Help-Seeking and Status

Image credit: Rhoda Baer, National Cancer Institute

Image credit: Rhoda Baer, National Cancer Institute

[Related to How to Be a Good Depressive Citizen, this tumblr post and also this one]

I want to talk about something that plays out in the communities I love.

But first, I want to talk about schizophrenia.*


There’s this feature of the onset schizophrenia that makes it extraordinarily hard to treat. We call the before-full-blown-schizophrenia stage ‘prodromal‘, and if you can catch it right in that stage, or close to it, your outcomes are much better.


Except that the big obvious signs of schizophrenia in that stage are negative symptoms: speaking in monosyllables, emotional flatness, anhedonia, disinterest in activities and relationships and friendships. And in most cases, this part plays out in relative silence.

Your friend stops reaching out to spend time with you, flakes out on group plans, seems bored in conversation. After a while, you stop being the one to call. They’ve found other friends, they just aren’t that into you, you’ve got other friends who put more work into the relationship. It’s quiet and it’s insidious, and I’d bet you don’t quite notice it until you run into each other at the store and wow, it’s been months since you hung out! 

For the most part, this is normal and natural–friendships do the slow fade* and fizzle and evolve. The vast majority of these things are not the result of an incoming bout of psychosis. So you can’t do much to address this. You could possibly make it the social norm to follow up on waning friendships until someone explicitly tells you they hate your company, but I imagine this as being hard to enforce and resulting in more excuses for ignoring other people’s boundaries. (If your solution is to only do this for friends you know are at risk for developing schizophrenia, then you may have even more forthright friends than I.)

So, what happens in most of the prodromal cases is that the person quietly retreats–maybe not even quite noticing that they are–and then when the positive symptoms of schizophrenia set in (hallucinations or delusions or magical thinking, etc), there isn’t a support system there for them. There aren’t friends there daily who can confirm that they’re going to work or taking medication. There isn’t friendship for friendship’s sake; relational interactions are important. And the extent to which this occurs is fairly predictive of outcome of the disorder. High social support means fewer episodes and hospitalizations, better medication adherence. Lower social support…doesn’t.


And back to communities I love.

Communities have hierarchies. There’s variance in how much they’re enforced; there are levels of enforcement and policing and explicit/implicit acknowledgement of the rankings.


Except that this gets incredibly complicated in communities that are specifically about help-seeking, about coming together and supporting each other; the communities that are explicitly about Not Being Like The Rest of Society. Take, for instance, the mental health community. (Though you could almost as easily use the geek community, or other nerd/geek subtypes.)

The thing is, communities, even those created to be Not Like The Rest of Society, have values on multiple axes. Charisma, though perhaps a slightly altered definition, plays a role. Ditto for the halo effect, though attractiveness might be assessed slightly differently. And so through accidental privileges and intentional power-grabs, some people in the community end up more liked and more likeable.

I am not positive, but I would guess that it is somewhat harder to be in a community where you’re not supposed to be stigmatized, where your particular Problem isn’t unusual, and to have  all of that and watch them say “oh no, that sounds bad” and help everyone else more. And that this problem is magnified when the community you’re in is one you joined because The Rest of Society already did a bad job of caring.

And of course, people wish to prioritize helping their friends, and I think we mostly accept and encourage this. But it remains that some strangers will say “X happened”, and there will be an outpouring of support and love and empathy and praise. And you can have the same thing…maybe you have it worse, maybe you can’t afford to be so public about it, or don’t have the social support to let you present a showered and articulate and slightly-self-deprecating face. Maybe you don’t have the right language; you hate being crazy, you don’t know how to preface your anorexia-thoughts with how you know that healthy can be at any size, but sometimes your brain lies…because you aren’t at the place where you know it does.

And this is a problem. These are the people you want, in the abstract, to help the most–the ones who are new to the community, who aren’t already popular, who aren’t able to be effortlessly cared-about. They’re also the ones that can sound like they pattern-match for the people you’re in this community to avoid. They can be the ones who trigger you or make you slightly uncomfortable. And you joined this community to be safe and relaxed away from The Rest of Society, right?


You can try to fix this, in these communities. You can assign people to make up the difference; to do the checking in and supporting. You can try to deliberately close the gap. Except that these communities also tend to put lots of value on being open and honest…and this sort of thing can quickly feel fake and dishonest. Not to mention, it’s work! You’re not being asked to comfortably inhabit your one safe space, you’re being asked to do emotional work to keep it. And The Rest of Society doesn’t do this, and weren’t you trying to carve out your own place that wasn’t emotionally exhausting?

But, in the mental health community, you’re in a community that’s explicitly about supporting people without ready access to society at large. So it might be even more important that you work hard to help more than just those who can passionately and lucidly explain their pain.

But…it’s easy to fall into patterns of identifying with charismatic leaders and using specific ingroup vocabulary, and helping the people who can tell you exactly and clearly what they need (with the implied understanding that if you’re busy or unable to help, they’ll get support some other way). Because there’s a difference between someone looking up at you and saying I need everything and I’m mostly okay, but could you do this one thing?  and diffusion of responsibility is a hell of a drug.

I…don’t have a solution to this. I’m not sure I even have part of one. But I do know that in my community, in the wide, tumblr and blog and activisty mental health community, there are those who get help, and those who get helped more.

Two notes: One, I’m not talking about privilege here in the classic social justice sense, because I see this replicate across homogenous groups who align on the commonly cited axes of privileges. For instance, I’d expect the phenomenon in a small group of equal-income, same-aged, same race friends. Two, by note One, I’m not saying we should ignore the role privilege plays, just that I had a word limit. 

*This…happens in real life more than I care to admit. 

**For the record, The African Violet of Friendship is sometimes a much better idea than the slow fade.

Adoption: Legality and Journalistic Hype

So, there’s this article in The New Republic. Meet the New Anti-Adoption MovementThe surprising next frontier in reproductive justice. And I, being the sort who dutifully reads any instance of Someone Wrong On The Internet that crosses my field of vision, clicked.

It’s not bad. The title, fortunately, seems to be butchering the aims of the actual movement, which might be better represented as The Ethical Adoption Movement That’s Not Actually All That New. They’ve got some goals I strongly admire–preventing manipulation of distressed and pregnant parents, encouraging expectant parents to consider that adoption is a life-long process for everyone involved, promoting open adoption, and preventing agencies from lying to pregnant parents about abortion. Admirable, yeah?

Reported with a dangerously dramatic brush? Also yeah. For instance, take this:

They want, among other things, a ban on adoption agencies offering monetary support to pregnant women. They want to see laws put in place guaranteeing that “open” adoptions (where birthparents have some level of contact with their children) stay open. They want women to have more time after birth to decide whether to terminate their parental rights.

A ban on monetary support? It sounds like it would prevent bribing parents. It probably would! However, it would also prevent (as The New Republic’s wording stands) adoption agencies from providing expectant parents with maternity care, prenatal vitamins, assisting them in maintaining housing, etc. Do you know how to dramatically increase the health and functioning of a fetus–particularly one in poverty? Maternity care and vitamins. It is true that unethical agencies do some seriously sleazy behavior in pursuit of convincing expectant parents to choose adoption, and TNR’s article does cite that. (Paying for college in return for a child? No good, very bad.) But a ban is excessively absolutist.  Create ethical guidelines that protect parents; don’t prevent agencies from serving children and families.

But what about the idea of a mandatory wait before terminating parental rights?

I’m in favor!

….for a nuanced and careful definition of ‘more’.

The article fails to note that these EXIST. See: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. That’s only the states that require forms terminating mothers’ rights to be filled out at least 48 hours after birth–many of the rest require at least 24 hours. Only two states, Alabama and Hawaii, allow the rights of the person who gave birth to be terminated before the child is born.

Map of 72+ and 48 hour wait post-birth for termination of birth parent rights, minus CA, which I forgot, and will fix ASAP. (Many of the blank states have <48 hour waiting periods)
Map via

That being said, saying “there should be a mandatory wait after birth before signing final papers” is COMPLICATED (and already exists in places, which the article entirely fails to address)

For instance, in Illinois, like many of the states listed, the wait is 72 hours, or three whole days. This sounds like a good idea in practice: the person who’s given birth is less likely to be under the influence of drugs, slightly less tired or emotionally exhausted from labor, and has met the child they just birthed.

Except, that it’s also true that 72 hours is longer than the time a parent with an uncomplicated birth would stay in the hospital. (Average stay for regular vaginal birth, 48 hours) Which means:

Option One: Birth parent has to go home with the child. Can you say huuuuuge stress on them if they want to continue with adoption and later have to give the child to the adoptive family? Also, sending an unwanted child who cries at all hours of the day, needs constant care, and will die of neglect or bad care is a risk. Babies are entirely dependent on their caregivers. This is especially there are compounding issues like postpartum depression or substance abuse. In theory, Child Protective Services should step in or catch those cases, and place the child elsewhere. In practice…

Along with this, working class birth parents (general PSA that most people over-estimate the number of parents who put children up for adoption who are teens, impoverished, or in their first pregnancy. I was one of them. Please don’t assume you’re the exception.) need to work or find alternate care for their children. That’s expensive. (Particularly, say, if a total ban on financial support from adoption agencies is enacted)

Option Two: The prospective adoptive family goes home with the child and with some legal decision-making capability over child’s care, (in IL, my understanding is that the agency in question holds Power of Attorney) but papers that terminate the rights of the legally-defined birth mother aren’t signed.

This is a massive legal and emotional risk, and some families just won’t do it. Sometimes families do it, and then the birth mother decides not to sign the papers–upon reflection, they decide to parent. (20-30% of expectant parents who select adoptive parents for their child go on to parent themselves instead.) In cases like that, the adoption agency has to call the family and request that they bring the child back, as it’s not theirs. NOT pleasant for anyone.

Not Really A Standard Option, But Let’s Talk About It: Placing the child in a nursery or some other form of care until papers are signed. There’s one agency in the entire U.S with an in-house nursery, and even then, many birth parents don’t want to put their ,  child in the care of strangers in a location that may be tough to access while they make their final decision. 


Waiting periods: a good plan, in theory. I support them! Parents should sign stuff when not under the emotional strain of birth. However, really long ones are emotionally overwhelming and complicated, and just blanket advocating for more time is a dangerously simplistic position.

In the comments, please follow these guidelines for increased accuracy:

1) if someone is pregnant and considering adoption, they are expectant parents (because not all expectant parents give choose to give birth)
2) If someone has given birth, presto! Birthparent.
3) Strong preference for gender-neutral terms when referring to the person who has given birth. Trans men and nonbinary folk give birth, adopt, and otherwise parent kids.