Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

The Associated Press has revised their AP Stylebook, the guide that most journalists use to standardize their writing, to include an entry on mental illness. Among many other important things that the entry includes, which you should read here, it says:

Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.

And:

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

That first one is important because there is a tendency, whenever a person who has done something wrong also happens to have a mental illness, to attempt to tie those two things together.

Some things I have seen people (and, in some cases, medical authorities) try to blame on mental illness:

  • being violent
  • being religious
  • being an atheist
  • abusing children
  • spending money unwisely
  • raping people
  • stealing
  • bullying or harassing people
  • being upset by bullying and harassment
  • enjoying violent video games
  • being shy
  • being overly social
  • being too reliant on social approval
  • having casual sex
  • being into BDSM
  • not being interested in sex
  • dating multiple people
  • not wanting to date anyone
  • not wanting to have children
  • being attracted to someone of the same sex
  • being trans*
  • wanting to wear clothing that doesn’t “belong” to your gender

You’ll notice that these things run the gamut from completely okay to absolutely cruel. Some of them involve personal decisions that affect no one but the individual, while others affect others immeasurably. All of them are things that we’ve determined in our culture to be inappropriate on varying levels.

That last one, I believe, explains why these things (and many others) are so often attributed to mental illness. It is comforting to believe that people who flout social norms, whether they’re as minor as wearing the wrong clothing or as severe as abusing and killing others, do so for individual reasons or personal failings of some sort. It’s comforting because it means that such transgressions are the acts of “abnormal” people, people we could never be. It means that there are no structural factors we might want to examine and try to change because they contribute to things like this, and it means that we don’t have to reconsider our condemnation of those behaviors.

It’s easier to say that people who won’t obediently fit into one gender or the other are “sick” than to wonder if we’re wrong to prescribe such strict gender roles.

It’s easier to say that a mass shooter is “sick” than to wonder if we’ve made it too easy to access the sort of weapons that nobody would ever need for “self-defense.”

It’s easier to say that a rapist is “sick” than to wonder if something in our culture suggests to people over and over that rape isn’t really rape, and that doing it is okay.

It’s easier to say that a bully is “sick” than to wonder why we seem to be failing to teach children not to torment each other.

It’s easier to say that a compulsive shopper is “sick” than to wonder why consuming stuff is deemed so important to begin with.

Individual factors do exist, obviously, and they are important too. Ultimately people have choices to make, and sometimes they make choices that we can universally condemn (although usually things aren’t so black and white). Some things are mental illnesses, but even mental illnesses do not exist in some special biological/individual vacuum outside of the influence of society. In fact, in one of the most well-known books on sociology ever published, Émile Durkheim presents evidence that even suicide rates are influenced by cultural context.

In any case, it’s an understandable, completely human impulse to dismiss all deviant behaviors as the province of “mentally ill” people, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s wrong for many reasons. It dilutes the concept of “mental illness” until it is almost meaningless, leading people to proclaim things like “Well everyone seems to have a mental illness these days” and dismiss the need for more funding, research, and treatment. It leads to increased stigma for mental illness when people inaccurately attribute behaviors that are universally accepted as awful, like mass shootings, to it. It causes those who have nothing “wrong” with them, such as asexual, kinky, and LGBTQ people, to keep trying to “fix” themselves rather than realizing that it’s our culture that’s the problem. It prevents us from working to change the factors that are actually contributing to these problems, such as rape culture, lack of gun control, and consumerism, because it keeps these factors invisible from us.

People disagree a lot regarding the role of the media in society. Should it merely report the facts as accurately as possible, or does it have a responsibility to educate people and promote change? Regardless of your stance on that, though, I think most people would agree that the media should at the very least do no harm. Blaming everything from murder to shyness on mental illness absolutely does harm, which is why I’m happy to see the Associated Press take a stand against it.

That said, it’s not enough for journalists to stop attributing everything to mental illness. The rest of us have to stop doing it too.

[guest post] We Need To Talk About Incest Survival

[Content note: incest, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders]

Someone I know and respect asked me to publish this anonymous guest post. -M

Mia Fontaine wrote an article in The Atlantic recently about the incest problem in America. Although we talk about sex scandals, stranger danger, and the abuses of the Catholic Church, as a society, we don’t really address the adult on child abuse that takes place primarily inside children’s homes.

Given the prevalence of incest, and that the family is the basic unit upon which society rests, imagine what would happen if every kid currently being abused—and every adult who was abused but stayed silent—came out of the woodwork, insisted on justice, and saw that justice meted out.

I have felt compelled to write about what happened to me, but I am too terrified of the consequences to post under my own name. Still, perhaps my story might give someone else the courage to do more than post anonymously to the internet. Perhaps someone will read it and realize how important this issue is. Or perhaps I’ll just feel better having written it. All worthy goals.

I was 18 the last time it happened, it was Christmas break my Freshman year in college. I ran and hid in my room and wondered how I’d let it happen again, it hadn’t happened in so long, I was in college now, surely I should have been safe. I didn’t cry, I just shook. In the decade since that night, I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to unpack everything going on inside me at that moment. Fear, anger, confusion, hurt, desperation for love and approval.

I’m not sure when it started. Maybe I was 11 or 12? It started gradually. Inappropriate hugs, hands lingering where they weren’t supposed to be, hands being held where they didn’t want to be. It escalated over the years to being given alcohol, oral sex, and being told that “if your mother ever found out, she would kill me.”

It was never vaginal intercourse and so, until the recent change in definition, it didn’t seem like I could call it rape. And, even though he lived with me, he was a step-relation, so I wasn’t sure whether it could be properly defined as incest. And I loved him, he was family, so I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. And it didn’t always feel bad, some of the things felt good. And when so much of life was filled with hate, criticism, and being ignored, it was really something for someone to show affection at all. At the time, I felt it was my fault and, without any labels that seemed right, couldn’t think of what it was that was being done wrong exactly, just that it made me nauseous to think about. With the massive age difference, I knew it was statutory something. I don’t know, I tried very hard not to think about it.

But then a strange thing happened. My body forced me to think about it. I stopped having my period. I knew, physiologically, that it was impossible for me to be pregnant, but I was terrified just the same. A home pregnancy test confirmed my understanding of anatomy.

After three months with no period, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist at school, but, when I refused to take antidepressants because I was terrified my parents would find out, they refused to see me. Then I decided I had to make an appointment with a gynecologist. My mother was annoyed by my urgency at needing to go. It took two months to get into see someone — a very religious, old Southern man with a private practice.

He didn’t believe me when I said I’d never had sex and forced me to take a pregnancy test–I explained that after six months amenorrheic I’d be showing if I was lying, but that didn’t help. They never asked me if I’d been sexually abused, but who knows what I would have said. They never asked what I thought had precipitated the loss of periods. I guess I wasn’t thin enough to be anorexic, so it didn’t matter, even though it was a clear sign of depression. The fifth or sixth time he asked me if I was really a virgin, I started to cry, I never felt so judged. Not that being a virgin was important to me, but being honest absolutely was.

He wrote me a prescription for some hormone that induced a period and for a year’s supply of birth control. Somehow, the massive cramping didn’t make me feel any better.

I had to go to a family event that fall where He was present. And He had started dating someone I knew, someone I respected and liked a lot. I didn’t know what to do. At the same time, my family was harshly criticizing me for being fat (size 12) and not caring about my appearances. Presumably they thought my unhappiness was from being “too fat to be loved” rather than some negative experience of mine.

I began self-harming–cutting and starving myself. I visited pro-ana websites “out of curiosity”. I would eat a Milky Way bar and nothing else. I would eat with other people so they wouldn’t know anything was out of place and go home and throw it up. I made a friend take all my knives and scissors. I fantasized about driving through stop signs and red lights through traffic and getting into horrible accidents. I drove through the city late at night trying to get lost.

I’m not sure what broke, but finally I went to see another school therapist and agreed to take antidepressants.

It was too late, I felt, to try to tell my parents, and my therapist agreed, but only because she thought my parents were horrible. She felt like I should just try to get them to treat me like an adult and stop complaining about my weight all the time. The incest and rape thing just wasn’t that important because it wasn’t going to happen again, but unless I stopped them, my parents would continue to be awful.

It got better. I stopped seeing the therapist six weeks later, and was much better than I had been. I still occasionally had nightmares, but managed OK. A year after this, I tried to talk to my mother about what had happened. I woke up in the night after a nightmare and was shaking, and my mother heard me walking around. She took me to an all night diner and we talked. I told her what had happened and she told me I had misinterpreted events. I insisted I had not. She didn’t remember the conversation the next day. Her therapist later told me that she wouldn’t survive being told, the guilt would kill her, so she must have blocked it. He told me I couldn’t ever tell her.

I am happy now, I love myself, I love others and others love me. I am doing what I want to do, I am an activist in causes I care about, and I am fighting fights I want to fight. And I can’t find it in myself to fight this fight out loud.

I feel like an enabler, writing this anonymously. Never having confronted him. Never having told the family. What good would it do now, to open all of that up? It wouldn’t help anyone, just open wounds. Just make people hate me or hate him…but probably me. Who wants to do that? To destroy a family? I like a lot of the people who would get hurt.

And so I stay silent. Along with thousands and thousands like me. Justice is not being stopped by a powerful organization like Penn State or the Catholic Church, but by the reality that the victims would be hated just as much as, if not more than, the perpetrators. We’ve broken down some of the barriers to reporting stranger assaults on children, but we haven’t solved the larger problem of helping those living with their abusers. Society isn’t built to fix this problem or help people like me, but it doesn’t always have to be like this. Go read that article in The Atlantic, share it, write about this issue, support RAINN, and be willing to hear the truth, even when it is unpleasant.

LGBT Celebrities Do Not Owe Coming Out To Anyone

Everyone’s got an opinion on Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes last night. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a video with a transcript.

In the speech, Foster spoke affectionately of her ex-partner, with whom she raised children, and explained that she “already did [her] coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age” but values her privacy too much to make it a big spectacle.

That’s not a good enough excuse for one writer, though (watch out, it’s apparently Low-Hanging Fruit Day over here at Brute Reason):

I mean, is it 1996? Jodie’s defensive speech, in which she seemed to blame Honey Boo Boo and reality TV for supposedly creating a climate that forced her out of the closet, harkened back to a time when it was a big deal to proclaim your sexual orientation. Hello, it’s 2013! People are getting “gay married” and homos can be out in the military and stuff!

[...]Why am I so angry? Because I’m roughly the same age as Jodie, and yet I had the courage to come out exactly 20 years ago.

I honestly don’t see what is “defensive” about Foster’s speech and where exactly she “blames” current pop culture for “forcing” her out of the closet. She does joke about how celebrities are expected to live very publicly and have their own reality shows and fragrances and whatnot, but the part where she blames this for making her come out seems to be entirely in Baer’s imagination.

Baer goes on and calls Foster’s need for privacy “an excuse” and then offers this bizarre caveat:

A lot of people will criticize this piece and write angry, hateful comments saying that it was up to her when and where to come out, and they’re absolutely right, but that still doesn’t mean she wasn’t a coward, and it doesn’t change the fact that she could have helped millions of people by coming out years ago.

A bunch of things jump out at me:

1. This article seems to be more about the author than about Jodie Foster.

As in, it’s all about Baer and how courageous she was for having come out a long time ago. Even though she doesn’t dedicate that much of the article to talking about her own courage, that’s clearly the main theme–she was courageous and Foster was not.

Baer undoubtedly deserves respect for coming out so early (well, for coming out at all), but that doesn’t mean Foster is a “coward” for not being so public about her sexual orientation. As she explains in her speech, everyone that she wanted to know, knew. That may not be “out enough” for Baer, but it’s still out.

Whenever someone’s done something awesome–come out, for example, or recovered from a mental illness–there’s a certain tension in figuring out how to talk about the people who haven’t succeeded in doing that thing yet without being a total asshole about it. My reasoning is that you don’t know why they haven’t and it’s best not to assume. I suppose Foster could really be a coward, but personally I doubt it. It’s more likely that she had other reasons for not coming out publicly (assuming that the ways in which she has already come out don’t matter, which is what Baer seems to be assuming).

2. Considering Foster’s history, Baer is incredibly dismissive of her stated need for privacy.

Many celebrities guard their privacy carefully, and not all of them have any desire to be in tabloids all the time. But Foster has a unique story in that regard. In the 1980s, a fan of hers named John Hinckley, Jr. became obsessive and started sending her love letters. He then attempted to assassinate then-President Reagan, stating that he was trying to impress Foster. The resulting intrusion of her privacy by the media is something that she’s known to have had a lot of discomfort with.

Given this, one would think that Foster could get away with needing privacy a bit more than the average celebrity, but in rushing to condemn her, Baer misses these nuances.

As Foster said in the speech:

But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.

3. It’s not Foster’s job to “help millions of people” by coming out.

It’s not anyone’s job, actually. Foster’s job is to make movies. Baer’s job is to write articles about the entertainment industry. All of us should probably try to be decent people and to help others when they need it, but not at the cost of our own well-being. Chastising someone for failing to “help millions of people” just seems odd to me because it presumes that Foster is somehow failing live up to her responsibilities as a person.

It’s undoubtedly true that many people would’ve been happy had Foster come out (or, again, come out more publicly in the way that Baer apparently wanted her to). Perhaps she would’ve been an inspiration for a lot of LGBT kids. But that doesn’t make coming out an imperative. I would probably inspire lots of people if I won a marathon or donated all of my worldly possessions to charity, but that doesn’t make it a moral imperative for me to do so.

4. Baer’s reaction shows an incredible amount of entitlement.

We consider ourselves entitled to a lot from celebrities. They must be Good Role Models. They must always be grateful for their fame, even if they never asked for it and even if it often causes them enormous personal difficulties. (Consider the never-ending excoriation of Kristen Stewart for failing to appear cheerful and grateful enough.) If they’re queer, they must always come out and be willing to serve as advocates for LGBT causes.

You could argue that it’s not healthy or “right” for any queer person to live in the closet (though in my opinion you’d still be wrong). But that’s not what Foster was doing. Given that she had already come out to everyone who matters to her and has lived her life as a gay woman–for instance, by dating another woman and raising children with her–Baer’s presumption that Foster owes us anything more than that is predicated on the fact that she’s a celebrity.

Like many others, Baer assumes that celebrities’ lives exist for her consumption and that celebrities who happen to be queer exist solely to validate her and other LGBT folks. But Foster is a human being. She is a human being who happens to be a famous actress and who also happens to be gay.

5. Baer is shockingly dismissive of the negative consequences that coming out can have for celebrities.

She writes:

Nobody was asking Jodie to be president of the gays. Ellen [Degeneres] is a great example of someone who came out, had no interest in being the poster child and is just living her life honestly and openly. Though she occasionally fights publicly for LGBT causes, being a lesbian doesn’t define her. But here’s the amazing thing that happened to Ellen. At first her big announcement seemed to derail her career. She disappeared for a while and almost gave up on show business because she was “mired in depression.” After some dark days, which a lot of newly out people experience, Ellen ultimately was rewarded for being her true self. Today, because of her talk show, she’s arguably one of the most beloved stars on the planet, adored by millions, gay and straight alike (except for a handful of moms who now refuse to shop at JCPenney, but c’mon, they’re dumb).

First of all, I’m not sure why Baer thinks that Ellen isn’t a “poster child” when such a great deal of media coverage about her has to do with the fact that she’s a lesbian. But second, notice how Baer just skims right over the part where Ellen suffered from depression and nearly quit her career as a result of coming out. As though that doesn’t even matter because she gets to be “her true self” now. As though the bullying from One Million Moms is just a crappy little side effect.

What if that sort of public opprobrium and the depression that can result from it wasn’t something Foster felt capable of dealing with?

Nobody should have to suffer through bullying, depression, and possible career loss for coming out as gay or trans*. I think we can all agree on that here, and many of us advocate in various ways to make coming out easier and safer. But blaming an individual for not being willing to put themselves through this is unconscionable.

I don’t know what private struggles Foster has gone through with regard to her sexuality, and neither does Baer. It’s none of our business. That’s why calling her a coward for not doing what others have done is wrong.

A Handy List of Everything Wrong with Creating a Database of People with Mental Illnesses

It’s not like anyone expected the NRA to say anything intelligent during its long-awaited press conference on Friday, so I’m not exactly disappointed by what they said. I am, however, completely appalled at the NRA’s ignorance of mental illness and insensitivity to those affected by it.

Along with a few other laughable suggestions, like putting armed security guards in elementary schools, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s Executive Vice President, said this:

“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark.

A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”

Now, I’m not sure to what extent LaPierre actually believes that this is a realistic and ethical goal as opposed to a throwaway remark intended to deflect responsibility from his organization and the products it defends. It’s also unclear how much the NRA’s leadership has discussed and promoted this idea.

However, I think it’s still worth using this example to show how ignorant these people are about mental illness, because I’m quite certain that they are not alone.

So, here’s everything I can think of that’s wrong with the idea of creating a national database of people with mental illnesses.

1. It’s redundant.

As Kate explains on Ashley Miller’s blog, mental health professionals are already required to break confidentiality and report when patients pose a clear threat to themselves or others. Rather than putting this in some sort of “database,” they report it to the people who know best how to use this information–the police. I’m not sure if LaPierre is suggesting that we create a public database of people with mental illnesses so that armed vigilantes can take matters into their own hands or what, but I think most reasonable people agree that dealing with people who have expressed the intent to harm others is best left to the police.

Furthermore, as Sarah Kliff writes in the Washington Post, 38 states already require or allow the use of mental health records in background checks for people trying to purchase guns, and the Gun Control Act of 1969 bans the sale of guns to people who have been committed to a mental institution in the past. However, that act is difficult to enforce because state reporting laws vary so much, and unfortunately for LaPierre, it is unconstitutional for the federal government to require states to report mental health records for a national database.

2. It violates existing laws.

As Kate also mentions, HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) requires that people’s medical records be kept private. (So strict are medical confidentiality rules that when I saw a psychiatrist as a 19-year-old dependent on my parents’ medical insurance, the psychiatrist had to ask for my consent before she explained to my mom why she thought I needed antidepressants.) Creating a national database of people with mental illnesses would mean repealing or amending this law. Can the NRA summon up enough support in Congress for that?

If LaPierre intends to use this database to restrict the ability of people with mental illnesses to access to resources they need, such as jobs and schools, that would also violate the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which bans discrimination on the bases of mental and physical disability. And, regardless, as mentioned in #1, creating a national database would probably not be constitutional because the federal government would have to force states to report mental health data.

3. It’s probably impossible to determine which diagnoses should be included.

Repealing or amending HIPAA would also mean deciding which diagnoses would suddenly not be subject to confidentiality. People like LaPierre seem to think that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are the most “dangerous,” but what about substance addiction, which is highly correlated with violence? Would every alcoholic have to be registered? What about autism, which many people falsely associate with violence? And, if yes, then what about Asperger’s Syndrome, now considered a “mild” version of autism that’s on the low end of the spectrum? What about depression, which can sometimes involve psychosis?

Or, since LaPierre simply called it a “national database of the mentally ill,” should we include everybody with mild depression, social anxiety, a phobia of elevators, an eating disorder? Should we include people whose mental symptoms are caused entirely by another, purely medical illness? Should we include people who develop depression as a result of, say, cancer?

4. The list of ethical ways to use this database is very short.

Seriously, what would you do with it? Deny these people access to employment, education, and housing? Then you’d have to repeal the ADA. Surveil them? That’s a violation of civil liberties (not that our government’s great about that). Bar them from purchasing guns? As mentioned above, that’s already going on in the majority of states, and it’s one of the reasons “liberals” are trying to pass stricter gun regulations. But this is where the common argument against such regulations–that criminals will find a way to get guns anyway–can be turned right back on those who tend to spew it. It’s worth noting that Adam Lanza did not purchase his guns; he got them from his mother, who bought them legally and is not reported to have had any mental illness.

5. Most people with mental illnesses do not get treatment.

And you can’t register them in a database unless they do, obviously. One study suggests that over 60 percent of people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, do not receive consistent treatment. This means that a majority of the people who should be in the database wouldn’t be in it, anyway.

Although the association between mental illness and violence is tiny, people with untreated mental illnesses are more likely to be violent than those whose illnesses are being treated properly (although the link between mental illness and violence is still very small). This means that the people who would be on this database are the ones who are least likely to cause anyone any harm.

In any case, the percentage of people who don’t get the treatment they need would probably go up, because:

6. It would discourage people from seeking treatment.

The stigma of mental illness and treatment already keeps many people from reaching out for help. If you know that going to see a therapist or psychiatrist could put your name on a national registry of people to be feared, stigmatized, and discriminated against, why would you do it?

Even if most of what I’ve said above about misuses of this database turns out to be a huge strawman–which I don’t know, because LaPierre hasn’t specified how he wants this database to be used and it’s important to consider the potentially dangerous ramifications–people will still worry. Even if the only purpose of the database is to prevent people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns, people will still be worried about that information falling into the wrong hands.

This, of course, is the final nail in the coffin of LaPierre’s idea. Even if nothing else that I’ve said about it were true, this point would be reason enough not to do it. Anything that prevents people from getting treatment is, by default, the wrong solution.

I already know many people who refuse to seek treatment for a mental illness because they are worried about being discriminated against if the wrong person finds out. Although the ADA supposedly protects them, it is difficult if not impossible to prove that discrimination has occurred. Those fears could grow much more urgent if simply going to a doctor and receiving a diagnosis puts your name and medical information into a national database accessible to god-knows-who.

This is what tells me that not only is LaPierre scapegoating people with mental illnesses to divert opprobrium from his own organization, but he also completely misses the point and fails to understand the first thing about mental health and treatment.

He gives away his views on people with mental illnesses when he says this: “The truth is, that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can every possibly comprehend them.”

We are “genuine monsters” to him.

He’s wrong, of course. There are plenty of “sane” people who comprehend those with mental illnesses–researchers, therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, friends and family of those affected, and people who have recovered from those illnesses. That LaPierre personally fails to understand them says more about his own lack of both empathy and research in the field than about the supposed need to stick them all in a national database for the perusal of bigots.

It is also worth noting that in this emotionally charged statement, LaPierre fails to distinguish between people who commit acts of violence because of an illness they cannot control without proper treatment–which LaPierre wants to make it even harder for them to get–and people who commit acts of violence because they have no respect for human life and are seeking to make a political point, get personal revenge, and so on. Although violence and death, especially of children, is tragic regardless of the cause, that doesn’t mean that all violence is caused by the same type of person.

If I could make a suggestion to LaPierre, I would tell him to talk less, read and listen more. There’s reasonable disagreement to be had about how to prevent further mass shootings, but his suggestion was not reasonable. It was ignorant, offensive, and probably dishonest.

How To Make Your Social Spaces More Welcoming To Shy, Socially Anxious, or Introverted People

Social interaction is hard for many people for many different reasons. Plenty has already been written on how these people can change themselves or learn how to better cope with social situations, so I have little interest in rehashing that. What I really want to discuss is how others can set up their social spaces and events in ways that make it easier for these people to participate.

A disclaimer: this post is written from my individual perspective (albeit with a few suggestions from friends). I’m just one person, one person who is an introvert and has struggled with social anxiety and shyness in the past. If you read this post and find it useful, discuss it with other people you know who might disagree with or confirm various parts of it.

It’s also important to note that shyness, introversion, and social anxiety are different things. Shyness is a personality trait that some people grow out of after childhood and others don’t. Introversion is a personality “type” that rarely changes much during a person’s lifetime and can involve a bunch of related traits. Social anxiety is a mental disorder that can be treated in various ways, but not everyone has access to treatment or is able to find one that works. The reason I’m lumping them all together in this post is only because people who have them can all benefit from similar social accommodations–not because they’re the same thing.

So, first and foremost:

1. Include them.

Sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not. Social events of all kinds, whether informal ones like parties or “serious” ones like conferences, are often attended by groups of friends. But they’re also often attended by people who come hoping to make friends and meet like-minded folks. If you’d like to bring new people into the fold of your group, you have to create an environment in which new people feel welcomed and wanted, even if they’re shy, quiet, or anxious around strangers.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked up and introduced myself to people–or, worse, been invited somewhere with a group of established friends–who then proceeded to ignore me and keep discussing their own inside jokes and gossip. When I was younger and more socially anxious, reaching out to people was almost impossible because I was terrified of this exact possibility and the awkwardness that ensues when you’re greeted and introduced and then ignored.

Now, as an adult who’s much more likely to be the one with the established friend group than the newbie, I sometimes catching myself doing the same thing and I try to make an effort to include the new person in the conversation instead.

Excluding people from conversation is rude at best and anxiety-provoking at worst, and it’s easy to avoid. If you’d like new people to come to your events and feel welcome there, you have to actually include them.

And on another level, it’s important to actually invite people to your event even if they seem shy or not very social. Give them a lot of information about the event–what will happen there, how many people there will be, who else they know is coming, and so on. As long as your invitation isn’t coercive (see below), they can decide for themselves whether they’re comfortable attending or not.

2. On the other hand, don’t try to force them into social interaction.

Social coercion bothers me, both in my personal life and on a philosophical level. If someone’s perfectly happy sitting off to the side on their own, there’s no reason for you to try to force them to mingle just for the sake of feeling like a successful host. Even if you think it’s “for their own good.”

If you see a person at your event who seems shy or anxious, you could come up to them alone and ask if they’d like to be introduced to others or to participate in whatever’s going on. (For large events like conferences, it can be helpful to have a person whose job it is to do this.) If they say no, that’s it. Say, “Okay, please let me know if you change your mind!” and leave them alone.

Note that some people with social anxiety wouldn’t agree with me on this, because they wouldn’t want to be approached at all. This is one great reason why you should seek other opinions, not just mine!

3. Physically organize your space in a way that allows shy or anxious people to have time alone.

We’re used to having to sneak outside and stand in the cold. We’re used to hiding away in the bathroom as people knock on the door and ask if we’re “okay in there.” (No, but not in the way you mean.)

Why not make that unnecessary?

An event should have quiet areas or rooms where people can go just to be alone and recharge. If that’s not an option, consider having things they can look at or fiddle with when they don’t feel like talking–coffee table books, those little mechanical puzzles, and so on. Introverts, shy people, and people with social anxiety often find that they need to get away from people for a bit after socializing for a while. Unless the venue allows that, this often means that they have to just call it a night and go home.

4. Try to avoid overcrowding as much as possible.

I know that sometimes having a crowded event or party is unavoidable, especially for those of us who are still young and living in tiny cheap apartments. If you can, though, make sure there’s plenty of space for the number of people you’re inviting. Ensure that people can easily get through aisles or to their seats, and that there’s enough seating. An overcrowded event is annoying for everyone, but for people with social anxiety it can be unbearable.

5. Provide activities for people to do instead of just talking.

This kind of goes along with not forcing people into social interaction (see #2 above). See if it’s possible to provide board games or other things that people can do with each other that saves them from the burden of having to come up with conversation topics, which can be really hard to do when you’re shy or anxious, especially if you don’t have any close friends at the event.

Another thing you can do is create opportunities for people to help out that don’t involve a ton of socializing. Ask for volunteers to record talks on video, serve food, etc. Some people who otherwise have trouble being social find it easier when they have something else to do too.

6. Pay attention to the way you have conversations.

Aside from actually including people in the conversation (see #1), there are various things you can do while talking to shy, anxious, or introverted people that will make it easier for them to participate.

First of all, decreasing the emphasis on small talk or avoiding it entirely can really help people who have trouble with conversations. It may seem counterintuitive, since small talk is often what we do when we don’t know what else to say. However, it’s also the type of conversation that many introverts and shy people have the most difficulty with, because you have to follow preestablished social “rules” and find a way to somehow make it interesting that you’re majoring in biology or spent the holidays in Chicago or have a daughter studying at Ohio State.

Instead, ask them something more interesting. Don’t be afraid to venture into “taboo” subjects like politics and religion. Many shy and quiet people will suddenly open up when asked about something they’re passionate about.

When you’re having conversations with people, allow for comfortable silences. Silence is a healthy, normal part of interacting with others. Sometimes people–especially shy or socially anxious people–need time to process what’s been said or to form a cogent response. I once went on a first date and the conversation had gotten pretty deep and interesting, so I paused for a few moments to collect my thoughts. My date immediately went, “Well, that’s an awkward silence!” No, the silence wasn’t awkward. That comment was awkward.

Trying to fill up every single silence makes us feel like we’re inadequate at conversation and makes the anxiety worse.

One last very important thing: please avoid loudly calling attention to people’s verbal slip-ups, mispronunciations, and so on. If you must correct someone, do it quietly and politely. “Oh, I think you might’ve meant genotype, not phenotype,” not “Um, what are you talking about? It’s definitely genotype, duh.” Or “Just FYI, it’s pronounced ‘salmon’!”, not “HAHA did you just call it SAL-mon? What’s wrong with you?” (You may think I’m exaggerating, but as a foreigner who got most of her English vocabulary from reading, my frequent mispronunciations have garnered some incredibly rude responses from friends.)

Changing the way you plan events and interact with people in order to include those who find socializing difficult may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Some of the most interesting people you’ll meet are very withdrawn at first, but welcome them and they may amaze you.

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.

Please Sign My Petition to Remove the “No Respect For Suicidal Teens” Facebook Page

[Content note: suicide]
Yup, I’m using my blog to promote something. But it’s a very important something.

In my blog post earlier today I mentioned this atrocious Facebook page, which cruelly mocks suicidal teenagers by calling them “selfish” and “ignorant” and inciting them to kill themselves. I had reported it to Facebook, and I just received this email in response:

“Thanks for your recent report of a potential violation on Facebook. After reviewing your report, we were not able to confirm that the specific page you reported violates Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.”

Now, clearly, this is some bullshit, because Facebook’s terms include the following:

“6. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
7. You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”

This Facebook page is violating these terms by bullying, intimidating, and harassing teens who are suffering from mental illness and are considering taking their own lives. Furthermore, it certainly qualifies as hate speech against people with mental illnesses. The page also attempts to incite suicidal teens to kill themselves with posts that say things like “go drink some bleach,” and, unsurprisingly, it also contains racist material.

So I started a petition to get Facebook to take the page down. Please sign it here and share it.

The thought of a struggling teen stumbling across this page makes my stomach churn. I don’t care if it’s a “joke” or not; it should be taken down.

This is a small thing, but change begins by refusing to allow hatred and ignorance like this in our society, including on the websites we use.

Update: Thanks so much to everyone who signed the petition! The page is now gone. However, its creator left some comments over on Greg Laden’s blog and has made it clear that they intend to bring it back. Pretty unfortunate how vested in their hatred some people are.

The Problem With “Teen Angst” and Why You Should Take Teens’ Mental Health Seriously

[Content note: depression and suicide]

There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.

I’m thinking about this now because last night I ran across this Facebook page. It’s called “No Respect For Suicidal Teens,” and please don’t click on it unless you’re prepared for the hateful victim-blaming that it promotes. (If you can, though, you should go and report it.)

First of all, it’s completely false that teens can’t “really” be depressed and suicidal. Although the age of onset for depression and bipolar disorder is most commonly in the late teens and 20s, many people report that their chronic mood disorder began when they were teens. (Count me among them.) Left untreated, mood disorders often get progressively worse, or they remit on their own but then keep recurring.

Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.

And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)

Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.

So a teenager whose emotional experience is characterized by “angst” can benefit from seeking help even if they don’t have a “Real Problem.” All problems are real; the fact that they can vary dramatically in scope and magnitude doesn’t make them any more or less so.

And what if every teenager needs help managing their mental health during adolescence? Doesn’t that mean we’re making mountains out of molehills and inventing problems where none exist?

Nope. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.

It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”

Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone changed their minds very quickly once I became so depressed I could barely function and thought about suicide constantly. Perhaps that could’ve been prevented had I gotten help earlier rather than taking everyone’s analysis of my “over-dramatic” personality to heart.

If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.

Dear Northwestern Administration: Wake Up

I have a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern today. If I seem kind of angry, that’s because I am. 

Dear Editor,

Today I learned that Alyssa Weaver, the Weinberg junior who passed away last week, took her own life.

I didn’t know Alyssa. I could’ve, though, because she was going to move into my apartment when she returned from studying abroad. We’d chatted on Facebook a few times. I had no idea how much we had in common.

Because, here’s the thing. Her tragic story was very close to being mine, as well.

I’ve had clinical depression since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know it until the end of my freshman year at Northwestern, by which point it had become so serious that I became reclusive, miserable, exhausted, and preoccupied with the thought of taking my own life.

I went to CAPS. I got my twelve free sessions. My therapist was kind and supportive but never screened me for depression or any other mental illness. After the sessions were over, I was no better, had no idea what to do next, and deteriorated even more.

The only reason I’m here now is because, thankfully, the school year ended right then. I went home to my family, and I am privileged enough to have a loving, supportive family with good insurance that covers mental health. I saw a psychiatrist and started taking antidepressants. I recovered, for the most part, although even now I live in the shadow of the knowledge that depression as chronic as mine usually comes back.

I’ll be blunt. The state of mental health services on this campus is absolutely unacceptable. We have too few staff members at CAPS. We have no orientation program on mental health. There are still faculty members at this school–I will not name names–who refuse to accept mental health-related accommodations provided by Services for Students with Disabilities. Unlike virtually every other top-tier school and even many high schools, we have no peer counseling service, although I have been trying to start one for a year and a half. There just aren’t enough resources.

The only reason we have campus events about mental health at all is because of NU Active Minds, an amazing student group that’s still fairly new. But they should not be doing this work on their own, and there’s only so much they can do.

Dear Northwestern administration: Wake up. Stop building $220 million athletic complexes. Start spending just a bit more of that money on the mental health services your students desperately need.

I have fought tooth and nail to beat my depression and to find a supportive community here at NU. It breaks my heart that some of my fellow students have been unable to win that battle.

How many more Wildcats will we have to lose before the administration starts taking mental health more seriously?

Sincerely,
Miriam Mogilevsky
Weinberg senior
Director of NU Listens