group of friends, a neighborhood.

1. When people ask you how you’re doing, tell them the truth.

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

2. If you see a therapist or have in the past and are comfortable telling people, tell them.

One awesome thing many of my friends do is just casually drop in references to the fact that they see a therapist into conversation. This doesn’t have to be awkward or off-topic, but it does have to be intentional. They’ll say stuff like, “Sorry, I can’t hang out then; I have therapy” or they’ll mention something they learned or talked about in a therapy session where it’s relevant. The point of this is to normalize therapy and to treat it like any other doctor’s appointment or anything else you might do for your health, like going to the gym or buying healthy food. It also suggests to people that you are someone they can go to if they’re considering therapy and have questions about it, because you won’t stigmatize them.

3. Drop casual misuse of mental illness from your language.

Don’t say the weather is “bipolar.” Don’t refer to someone as “totally schizo.” Don’t claim to be “depressed” if you’re actually just feeling sad (unless, of course, you actually are depressed). Don’t call someone’s preference for neatness “so OCD.” These are serious illnesses and it hurts people who have them to see them referenced flippantly and incorrectly. One fourth of adults will have a mental illness at some point in their life, and you might not know if one of them is standing right next to you. Furthermore, the constant misuse of these terms makes it easier for people to dismiss those who (accurately) claim to have a mental illness. If all you know about “being totally ADHD” is when you have a bit of trouble doing the dense reading for your philosophy class, it becomes easier to dismiss someone who tells you that they actually have ADHD.

4. Know the warning signs of mental illness and suicidality, and know where to refer friends who need professional help.

You can find plenty of information about this online or in pamphlets at a local counseling center. If you’re a student, find out what mental health services your campus offers. If you’re not a student, find out about low-cost counseling in your area. If you have the time, see if you can attend a training on suicide prevention (and remember that asking someone if they’re okay or if they’ve been feeling suicidal will not make them not-okay or suicidal). Being aware and informed about mental health can make a huge difference in the life of a friend who needs help. This doesn’t mean you’re responsible for people who need help or that it’s your fault if you don’t succeed in helping them–not at all. It just gives you a toolbox that’ll help you respond if someone in your community is showing signs of mental illness.

Learning about mental illness is also extremely important because it helps you decolonize your mind from the stigma you’ve probably learned. Even those who really want to be supportive and helpful to people with mental illnesses have occasionally had fleeting thoughts of “Why can’t they just try harder” and “Maybe they’re just making this up for attention.” That’s stigma talking. Even if you didn’t learn this from your family, you learned it from the surrounding culture. Studying mental illness helps shut that voice up for good.

5. Understand how social structures–culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc.–influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental  health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups–the poor, people of color, etc.–face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups–women, queer people, etc.–have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media–which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

Self-Diagnosis and Its Discontents

There’s a certain scorn reserved for people who diagnose themselves with mental illnesses–people who, based on their own research or prior knowledge, decide that there’s a decent chance they have a diagnosable disorder, even if they haven’t (yet) seen a professional about it.

I understand why psychologists and psychiatrists might find them troublesome. Nobody likes the idea of someone getting worked up over the possibility that they have a mental illness when they really don’t. Professional mental healthcare workers feel that they know more about mental illness than the general population (and, with some exceptions, they do) and that it’s their “job” to serve as gatekeepers of mental healthcare. This includes deciding who is mentally ill and who is not.

Self-diagnosis also gets a bad rap from people who have been professionally diagnosed with a mental illness. They feel that people who self-diagnose are doing it for attention or because they think that diagnosis is trendy.

This actually bothers me much more than the arguments against self-diagnosis coming from professionals. Why?

Because the claim that people who self-diagnose are just “doing it for attention” or because they think it’s “cool” is the exact same claim frequently made about people who get diagnosed professionally.

To be clear, I’m not saying that people never label themselves as mentally ill for attention. Maybe some do. Maybe a significant proportion of people who self-diagnose don’t really have a mental illness at all. I’d have to see research to know, and from my searches so far I haven’t really found much research on the phenomenon of self-diagnosis. (But I’m taking note of this for my master’s thesis someday.)

However, there’s a difference between someone who’s feeling sad for a few days and refer to themselves as “depressed,” and someone who’s been struggling for weeks, months, or years, and who has read books and articles on the subject and studied the DSM definition of the illness. The former may not even count as “self-diagnosis,” but rather as using a clinical term colloquially–just like everyone who says “oh god this is so OCD of me” or “she’s totally schizo.” (This, by the way, is wrong; please don’t do it.)

(It’s also likely the case that some people self-diagnose because they have hypochondria. However, the problem is not that they are self-diagnosing. The problem is that they have untreated hypochondria. Maybe diagnosing themselves with something else will get them into treatment, where a perceptive psychologist will diagnose them with hypochondria and treat them for it.)

Even if some people who self-diagnose are wrong, I still think that we should refrain from judging people who self-diagnose and take their claims seriously. Here’s why.

1. It gets people into treatment.

I wish we had a system of mental healthcare–and a system of social norms–in which everyone got mental health checkups just as they get physical health checkups. For that, two main things would have to change–mental healthcare would have to become affordable and accessible for everyone, and the stigma of seeing mental health professionals (whether or not one has a mental illness) would have to disappear. (There are other necessary conditions for that, too–the distrust that many marginalized people understandably have for mental healthcare would have to be alleviated, and so on.)

For now, going to see a therapist or psychiatrist is difficult. It requires financial resources, lots of time and determination, and a certain amount of risk–what if your employer finds out? What if your friends and family find out (unless they know and support you)? What will people think?

Because the barriers to seeing a professional are often high, many people need a strong push to go see one. Having a strong suspicion that you have a diagnosable mental illness can provide that push for many people, because nobody wants to go through the hassle of finding a therapist that their insurance covers (or finding a sliding-scale one if they don’t have insurance), coming up with the money to pay the deductible, taking time off work to go to the appointment, dealing with the fear of talking to a total stranger about their feelings, and actually going through with the appointment, only to be told that there’s “nothing wrong” with them.

As much as I wish things were different, the reality right now is that relatively few people go to therapists or psychiatrists unless they believe that they have a mental illness. If self-diagnosing first gets them into treatment, then I don’t want to stigmatize self-diagnosis.

2. It helps them find resources whether or not they see a professional.

In the previous point, I explained that for many people, self-diagnosing can be a necessary first step to getting treatment from a professional. In addition, once people have diagnosed themselves, they are able to seek out their own resources–books, support groups, online forums, etc.–to help them manage their symptoms. This can be extremely helpful whether or not they’re planning on getting treatment professionally.

While psychiatric labels like “depression,” “generalized anxiety,” and “ADHD” have their drawbacks, they are often necessary for finding resources that help people understand what they’re going through and help themselves feel better. If I’m at a library looking for books that might help me, asking the librarian for “books about depression” or “books about ADHD” will be much more useful than asking them for “books about feeling like shit all the time and not wanting to do anything with friends” or “books about getting distracted whenever you start work and not really having the motivation to finish any of it and it has nothing to do with laziness by the way.” Same goes for a Google search.

It’s certainly fair to be worried that people looking on their own will find resources that are unhelpful or even dangerous. But I think this is less of a problem with self-diagnosis per se, and more of a problem with the lack of scientific literacy in our society, and the lack of emphasis on skepticism when evaluating therapeutic claims. For what it’s worth, going to see a mental health professional will not necessarily prevent you from encountering quackery and bullshit of all kinds. And in any case, the blame does not lie with the people who self-diagnose and then fall for pseudoscientific scams, but with the people who perpetrate the scams in the first place.

This point is especially important given that many people will not be able to access professional mental healthcare services for various reasons. Maybe they can’t afford it; maybe they work three jobs and don’t have time; maybe they can’t find a therapist who is willing to accept the fact that they are trans*, kinky, poly, etc. Maybe they are minors whose parents are unwilling to get them into treatment. Maybe they were abused by medical professionals and cannot go back into treatment without worsening their mental health.

There are all kinds of reasons people may be unable to go and get their diagnosis verified by a professional, and most of these are tied up in issues of privilege. If you have never had to worry that a doctor or psychologist will be prejudiced against you, then you have privilege.

3. It can help with symptom management whether you have the “real” disorder or not.

At one point when my depression was particularly bad I noticed that I had some symptoms that were very typical of borderline personality disorder. For instance, I had a huge fear that people would abandon me and I would bounce back and forth between glorifying and demonizing certain people. If someone made the slightest criticism of me or wasn’t available enough for me, I would decide that they hate me and don’t care if I live or die. I had wild mood swings. That sort of thing. It’s not that I thought I actually had BPD; rather, I noticed that I had some of its symptoms and wondered if perhaps certain techniques that help people with BPD might also help me.

Luckily, at this time I was still seeing a therapist. So in my next session, I decided to mention this observation that I had made, and the conversation went like this:

Me: I’ve noticed that I have some BPD-like symptoms.
Her: Oh, you don’t have BPD.
Me: Right, but I seem to have some of its symptoms–
Her: No, trust me, I’ve worked with people with BPD and you do NOT have BPD.

I suppose I could’ve persevered with this line of thinking, but instead I felt shut down and put in my place. I dropped the subject.

So determined was this therapist to make sure that I know which mental illness(es) I do and do not have that she missed out on what could’ve been a really useful discussion. What she could’ve done instead was ask, “What makes you say that?” and allow me to discuss the symptoms I’d noticed, whether or not they are indicative of BPD or anything else other than I am having severe problems relating to people and dealing with normal life circumstances.

The point is that sometimes it’s useful to talk about mental illness not in terms of diagnoses but in terms of symptoms. What triggers these symptoms? Which techniques help alleviate them?

So if a person looks up a mental disorder online and thinks, “Huh, this sounds a lot like me,” that realization can help them find ways to manage their symptoms whether or not those symptoms actually qualify as that mental disorder.

This is especially true because the diagnostic cut-offs for many mental illnesses are rather random. For instance, in order to have clinical depression, you must have been experiencing your symptoms for at least two weeks. What if it’s been a week and a half? In order to have anorexia nervosa, you must be at 85% or less of your expected body weight*. What if you haven’t reached that point yet? What if you don’t have the mood symptoms of depression, but you exhibit the cognitive distortions associated with it? Acknowledging that you may have one of these disorders, even if you don’t (yet) fit the full criteria, can help you find out how to manage the symptoms that you do have.

4. It helps them find solidarity with others who suffer from that mental illness.

I understand why some people with diagnosed mental illnesses feel contempt toward those who self-diagnose. But I don’t believe that sympathy and solidarity are finite resources. If someone is struggling enough that they’re looking up diagnostic criteria, they deserve support from others who have been down that path, even if their problems might not be “as bad” as the ones other people have and/or have not yet been validated by a professional.

Acknowledging that you may have depression (or any other mental illness) can help you find others who have experienced various shades of the same thing and feel like you’re not alone.

My take on self-diagnosis comes from a perspective of harm reduction. The idea is that strategies that help people feel better and prevent themselves from getting worse are something we should support, even if these strategies are not “correct” or “legitimate” and do not take place within the context of established, professional mental healthcare.

We should work to improve professional mental healthcare and increase access to it, especially for people in marginalized communities and populations. However, we should also acknowledge that sometimes people may need to help themselves outside of that framework. These people should not be getting the sort of condescension and eye-rolling they often get.

~~~
*The diagnostic criteria for eating disorders are expected to improve with the release of the new DSM-V, but I’m not sure yet whether or not the 85% body weight requirement will still be there. In any case, this is how it’s been so far.

[blogathon] Shit People Say To Future Therapists

Today’s my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance! I’ll be posting every hour starting now until 6 PM central. Don’t forget to donate! To start, you get a rant!

Sometimes I wish I’d kept my career plans a big secret. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t constantly be having conversations that go like this:

Me: “Wow, I just don’t understand this person.”

Them: “You don’t understand a person?! But you’re going to be a therapist! How can you be a therapist if you don’t understand people?!”

Me: “Sometimes I just don’t have the energy to listen to someone talking about their problems.”

Them: “But you’re going to be a therapist! How could you run out of energy to listen to people talking about their problems?”

Me: “Huh, I really don’t know what you should do in this situation.”

Them: “But you’re going to be a therapist! How could you not be able to give me advice?!”

I understand why people sometimes feel compelled to say these things. I think they stem largely from a misunderstanding of what therapists do and also from what therapists are like as people.

Firstly and most glaringly, these comments are amiss because, clearly, I am not yet a therapist. I have many years of training to go. So the fact that I have not yet developed certain skills that I will need is not, in and of itself, cause for alarm. Either I will develop them over the course of my training, or I will fail to develop them and I will realize that I need to pursue a different career (I have a few backups). But I doubt that that’s the case.

For now, I am trained in just a few specific things: active listening, conflict resolution, sexual health, referring callers to mental health resources, and a suicide prevention protocol known as QPR. That’s it.

I don’t think people realize that while there probably is a certain “type” (or more) of person who becomes a therapist, we’re not born being able to do these skills. We develop them through training and experience. Nobody would ever demand that an undergraduate in a premed track be able to diagnose them with diabetes or cancer. Why should I be able to fix someone else’s emotional troubles?

Second, I think people have this view of therapists as calm, self-assured, eternally tolerant saints who always understand everyone and never feel frustrated with anyone and never tire of listening to painful and difficult things. The reason people have this view is probably 1) this is how good therapists typically behave in therapy sessions, and 2) this is how therapists are typically portrayed in the media, even though there are many styles of therapy that don’t look like this at all. Some are even confrontational!

But that’s not really how it is. Therapists get bored. Therapists get annoyed. Therapists get frustrated. They get overwhelmed and exhausted from listening to people. If they are good at what they do, they don’t show this in therapy–like a good dancer doesn’t show the pain they feel, or a good salesperson keeps smiling and being enthusiastic. Sometimes people doing their jobs have to act in ways other than how they feel. This is normal.

But for therapists, it’s especially important to be mindful of these feelings in oneself rather than trying to tamp them down, because otherwise they can affect how the therapist treats their client. In traditional psychoanalysis, this is called “countertransference,” and while psychoanalysis is quite outdated, the term is still used by respected therapists like Irvin Yalom.

So, personally, if a therapist told me that they neeever get bored or frustrated or annoyed with their clients, that would be a red flag. Nobody that I’ve ever met is such a saint. I would probably conclude that this person is either trying to make themselves look good, or–worse–that they’re not very aware of the negative emotions they sometimes experience during their work.

Of course, I might be wrong. Maybe some people really are like that.

Another misconception is that therapists “just get” people or “just know” the solutions to their problems. This is also false. While therapists are probably more perceptive than the general population, that only really helps when it comes to understanding how a person is feeling, not why they feel that way or what might be the best way for them to change how they feel, as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this.

That understanding, if it ever happens, happens after a period of time during which the therapist has gotten to know their client, learned a lot about their background, and started to discern their patterns of thinking. That thing you see in the movies where a therapist “just knows” what’s wrong with you after ten minutes? Nope.

It’s also worth pointing out–as callous as it may seem–that once I become a therapist I will be doing this for money. I will expect to be paid for doing it. When I’m not at work, doing work for free will seem like…not the best use of my time. While I’m sure that I’ll always enjoy listening to my friends talk things out and try to help them feel better, being expected to do so just because I happen to be a therapist is unfair.

I will not be the same person with my friends and family as I am with my clients. This is normal and okay, and it’s the case for basically anyone who has a job that involves working with people. If you want to avoid needlessly annoying and frustrating your friends in the helping professions, try not to expect them to essentially work for free and to act saintly and perfect while doing it.

~~~

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Criticizing Psychiatry Without Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

So, I read this article in The Atlantic called “The Real Problems with Psychiatry” and…I’m torn. The article is an interview with this guy Gary Greenberg, a therapist who has previously written a book called Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease and has now followed that up with The Book of Woe: The Making of the DSM-5 and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

Now, to be clear, I haven’t read either of these books. I might, just to see the full depth of his arguments. But I decided to read the interview anyway and assume that he accurately represented his own claims in it.

Parts of the interview, I think, are really on point. Greenberg discusses the history of the DSM (the manual used to diagnose mental disorders) as a way for psychiatry as a discipline to establish credibility alongside other types of medicine. He criticizes the DSM on the grounds that the mental diagnoses that we currently have may not necessary be the best way to conceptualize mental illness, and he thinks that once we gain a better understanding of the brain we will find that they have little to do with the physical reality of mental illness:

Research on the brain is still in its infancy. Do you think we will ever know enough about the brain to prove that certain psychiatric diagnoses have a direct biological cause?

I’d be willing to bet everything that whenever it happens, whatever we find out about the brain and mental suffering is not going to map, at all, onto the DSM categories. Let’s say we can elucidate the entire structure of a given kind of mental suffering. We’re not going to be able to say, “here’s Major Depressive Disorder, and here’s what it looks like in the brain.” If there’s any success, it will involve a whole remapping of the terrain of mental disorders. And psychiatry may very likely take very small findings and trump them up into something they aren’t. But the most honest outcome would be to go back to the old days and just look at symptoms. They might get good at elucidating the circuitry of fear or anxiety or these kinds of things.

I don’t know if he’s right. But I suspect that he might be.

He also makes a great point about the fact that we often assume that anyone who acts against social norms, for instance by committing a terrible crime, must necessarily be mentally ill:

It’s our characteristic way of chalking up what we think is “evil” to what we think of as mental disease. Our gut reaction is always “that was really sick. Those guys in Boston — they were really sick.” But how do we know? Unless you decide in advance that anybody who does anything heinous is sick. This society is very wary of using the term “evil.” But I firmly believe there is such a thing as evil. It’s circular — thinking that anybody who commits suicide is depressed; anybody who goes into a school with a loaded gun and shoots people must have a mental illness.

Greenberg also discusses how mental diagnoses have historically been used to perpetuate injustice, such as the infamous “disorder” of “drapetomania,” which was thought to cause slaves to try to escape their masters, and the fact that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness (and other types of sexual/gender variance still are).

He also talks a lot about how the DSM and its categories are tied in with all sorts of things: scientific research and mental healthcare coverage, for instance:

To get an indication from the FDA, a drug company has to tie its drug to a DSM disorder. You can’t just develop a drug for anxiety. You have to develop the drug for Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Major Depressive Disorder. You can’t just ask for special services for a student who is awkward. You have to get special services for a student with autism. In court, mental illnesses come from the DSM. If you want insurance to pay for your therapy, you have to be diagnosed with a mental illness.

The point about needing a DSM diagnosis in order to receive insurance coverage is really important and cannot be overstated (in fact, I wish he’d given it more than a sentence, but again, he did write books). As someone who plans to eventually practice therapy without necessarily having to formerly diagnose all of my clients, this matters to me a lot, because it may mean that I might have to choose between diagnosing and working only with clients who can afford therapy without insurance coverage (which, at at least $100 per weekly session, would really not be many).

But sometimes Greenberg makes a good point while also making a terrible point:

One of the overlooked ways is that diagnoses can change people’s lives for the better. Asperger’s Syndrome is probably the most successful psychiatric disorder ever in this respect. It created a community. It gave people whose primary symptom was isolation a way to belong and provided resources to those who were diagnosed. It can also have bad effects. A depression diagnosis gives people an identity formed around having a disease that we know doesn’t exist, and how that can divert resources from where they might be needed.

First of all, we don’t “know” that depression “doesn’t exist.” We know–or, more accurately, some of us suspect–that the diagnosis we call “major depression” might not map on very accurately to what’s actually going on in the brains of people who are diagnosed with it. What we call “major depression” is a large cluster of possible symptoms, and since you only have to have some of them in order to be diagnosed, two people with the exact same diagnosis could have almost completely different symptomology. Further, because depression can vary like a spectrum in its severity, the cut-off point for what’s clinical depression and what’s not can be rather arbitrary. It’s not like with other types of illnesses, where either you have a tumor or you don’t, either you have a pathogen in your bloodstream or you don’t.

Second, Greenberg doesn’t seem to extend his analysis of the effects of the Asperger’s diagnosis onto other disorders. There is absolutely a community of people who have (had) depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and so on. Those communities are absolutely valuable. My life would be demonstrably worse without these communities. They haven’t “diverted resources” from anything other than me wallowing in self-pity because I feel like I’m the only person going through these things–which is how I used to feel.

Right after that:

What are the dangers of over-diagnosing a population? Are false positives worse than false negatives?

I believe that false positives, people who are diagnosed because there’s a diagnosis for them and they show up in a doctor’s office, is a much bigger problem. It changes people’s identities, it encourages the use of drugs whose side effects and long-term effects are unknown, and main effects are poorly understood.

Greenberg is correct that false positives are a problem and that diagnosing someone with a mental illness that they do not have can be very harmful. However, his dismissiveness of the problem of false negatives–people who do have mental illnesses but never get diagnosis or treatment–is stunning coming from someone who is a practicing therapist. Untreated mental illnesses are nothing to mess around with. They can lead to death, by suicide or (in the case of eating disorders) otherwise. Even if things never get to that point, they can ruin friendships, relationships, marriages, careers, lives. While I get that Greenberg has an agenda to push here, some acknowledgment of that fact would’ve been very much warranted.

In short, Greenberg seems to make the logical leap that many critics of psychiatry and the DSM do; that is, because there is much to criticize about them and because it’s unclear how valid the DSM diagnoses are, therefore depression is “a disease that we know doesn’t exist” and antidepressants are harmful (that’s a whole other topic, though).

Antidepressants may very well be harmful. Diagnostic labels may also very well be harmful, for some people. But I think the stronger evidence is that untreated mental suffering is harmful, and sometimes therapy just isn’t enough and cannot work quickly enough–for instance, for someone who is severely depressed to the point that they can’t possibly use any of the insights they may gain in therapy, or to the point that they are about to commit suicide.

I hope that one day we’ll have all the answers we need to minimize both false negatives and false positives. But for now, we don’t, and I worry that attitudes like Greenberg’s may prevent people from getting the help they urgently need, as much as they may simultaneously promote vital criticism and analysis of psychiatry and the DSM.

~~~

Note: I didn’t fact-check everything Greenberg said in the interview because I’m hoping that The Atlantic employs fact-checkers. But if you have counter-evidence for anything in that article, even parts I didn’t quote here, please let me know.

Lessons I Learned From Depression

[Content note: depression]

People struggling with mental illness (or any sort of illness, or anything crappy, really) are constantly exhorted by well-meaning people to find the “silver lining” in their experience. This often takes the form of tropes about “learning who your real friends are” or “learning how to fully appreciate life” or “understanding what’s really important in life” and on and on.

For a long time I resisted the entire notion of finding “lessons” or “learning opportunities” in my decade-long struggle with depression. (Yes, decade-long. Yes, I’m 22.) Part of this was because the people who demanded that I do so were just so damn annoying, frankly. No, I will not spin you a convenient story about What Depression Has Taught Me to make you feel better when you see my tears or my scars.

But mostly I resisted because I felt that admitting that I’ve learned things from this experience requires intentionally forgetting the fact that most of it had no meaning. There is no meaning to losing half of your life to something you can’t even see or prove to people or sometimes even describe in words. There is no meaning to having most of the memories of your life discolored, blurred, and tainted by a misery and terror that had no name. This is not the stuff of inspirational memoirs or films. While some people suffer for political causes or for their children or in order to produce a great work of art, I suffered for absolutely no reason at all.

But, of course, I did learn some things. Maybe I would’ve learned them even if I’d had a more normative emotional experience, but right now it really seems like I learned them as a result of being so miserable a lot of the time. And while I reserve a very special fury for those who implore us to create meaning out of meaningless suffering and produce “lessons” and “silver linings” and “bright sides” carefully repackaged for their consumption, I think these are lessons that are worthwhile to share.

I am not my GPA, weight, debt, scars.Lesson 1: Not everything your brain tells you is accurate.

Most people, I think, go through life without giving much thought to whether or not their perceptions are providing them with the most accurate possible picture of reality. But sometimes our brains are pretty crappy at this. Of course, I would’ve learned that without the help of depression, because I study psychology. So I’ve known for a while about stuff like the fundamental attribution error, the halo effect, anchoring, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the false-consensus effect, the just-world hypothesis, in-group favoritism, the hot-hand fallacy, the Lake Wobegon effect, status quo bias, and all sorts of other biases, fallacies, and errors.

But what really brought it home was depression. While the cognitive errors I’ve listed are generally adaptive and keep people happier, depression was the opposite. Instead of telling me that people like me despite evidence to the contrary, my cognitive distortions told me that everyone hates me despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than telling me that I’m above-average in most things, they told me that I’m below-average in most things. On any given day I would invariably feel like the stupidest, ugliest, least likable, most worthless person alive. True story.

At some point it occurred to me that I would never recover if I didn’t learn how to treat what my brain said with a healthy amount of skepticism. So I started to. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the time in my life when my political views evolved the most, because I also started challenging my knee-jerk reactions to various issues in our society.) Of course, this is a lesson that is not limited to folks with mental illnesses, because everyone’s brain does this to them at some point. For many people, including some of those who proudly label themselves “skeptics,” thinking critically about what happens inside one’s brain does not come nearly as easily as thinking critically about what happens out there in the world.

So, for me, this meant a lot of time spent repeating to myself, “Yes, I feel like Best Friend hates my guts, but that’s just a feeling and it’s not necessarily true” and “Yes, not getting that internship makes me feel like I’m a complete failure who will never amount to anything in her chosen field, but that’s just my brain lying to me again” and “Yes, Partner wants to see their friends rather than me tonight, but this doesn’t mean that Partner doesn’t care about me and doesn’t want to keep seeing me anymore.”

Pause, rewind, repeat, and there you have my recovery.

Lesson 2: Your feelings are valid.

Does this seem like a contradiction to the previous lesson? It’s not. Unfortunately, when confronted with the apparently irrational emotions of others, many people immediately jump to the conclusion that those emotions are WRONG. (These people should never try to be therapists.)

However, just because someone’s emotions do not seem like a “rational” response to what they’re going through, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for them. That reason can be whichever complicated and still-misunderstood brain processes cause depression. It can be that those are the emotions they saw expressed in their families growing up, and learned to mimic at an early age. It can be that last time this sort of thing happened, it ended terribly and now they’re freaking out over this seemingly minor thing because it could end that badly again. It can be that what’s currently happening to them is reminding them of something else entirely.

Or it could be for any number of other reasons that you do not know, and that the person having the “irrational” feelings might not know either. So why assume?

It’s important to remember, too, that there tends to be a pattern to the emotions we decide are “irrational” and “inappropriate” in others. Anger from a woman or a person of color is perceived differently than anger from a white man. Sadness from a woman is perceived differently than sadness from a man. Archetypes like the Angry Black Man and the Hysterical Woman are sometimes so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice ourselves applying them.

But all emotions are valid. Some are less adaptive than others, some we want to change, some can contribute to unacceptable behavior if we don’t address them, yes. But they’re all valid, and telling others (or ourselves) that some emotions are not okay to have doesn’t help in changing them.

Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to keep your mental health in mind when making decisions.

This is the one I’ve resisted the most. I had to quit studying journalism because it was giving me panic attacks, and I chose not to pursue a PhD in part because I didn’t think I could handle it emotionally (well, and because the thought of it just bored me). When it comes to my personal life, my mental health is a big part of the reason I gave up monogamy, although I’m now glad I did for many other reasons. It’s also part of the reason I never studied abroad, gave up many other opportunities, and chose to move to NYC.

When I first started to realize that mental health is a factor that I need to consider when making decisions about my academic, professional, and personal life, I felt abandoned and betrayed by my own brain. I understood intuitively that sometimes you can’t do things because they require physical traits or abilities that you lack or because you don’t have the cognitive skills or because you just lack access to those opportunities. But to have all those things and still give something up just because my brain doesn’t like it? That seemed ridiculous.

In fact, that way of thinking is just an extension of the stigma of mental illness. Just as we think that mental illness isn’t really “real,” we think that mental health isn’t really important. It’s reasonable, we think, to choose not to live in Florida because you can’t deal with the weather or to choose not to go running because it’s too hard on your knees or to choose not to be a physicist because you can’t do math worth a shit, but not getting a PhD because grad school would make your depression relapse? Not being a journalist because interviewing people gives you panic attacks? Not studying abroad because being away from people you love makes you suicidal? What the hell is up with that. Just deal with it.

So for a long time I did stuff that made me miserable because I was fighting so hard against the notion that mental health is something you need to take care of and cultivate, just as you would with your physical health. But one of the most important things I’ve learned how to do in college is knowing when to say “no” to things that sound fantastic but might break down the levees I’ve built up to keep the depression from flooding in.

Of course, sometimes it still makes me furious. I recently gave up a great opportunity for that reason; I badly wanted to do it but every time I thought about actually doing it, and the sacrifices it would entail, I broke down, sobbing, paralyzed, unable to say yes or no to it. Eventually I finally turned it down, full of resentment at myself and my useless brain, but trying to understand that my reason was a good one and that I deserve permission to make this choice.

Now, naturally, there are those who would tell me to Just Do It! and Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone! and blabbityblahblah, but those people will just have to trust me when I say that I know the potential dangers much better than they do. Mental illness is a whole ‘nother ballgame. When I want to Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! I try getting to know someone new or reading something I disagree with that makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I move to NYC, I can Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! by joining new groups or going to events where I don’t know people and seeing what happens.

That’s getting out of my comfort zone. Ignoring the fact that I have important needs when it comes to my mental health, though, is not “brave” or “spontaneous” or “gutsy.” It’s just irresponsible, just as it would be irresponsible go ride a motorcycle without a helmet or to not wash my hands during flu season.

So give yourself permission to treat your mental health with the care and concern it deserves. Of course, you might be aware that doing something could make your mental health worse and choose to do it anyway for any number of reasons, and that’s completely fine, too.

But so many of us struggle merely to accept the idea that it’s okay not to do things for the sole reason that they might worsen our mental health, and that’s something we have to overcome.

It's okay not to be okay.

Does Telling People to “Think Positive” Actually Help? An Informal Survey and Some Protips

Positive thinking is the bane of my existence. Not because I can’t do it, but because I’ve so often been exhorted to do it in the most unhelpful of ways. I’m someone who prefers to talk mostly about the neutral or negative aspects of my life to friends and family because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, which probably leads people to assume that I have difficulty “thinking positively” (and I wouldn’t blame them). Of course, during periods of depression, positive thinking is mostly impossible, but when I’m feeling relatively healthy I’m actually quite optimistic.

Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice to “think positive!” and “look on the bright side!” and “just try to find the silver lining!” Chances are, I’ve either done that already, or I’m not going to be able to do it no matter how many times one tells me to.

So despite the fact that I’m actually quite adept at finding reasons to be hopeful and getting good things even out of bad situations, being told to do so, even though it’s almost always well-meaning, usually rubs me the wrong way. Like, what, you don’t think that “thinking positively” occurred to me? And for that matter, when you tell people to “think positively,” does anyone ever go, “Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I could do that! Thanks so much!”?

And yet thinking positively helps me, and it must help many other people or else people would quit telling each other to do it. I wanted to find out more about the contexts in which people find it helpful to be reminded to “think positive” versus the ones in which they don’t, so I did an extremely informal survey of my online friends and followers. I basically asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Does it ever help you to be told to ‘think positive’?”

Disclaimer: This is not “research,” this is just me asking people I know about their opinions. Maybe if I’d gone for that PhD after all, you’d be reading about this in Science someday, but that’s not going to happen.

Some people said that it doesn’t help at all:

Nope. I find it helpful when people genuinely ask thoughtful questions and then actively listen. Pat answers are a brush off, nothing more.

No. Usually it just makes me feel like I have to shut up now because the person is done listening.

I think just saying “think positive” is a limiting concept since it doesn’t teach anyone how to change negative self talk to positive.

“Think positive” as a general suggestion can actually be harmful – it doesn’t enable its recipient to solve a problem any more than they were before, and can easily lead to an affected individual thinking they’re at fault for being unable to fix something simply by failing to think positively.

“Just think positive” almost always comes couched with The Secret or other metaphysics bullshit in my life. Sooooo I cringe whenever I hear it.

I also don’t think it helps, but for me it’s because it feels like an invalidating thing to say. I’d rather my feelings be acknowledged for their authenticity than be dismissed for not being all sunshine and rainbows like they “should” be.

Telling myself to think positively also occasionally helps, but not always. Other people telling me that does not generally help, particularly since if someone is telling me “just think positive” it’s usually in the context of, I’ve told them some specific problem I’m worrying about and they’ve given me “think positive” as a non-answer.

not when by someone who lacks knowledge of my life and circumstances. Not when I’m clinically depressed, at all.

I’ve never found it helpful, and now I understand that the reason I’ve always found it so upsetting is that the statement comes from a place of neurotypical privilege. My visceral response is almost always “Don’t you think I’ve TRIED THAT ALREADY. Seriously, if it were that simple I would FEEL BETTER.”

I think the logic behind “think positive” and “look on the bright side” are, er, “positive” alternatives to “you like being sad.” They all stem from this idea that is it the person’s own doing, that it is something the individual can control but isn’t trying hard enough, etc. But real depression and anxiety are caused by something beyond the individual’s ability to control.

There aren’t enough characters here for all the four-letter words.

A few said it does:

Certainly. I usually have negative expectations, and have to be reminded to consider positive outcomes. Otherwise, I’d never try anything.

In a really weird way it can me. Like it pisses me off, but it’s a good reminder at the same time.

The majority, however, gave an answer that was basically either “Yes, but” or “No, unless.” And these people generally hit on the same basic point:

It has, if people point out *actual* positive things about the situation.

Yes, but not if they are being dismissive. If they are like, “what about x, and y” then yes. But dismissive, NO.

It can sometimes be helpful to be reminded OF something good, but it doesn’t really help just to be told “look on the bright side.”

It depends entirely on who’s saying it to me. Like if my bestie tells me to chin up it’s entirely different then some random ass fuck

Not as a general statement, no. What has occasionally helped is if someone breaks down a situation and specifically outlines possible positive outcomes – but you can’t just think your way to them.

Although I have found it helpful to try to find the positive aspect in a bad situation, and if I find one I will point it out (especially if the “bright side” is actually black humor), telling people to just generally look on the bright side of life is horse hockey.

Only if they’ve got evidence that says I should. Saying that emptily just sounds like “smile, emo kid!” #ThingsThatDrainMyPacifism

Sometimes, especially if it’s offered along with an example of a silver lining I may have overlooked.

These aren’t nearly all of the responses, but looking through these and the others I got, I hit upon a few major themes that may help you discern whether or not telling someone to “think positive” is worthwhile:

1. Mental Illness

One of the worst things about disorders like depression and anxiety is that they rob you of your ability to be hopeful and think positively. It’s not that you’re not trying, it’s that you can’tSo, when someone’s dealing with sadness, stress, pessimism, etc. that’s brought on by a mental illness as opposed to just “faulty” thinking, telling them to “fix” their thinking isn’t going to be helpful.

2. Proof

Many people said that being advised to think positively helps when they’re actually given “proof” that there’s something to think positively about. Otherwise it just sounds like an empty platitude; if the person who’s telling you to “think positive” can’t even come up with a reason why, that’s not reassuring.

3. Closeness

It feels different to be told to “think positive” by someone who actually knows you very well than, as one person said, by “some random ass fuck.” Although nobody elaborated on why, I can think of several reasons. It’s easier to trust that someone who knows you well generally wants to help you rather than to just get you to stop talking about sad stuff. Someone who knows you well is also more likely to know what helps you. They’re also more likely to actually understand your situation, making advice to “think positive” sound much less flippant than it would otherwise.

In general, telling people to “just think positive” has the same problems as, for instance, telling people to just stop being hurt by bigoted comments or to just learn to keep saying no to persistent unwanted sexual advances: it doesn’t actually help them to do these things. Changing the way you think and feel isn’t like flipping a switch. It requires hard work and practice, just like learning a language or a musical instrument.

Generally that’s a job for a therapist or perhaps a really good self-help book, but if you’d like to help facilitate that process for someone, here are some scripts to help them learn to think more positively without doing the annoying and dismissive “Just look on the bright side!” thing:

  • “That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Is there anything you could do that would make it easier right now?”
  • “Do you think anything good can come of this?”
  • “I’m sorry, that really sucks, but just know that I/your friends/your family will be here to support you.”
  • “Would it help if we went out and did something fun to help you get your mind off of it?”
  • “I know it seems pretty awful right now, but I think you will come out a stronger person because of this.”

Note that these don’t work for everyone and are very dependent on the situation, so use your best judgment. But these are all things that have really helped me to hear at one point or another. And notice that a lot of them involve asking, not telling. Don’t tell people to think positively or do something to get their mind off of it; ask them if they’re able or willing to.

And as with all things emotional, affirming whatever the person is feeling right now is the most important thing. Even if it’s negative! Their emotions are valid even if you don’t understand them or think that they’re productive.

On “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs” and Being a Counselor

Via JT, here’s a new bill that recently passed in the Tennessee State Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote:

Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley encouraged fellow senators to pass SB 514 to “prevent an institution of high education from discriminating against a student in the counseling, social worker, psychology programs because of their religious beliefs.”

Hensley’s bill would protect any student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”

Here’s another relevant quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

I don’t have to cite this one, right?

Forcing public universities to allow their graduate students to use their religion to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do is absolutely “respecting an establishment of religion.” And, contrary to the apparent opinions of the seven senators who voted yes, allowing public universities to require their graduate students to do what they’re supposed to do does not constitute “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion unless you view your counseling work as a form of religious worship. Hopefully, nobody does.

All of this relates to the larger problem of people believing that the First Amendment gives them the right to do a crappy job at work without being fired. When you’re choosing a career path, you should consider, among other things, whether or not you are willing to do the things that your chosen job requires. For instance, I started out college planning to be a journalist, but I realized that pestering people (especially survivors of traumatic newsworthy events) for interviews went against my personal ethical code. Rather than expecting the profession of journalism to adjust itself to my ethical code, I found a different field.

If you are unwilling to help people simply because of who they love, don’t become a counselor.

If you are unwilling to drive a bus simply because it has an ad about atheism, don’t become a bus driver.

If you are unwilling to give someone their prescribed medication simply because it will prevent them from getting pregnant, don’t become a pharmacist.

If you are unwilling to perform an elective surgery on someone simply because it will change their assigned sex, don’t become a plastic surgeon.

If you are unwilling to teach actual science simply because it includes evolution, don’t become a science teacher.

When I was applying to my social work program, I read through the list of requirements for acceptance. I needed a B.A. from an accredited college/university, at least 60 credits in the liberal arts, a decent GPA, and so on. There was also a list of attributes that social work students should have: empathy, interpersonal skills, and a bunch of others. On the list was also this:

The social work student must appreciate the value of human diversity. He/she must serve in an appropriate manner all persons in need of assistance, regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system.

There you have it. It’s a requirement. If I’m unwilling to do it, I shouldn’t go into the field.

Of course, with counseling things can get a bit tricky. If a counselor realizes that their personal bias may prevent them from working appropriately with a given client, it is their responsibility to refer the client to another counselor. Not to just say, “Sorry, can’t help you,” but to try to ensure that they get the help they need somewhere else.

Furthermore, counselors should not attempt to practice outside of their expertise, so if a client shows up with problems that you have no idea how to work with, you should also refer them to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should refer out every LGBT client who comes your way, of course, but if they’re struggling with issues like coming out, dealing with homophobia, or trying to have children, and you have no experience counseling LGBT individuals facing such issues, this is probably not the client for you and you are probably not the counselor for this client.

But there’s a fine line between being unable and being unwilling to do something. There’s a difference between lacking the training or experience you’d need to work with someone and simply not wanting to work with them because you disapprove of their “lifestyle.” There are plenty of “lifestyles” of which I suppose I “disapprove,” but all that really means is that I wouldn’t want to do the same thing and don’t necessarily understand why someone would. That doesn’t mean I can’t still affirm that person as a human being worthy of sympathy and help.

I don’t know how it is everywhere else, but in the programs I’ve looked at, graduate psychology students who are interning tend to work with clients on a sliding scale, which means that these interns are often the only type of counselor that some people can afford. The silver lining of a bill like this is that these clients, who may already be disadvantaged, will be spared from homophobic counselors.

However, the bill’s language does not suggest that it was written to protect LGBT clients, but rather homophobic counselors. And crucially, the bill contradicted advice from psychologists, social workers, and those who oversee graduate psychology programs. They noted that programs could lose accreditation, that part of the job of a counselor is to put their “sincerely held religious beliefs” aside when they do their work. But no, the Religious Right won out again.

Quotes from some Tennessee senators are very telling:

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t understand why psychology departments aren’t teaching their students how to pray away the gay with homosexual clients.

“So if someone were to, say, come in and—I’m just going to throw an example out there—say they were a homosexual and a person did not believe that was a natural act and they suggested, say, change therapy?” Campfield asked. “Would that be something you could allow a student to do?”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said, “I would think that you should be up front and truthful and tell them if they are doing wrong and try to counsel them to do what’s right. That really disturbs me.”

I have sympathy for people whose sincerely held beliefs, religious or otherwise, make it difficult for them to do what they need to do. As I said, I’ve been in that boat. And a certain amount of accommodations for religious people at work and school is, I believe, reasonable. It’s not a huge deal for professors and employers to allow people to occasionally miss a day for a religious holiday or to wear religious garments. It is a big deal for them to exempt students and employees from a crucial part of their training or job.

Allowing people to freely observe their religion does not necessitate bending over backwards to allow them to keep doing jobs with which their religion clashes. Sometimes you just gotta get another job.

Besides, such counselors are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country, which is a topic for another post.

“Love Yourself”: A Beautiful But Flawed Idea

Ever since the 1990s, we–especially women–have been hearing about the importance of self-esteem. It’s associated with better mental health, relationship outcomes, academic achievement, career success, you name it. It’s part of what it means to be a mature and emotionally developed person. Much time and resources have been expended on the development of children’s self-esteem–I remember all the participation awards and being required to summarily tell my parents what I’m “proud of” about my schoolwork at a parent-teacher conference–and I’ll have to write about these initiatives some other time (spoiler alert: they’re mostly failures, and those correlations I listed above may not actually be true).

Along with all this are constant entreaties from various sources–friends, advertisements, PSAs, motivational posters–to “love yourself” and “love your body.” Sometimes this is painfully ironic, like when it’s in advertisements for beauty products or weight-loss aids, but usually it’s earnest and well-meaning. There are plenty of blogs and books and organizations dedicated to helping people (especially women) foster love for themselves (especially for their bodies).

Before I criticize this concept, I want to reiterate that I understand that it’s coming from a good place. It’s meant as a rebuttal to a culture in which people’s flaws, especially their physical ones, are magnified and used to sell as many fake panaceas as possible. A culture in which plastic surgery is $10 billion industry, in which people are getting their genitals surgically altered to be more “attractive,” in which the majority of teenage girls are unhappy with the way they look. I could go on.

Furthermore, part of the reason women are so unlikely to express positive feelings about how they look isn’t just that they don’t have positive feelings about it, but probably that they face social rejection for doing so. The pressure not to seem like you think you’re “all that” can be strong, and “fat talk” is one way women bond socially. Given this, encouraging women to “love themselves” and their bodies can be a way of fighting back against these norms.

But the problem is that when we prescribe ways of thinking or feeling, failing to follow them becomes stigmatized. Not loving yourself and your body isn’t just unhealthy anymore, it’s uncool. It’s immature. I wrote once a long time ago about how a classmate told me that loving yourself is actually a prerequisite for being a good person–implying (accidentally, I hope) that not loving yourself means you’re not a good person.

Not loving yourself means you have Issues and Baggage and all of those other unsexy things. It means you just haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Love Who You Truly Are. Loving yourself and your body becomes the normative state, not an extra perk that some are able to achieve. For instance, someone wrote on Tumblr in response to an article I posted about makeup that “girls should learn to love themselves before fucking around with eyeliner.” Loving yourself is a requirement, according to this person, for something as basic as putting on makeup.

Maybe this would be fair, except for this: according to our society, we are not all equally worthy of love. We are all pushed down in some ways, but some are pushed down more–and in more ways–than others. You can tell a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive to “love her body” all you want, but if everything she encounters in her daily life suggests to her that her body isn’t worthy of love, these are empty platitudes.

When it comes to loving the entirety of yourself–not just your body–the concept breaks down even further. How easy is for a child of neglectful parents to love themselves? How easy is it for someone subjected to a lifetime of bullying for being LGBT? How easy is it for someone who grew up in poverty and was blamed for being “lazy”? How easy is it for a victim of assault or abuse?

Our society pushes certain types of people down, and then mandates that we all “love ourselves”—and if we fail to do so it is our fault.

Yes, loving yourself is great. I wouldn’t say I love myself, but I do like myself quite a bit. But the only reason I’m able to do that is because I haven’t been told for my entire life that who I am is fundamentally unlovable because of my weight, my skin color, my sexual/gender identity, my socioeconomic status, my politics, my personality, whatever. Although I’ve definitely hated myself at times (thanks, depression and college), overall I’ve been raised in a loving and supportive environment and consistently told that I have worth as a person.

I have (mostly) been free of societal persecution. I have never been falsely accused of a crime because of my race. I have never felt like I’ll never find someone to love because I can’t come out. I have never been taught that because I don’t believe in god, I deserve to go to hell. (Except for a few evangelical Christians, but they were easy for me to ignore.)

Loving yourself is a privilege that not everyone gets to share.

I do think there are things that anyone can do to cultivate self-love even when it’s been consistently taken away from them. I don’t think anyone has to “view themselves as a victim” or whatever buzz-phrase people are using these days. But if you do feel like a victim sometimes, honestly, I wouldn’t blame you.

As well-intentioned as these body positivity and self-esteem campaigns are, it starts to feel very alienating when everyone around you is busy Loving Themselves and you just can’t seem to get there. With every injunction to “love yourself” comes an implicit blame if you do not.

I’m not saying that “love yourself” is a bad concept. It’s a beautiful concept and a worthwhile goal. But we should be aware of the unintended consequences it can have when shouted from the rooftops ad infinitum, and we should also consider that “loving yourself” may not be necessary, important, or even possible for everyone.

Instead of “love yourself,” I would say:

Try to be okay with yourself. Try not to listen when the world tells you that who you are is wrong. Loving yourself and your body can wait, and besides, it’s not necessary for a happy and healthy life.

~~~

Edit: Paul Fidalgo responded to my earlier Tumblr rant on this subject and said in a paragraph what I just laboriously tried to say in a thousand words:

Whenever I’m told I need to love myself, I feel like I’m being asked to lie, to pretend to feel something I don’t. I spent most of my adolescence being informed continuously that I was lowest of the low and unworthy of even human decency, let alone love, and I learned to believe it. Messages about what it is a man is supposed to be in the media were not at all helpful. And other things happened, too. So I really don’t feel like “loving myself” is a fair expectation, not in any immediate sense.

Yes, this exactly.

If Not Now, When? On Politicizing Tragedy

I’m sure you’ve heard by now about the tragedy that happened in Connecticut this morning. If not, go read this and be ready to shed some tears. I definitely did.

Every time a preventable tragedy happens, we are implored not to “politicize” it. It’s disrespectful, we’re told, to talk politics when people are grieving.

I can see why people would feel that way, and I don’t want to delegitimize the way they feel. Everyone has their own way of grieving, especially when it’s this sort of collective grief. If you’d rather stay away from the discussions about gun control and access to mental health, by all means, stay away. Go do what you need to.

Some people grieve by praying or meditating. Some just want to get off the internet and do something relaxing or joyful. Some ignore it and go on as though nothing has happened; while I disagree with that approach, I think that one’s own wellbeing is the most important thing.

Some grieve by analyzing, discussing, and doing. To us, the only consolation is that maybe, this time, change will come. Prayer is meaningless to me, personally. Sitting quietly and reflecting is something I can only do for so long before I start to feel like I’m bursting out of my skin. After hearing the news today, I cried. Then I sought comfort from my friends online. Then I patiently waited for my little brother and sister–they are elementary school-age—to come home and I hugged them.

But I can’t feel at ease unless I talk about what could’ve caused this–all of the things that could’ve caused this. They’re not all political. It’s true that we have a culture of violence. It’s true that sometimes people snap. It’s true that sometimes shit just happens.

But it’s also true that gun control is sorely lacking. It’s true that people kill people, but they kill people with guns (among other things). It’s true that lobbies that don’t speak for most of us are the ones who get to determine gun policy in this country. It’s true that even if every citizen has the right to own a gun, they do not have the right to own a gun without any caveats, and they do not get to own an assault rifle.

It’s also true that mental healthcare is sorely lacking, too. It’s true that we don’t know whether or not this gunman had a mental illness and shouldn’t assume that he did, but that right now, the only thing I can think of that could stop a violent person from committing violence is professional, evidence-based help (if anything at all). It’s true that the stigma against seeking help can prevent people from seeking it, and it can prevent those close to people who need help from recommending it.

“Politicization” is a dirty word. But should it be?

Jon Stewart had an eerily prescient moment on the Daily show this past Monday when he talked about the controversy that sportscaster Bob Costas when he briefly discussed guns during an NFL halftime show. Stewart discusses the hypocrisy of insisting that we have to wait some arbitrary length of time before we discuss gun control in the wake of a tragedy, but talking about how said tragedy could’ve happened even without guns apparently has no waiting period.

He then delivers this line: “You can talk about guns, just not in the immediate wake of any event involving guns. But with approximately 30 gun-related murders daily in the United States, when will it ever be the right time to talk about the issue?”

Indeed. When will it ever be the right time?

Stewart is being hyperbolic, of course. It’s generally only large-scale tragedies like today’s that prompt the “don’t politicize the tragedy” response, but he’s right that we never really seem to find the right moment to have a serious discussion about guns. When a shooting hasn’t just occurred, people don’t think about the issue much. And when it has, we’re implored not to be disrespectful by talking about the issue in any way other than “wow this is so horrible.”

Like it or not, this is a political issue. It certainly has non-political components, but refusing to acknowledge that there are also political factors involved doesn’t do anyone any good.

The calls to avoid “politicizing” the issue sometimes come from ordinary people who want to grieve without talking about politics–and that’s their right. But it doesn’t mean that those of us who do want to talk about politics are being crass or disrespectful. It just means we have different ways of grieving, and that’s okay.

Sometimes, though, this sentiment comes from politicians themselves, and that is exactly when it becomes very dangerous. Addressing President Obama, Allison Benedikt writes:

The benefit of not “capitalizing” on the tragedy is that, in a few days, most of us will put this whole thing behind us. We have Christmas presents to buy and trees to decorate—this is a very busy time of year! So if you wait this one out, just kind of do the bare minimum of your job, our outrage will probably pass, and you can avoid any of those “usual Washington policy debates.”

Who exactly does it benefit when politicians choose not to talk about the political ramifications of mass shootings? It certainly doesn’t benefit the citizens.
Furthermore, when politicians call on us not to “politicize” an issue, they are, in fact, politicizing it. Ezra Klein writes:
Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome, that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It’s just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws.

For what it’s worth, I definitely prefer the type of politicization that gets a conversation going rather than the type that shuts it down.

Hillel, one of the most well-known Jewish leaders of all time, has a saying: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

If not now, when? When are we going to talk about guns?

For me, grieving goes hand-in-hand with dreaming and working for a better tomorrow.

Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

Yesterday I was driving around in my hometown and listening to the radio. The DJs did a segment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in a hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated, who was pranked by some radio DJs and tricked into giving out Middleton’s medical information.

The DJs on my hometown station put a caller through and asked for her opinion. She said that it’s not at all the DJs’ fault that Saldhana clearly had issues and that they shouldn’t have lost their jobs because of what happened. Furthermore, it was “irresponsible” of Saldhana to kill herself and leave this whole mess behind.

Lesson one: never listen to the radio in Dayton, Ohio.

Lesson two: people have a lot of trouble with grey areas and blurry lines.

(Of course, I mostly knew both of these things already.)

It seems to be very difficult for people to form an opinion on this tragedy that isn’t extreme. Some say that the DJs were just doing their jobs, the prank was completely harmless, just a bit of fun, and Saldanha was messed up and crazy. Others say that the DJs are terrible people and should be blamed for Saldanha’s suicide. The latter seems to be the minority opinion.

I don’t think that the truth always lies between two extremes. In this case, though, I feel that it does.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the suffering that causes it–and that is caused by it–makes it even more difficult to comprehend. A particularly painful fact that the friends and families of people who kill themselves sometimes have to face is the fact that suicide often has a trigger. Sometimes, that trigger is other people.

I remember reading a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why a few years ago. The novel is very serious for a YA book, and the premise of it is that a teenage girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of audio recordings in which she explains to every person who was implicated in her mental troubles what it was that they did.

One was addressed to a guy who found a poem she wrote and spread it all over the school. Another was to a guy who took photos of her through her bedroom window. By the end of the book you get a picture of a girl who was just completely used and marginalized by almost everyone she interacted with.

And yet–this is the part that some readers, judging from the reviews, didn’t get–Hannah is not supposed to be a wholly sympathetic character. You’re meant to feel sorry for her, but her actions are meant to make you uncomfortable. The tapes she leaves behind seem a bit vindictive. And at the end you learn that two of the major triggers for her suicide were that she failed to stop a rape at a party and that she allowed her friend to drive drunk–and hit and kill someone.

So, who’s to blame for Hannah’s suicide? Her classmates were cruel, yes. But they didn’t know what she was going through. And she could’ve saved herself a lot of guilt had she intervened and stopped the rape and the car accident, but can you really expect a terrified teenage girl to do that?

The point of the book, to me, is this: you can’t blame anyone. It’s comforting to think that you can, but you just can’t.

Similarly, the Australian DJs who pranked Saldanha could not have known what would happen. In fact, even now we don’t really understand. Although she reportedly left a suicide note, we don’t know what it says, and we don’t know what kinds of personal struggles she might’ve had leading up to her death. To their credit, the DJs have said that they’re heartbroken and sorry.

But blaming Saldanha is sick and cruel.

And while I don’t blame the DJs for her death, I still think they shouldn’t have done it.

The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart. This is why people like Saldanha are blamed and exhorted to “just work on their issues,” even after they’ve died.

We assume that people are always capable, for instance, of refusing repeated sexual advances, ignoring social coercion and proselytism, dealing with mental health issues without ever being taught how, overcoming pervasive racial inequality, facing the humiliation (and, sometimes, terror) of street harassment, suffering through targeted online hate campaigns, refusing to believe it when magazines tell them they must be thin, and so much more. We expect them to do all this without anger, because anger is “counterproductive.” So, of course, is mental illness.

We expect people to conform to an ideal that includes emotional strength, confidence, and resilience, and we refuse to concede that few people are able to live up to this ideal all of the time. How much do we expect a person to bravely, stoically handle? I’m not sure there is a limit.

The DJs assumed, whether consciously or not, that Saldanha would either see through the prank or be able to deal with the international attention she would receive for falling victim to it. As it turned out, she was not.

At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes:

With the recent focus on bullying sparked by suicides of young people who were hectored as outcasts, a new or newly articulated risk factor for suicide has gained currency: humiliation. Though certainly related to hopelessness and to real or threatened financial embarrassment, humiliation is its own very private experience, with its own equally private triggers. How and why certain events might brutally transgress honor and dignity in one person yet the same events barely touch the next, remains inscrutable. In this particular tragedy, it seems a sense that she was being publicly ridiculed—humiliated—somehow pushed Ms. Saldanha over the edge, an edge previously defined and maintained by her tremendous pride in her work.

Why do we expect people to deal with public humiliation for our own entertainment?

I would hope that rather than limiting the discussion to what these particular DJs should or should not have done, we expand it to talk about the exploitation and degradation that modern media thrives on. That these DJs would even think to go through such trouble to obtain someone’s private medical information is ridiculous. That there is a market for that information is ridiculous. I’ve long believed that celebrity gossip is unethical, but when it sets off a chain of events that ends in a suicide, that becomes even more apparent to me.

Not only is it impossible to blame any individual person in this awful story, but to do so would be to miss the point. Something in our culture–in the ways we relate to each other and in the ways we expect each other to be strong–is broken.

If I absolutely had to lay blame on something, it would be that.