Saturday, January 18, 2014

Suicides at Brunswick High warrant scrutiny

    Recently, two young students at Brunswick High school passed away , and preliminary evidence suggest an all too familiar method, suicide. Like many before them, we are in the early stages of understanding why they may have fallen victim to this silent epidemic, and the public should be cautioned against drawing conclusions before facts are known. With that being said, it is imperative that we highlight several issues that should serve as a roadmap for helping to prevent future  preventable deaths.
     An allegation involving one of the deaths is that it has a direct link to bullying. The schools have thus far denied knowledge of this and have blamed the outcry on comments made on social media. However, the father of one victim has spoken out that his son did indeed face bullying on a large scale, including actions on the social websites. There is ample evidence that this behavior has occurred throughout this country and so far, little has been done to curtail these demented actions. What is not known at this time, is if the schools were aware of this and if they could have taken preventative actions. Currently, the Brunswick Police have an active investigation on this matter, and  we must allow this process to proceed, and appropriate measures for prevention are the result. Additionally, all perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions!
     What is truly inspiring is the reaction of the student body, who along with parents, have rallied together in support of anti-bullying programs and demanding action. Their efforts will hopefully lead to significant changes in the way the schools, "and the community at large", respond to any allegation and take appropriate measures. No student should have to live in fear of other classmates! Also, not only schools, but parents need to recognize the many warning signs of depression which is the leading cause of suicide. No one should have to endure the emotional pain that is the result of untreated depression.
     After a number of publicized suicides, the ignorant and judgmental people come out in droves. Since mental illness is vastly misunderstood, it would be easy to misconstrue the causation of the deadly act. With that in mind, it is still difficult to understand some of the biting comments that are uttered, written and implied concerning the true victim, the one who commits the act. First off, suicide is NOT a selfish act! It is the result of battling internal demons that no one who has suffered with can understand. Throw on top of a depressed person some outside influences such as bullying, and the pain only intensifies. So often the individual is pushed to the precipice and with a clouded mind, they see no alternatives. People have no right to judge the acts of the one who has ended their lives because they themselves, will hopefully never suffer from such overwhelming grief.
     If people wonder what kind of person suffers from suicidal ideation, and attempt to kill themselves, I am one. I went from a respected City Councilman, member of the Jaycees, and various other charitable organizations, to nearly dying of a suicide attempt. It was not until I was forcibly taken by the police into a hospital that I finally decided to accept my illness and the lifetime sentence of treatment that is part of my recovery. It is essential to point out that the individuals who do attempt suicide do not wish to die, they just want the pain to stop!
     The first step that must be taken is a review of the Brunswick City Schools policy on suicide prevention. A quick look into the Bylaws show some generic policies that the school explained are in the process of being updated. It is spelled out as a 5 step process; Stabilization, Assessment of the Risk, Use of Appropriate Risk Procedures, Communication with Appropriate Parties, and Follow-up. All of these are standard and generalized, and are likely similar to other school districts.
     I must point to one area that stood out. In the bylaws, it stated that teachers should be aware of students exhibiting "Unusual Depression". Though I am not sure it's true meaning,  the people involved should be aware of students who are depressed, whose moods have mysteriously shifted, good students that all of a sudden have plummeting grades or are displaying maladaptive behavior.
     Next on the list is the schools must begin to educate themselves and students about mental illness and its relation to suicide, and also take appropriate measures to deal with bullying, both in and out of school. The students need to feel comfortable to approach a teacher, a guidance counselor, or a resource officer, that either they or one of their friends are in crisis. Some questions should be; Are students aware of the dangers of cutting, or of reckless behavior? Do they realize that if a friend is in clear crisis that if no one else is available that they can call 911 for help? Most importantly, involve the student body, they will respond positively because in the few schools that have been active in this awareness, they have acted admirably.
     The enlightenment that needs to be brought out in this county has been difficult and in some cases nearly impossible. As an example, one need only observe other similar local situations, such as the suicides in the Medina City Schools. The community will discover that there is such a large gap between the public relations aspect of "leaders" showing up after a tragedy and speaking about the need for change, and real change taking place. Since those deaths, in spite of publicity, little or no real progress in educating others on this issue have come to pass.
     For many years, when I was to speak to a local school, I invited various community leaders to interact with the students to see firsthand the issues they face. One example is the Office of the Sherriff, who is one that was part of a group that garnered a great deal of publicity by exploiting this exact issue. All past messages and invitations to that office were ignored. Calls to other members of that group resulted in belligerent comments or once again, ignored calls. This was discussed at length in my previous posting "The Politicalization of Suicide Prevention".  
     Apparently, that behavior has not gone unnoticed. I was pleased to see that the United Way of Medina County has joined me in being openly critical of the lack of suicide prevention in this County. Seth Kujat, the Executive Director of the United Way of Medina said it best in an article in the Medina County Gazette.  When asked about can be done to help stem the tide of these unfortunate tragedies, he replied; "That doesn't mean that we need new programs, but it means giving schools and other agencies the resources to amp up what they're already offering." Though I have been at odds with this agency, he is correct that what has been done, is not working!
     The first resource available to make changes are the students themselves. I have given many talks to high school students, and they have responded positively and with questions such as; Where can we go for help? However, unless the schools and the parents are willing to discuss the seriousness of these potential tragedies, they will not know where to go.
     I read online that the Brunswick students began to use post-it notes on lockers as a symbol of solidarity against bullying and suicide. That is an impressive gesture, but I have another solution for parents and students. Let all of us flood the offices of our local political leaders and tell them enough is enough. It is time to invest in intervention and educational programs dealing with these issues and to make certain no one is left behind.
     These needless deaths have reached a crescendo that it is imperative for a meaningful dialogue and action to take place. It is time for citizens who are deeply committed to this issue to finally step up and push the roadblocks out of the way. I can see that many people are angry, and they have right to feel that way. It is time to channel that anger to make the changes needed to help prevent a repeat of these deaths. Stop taking no for an answer, and kick in the doors that inhibit the real changes that are needed. As I have for the past decade, I am here ready to assist. All it takes is a phone call, something I am not used to receiving in this county.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Reflections of my decade of Mental Health Advocacy

     Mahatma Ghandi once said, "First they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you, then you win!" These words themselves become a microcosm as to what obstacles individuals face as they set out to make positive changes to benefit others. That is what advocacy is all about, and sadly, I discovered others will resist any efforts as we strive for tangible progress to improve the treatment of the mentally ill.
     Since the fall of 2003, when I gave my first speech to a group of psychopathology students at Loran County Community College, and the 500 plus lectures since, I have witnessed the good, bad and ugly of battling a mental illness. Most importantly, it is said that the stigma of the disease is worse than the symptoms themselves. After a decade of work. I can say with certainty that is indeed the truth. However, rather than stigma,  it is time to call it what it truly is; Bigotry!
     As I decided to take part in advocacy, the first steps I took, were in fact, ignored and mocked. Soon, came the strong opposition from the elected officials themselves.
     One significant roadblock for those in need of treatment is the government leaders that should be committed to rebuilding the mental health system, failed miserably. During the past decade, I have contacted, both as an advocate and private citizen; Senators Rob Portman, Sherrod Brown, Congressman Jim Renacci, Speaker of the House Bill Batchelder, State Representative Nan Baker and State Senators Larry Obhof, and Keith Faber. Rather than discover a group with the desire to  understand the needs of those afflicted, I came face to face with characters better suited for a remake of the Children of the Corn movies. None showed any genuine concern for the plight of those in need, and all displayed the behavior of those bought and paid for by wealthy campaign contributors.
     Not to be outdone by these reprobates, there is one Former State Senator who topped them all in ignorance and who, strangely, publicly preaches against that stigma of mental illness. I recall talking to him at a mental health fundraiser questioning his supporting State Representative Nan Baker who has displayed nothing but contempt for those, not in her social economic class. This former State Senator turned mental health advocate coldly said, "there are more important issue than bigotry against the mentally ill." Once again, politics triumphs over empathy and compassion, even from this self-proclaimed advocate.
     Putting aside the individuals in public office, I spent a considerable amount of time speaking in my community, to bring awareness of the dangers of untreated mental illness. Through this effort, I have met some extraordinary people, in schools, civic groups and police organizations.
     With that as a backdrop, I have also discovered that no matter what one accomplishes, there lurks in society, ignorance that is a constant reminder of just how easy it is for others to disparage the one afflicted. Once again,  I can speak from firsthand knowledge. Much of those offensive actions took place in my home county, Medina.
     Many years ago, I proudly served as a member of our community United Way Board. In fact, for a time I was Vice Chairmen of Allocations. It was during this time that I also served on City Council, local Jaycees and other groups. I was extremely active in my community, and always felt a strong sense to give back. Not long afterwards mental illness took over, and I was no longer active. In a surprise to many, I was alone fighting for my life.
     As I recovered, my strong sense of Philanthropy returned and I wanted to once again, give back to those less fortunate. I discovered in the local paper that the United Way of Medina County was now searching for additional board members. With that in mind, I procured an application, filled it out, and waited for a call that never came.
     After several weeks, I contacted the director of the United Way of Medina. I was first told that they misplaced my application. Instantly, the story changed to it was never received. In short order, a third excuse was given, but it was obvious that her true motives for these answers were not going to be articulated. Additionally, because of questioning and discovering her lack of honesty, she suddenly blurted out,; "You have a persecution complex!" At that point, I realized that there is no cure for their stupidity and hung up the phone. It must be pointed out that this individual lacked the qualifications needed to make that ridiculous insult.
     After all the years of advocacy, I speak with conviction that I understand why this conversation occurred.  The true reason for my non-appointment and not being considered for the volunteer position, in spite of the appropriate qualifications, was a fundamental bigotry that groups such as these possess. Like political leaders, they believe  "those people", like the mentally ill are not capable of being part of their moral universe. Sadly, I have witnessed little or no changes in that shallow thinking, even after a decade. Recent attempts to create awareness to the United Way of Medina are now met with my overtures being written off as inconsequential. Once again, these is not cure for stupidity!  
     One person that I cannot get a handle on is Governor John Kasich, and he remains an enigma. His decision not to proceed with the building of a long needed mental hospital in Cleveland can best be described as inhuman. This facility could have been in a focal point in helping many desperate people have their dignity restored and being given the chance at the productive life we all deserve. In the coming weeks, I will be calling for the reinstatement of this hospital, and hopefully some sanity will return in Columbus.
     It is essential to point out that the Governor did prove me wrong on one issue and for that  I am truly grateful. He came out swinging against some of the children of the corn characters I mentioned earlier, and with an end run, he expanded Medicaid for over 200K Ohioans in need. To this, John Kasich deserves all the accolades he receives, and they are plentiful. I can say without hesitation, that his success on this issue will save lives.
     In a nutshell, that is an overview of the roadblocks that myself and many advocates face. It is a crucial time in this country as the public mental health system is in shambles. My hope is that one of the political leaders decides to represent the community in human fashion, and not be concerned about how the lobbyists react. We are struggling to find that leader as it is not likely to come from the ones I have mentioned. Though I am becoming a cynic, and we are far from winning, like many others advocates, we keep pushing forward. As Gandhi once said; "One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds!" Sadly, those odds keep getting greater and greater, and come from the ones that we elected to represent us!