Petiton to Google Inc. for stronger effort to connect users to mental health resources

Sign the following petition HERE.

Active Minds at Ithaca College is petitioning Google Inc. for a greater and more prominent inclusion of mental health resources upon searching potentially harmful terms.  There are three main components to our appeal, all of which we believe are essential in protecting the mental health of Google’s vast body of users.

1. On Tumblr.com, a microblogging platform and social networking website, when users search for potentially harmful terms such as “suicide,” and “pro-ana,” the screen fades, still displaying search results behind it, and a dialog box emerges offering various mental health resources available for those who may be interested or in need.  The window reads, “If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, self harm issues, or suicidal thoughts, please visit our Counseling & Prevention Resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.”  It then requires the user to select “dismiss” before continuing to their results.  This system offers people potentially in need resources that could be beneficial to them or even save their life, while still maintaining a level of transparency over search results for lack of censorship.   While we understand the Google already provides a hotline for the “suicide” search, we believe the alternate system described would be most beneficial.  We would like Google Inc. to implement this, or a system resembling it, to their search results for the benefit of its users.

2. The search result window, along with “dismiss,” includes a “Tell me more” option.

If you choose the latter, you are brought to a page of Counseling and Prevention Resources.  This is a relatively expansive list of free and confidential resources organized by country.  This is a page we would like to see Google incorporate, and have available to anyone who might be struggling with various mental health issues.

3. Google Inc. will need a list of potentially triggering search terms to implement the prior two suggestions.  The following is a list of these search terms, and we encourage readers to include their own in the comment section (click “more” to view list; general trigger warning):

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“Talking Crazy:” The Controversial Video Trying to Change Our Mental Health Language

Trigger Warning: Ableist Language

Adam’s Place is a small non-profit advocacy group with a mission I can stand behind: “To debunk the myths of mental illness through word, art, and education.” I, like many others, became aware of the organization this week through their most recent YouTube video, which has been given positive coverage by a handful of fellow advocacy groups, most notably Bring Change 2 Mind. The short video was shared with me by a close friend and mental health advocate, who prefaced it with a simple “Tell me what you think of this.”

I had a bad feeling about the video immediately upon seeing its’ title: “Talking Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness.” The subtitle was promising: after all, ‘breaking the silence’ is a key part of what I do as an advocate, and I firmly believe that opening a conversation about mental health is the first and most important event in a chain reaction leading to a world where people have access to and willingly use the resources they need.

What I was stuck on was “crazy.” I’ve written in previous posts about my thoughts about the word, but it seems appropriate to expound upon them here. In my early days of advocating, I was a staunch enforcer of the social rule that the word “crazy” was not to be used in my presence, ever. “Crazy,” I would explain, is a word that attaches the harmful stereotypes surrounding mental illness to the people, events, objects, and concepts that the word is used to describe. It’s an adjective that refers not only to the absurd, the inexplicable, and the bizarre, but the laughable, the dangerous, and the outright wrong: all things that, of course, I didn’t and still don’t want mental illness to be viewed as.

My views on the word have changed, if only slightly. After a year of developing a reputation as “the guy who won’t let you say ‘crazy’” (ask my friends; they’ll tell you), I began to examine what my actual problem was with the word. What I decided was that my efforts to banish the word from the lexicon were, though well-intentioned, a bit wasteful. Yes, it is true that “crazy” is an ableist slur, used to oppress people who have, or are perceived to have, any form of mental illness. It is a word that is, I still feel, never to be used to describe any person. To do so is simply dehumanizing. However, I no longer feel the concern I once felt about using “crazy” to describe, for example, a hectic day at work. If you want to say that you just made the craziest game-winning touchdown, or that you have a crazy amount of homework, I’m not going to stop you. That kind of policing is, to me, a distraction from taking real steps toward changing the mental health conversation.

That said, I was very shocked by what I heard in “Talking Crazy.” “Crazy people are everywhere,” the narrator tells us. “I’m not saying that to scare you. If anything, I hope it will encourage you.” These words are accompanied by an image of a group of smiling people, each labelled by either a diagnosis (schizophrenia, major depression, OCD, bipolar) or an ill-formed punchline (“likes Justin Bieber”). Throughout the uncomfortable four minutes, the narrator continues to refer to “crazy people,” while asserting that not everyone is part of this category. His key goal, it seems, is to justify and encourage the use of the word in our discussions of mental health. He argues that “mental illness” is a cold and clinical phrase, while “crazy” is conversational, and inclusive in meaning. His analogy (which I find flimsy) is the word “love,” which is almost infinite in its versatility in the vernacular.

What it comes down to is an attempt to ameliorate the word “crazy.” Much like slurs such as “bitch” or the N-word have been reclaimed and redefined by the groups they are used to oppress, this video aims to “take back” crazy, and make something positive of it. I understand this premise: the implication is that introducing “crazy” into our conversations about our own mental health might bring some levity to what is often a dark circumstance, or even help us to accept that mental health struggles are a part of all of our lives. The way it’s presented here, though, is unsettling. Referring to “crazy people” the way this video does creates the Us vs. Them mentality that is at the heart of mental health stigma: that is, the false notion that there are people who are crazy, and people who are not. Everyone exists on the mental health spectrum. There is no line of distinction that can be made between someone who is “crazy” and someone who is not, and for the narrator of this video to have done so is both off-putting and offensive.

Beyond that, there’s a big difference between “crazy” and words that have been ameliorated by other marginalized or oppressed groups. Those words are attached to groups that exist by shared Identity. Sociologically, historically, and culturally, race and gender are generally considered capital-I Identities. I don’t mean to say that anyone is defined by race or gender. I am aware that many people choose not to identify with any race or gender, and that many people who do feel no connection between their race and gender and who they are as a human being. What I am saying though, is that the long history of categorizing and creating hierarchies based on race and gender have created communities that seek and gain empowerment through their deeply-connected nature.

Mental health forms a very different community. While mental health and illness, by their very nature, have the potential to be intrinsically tied to a person’s sense of self, a diagnosis or a mental health label of any kind is not a capital-I Identity. The reason for this is well-being: building an Identity around a diagnosis is a massive hindrance to recovery. Calling oneself a “crazy person” has the potential not to facilitate acceptance, but to create an unhealthy obsession with one’s status as a person with mental illness. To put it plainly, I’m just not comfortable with that.

What bothers me most in “Let’s Talk Crazy” is the implication that the viewers will instantly accept the video’s premise. I’m not ready to live in a world where it’s okay to call me crazy just because that’s easier for people than saying “mental illness.” I’ll gladly continue to be open about my mental health experiences, even at the risk of being labelled and judged. I want the mental health conversation to happen, and to be framed in an educated manner, and to be accessible to everyone. What I will not accept is for my mental health to be discussed and understood on someone else’s terms. I am a person with bipolar disorder, but as long as I make the choice not to call myself “a crazy person”, I hope that you will make the choice not to call me one, either.

Open Letter to Sinéad O’Connor

Dear Sinéad O’Connor,
I am writing, of course, in response to your highly-publicized communication with Miley Cyrus. I assume that your intention in contacting Cyrus was not to spark a celebrity feud to be weighed in on by tabloids and bloggers, there’s really no putting the toothpaste back in that tube, so I hope you don’t mind if I join the conversation.

You’re coming from the right place, Ms. O’Connor. You’re coming from an informed, well-meaning, enlightened place. You reached out to a young artist who was in a position you recognized as dangerous and offered your experience as a means of reaching her with advice that you saw as important. I sincerely believe that Miley Cyrus’ choice to use nudity and sexualized imagery in her work is her own, and is her genuine self-expression, but I applaud you for respectfully bringing your concerns to her.

When your letter was met with rudeness and mockery, you did something else for which I applaud you: you boldly called Cyrus out on ridiculing celebrities who have lived with mental health struggles, and demanded an apology. You spoke up for yourself and others whose mental health difficulties have been exacerbated by taking place in the public eye. You called her irresponsible, and you very plainly informed her that “Mockery causes death.” Your strong stance against mental health stigma is appreciated.

However, I take some issue with the way you expressed yourself to Cyrus. The following passages from your second and third letters, respectively, were profoundly hypocritical, and detract heavily from your argument:


“You will yourself one day suffer such illness, that is without doubt. The course you have set yourself upon can only end in that, trust me.”
“When you end up in the psych ward or rehab I’ll be happy to visit you.. and would not lower myself to mock you.”


How does it serve you to chidingly predict that Cyrus will become ill and be hospitalized? These comments, to me, read as just as offensive as Cyrus’ comments to you. Your letter simultaneously castigates Miley Cyrus for not taking mental health seriously while attacking her own, despite your having no knowledge of her actual health situation. To threateningly use an ill-informed guess at a person’s future mental health (something you have no authority, or right, to do) as you did is a sign that you’ve let your emotions get in the way of forming a composed, level-headed response to Cyrus.

Furthermore, I feel that to repeatedly call Cyrus “anti-female” is a harsh characterization, and demonstrates a limiting and closed-minded perception of what it means to be female. Amanda Palmer has already written to you on this topic much more eloquently than I am equipped to, but I feel it necessary to express that I wholeheartedly stand with her on a woman’s right to be in control of her own sexuality.

That said, I thank you for being a true and genuine advocate for mental health. Thank you for using your voice and your respected (albeit controversial) place in the culture to speak out for people who are often made to feel afraid to speak for themselves. As a fellow advocate, however, I ask that you please take more care in the future to speak with fairness so that your valuable perspectives about mental health stigma can make the impact they deserve to.

Best wishes,
Jared Wolf

Mental Health in the News: January 28-February 3, 2013

Sports: The Houston Rockets and Royce White reach a long-awaited agreement on a mental health protocol for the player’s contract. White will be allowed to ride a bus to certain games (his anxiety makes plane travel very difficult for him), but will still have him using the doctor provided to him by the team, rather than a psychiatrist of his choice. More on this in a future post. (USA Today)

Music: Lady Gaga, who has built a massive following through both her music and her humanitarian efforts, has taken on youth mental health as her latest cause, and his being praised for the impact of her work. (Rolling Stone)

Television: FOX takes a major step away from self-positivity by reviving plastic surgery reality show The Swan. This time around, celebrity contestants will get medically altered in order to win a chance to compete in a beauty pageant. (Huffington Post)

New Hampshire: “The Merrimack County jail has become the first in the state to give its staff specialized training for handling inmates suffering a mental health crisis,” thanks to the efforts of Superintendent Ron White. In prisons across the country, as many as half of inmates regularly deal with mental health symptoms, and their needs are rarely met. (Concord Monitor)

Connecticut: “Connecticut is moving toward sweeping changes that could include everything from forcing private insurers to offer more mental-health coverage to screening every child in school statewide for emotional or psychological problems.” (Wall Street Journal)

US Military: The United States has increased mental health provisions for its soldiers in Afghanistan, including a team of psychologists available at any time. (The Guardian)

United States: USA Today reports on National Alliance on Mental Illness’ 2009 and 2011 reports on the state of mental health care in the United States. National care received a D grade, with no individual states pulling an A. Analysis of each state is available in the report. (USA Today)

Mama (2013): Are We Literally Afraid of Mental Illness?

Trigger Warning: Non-graphic references to suicide and acts of violence, no triggering images

Spoilers Lie Within

I should preface this by saying that Mama was absolutely terrifying, and one of the least terrible horror films I’ve seen in years. And I don’t say that lightly.

When two young girls with a troubled past are left in the care of Annabel (Jessica Chastain), she quickly becomes concerned that supernatural elements are at play.

As much as I enjoyed the jumping-from-my-seat experience of watching Mama, there was a naggingly distracting flaw in the story that I simply can’t ignore, and that I’ve seen countless times before. It was the choice to add mental illness as an element of the horror, without any real reason to do so.

Let me break it down for you: when a man’s business fails, he kills his estranged wife and two professional partners, and takes his two young daughters away from their destroyed home environment, ending up at an abandoned cabin. He’s killed by a mysterious specter of some sort, leaving his daughters alone and orphaned.

They’re found five years later, and have clearly suffered from the lack of social interaction. It’s quickly discovered that they’re talking to an unidentified figure known as Mama. She sings to them, comforts them, and loves them.

So, it turns out that Mama is the ghost (or something similar) of a woman who, after escaping a psychiatric hospital, murdered a nun and jumped from a high cliff with her baby in her arms. She has spent over a century searching for her baby’s body.

My problem is this: did we need to know that Mama was a woman who was, in her lifetime, perceived to have mental illness? The story could have been told without that element. For example, maybe Mama was a woman who lost her child in a storm and continues to search for him out of guilt. Maybe Mama and her baby died together of disease. Mama’s death isn’t a major plot element, and there’s no reason it couldn’t have been changed to prevent a needless perpetuating of stereotypes about people with mental illness.

Mama is portrayed as violent, unattractive, incapable of speech, and irrational in her behavior. These are all characteristics that make perfect sense applied to a horror film character, but are extremely problematic in a media portrayal of mental illness.

Like I said, it’s not the first time we’ve seen this. Mental illness is all too often a go-to in the horror genre. It’s so common that it’s easy not to question its presence when it does show up, and to forget the actual implications of what’s happening.

I can’t stress enough that seemingly innocent choices by the media don’t happen in a vacuum. Tacking mental illness onto the back story of a horror character without any other explanation or details maintains the one-dimensional perception that many have about mental health.

In a way, the proliferation of references to mental illness in the horror genre may be an indication that we fear mental illness on a very different level than we do physical illness. We fear the unknown, we fear the struggles of the future, and we fear that which is difficult to control. Mental illness represents all three of these, so it’s no surprise that it’s so long stood as a symbol of fear.

But “not surprising” does not mean “acceptable.” Ending the stigma around mental health will mean ensuring that fear is no longer considered the default, “natural” reaction to mental illness.

What do you think? Why do we see so many references to mental illness in horror films, and is it really that significant?

Mental Health in the News: January 21-27, 2013

Sports (Update): Royce White has been reinstated to the Houston Rockets after months of discord between the athlete and the team concerning White’s demands for accommodations for his mental health needs. According to reports, such a protocol may soon be added to White’s contract. (Sports Illustrated)

Cedar Rapids, IA: A young woman’s advocacy for others with schizophrenia sets the scene for a report on increased attention on mental illness in children. (Des Moines Register)

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University is expanding its capacity for offering mental health services and expansion by moving into a formerly abandoned building and adding an outpatient center to St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center for student training. (Syracuse Post-Standard)

Philadelphia, PA: CBS Philly is one of several outlets still reporting on the need to understand that mental illness and gun violence are not as inextricably linked as much post-Newtown discussion implies. (CBS Philly)

United States: The DSM-V is facing criticism for changes to definitions regarding alcohol use that would define binge drinking common in college-age groups as alcoholism. Critics of the decision emphasize that, according to several studies, most people who drink heavily in college do not become lifelong alcoholics. (CNN, via Time)

United States: A Denver clinical associate professor wrote a strange-but-well-meaning piece asking readers to stay on watch for dangerous individuals: “Your gut is a finely-tuned psychological assessment tool. People are inherently excellent armchair psychologists.” I hope my readers understand that while we should all be prepared to see the signs of mental health struggles in others, attempting to diagnose others or needlessly labeling anyone as “dangerous” outside of a situation where action needs to be taken is in no one’s best interest. (Huffington Post)

Aside

Oh, this is a good one. This is that movie that comes along every once in a while as a reminder that, when it comes to portraying mental illness, there are people who actually do know what they’re talking about. There are, in fact, writers and actors out there who care about this stuff, who are willing to commit to getting it right and create a meaningful piece of art.

Silver Linings Playbook asks the viewer to see the world through the eyes of mental illness, and understand that maybe we’re all just a little more similar than we’re willing to admit.

I’m not sure that I was prepared for how real this movie was. It’s unexpectedly dark. It doesn’t go down easily; it’s tense and uncomfortable. As uplifting as Silver Linings is, it’s also exhausting, and stressful. What David O. Russel presents in this film is an emotionally challenging viewing experience.

The movie’s portrayal of bipolar disorder and depression isn’t perfect, but this is, after all, just a movie, so we have to expect that. Certain elements were added or given more weight for the purpose of facilitating storytelling (Cooper’s character Pat Solitano being so triggered by hearing a song, for example, may be bending the reality of bipolar disorder a little at times), but a literate audience will understand.

Some of the dialogue might be just a little too transparent in its educational intent: a little too much talk about medication here, a little too much unrealistic dialogue about stigma. Don’t get me wrong; from a mental health advocacy, I was thrilled to find these little details in there. From a film viewer’s perspective, there’s something a little off in the writing.

I don’t think that anyone can walk away from this film without a better understanding of what it means to live with mental illness. The characters here aren’t “Other.” They’re us, and we know them and understand them. They show us shades of ourselves that exist in everyone, and to see them is a terrifying but necessary experience.

I’ll have more on Playbook as the Academy Awards ceremony on February 24 approaches.

Mental Health in the News: January 14-20, 2013

Canada – The Mental Health Commission of Canada is working to address mental health in the workplace with a newly-introduced initiative. They are proposing a national standard that would apply on a voluntary basis to organizations and employers seeking to “improve workplace psychological health and safety.” (CTV News)

New York StateThe NY SAFE Act, designed to protect from gun violence, is drawing some criticism for its changes to existing mental hygiene laws. Some professionals feel that making the laws stricter will prevent consumers of mental health services from being honest with their counselors and doctors, while others say that patient-professional confidentiality would not be changed by the law. (Huffington Post)

United StatesCBS reports on efforts to standardize nationwide limitations on gun ownership to people with certain mental health histories. (CBS News)

Canada – Medical experts call for more educated treatment and discussion of eating disorders, which currently tend to ignore men. (CMAJ)

Washington, DC – The Pentagon reports that the number of military deaths by suicide may have reached a record high this year, pending the investigation of over 100 undetermined deaths. Some support is currently in place for military personnel, but the numbers indicate that services are not always sufficient or accessible (CNN)

North Dakota – State Representative Larry Klemin came under fire this week for sending an email titled “Why Men Seldom Get Depressed” to colleagues this week. (Jezebel)

MusicA$AP Rocky spoke to MTV this week to talk about his depression and struggles with suicidal thoughts. The rapper included a line about suicide on a track on his new album. (Pop Crush)

SportsHBO will be airing a special on Royce White that will “shed new on the rookie forward’s dispute with the Rockets.” In an interview with Bryant Goldberg, White discusses the importance of adding a mental health protocol to his contract. (Sports Illustrated)

Story to Watch: American Idol’s Mariah Pulice

On Thursday’s (January 17) episode of that former entertainment juggernaut, American Idol, ­ auditioner Mariah Pulice, 19, of Chicago told the judges, and 16 million viewers, the story of her struggles with anorexia before a lovely performance of, perhaps appropriately, the Beatles classic “Let it Be.”

Mariah Pulice

Mariah’s audition was accompanied by interviews with her sister and parents, who described the emotional changes they had seen Mariah going through, saying that the joy and energy she had always exuded had left her during her darkest period.

According to Pulice, her disorder is something she has to cope with every day, but she’s confident that the worst is behind her. “This eating disorder did not beat me,” she said. “And it will not, it will not beat me.”

Moving stories of mental health are nothing new to the talent show, which last season ran the story of Shelby Tweten, a young woman who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16. Tweten, like Pulice, impressed and touched the judges, moving on to the Hollywood Round of competition. She was eliminated from American Idol after reaching the top forty, and is now a speaker for Active Minds, a national non-profit devoted to changing the conversation about mental health on college campuses.

There is a certain level of debate about the appropriateness of openly disclosing one’s mental health struggles in an ultra-visible competition setting like American Idol. It’s no secret that a contestant’s personal saga is, to the producers, even more important than their vocal prowess in this early stage of the game. Many viewers criticize this aspect of the show, saying it encourages hopefuls to exploit, even exaggerate, their struggles for better success of the game.

I think we can all somewhat agree that American Idol is more about making compelling television than it is about finding the nation’s best talent these days, so the emphasis on story sort of comes with the territory. As long as that’s the case, I’m grateful that the stories being told are meaningful ones.

While I applaud both Shelby and Mariah for their courage and honesty, I do hope that Mariah is at a stage in their recovery where she’s prepared to open herself up like this. “Coming out” about mental health is an important step for anyone with a diagnosis, but it should happen over time, free from outside pressures. There’s a huge difference between talking to a few close friends about a mental illness and telling the audience of one of TV’s biggest hits, and I hope Mariah’s prepared for that.

We’ll see more of Mariah Pulice on American Idol in a few weeks. I wish her the best of luck.

“But You Don’t Look Crazy…”

Those are actual words that have been said to me on numerous occasions, usually, of course, upon coming out about my diagnosis. I know that it’s also been said to friends of mine in the community of persons with mental health diagnoses, and that the sentiment can take any number of forms: “You’ve always seemed so normal,” “You don’t seem like the crazy people I’ve seen on TV,” and “You don’t look like you belong here,” said to me by a fellow patient during one of my three stays in a hospital psych unit.

It’s meant, almost always, as a compliment. The speaker feels that having a mental illness as an ugly stain upon a person’s appearance, and says this as an assertion that the listener is without such a vestige.

It’s sometimes also meant, on some level, as a dismissal. “Forget what the doctor says,” they had might as well be saying. “In fact, forget what the medical community has spent decades finding out.” And, most importantly, “Forget everything you’ve been through for months, maybe years, maybe decades. You don’t look like what I think a crazy person looks like, therefore you are not one.” It’s about as trivializing as you can get, despite the good intentions behind it.

Stereotypes about gender and mental health can, and often do, interact.

There exists, obviously, and as I’ve said before, a gap between our cultural perceptions of what a person with mental illness is “supposed to” look like and act like, and how we actually do. We’re a diverse and vast community: mental illness can affect anyone, and the people living with it are our friends, neighbors, and classmates, colleagues, and family. But the media portrayals of people with mental illness that have surrounded us our whole lives have most people with no other source of information thinking otherwise.
People with mental illness are depicted as inept, childish, emotionally unreachable, and untrustworthy,

Seinfeld character “Crazy” Joe Davola is a classic example of a character based on these stereotypes.

among other undesirable qualities, often exploited for comic effect. In the media, people with mental illness are most often male, and are physically distinctive: they’re either very tall or very short, they’re unkempt and unshaven, are disheveled and have poor hygiene, have bad haircuts, dress poorly, have lopsided smiles, and, perhaps most commonly, have what have come to be known as “crazy eyes.”

There are some theories as to why “the mentally ill” have, as a group, become homogenized by the media, as Dr. Otto Wahl describes in his outstanding book, Media Madness. One possibility is that the stereotypes exist as a way of separating “Us” from “Them:” if we can see ourselves as physically (and thus, in our superficial world, fundamentally) different from people with mental illness, then we need not fear that we’re “one of them.” A second theory is that, because mental illness is not nearly so concrete as other characteristics, or even physical illness, it can’t easily be portrayed visually. That changes, though, if easily recognizable visual associations are made with mental illness.

The initial plan to cast actual patients in the Oregon State Hospital in supporting roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were scratched because they did not meet the director’s expectations of what people in a psych unit should look like.

Whether or not media makers intend to perpetually assign undesirable associations with people living with mental illness, that’s exactly what they do when they rely on stereotyped portrayals. Not only that, but they’re limiting themselves as storytellers by choose to recycle stock characters rather than developing the more nuanced and accurate characters we’ve seen on shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Homeland in recent years. They also make it difficult for people who do have mental illness but don’t fit the stereotypes to have their difficulties be taken seriously by their peers.

The attitude that stereotypes are just stereotypes and don’t do any harm, especially when they’re so obviously untrue, is the kind of ignorance that the media are in a very powerful position to reduce, or even end. Not only would it be a beneficial opportunity for them to take, but it’s also a part of their duty as a powerful international institution.