Friday, September 20, 2013

Another Shooting, Another Discussion of Mental Illness

After the shooting at the Navy Yard this week, of course the media turns to mental illness as a cause. Unlike many of the other recent shootings, there is documentation that the shooter, Aaron Alexis, probably had some form of mental illness. He did report hearing voices and other paranoid beliefs weeks prior to this event. However, for me, the key is not that there was documented possible mental illness (he had never been officially diagnosed) but that he also had documented past gun offenses and more importantly, he received poor mental health care. (I wonder why a person with previous gun offenses even had a gun, and those offenses apparently occurred before he ever reported experiencing paranoia or any mental health issues.) It is not the mental illness alone that causes an event like this, it is a combination of factors.

Apparently Alexis had spoken to police weeks before about hearing voices through the walls and the police reported it to the Navy and nothing was done. Then Alexis went to the Veterans Affairs ER twice for insomnia but did not mention the paranoia, and he was given sleeping pills. To give sleeping pills to someone with possible mental illness is just wrong. Clearly there is something wrong in the system that Alexis was given those pills, on two separate occasions, even though police had reported that he was experiencing paranoia. Some sleeping pills can increase risks of suicide and depression. Many medications can interact with mental illness negatively, such as how antidepressants trigger manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder. You have to correctly diagnose the mental illness before you start perscribing medications. To me it seems that previous issues with violence and gun offences combined with poor regulation of medicine is more of a possible cause of this shooting than just blamining it on mental illness alone.

When we just look at mental illness in general as a cause, we promote the idea that all people with mental illness are as much of a risk to society as Alexis was on that day. We assume if we never let anyone with a mental illness have a gun, there will be no more shootings. This is not true, especially since most shootings are not committed by people with mental illness. There are many factors which go into creating the perfect storm that lead to an event like this, and possible mental illness is one factor for this particular situation. However, I know many people who hear voices, think they are being followed, and have paranoia who are not violent, have never used a gun, and have never committed a crime.

I think we also need to look at the fact that the stigma against mental illness is terrible in our society, but especially bad in the military. This means most people do not even seek treatment for mental illness. We know that people in the military are not able to ask for help with mental health issues for fear of loosing their job, even for very mild mental health issues. Maybe Alexis could have gotten help earlier if he would have felt safe enough to get mental health care much earlier when mild symptoms probably presented themselves months ago, if not years ago. 

I just wish we would look at each of these cases individually and not lump violence and mental illness into a category together which stigmatizes all people with mental illness. We need to look at each person individually.

Clearly we need better mental health care, not only because of events like this where poor mental health care is very likely to be a factor, but also for the 1 in 4 Americans with mental illness who need better care- and most of them are not violent. The need for better mental health care is not because of violence, it is because people with mental illness deserve good care and a chance at the best life possible.


Rev. Katie

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Creativity and Recovery

I recently gave a presentation at a conference to mental health care providers and consumers of mental health care and I was reminded of why I do this work. It focused on all of the mind, body, and spirit changes and activities we can do to create a stable foundation for our recovery. Of course, part of this included talking about how important and healing it can be to bring creativity into your treatment plan. Many people do not see creativity as an essential part of recovery, but it is. Creativity is not only a mind and body activity, but a spiritual one as well. When we create things, we tap into our inner wisdom and power. We discover how amazing we are, how we can create something so beautiful or interesting. When we create something, we are reminded of how we do contribute special things to this world, not only for ourselves but for those around us sometimes too. We also feel the power of something greater than ourselves. Maybe that is God for some of us, the Universe, greater humanity, or the Spirit of Love. Through creating something special, we feel a sense of awe and wonder at all that is in the Universe.

Many people do not understand this spiritual and important part of creativity, especially people who do not consider themselves artistic. However, every time I have asked someone to keep an open mind and just try a simple art project with me, they end up being proud of what they did. They see themselves in a new light, and they love the fact that they created something special. It makes them happy.

I was reminded of this at the conference when I asked everyone to engage in a mediative art practice inspired by the Zentangle® method. In this practice, you create patterns, any patterns you imagine, on a small sheet of paper. You do this in pen, which helps you accept things as they are. We let people know that there is no wrong way to create this art, and in so doing, this helps people learn to accept themselves as they are. Creating patterns allows your mind to slow down and become calm, which is great in all kinds of situations, especially in helping with anxiety. When people see the finished product of what they made, they see the beauty and feel a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Meditative Art Practice. Bipolar Spirit©

After everyone finished their meditative art I asked how they felt. One man, who is just about a year into recovery from mental illness, said that he never considered himself an artist, but he liked what he created. He said this simple art piece made him feel like he had worth. All of his repetitive thoughts of self-loathing, despair, and thinking he was not good enough stopped for a bit when he saw what he had made. He said the art showed him that he was not worthless. We talked about how every time those negative thoughts come to his mind, he can look at this piece of art and know he has worth, he is creative, he contributes to the world, and the world can be beautiful.

This is why I do this work. I show people different ways they have agency in their own treatment and help them find things that give them strength, hope, and purpose. People need support for all the times between visits to therapists and doctors, and they need to know they have the ability to be active in their recovery. People with mental illness need to know that something as simple as a 4"x4" piece of paper and a pen can stop a panic attack or manic episode. It can help you manage your illness enough so that you can remain in recovery rather than end up in a hospital ward.


Rev. Katie

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

No Home's Complete Without a Rabbit

Today ends a legacy in our family, an era. Since 1998, for fifteen years, we have had house rabbits. My husband and I got our first bunny together when we were in college. Then our next bunny was my wedding gift from Jeff to me. After that, all our bunnies were adopted. Our third bunny was one a neighbor bought for their child on Valentine's Day but they could not keep it. Our fourth bunny was found dumped in a local park after Easter one year, and our fifth bunny was from a friend who could not keep her. We agree with Clare Turlay Newberry when she writes: "No home's complete without a rabbit."

Some people are not pet people and don't quite get the connection many of us have with our animals. We love our furry family members and are grateful for having them in our lives. House rabbits are not your typical pet, and having a bunny is a new experience in animal parenting. There is a lot of misunderstanding about how to properly care for a bunny and you need a vet that specializes in rabbits. They have special souls who bring a lot of love to a house. Having bunnies in general taught us a lot about life, but in particular, each one taught me something special.

Bunny #1: Freckles
Freckles ate through walls, box springs, and all other various furniture pieces. He begged at the table like a dog, and loved being with people. From him I learned that I could handle a lot more than I thought I could. Both Freckles and Dot got GI stasis often (where their stomach gets clogged with hair) because of their breed. If they do not get fluids fast enough, they can die, so we learned how administer subcutaneous fluids to the bunnies. You would often find us in the kitchen with an IV bag hanging from our ceiling. Freckles also taught me that even the smallest being can feel and give love and express gratitude for their family. He loved giving me kisses on the nose.

Bunny #2: Dot
Dot was the Queen Bunny. She was bossy and assertive. She nipped at your ankles when you were in her way. She taught me to be yourself, and interestingly enough, she was an example of a strong woman who knew what she wanted. Dot, Freckles, and Lando were also Mini Rex rabbits, the breed with the softest fur, which are also the breed of the rabbit in The Velveteen Rabbit. These bunnies have big hearts and share a lot of love.
One heart for each bunny was buried with Lando.

Bunny # 3: Val
Val was a little grey dwarf rabbit and he was really laid back. He just took life as it came, hanging out with his siblings. He taught me to be more relaxed about life. Nothing ever seemed to phase him.

Bunny #4: Circuit
Circuit was unlike any bunny we had before. He was an albino with red eyes and probably for that reason he was dumped in a park after Easter. Many people dump bunnies after Easter, but especially albino bunnies because the red eyes scare people and they call them "devil bunnies." Being abandoned effected him his whole life. He was sweet, yet cranky, and he totally fell in love with his bunny siblings. If you did something he did not like, he would snort at you and stomp his feet. He taught me that even if you have been hurt before, abandoned and left in the wild, you can learn to trust and love again.

Bunny #5: Lando Bunrissian
Lando was just a sweet bunny. For some reason, she was our only bunny that was sick a lot and we could never figure out why. She would loose weight rapidly at times and often had respiratory infections. We ran many tests and never could figure out what was wrong. Lando taught me to always maintain a bright outlook on life. Even when she was sick, she was always just a happy bunny. In her last days, she looked terrible, but she was hopping around and never seemed to be in any pain.

We buried Lando today under the "bunny tree" near her brother Circuit and five paper hearts, one for each bunny we have had. We all talked about our favorite memories of each bunny and we read our favorite poem about bunnies which of course ends with: "No home's compete without a rabbit." I don't know when our home will feel complete again without our bunny children who taught us so much.

P.S.: Actually, my first bunnies were a small litter of bunnies I rescued when I was a child. Most of them died right away, but one held on a little longer. I fed it through a dropper and kept it warm in a little box with towels. I really wanted that bunny to live and thought that if I just could give it enough love, it would survive. This little bunny taught me that we can't save everyone, no matter how hard we try. After my bunny died, my Dad wrote me a note reminding me that I had tried as hard as I could, the bunny was grateful for my love, and that we never completely loose those we love. I still have that note today as it was so important in my understanding of life and death. It is what I pass on to our son every time one of his bunnies has passed away.


Rev. Katie