It’s nearing Halloweentime, which is one of my favorite times of year. I love horror movies, I love haunted houses, I love thinking about the parts of humanity that are creepy and mysterious and tinged with evil and darkness. I am all in.
Well, I’m all in except when it comes to a theme I see over and over again in local haunted houses, in shows like American Horror Story, in movies like Halloween or Silence of the Lambs- the use of mental asylums as a perfect setting for terror, and the portrayal of mentally ill folk as dispassionate psychos, incapable of being reasoned with.
So here’s the news you might have seen with some flagrantly bizarre and inaccurate headline on HuffPo: the National Institute of Mental Health has withdrawn support from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), the manual used to diagnose mental illness, just before it was to come out with its fifth edition. (It came out Monday of this week.) NIMH withdrew support because they consider the DSM to not be valid. What does all this mean?
Let’s first talk about this DSM. Here’s how it got started, way back in 1952: a group of psychiatrists got together and talked about the things they saw in the patients they were treating. They noticed similarities, so they hashed it out and came up with diagnoses (and really, disorders), based on the symptoms they saw in their clients. Then they put them in a book. That book has changed significantly over time, but the criteria for mental illness continues to be based on the behaviors you see a person doing, and what they report to you.
In college, I was kinda obsessed with the Asch line experiments. These experiments, done in the 1950s by Dr. Solomon Asch, sought to test the boundaries of social conformity. In the experiment, Asch would show a group of people the following pictures:
He would ask the group to pick which line, A, B, or C, matched the line on the left. This is a task that most children could do. But in the groups Asch tested, only one person was the actual subject- everyone else was in on the experiment, and their job was to consistently pick the wrong answer. After hearing everyone else answer, the one subject was asked what he/she thought.
So what happens when a person sees that something is incorrect, but sees everyone seemingly satisfied with being incorrect?
Asch was shocked. Three out of four subjects, or 75% of those asked, agreed with the incorrect answers.
This study has been cited countless times, and is quite famous, but I didn’t realize that it had recently been redone- in 2005 by a Dr Gregory Berns. The twist this time? Hooking subjects up to an MRI so that we can see what’s happening in the brain of a person who is answering incorrectly in order to conform.
In this study, a subject was put in a waiting room with a group of other subjects who were actually actors. They got to know each other, did practice trials, and chatted before being put into individual MRI machines.
The subject was shown two 3D figures that they could rotate and asked if those two figures were the same. Before answering, they heard the answers from the other “subjects”.
41% of the time, the subject agreed with the incorrect answers, but what was going on in their brains while they did?
…consciously deciding to go along with the group even though they knew the right answer, activating the parts of the brain that deal with conflict?
….actually perceiving the two shapes as being the same based on the other subjects’ responses, activating the spatial perception parts of the brain?
Amazingly, when people answered incorrectly to match the other subjects, it was the spatial perception parts of the brain that were activated, meaning that we actually convince ourselves that we’re seeing things the same way as everyone else, because standing alone would be too uncomfortable.
Read more about this amazing study here.
In the wake of the horrible shootings in Connecticut, the people who aren’t screaming about gun control are instead gnashing their teeth to find out about the shooter’s mental state. “People say he was deeply disturbed and remote. What warning signs were there? Were the parents unsure of who to reach out to for help? How could this have been prevented?”
I’m not going to talk about guns at all here, because even though I grew up with guns, they are not my expertise. I am, however, a trained mental health professional, and in my career, I have worked with severely mentally ill people. I have authorized involuntary hospitalizations, done crisis counseling, testified in court about the mental state of a client, and evaluated the homicidal/suicidal behaviors of clients in varying degrees of distress. I have been attacked once and threatened many many times. I liked being in the trenches, which is probably why I’m not a therapist anymore. I have absolutely no idea of this murderer’s mental state, and neither do any of us. But I do know about mental illness and getting help.
It’s not often that I’m struck dumb in a conversation, but it happened to me a few days ago, and what better place to explore such things.
I was on a podcast a few days ago with two adult men named RJ and Aaron- listen to it here if you like. It was a fun time. They wanted to poke at my therapist brain for a bit (which is different from my regular brain), so we chatted about dating, about expectations, intentional behavior, all the sexy stuff. Then one of them asked me a question that I couldn’t really answer- if you listen to the episode, you can hear my dumbstruckness, followed by me kinda changing the topic before spewing some vague thoughts.
The guys asked what they should do to help the fact that both of them are extremely self-conscious about their bodies when they’re hooking up with women. They wanted advice on how to feel more comfortable with their bodies. And I had no idea how to answer them.
If a woman had asked me that question, I would have had a nice juicy list of things for her to try, but what about men?
I wrote this for xoJane but it never ran, so here it is!
I wrote a post at xoJane recently about something that bugged me, and one of the responses was “Well, if you’re offended by _____, do I get to be offended at _______?” My answer was “Sure, knock yourself out, be offended by whatever you like”, but something about that comment stuck in my craw, and it took me days to realize that it seemed like the person was actively looking for something to be offended by, was anticipating the joy of judging a piece of pop culture creation in some weird Mr. Burns-ish way and finding it repugnant.
I am tired of people relishing being offended.
There have been recent posts at The New York Times and at xoJane that speak to the concept of outrage fatigue beautifully, so I won’t rehash their brilliant points, but I will say this: if you find yourself being offended or annoyed on a regular basis, the problem may be you.
I used to give this to my clients who had experienced trauma and were trying to put their lives back together, and I forgot how much I loved it. It’s useful for everyone. Please enjoy it, and please use it.
PERSONAL BILL OF RIGHTS
- I have the right to ask for what I want.
- I have the right to say no to requests or demands I can’t meet.
- I have the right to express all of my feelings, positive or negative.
- I have the right to change my mind.
- I have the right to make mistakes and to not be perfect.
- I have the right to follow my own values and standards.
- I have the right to say no to anything when I feel I am not ready, it is unsafe, or it violates my values.
- I have the right to determine my own priorities.
- I have the right not to be responsible for others’ behavior, actions, feelings, or problems.
- I have the right to expect honesty from others.
- I have the right to be angry at someone I love.
- I have the right to be uniquely myself.
- I have the right to feel scared and say “I’m afraid”.
- I have the right to say “I don’t know”.
- I have the right to not justify my behavior.
- I have the right to make decisions based on my feelings.
- I have the right to my own needs for personal space and time.
- I have the right to be playful and silly.
- I have the right to be healthier than those around me.
- I have the right to be in a nonabusive environment.
- I have the right to make friends and be comfortable around people.
- I have the right to change and grow.
- I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others.
- I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
- I have the right to be happy.
I wrote this for another website but they never ran it, so here you go!
I come from a long line of OCD sufferers. Not the cute “I have to hang up all my clothes as soon as I get home from the Laundromat- aren’t I peculiar?” OCD, but the fully written-out Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Anxiety, a fixation on inconsequential details, and the inability to stop ruminating runs rampant on both sides of my family tree. My grandmother had it the worst, pacing her house for hours on end, sitting next to me at family meals murmuring “What am I going to do?” under her breath over and over, like a mantra.
Growing up knowing this was in my blood is one of the things that inspired me to become a therapist. I felt like the mental illness cards were somewhat stacked against me, and my sister and I both vowed to always be vigilant for those moments when our thoughts got away from us and were turned over to the OCD tendencies lurking in our genes. And it’s not that all OCD tendencies are terrible- my brain can usually hold longer to-do lists than other people without getting flustered, and I like repetitive techno music a lot, so there are pluses. For the last few years, my training in school, coupled with a few hard-fought coping skills, has helped to keep the unhealthy thought patterns at bay… but nothing has been better for my psyche than video games.
I was a therapist for children for a few years, and because of this, how self-esteem develops in kids has always kinda fascinated me. Research has a hard time getting at the subject, but overall, it seems that the source of self-esteem shifts as you get older (it goes from how your parents feel about you, to how your friends feel about you, to how you feel about you), and that there are some variations by ethnicity- in cultures where parental acceptance is valued more, parents have more influence on a kid’s self-esteem. Some kids get knocked down their whole lives and still feel good about themselves, while other kids succeed and still can’t seem to accept their success- that catch-all term “resilience” being the most common explanation.
Here’s something you might not have known/cared to know about me: I have a terrible time falling asleep. This has been true since I can remember. As a kid, I would have night terrors of E.T. being at my window, or imagine that the adorable little mice on the “woodland scene” sheets on my bed would try to bite me, or sometimes I’d just think about the concept of eternity and I’d be a goner. My parents had a doctor watch me sleep when I was 4 and confessed that I saw “swirlies in my brain” when I tried to sleep. I spent one whole summer as a kid thinking about the devil and scaring myself so completely that the Tom Petty song “Won’t Back Down” still kinda freaks me out. My sister and I both sleep with a fan whirring in our bedrooms, and neither of us can sleep in silence.