Category Archives: Public Service Announcement

The problem with “crazy.”

A friend on Facebook pointed me to a scary firsthand account of a random shooting. It’s terrifying, and I’m glad that the author and bystanders weren’t badly hurt. But the article bothered me. Quite a bit, actually.

He says (bolding mine):

“All things considered, I’m really lucky. Not only am I alive and didn’t witness him shooting himself, as so many did, I have extremely supportive family and friends, I have an understanding employer, and I have resources to talk to.

The shooter was mentally ill and wasn’t so lucky. The lesson I’m taking away from this is that we need to make mental health a priority in ourselves and in our communities. Support your local mental health organizations in whatever ways you can, financially and by forcing politicians to take the issue more seriously.”

I don’t know the details of this incident and can’t speak as to the mental health of this particular shooter, but I’m seriously uncomfortable with the way we tend to jump to analyze shooters’ motives (often after they’re dead) and so often conclude that they must have been mentally ill. Some undoubtedly are, whether they were diagnosed by a therapist or diagnosed posthumously after examination of their personal effects and interrogation of their family and friends. But some of these guys are just angry assholes with a score to settle with the world.

I have absolutely no problem with the rest of that particular post. I agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be a change in how we deal with mental illness as a civilized society. But we shouldn’t be doing it because of all these dangerous “mentally ill” people shooting up our schools.

We should be doing it for the anorexics who think their skeletal bodies are still too fat. For those with anxiety disorders severe enough to keep them shut up in their homes. For those plagued by addictions and compulsions that have taken over their lives. For those who are so deeply depressed that they can’t see a way out of the darkness except to take their own lives.

It should be obvious that we need to increase funding for mental health resources. It should not take tragedies to make that happen.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that everyone knows someone with a mental health issue. Mental illness is more than schizophrenia (and schizophrenia isn’t the devil it’s often made out to be, either). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a standard published by the American Psychiatric Association to serve as a reference for the definitions of mental disorders. Take a moment and have a look at their list of mental disorders, then think about all the people you know. Do you know someone with autism? Alzheimers? Bipolar disorder? Depression? These are legitimate mental illnesses. People living with any one of the DSM’s list of disorders would be better served by better public awareness of the realities of mental health issues, as opposed to the scary stuff we see about “crazy people” on TV.

I don’t know what to call the people with a broken moral compass and a need for vengeance or notoriety. “Mentally ill” or “crazy” are convenient and do have a ring of truth, because what adult human being of sound mind could walk into a school and murder children? We need a way to express that there must be something wrong with these people; they’re not like the rest of us. But we need a better way. When “mentally ill” is used as an explanation for reprehensible behavior, it takes that label out of its medical context and makes it into something so much more dangerous. We need to encourage people to get help, not keep them quiet around their families and teachers and doctors for fear that they’ll be labeled. Because we’ve made “crazy” a dangerous label.

Where Do Babies Come From?

When a man and a woman love each other very much and want to have a baby, they share a special hug that puts a baby into the woman’s belly.
We tell children variations on this story, adding levels of scientific complexity and biological grossness as they get old enough to need the details.
For 1 in 8 couples, though, this story isn’t true.
Sometimes all the love in the world isn’t enough to make a baby, no matter how enthusiastic the special hugging.
Sometimes, a man and a woman love each other very much and want to start a family. They throw away all the protection that they’ve been using since their parents taught them about the mechanics of sex, and they “try”. It’s fun and it’s exciting and they hold their breaths every month as they check pregnancy tests to see if they made it.
And they wait.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and look at each other with knowing smiles.
They start to wonder why it’s taking so long. They do some research. She buys tests to check her urine every day so she can find out when she’s ovulating so they can have better timing. She buys a thermometer to take her temperature every morning before getting out of bed, to can keep track of her cycles. She drinks green tea and eats pineapples; someone on the internet said it helps. He takes vitamins and tries to eat healthier. She cuts out caffeine and pushes through the headaches. He avoids hot tubs on vacation. Every month, they wait two weeks after ovulation to see if they’ll get a pink line on a pregnancy test.
And they wait.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. Soon, they say, and squeeze each other’s hand for support under the table.
Someone tells her to just relax. Someone asks him if they’ve tried a different position.
They see doctors. They give medical histories. They have blood drawn. How are their hormone levels? Do they have any STDs? They send blood out to see if they’re carriers for genetic diseases. He holds her hand as she lies back and tries not to faint while a tech squeezes thick gel into her uterus and fallopian tubes to see if the paths are clear.
And they wait: for the phone calls, the follow-up visits, the medical bills. They wait for answers.
Friends and family ask them when they’re going to have kids. The silence is awkward.
Someone says they should try adopting, because their cousin got pregnant right after she got that girl from the Philippines.
Sometimes the problem is obvious, once the test results come back. Bad sperm, blocked tubes, hormone imbalances blocking ovulation. Sometimes it can be fixed with medication or surgery. But sometimes the doctors shrug and say there’s nothing wrong that they can find, but that if pregnancy hasn’t happened yet without intervention, it probably won’t. They give the couple odds. They’re bad. They cry.
There are options, of course, but they’re expensive. Many insurance plans have little to no coverage for fertility drugs or procedures. Intrauterine insemination, usually the first step, can cost over $1000, and you’re only buying a 15-20% chance at a viable pregnancy for your money. In-vitro fertilization has better odds (40-60%) but is much more invasive and expensive – approximately $10,000 per round. It’s a whirlwind of tears and hormones, injections and blood draws, medical bills and invasive ultrasounds, and time taken off work for medical appointments. And it’s waiting. Always, always waiting.
Babies come from love. Sometimes they come from science, too. Sometimes they come from donor eggs or sperm or from adoption. And sometimes, they never come.
Last week was National Infertility Awareness Week. Many people are reluctant to talk about infertility. Maybe they’re ashamed of their issues, feeling like there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’ve heard one too many “helpful” comments and are afraid to tell anyone else about what they’re living. Maybe it’s too hard to talk about without crying.
Please take a moment to read this page from RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association. This is information that everyone needs to know in order to create a better support network for the infertile couples in their lives. Read it. Absorb it. Share it. 1 in 8 couples out there could really use your support.
That’s why I’m walking in RESOLVE’s 2013 Walk of Hope in Washington DC this June. Funds raised from the Walk support local RESOLVE programming, including support groups and educational events, public awareness initiatives, and advocacy efforts to ensure family building options are available to all. Because they should be.

If you’d like to contribute to the cause, my fundraising page is here. But just the act of you reading this post has helped the cause, too, so thank you.

Blood Donation During a Crisis

(Author’s note: this was written in 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing, and it’s incredibly depressing just how often I come back to this post to share it after tragedies)

As is our human nature when faced with violent acts, people reacted with horror, sympathy, and an aura of nervous energy after the Boston Marathon bombing. Whenever there’s a tragic event, whether it’s a bomb, a plane crash, or a tornado, most of us feel like we should do something to help those affected. Even if we’re far away, even if we’re not directly connected to anyone who was hurt, there’s this spark of humanity inside us that drives us to action.

It’s crucial to note, though, that not all helpful actions are necessary, and not all good actions are immediately helpful.

Many people in my Twitter feed were urging people to go and donate blood. I am an occasional blood donor. I encourage people to be regular – for their own personal definition of “regular” – donors. But this week, when I saw the flood of “go give blood” tweets, I cautioned against rushing to the donor centers.

Why? People were horribly injured and being rushed to hospitals for surgery. Didn’t they need blood?

Yes, many of them likely did. But the hospitals were prepared. Every hospital has a plan in place to help them deal immediately with an “external disaster.” They keep a good supply of blood on their shelves, and they have means to get more very quickly.

An organization like the American Red Cross* can move blood products efficiently from one area of the country to another. It happens every day, even in calm and peaceful times, but in an emergency, the wheels turn very quickly to get blood products to where they are needed as fast as possible.There seems to be an almost-constant “blood shortage” going on, so it does seem confusing when Red Cross officials tell people not to come in right now and donate. What’s important to understand is that the key to having enough blood available for a crisis is to have an adequate blood supply at all times. That’s why the Red Cross encourages regular donations: the need is constant.

So why isn’t more blood better? Why is the Red Cross of Eastern MA asking people to please wait and come in next week if they want to donate blood?The thing about blood is that if you go to the donor center right now and roll up your sleeve, and have a unit taken from your veins, that blood will not be used immediately. It needs to be tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, West Nile Virus, and all sorts of other things. There’s a two-day turnaround for blood products. Donating blood during a crisis isn’t necessarily going to help the victims of that particular crisis. The Red Cross will do its best to accommodate all the generous donors inspired by the tragedy, but there’s a risk involved with a huge rush of donors at one time. Blood is perishable. Units of blood get a 21-to-42-day expiration date. So what happens a month after the crisis, when everyone’s just donated but all the blood is about to expire? Nobody wants to see blood wasted.

And that’s why I urged people to wait and see whether there was a need before rushing to donate. Replenish the supply by donating a little later, so that there’s always blood available for everyone who needs it.

What can you do to help when disaster strikes, then, if you shouldn’t give blood?

  1. Don’t misunderstand me! Do donate blood. Please do. It saves lives and nobody would argue otherwise. But don’t rush in after a disaster. Wait. See if the American Red Cross puts out a call for donors. If there is no immediate need, make an appointment a week in the future, or two weeks. Give often. Help keep the supply constant so hospitals can do their thing when they need to.
  2. Follow @RedCross on Twitter or like them on Facebook. When something is happening, those accounts are very active and are an excellent source of news and support. There are accounts and pages for local Red Cross areas, as well. They will tell you how you can help.
  3. Learn CPR and first aid. If you’re ever in a position to give more direct help to someone injured in an accident or attack, you will be more confident and better equipped to act.

*I use the American Red Cross in my examples because I have a familiarity with their processes thanks to my work experience, and because they are a very important blood supplier for much of the United States. I don’t claim to speak for them in any official matter.