Category Archives: mental health

The Tale of Trauma Bunny

I never much cared for dolls as a child. I never even had a Barbie. What I had were stuffed animals. That’s what we called them back then, before taxidermy became so trendy. Now, I understand, they’re called “plushies.” My favorite plushies were always rabbits – there was one in my Easter basket every year.

One of the most famous plushies in literature is the Velveteen Rabbit. Its story is the one about a beloved childhood toy that becomes worn and shabby, but wishes for someone to love him enough to make him real. There’s even a song about it by Kathy Mar, which is a real tearjerker. My story is about a stuffed rabbit too, that once was shabby.

My life has been full of beloved plushies. Before my house and most of my belongings were destroyed in a tornado, I had a pirate Winnie the Pooh. I had a Raggedy John Denver doll that a friend made for me (the heart on his chest says, “Far Out”). I had a cat that looks just like a cat I once had. I had an official Vorkosigan Butter Bug hand puppet. A couple of armadillos. Assorted teddy bears and Beanie Babies. And a plush Puss in Boots that makes a sound like a cat coughing up a hairball and says, “I thought we were done doing things the stupid way.” In the voice of Antonio Banderas, no less. Once my husband and I went to a thrift store and pawed through an absolute vat of stuffed toys and found such lesser-known varieties as a camel, a snake, and Thing One. (We never did find Thing Two.)

My husband often buys me plush toys to replenish my supply, so often that I now have quite a start on a new collection, including dogs, cats, a turtle, a walrus, bears, assorted armadillos, a sloth, and an ambiguous creature that I call a pandacoon. But Trauma Bunny is special. 

She was a rescue rabbit. Dan found her at the store where he works, but not in the toy aisle. Rather, the innocent creature was in the pet food aisle, crammed and crushed behind a giant bag of dog food. Naturally, Dan bought her and brought her home to me. After all she had been through, I named her Trauma Bunny and gave her useful work to do – sitting on my printer and guarding my cellphone and headphones. She likes being needed and having a responsible job, in addition to just being cute.

Trauma Bunny is a comfort object, the psychologists would say. Far from being prized possessions of children alone, comfort objects – plush toys, blankets, and other soft, soothing items – have their place among many a grown-up’s life. Wikipedia defines a comfort object as “an item used to provide psychological comfort, especially in unusual or unique situations.” It says nothing about them being for children only.

I also have friends that have collections, some of them quite extensive, of plushies and other comfort objects. One friend, a large, burly ex-cop had a plush bunny named “Sweetie Rabbit.” Another even has a “My First Bacon” plushie that talks, or at least says “I’m bacon” when you squeeze it. (Most of my comfort objects have genders as well as names, but, frankly, I don’t see how to assign gender to bacon.)

Trauma Bunny does give me comfort. I am comforted to know that, even though she had a difficult past and troubling experiences, she found someone who noticed her plight and brought her to me. In a way, we help heal each other.

I don’t know how much healing my friend gets from his plushie bacon, but everyone needs a little comfort object now and then, even if it’s only a breakfast food.

Someone You Know Is Mentally Ill


Let’s say you have five people in your family and another five who are close friends. Or four and six – enough to make up ten people in your life, anyway. Statistically speaking, two of those people will experience mental illness at some point in their life. Or the person experiencing mental illness could even be you. The National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that one in five – or maybe even one in four – people will experience mental illness. That’s 20% to 25% of Americans.

Don’t assume you know who those two people are. Many people with mental illnesses never talk about their difficulties because of the stigma attached to living with a mental disorder. Many others are high-functioning, able to have relationships and work and lead a relatively normal life, especially if they receive proper treatment. 

So, what are we talking about when we talk about “mental illness”?

We’re not talking about the person who straightens pictures and has a neat desk.

We’re not talking about the person who is sad after the death of a pet or grieving after the loss of a loved one.

We’re not talking about the person who is overly bubbly and laughing most of the time.

We’re not talking about the person who always seems to be on a diet, no matter how thin she is.

We’re not talking about the person who has some mood swings.

We’re not talking about the person who’s afraid of spiders and germs.

We are talking about people with serious mental conditions like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), major depression, mania, anorexia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. (There are other psychiatric illnesses, but they are much more rare.)

For harmless habits to be actual mental illnesses, they must persist over time and usually interfere with people’s abilities to accomplish the ordinary tasks of daily living. If a person’s depression lasts for weeks or months (or even years), he may have Major Depressive Disorder. Some of the symptoms are low mood, isolation, feeling hopeless or helpless, and changes in appetite. Of course, all those things happen to most of us at one time or another, but if they last for a long time and keep a person from going out or doing their work, they may be signs of a serious mental illness.

This is not to say that you can diagnose mental illness on your own. A psychiatrist or psychotherapist is needed to tell whether any condition is severe enough to be called a mental illness. And only a doctor can prescribe the medications that can alleviate the symptoms, lessen the effects, and help the person back to stability or mental health.

But if you do have a friend or loved one experiencing mental difficulties – and you probably do – what should you do?

If you are sufficiently close to the person, you could gently express concern and suggest that he might want to tell a doctor what is going on. With an acquaintance, it may be best to simply be understanding and supportive. Don’t be offended when she cancels an outing or can’t make it to a party. Her disorder may be preventing her from going, much as she would like to.

If the person seems to be in danger of harming himself, definitely have a talk with him. Tell him how worried you are and how you’re upset to see him suffering. If the situation warrants, make sure your friend has the number of a suicide hotline or knows that he can call you when he is having excessive bad feelings.

The best thing you can do, though, is to educate yourself about mental illness from reputable sources like NAMI. You’ll find that mental illness is treatable and not likely to lead to violence unless it is very severe. Don’t joke about mental illness. Once I did and it prevented someone with depression from speaking about her condition. Sharing our stories with each other might have brought us both connection and comfort.

Think of a mental illness the way you would think about a physical illness. If a person you know had a broken leg, you wouldn’t ask him to go skiing. If a person you know had cancer, you wouldn’t make jokes about it. If a person you know had the flu, you would understand and might offer to run errands.

Dealing with mental illness is not easy, but it is important. And I assure you, someone you know needs help and support. Think about how you can provide that. Then follow through. It’s often lonely having a mental illness. Do your best to be a good friend. That will help, even if your friend or loved one doesn’t acknowledge it at the time.

 

 

Who’s the Bully Here?

You know why kids bully? Because adults bully. But no one wants to have that conversation.  — Lauryn Mummah McGaster

I saw this pass-along on Facebook the other day and decided that I did want to have the conversation. When we think about bullies, we usually think about kids bullying other kids – classically, stealing their lunch money or more recently, tormenting them for being perceived as gay, or any kind of different, really.

And what do we say when that happens? Kids can be mean. Kids can be cruel. Kids have no respect. In other words, the problem arises in the kids themselves. They shape the victimization of others, presumably out of thin air.

But stop a minute. We know that kids learn what they see adults do. They learn to talk and walk. They learn to swear and belittle. The walking and talking may be hardwired into humans, but the rest is clearly learning by imitation.

But adults aren’t bullies, really. They don’t go around stealing lunch money and certainly not in front of their kids.

You might be surprised, but adult bullying happens a lot at work.  Belittling and humiliation seem to go with business just as much as board meetings and yearly reviews. Not all workplaces are toxic, of course, but almost every one contains a group of gossips or a clique that excludes others just like children do in the cafeteria. They yell at underlings. They sexually harass others. They steal credit for others’ accomplishments and boast about it.

But wait, you say, children seldom if ever come to where their parents work and see them behave this way. How can they be learning bullying from them?

Bullying behavior starts with an attitude, a sentiment that there are winners and losers in life and the winners have the right (or even the duty) to lord it over the losers. Think about how many people were influenced by the “look out for #1” philosophy.

Adults carry these attitudes home with them. Children pick up on them. Think about what adults do and say in front of their kids, even – or maybe especially – when they don’t know the kids are within earshot. They bitch about their neighbors and their bosses. They use words like “bitch” and “bastard” and worse. They talk about their day and how “stupid” some co-worker was or how they “felt like smacking” the customer service representative.

And think about what adults say when their children are being bullied. Often the response is, “If he hits you, hit him right back. Show him you’re the boss.” This perpetuates the “winners and losers” scenario and sometimes leaves the “loser” with a desire to victimize someone even “lesser.”

Worst of all, think about how often adults bully children. There are too many children who are badly abused, hit and kicked and belittled by their parents. These cases sometimes get reported to Children’s Services.

Those are the extreme cases, however. Seldom does a single slap or two get reported. Telling a child that he or she is “no good” or “stupid” or even “a big disappointment” never gets reported at all. Some adults use humiliation, name-calling, and fear, all in the name of discipline and good behavior. Some pit one child against another, praising the “good” child and condemning the other. Some blame and shame ruthlessly.

They may think they are raising obedient children, but they are showing them through actions, words, and even tone of voice what it is to be a bully or a victim and how often bullying succeeds. The essence of bullying is that one person has actual or perceived power over another and uses that power in toxic ways. Think about how much power adults have over children and how seldom they consider how to use that power wisely.

This is certainly not to say that all adults abuse their power or their children. But when you look at children’s behavior, it’s hard not to see a reflection of the environment in which they were raised.

Bullies don’t just happen. They learn.

What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Crankier

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There are certain sayings I hate. Many of them are affirmations. Others are platitudes. Some are just nonsense.

Affirmations, for example. The one in the picture, for example, is provably untrue. There’s a lot in my average day that I don’t choose – whether I oversleep, whether that package from Amazon arrives when I need it to, whether I’ll trip over my cat and break my arm. There are some who say that I can choose how I feel about any of that, but I don’t believe it. Human beings are wired to feel annoyed when they trip over the cat and in pain when they break their arm. Right after that, they may choose to forgive the cat or feel lucky that they didn’t break both arms, but feelings, at the moment they happen, are not chosen. We may be able to choose how we react afterward and what we do about it, but even that is iffy.

Or take the expression “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” There are lots of things that don’t kill me: ice cream, paintings, spatulas. None of them will make me stronger.

And if you tell me (as I’m sure you will) that the saying really means that adverse events that don’t kill me will make me stronger, I have to disagree. Think about someone who is fortunate enough to survive a train wreck. Is he stronger? No. More likely he is considerably weaker, owing to assorted broken bones and ruptured internal organs.

Ah, you say, but he is spiritually stronger, thankful that he survived. Maybe not. Not all people with catastrophic injuries are content with their fate. Some are even bitter and resentful. But we don’t like to think about those cases, so we say something that makes us feel better, even if it bears absolutely no relation to what the person it happened to actually feels.

I feel the same way about “Everything happens for a reason.” One day I heard about a news helicopter that crashed, killing everyone on board. Someone contended that it happened for a reason. “Sure,” I said. “The mechanic failed to tighten the thingamabob on the rotor. Or the pilot had the shakes. Or the passenger distracted the pilot. Of course, there was a reason.”

“That’s not what I meant,” my friend replied. I knew what she did mean – that there was a reason unknown to us and ultimately unknowable. That the passenger was secretly a child molester and now would never molest another child. That the pilot’s wife was about to poison him and this death saved him from a worse one. That if the helicopter hadn’t crashed when and where it did, an innocent child on the ground would have been squashed by it. Something like that. Cosmic justice prevailed.

In all these excuses, blame is never involved. Neither is chance. (The part on the rotor just failed. No one is to blame.) It’s too frightening to think that the actions of another person, our own actions, or the randomness of the universe is “responsible” for a tragedy. So we say there must be a reason, but we can’t – or aren’t able to – know it.

This is a lot like what is meant when someone says, “It was all part of God’s plan.” If you can’t pin the blame on a single person and you’re not willing to admit it “just happened that way,” there’s always God. If I were God (and thank God I’m not), I would be more than a little miffed at being held responsible for all these accidents, not to mention the plagues and disasters that are considered “acts of God.” (Did God send the tornado that destroyed my house because I’m sinful? We’re all sinners, but not all of us get tornados.)

To me, the worst saying is, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” To begin with, it pins the blame on God for all the things that go wrong in our lives. And ultimately, it simply isn’t true. Plenty of people can’t handle the things that happen in their lives. Those with serious mental illness, for example, sometimes can handle it, but sometimes they can’t – for example, a woman who drowns her children obviously can’t handle post-partum depression. The mass shooter can’t handle the stress, hatred, fear, or disappointment in his life. (Not to mention that I don’t believe God hands out these trials.)

That’s when talk of God’s plan gives way to the workings of Satan, or abstract Evil in general. We call people who do things that seem inexplicable to us “monsters.” This is another easy saying that simply isn’t so. Whatever motivated such heinous acts, the people who committed them are still human beings. Making them “The Other” – a monster, a minion of Satan, an animal – is more comfortable, because it negates the fact that human people (and that includes all of us) have the potential to do cruel things. That most of us don’t doesn’t negate the fact that we share a species with those who do.

And then there’s death. I won’t argue with the saying “At least he’s in a better place,” because my father’s death was excruciatingly painful and long, and release from that surely was better than continuing in it. But then there’s “It was his time.” Again, this assumes that God has a plan that’s so detailed that He has appointed a time for each of us to die. Or Fate has, if you prefer. Someone or something, anyway, that controls the minutiae of our lives so completely that every instant of it is out of our hands.

If any of those ideas bring you comfort, good. But they make me more than a little uncomfortable.

Do You Know a King Baby?

I’ll bet you do. Almost everyone knows a grown-up in their life who has to be right all the time, has to be catered to, and blames everyone else for failures or unpleasant events.

Who is a King Baby? (Not to be sexist. There is also Queen Baby.) Someone who never grew up, at least not emotionally. King baby expects everyone to love him, take care of him, and solve all his problems for him.

Reference.com says that a King Baby: “is typically selfish, rejects criticism, complains, is obsessed with money and belongings and doesn’t feel like rules should apply to him. In short, he is someone who refuses to mature.” Tom Cunningham wrote the book (well, the 28-page pamphlet) on King Baby Syndrome in 1986. It’s still available from Hazelden, which is good because King Babies haven’t gone away, nor are they likely to.

King Babies view the world as their plaything and other people as someone whose only function is to meet their needs. Physically they are adults, but emotionally they are still infants. Typical King Baby remarks are, “That’s not fair,” “This is what I want,” “That’s not how I do it,” “Do this for me,” and “I’m the best at everything.”

Needless to say, King Babies are very trying to be around.

I learned about King Baby syndrome from my husband. Not that he has King Baby syndrome. But he used to work as a counselor with various therapy groups. One thing he told me was that when someone was trying to pull King Baby shit, one of the others might call him on it by saying, “Wah!”

King Baby goes by other names as well. Probably best known is the Peter Pan Syndrome, from an 80s pop psych book of the same name. Years before that hit the bookshelves, though, writer Aldous Huxley produced a novel called Island, which talks about “dangerous delinquents” and “power-loving troublemakers” who are “Peter Pans.” In addition, he said, they are “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” Huxley cited Adolf Hitler as an example.

King Baby syndrome is not an actual psychological thing. It is not covered in the DSM, the psychiatrists’ bible of mental illnesses and like conditions. But the DSM does include Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which shares some of the same characteristics:

  • exaggeration of accomplishments
  • saying they have done things they haven’t really done
  • acting or feeling more important than others
  • believing they are special and unique
  • having a need to be admired all the time
  • expecting to be treated differently, with more status than others
  • exploiting others to get what they want or need
  • pretending concern towards others or lacking empathy
  • being jealous and competitive with others
  • thinking that others are jealous of them
  • acting arrogant and superior

So what do you do with a King Baby? My advice is to avoid him or her if possible. You can, like the people in my husband’s therapy groups, call the person out for such behavior, but it is not likely to do any good. Often it’s best just to cut King Baby out of your life. If you do, though, expect anger, blaming, and recriminations.

If you do have to live with a King Baby, perhaps the best thing you can do is to recognize the behavior when you see it happening and not fall into the trap of trying to meet King Baby’s every need. This won’t make any difference in King Baby’s behavior, of course. You’ll have to deal with pouting, sulking, poor-me talk, and even retaliation.

Because just as vampires never grow older, King Babies never grow up. They can’t and they won’t. So there.

Lies We Tell About Bullying

girl wearing black and white striped dress sitting on stair
Photo by Zun Zun on Pexels.com

Being bullied has taught me a lot over the years. Lessons learned in childhood run deep and last long. We learn to not be noticed. That we must try to fit in. That certain people and places and situations are hazardous. That being different is a sin.

But it is not only the things that children do to one another that cause harm. Some of the things that adults say to children about bullying hurt the most. These remarks may be intended to help the bullied child, but at times they do as much damage as the bullying itself.

Chief among the responses to bullying that adults come up with is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a profound lie, as any bullied child knows. Oh, there are sticks and stones, even literal ones. As a third-grader I had rocks thrown at me and countless children have experienced physical bullying – pushing, tripping, hitting, and more.

But words are more than capable of hurting just as much. There are forms of bullying other than physical – emotional, social, racial, sexual. But these forms of bullying are much less visible than the physical kind. If the grown-ups responsible for the care and well-being of the child don’t see bruises or bloody noses, they may think no harm has occurred.

Socially or emotionally bullied children are often told “Don’t be so sensitive.” And it may be true that less sensitive children do not feel the effects of cruel words as drastically. But the underlying message is that there is something wrong with the bullied child – excessive sensitivity. And this is not something that children can change about themselves. It’s like telling a person not to be so tall.

Another piece of advice commonly given to bullied children is, “Just ignore them.” If becoming less sensitive is impossible, even more so is ignoring bullies. Bullies are in-your-face. It’s almost impossible to ignore insults and injuries, derisive chants or laughter. Humiliation is not something that can simply be shrugged off. Bullies rejoice in having an audience for their abuse. It’s beyond hard to ignore a room or playground of kids (or teens), all of whom have witnessed your victimization.

Similarly, bullied children are told, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter.” Again, this is a lie. Of course they do. The opinions of a child’s peers control whether other children feel safe being friends with a bully’s victim. Their opinions determine whether a child will be lonely or despised, or will develop self-esteem. Bullies affect the opinions of other children and make the circle of bullies and bystanders wider. Other people’s opinions make wide ripples.

Bullied children often hear, “Toughen up.” Again, this is an assignment given with no clue as to how it is to be accomplished. It may even be misinterpreted as tacit permission to become a bully too. After all, bullies are tough. And the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may come into play. Naturally, this only expands the number of bullies and can victimize other children. A bullied child who becomes a bully may experience not a sense of empowerment but a sense of guilt.

Another common reaction to bullying is to encourage or even to coach a child in fighting back physically. This has little chance of working if the bully is physically larger than the victim and takes a lot of practice if it is to work at all. In addition it teaches children that violence is an appropriate solution to a problem. If the bullying has been emotional or social rather than physical, the bullied child is also likely to get in trouble for striking back in a literal manner.

The problem is that the bullied child is not the problem. He or she does not need to change or be changed. The bully is the one who is demonstrating unacceptable behavior and needs to be stopped. Bystanders are bullying enablers and need to learn how to support and intervene instead.

There are no simple solutions to bullying, which will likely continue as long as children are children, though with awareness of the problem and concerted efforts on the part of adults, it may someday lessen and be less acceptable and less accepted.

But whatever the solution is, it is clearly not to tell the bullied child lies.

Beating the Rejection Slip

focus photo of yellow paper near trash can
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

Writers fear them, yet they are inevitable: rejection slips. I’ve seen many a one in my life as a writer. (That’s what good about blogs. You never have to send yourself a rejection slip.) They can be cruel. They can be perfunctory, mass-produced and not even signed by a human being. An actual rejection slip may never arrive at all, leaving a writer to wait in anxious hope forever.

Rejection slips can be devastating. They can be empowering, too, in a strange sort of way. I’ve known writers who’ve defiantly papered their walls with rejection slips until they got a book contract. Once in a while a rejection slip comes that makes it clear the editor or agent has actually read the proposal or sample chapters. He or she may even provide helpful comments that can lead to improving your writing. Or the editor may say that your writing is good, although the book is just not for them. Those desperate for validation (most writers) treasure the first half of the evaluation.

Short story and nonfiction article writers and certainly poets get rejection slips, too. But the book rejection slip can be the most devastating because you may have spent literally years preparing your manuscript.

But here is a tale that may give you hope: I just beat the rejection slip. I have been offered an author contract.

How did I do it? I followed the rules. I gave up. Then I got lucky.

Since my book was a memoir (non-fiction), I knew that I had to prepare a proposal with sample chapters. (Fiction requires a completed manuscript, not just a proposal.)

Then I combed the Internet for agents that were accepting new clients and publishers that would accept proposals directly from authors. I sent out my query letters or proposals. I was very careful to send each recipient what they preferred and to make it meet their specs: query only, proposal only, proposal with three sample chapters, or ten pages, or whatever. I attached my proposal or pasted it into the email, whichever they wanted.

I tried to be at least a little sensible. I looked for people who wanted the kind of writing I was doing – nonfiction or memoir or mental health. I looked over their websites to see if there was one particular agent/editor who was more interested in my genre and addressed my query to that person. I never sent a “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” query.

I did this dozens of times. I kept a list of where I sent each and crossed them off when the rejections came.

And after a number of years and rejections, I gave up. I decided to abandon my book (by that time it was completely written) and move on to another book-length project in another genre.

While I was struggling with that manuscript, however (I still am), I noticed a new independent publisher who was looking for nonfiction books on mental health issues. So I said, what the hell? I was pretty much inured to rejection by then. I sent a query letter.

And I got a reply, within days. Did I have a proposal or a completed manuscript? Encouraged, I said that I had both. They asked to see the manuscript. And within a week, I had an offer. Given the length of my rejection list, I jumped at the chance.

I was a little wary of throwing in my lot with an indie publisher, and a start-up at that. But the founder was someone I had heard of, someone who was a noted expert and activist in the field of mental health. It was not a vanity press.

And now I have signed my author contract and been assigned an editor (I look forward to many fruitful conversations with him). They also introduced me to the intern who had picked my manuscript out of the slush pile, to whom I am eternally grateful.

I’m not a novice at writing. In addition to these blog posts, I have written and published nonfiction articles and children’s stories. But being a BOOK author is the best! The day I get my 25 printed copies I will indeed squee, long and hard.

Say hello to the next author from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – me!

 

A Brief Guide to Gaslighting

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane.) The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.

Back when I was in college and extremely depressed, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couples sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. This will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to who can tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

With help, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

 

A version of this post appeared earlier in my “Bipolar Me” blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com). It proved so popular that I thought I’d share it here.

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need it find help before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

What’s With All the Crazies? Are They Crazy?

Yes. Yes, they are.

And no, they’re not.

I say yes, because so many political extremists out there are acting, well, crazy.

And you can define  “crazies” any way you want – alt-right, alt-left (two handy meaning-free terms), in-office, out-of-office, politicians, your Facebook friends, your Uncle Ned, whatever. We’ll just leave out for the moment the tin-foil hat squad.

Whoever your opponents are, there’s more than a fair chance that some of them are acting irrational, delusional – some variety of crazy. Is it crazy to run down peaceful protestors? Yes. Is it crazy to still be battling over the outcome of an election that happened close to a year ago? Yes. Is it crazy to carry rifles in Walmart? Yes. Is it crazy to spend news air time on the First Lady’s shoes? Yes.

Most of all, though, people are acting paranoid. Everyone on the “other” side is out to get us, destroy America, or at least scare the pants off us. Conspiracy theories abound. And nearly all of them are crazy. (I wrote about this a short while ago: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-AH).

And paranoid means crazy, right? (Unless, as the saying goes, “they” are out to get you.)

Well, not actually. “Paranoid” is a clinical term from psychology, and it has a specific meaning: Paranoid Personality Disorder is an actual psychiatric condition, manifested by, among other things, “generally unfounded beliefs, as well as … habits of blame and distrust, [which] might interfere with their ability to form close relationships,” as WebMD says.

Those traits your political or social opponents may have, but most of them don’t also:

  • Read hidden meanings in the innocent remarks or casual looks of others
  • Perceive attacks on their character that are not apparent to others; they generally react with anger and are quick to retaliate
  • Have recurrent suspicions, without reason, that their spouses or lovers are being unfaithful

The fact is that none of us (except perhaps psychiatrists) can diagnose a person as paranoid or any other variety of mentally ill without having met the person and performing detailed interviews and tests (I’ve written about this too: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6F).

So, if by “crazy” we mean “mentally ill,” then no, the political and social “crazies” are not “crazy” as a group. Their tweets and posts and dinner table conversation are simply not enough to declare them mentally ill.

This is also true of public figures. We can say that Donald Trump, to choose an example not entirely at random, has narcissistic traits, or is a narcissist in the garden-variety meaning of the word, but we cannot say that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, an actual clinical diagnosis. We may think he’s crazy, but we can’t say whether he’s mentally ill.

Our readiness to label people, both our acquaintances and public figures, with loose pseudo-psychiatric terms raises a number of problems, particularly stigma.

Labeling is a convenient way to dismiss a person who disagrees with you without listening to what he or she has to say, or considering the possible validity of an argument or even a statement of fact. He’s a Southerner; of course he’s a racist. She’s a liberal; of course she’s a snowflake. If we can apply a label, we can make an assumption about a person that may or may not be true. (It can also lead us into “Not all X are Y” arguments, which are seldom productive.)

Stigma comes with the label “crazy” or mentally ill. People with diagnosed mental disorders are too often assumed to be violent, out-of-control, homicidal (or suicidal) maniacs – and therefore not worth listening to, despite the fact that their cognitive abilities are generally not impaired.

As for terrorists, they are in common understanding automatically mentally ill, so anyone you label as a terrorist is automatically insane. And we’re far from agreeing who is and is not a terrorist. (Antifa? Greenpeace? The NRA? The DAR?)

So, bottom line. “Those” people may be crazies, may act crazy, talk crazy, believe crazy things, but it is not accurate or helpful to call them crazies. I know I’ll catch hell for this. But I’m not being an apologist for reprehensible behavior.  I just think that how we talk about people affects how we treat them. And that matters.

Now, as for the tin foil hat squad, they’re mostly harmless. Let’s leave them alone.