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Phlox Peniculatum: A parable 05/06/2011

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Historical Context.
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Phlox peniculatum.  Perennial, they stand about three feet tall, flower all summer long, and are incredibly hardy.  You can’t really buy them in the store nowadays, but back around the turn of the century, they were a favorite.  You see them growing alongside old farmhouses, in cemeteries, in overgrown vacant lots, the only remaining survivors of long abandoned garden plots; they stand as a last testament to the skill of some unknown gardener of a different age, a living heirloom. 

When I was a little girl, I lived in what was then the country (now – suburbia, in all its shallow, vinyl glory).  There was a particular field near my house, probably once a pasture, whose back treeline was lined with a host of Phlox peniculatum.  My mother would eye them enviously every time we drove by.  “Someone must have had a garden there once.” 

One day, we saw bulldozers in that field.  It was an early victim of the tide of “development” that was sweeping our township (in time, nearly all the fields would be similarly converted into something “useful”).  They were going to build a strip mall, or a dentist’s office.  Or was it a KFC?  I can’t remember now.

My mother just couldn’t bear the thought of those flowers from a garden long gone being bulldozed.  It was time to go guerilla!

She put a shovel in the trunk, and some cardboard boxes.  She parked the car alongside the road, and in a matter of 10 minutes or less, had efficiently transferred most of the phlox into the boxes and placed them carefully in the backseat of the car.  [A young ALT admiringly thinking, “my mom is like a secret agent!”]  They were happily settled in their new home – the front flower bed – in a few hours more. 

We used to tease her, accusing her of stealing those flowers.  But she always proudly proclaims that she rescued them. 

She’s right – the very next day they began tearing up that treeline.  The phlox that were left behind did not survive.

This was many years ago.  True to form, the Phlox peniculatum have prospered, multiplied.  There are so many now that my mom has to give some away every year [in fact, I just transplanted some in my garden, a few hours ago]. 

An heirloom that stood forgotten and was nearly bulldozed over by the forces of “development” and “modernization,” given new life by someone who saw its value and fought to preserve it. 

What other heirlooms of a past age, representing a different value system or way of life, stand waiting for us to discover them?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month? All right; let’s do this FOR REAL! 05/04/2011

Posted by ALT in Mental Health Policy and Inititatives, Patient Rights and Advocacy, Philosophy/Spirituality.
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So, it’s “Mental Health Awareness Month.”

But that’s not all!

Sheesh! It's going to be a busy month.

Better get to work on “neurofibromatosis” right way… and I must admit I’m very much looking forward to celebrating “Better Sleep Month” in style (once I’ve become sufficiently aware of everything else, of course).


Ever wonder where all these medical awareness months come from?

News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.

(William Randolph Hearst)

It should come as no surprise that they are often just one component of a complete public relations package pharmaceutical and medical device companies purchase from firms like DWJ Television, Schwartz PR, and others specializing in health industry promotions.  The awareness month’s main function is not really to promote awareness of a condition or issue – but to promote certain (expensive and patented) treatments for that condition.

They are also used to propel what are called “Video News Reports [VNR]” into the forefront of the media.  A VNR is essentially the multimedia evolution of a press release – a ready-made story that broadcasters can air as their own “reporting” with only minimal doctoring.

Here’s an example of one from the dental industry:

As you can see, a VNR looks exactly like a news short, and may even come with a script that the station’s reporter can read over the pre-manufactured footage [that’s the voiceover you heard in the above video; it’s a separate audio track that can be removed and replaced with the station’s customized one].  Stations have something to fill dead airtime that costs them almost nothing to produce, and PR firms get to hawk their wares in a subtle and really quite insidious way; most viewers have no idea that they’re essentially watching a commercial – they think it’s objective, fact-based reporting (news).

The pharmaceutical industry was one of the first to use VNRs to promote drugs.  And as early as 1990, critics were calling attention to the practice, decrying the “covert” nature of VNRs and their ability to “reach the unguarded mind.”

Now, in order for the VNR to air, it has to be newsworthy, connected in some way to current events.  But what if there is no related current event?  Why, then you must invent one, of course!

Production companies often build VNRs around events that are manufactured or exaggerated for dramatic purposes… But sometimes, a production company has to get creative.  “If there is no hard news, we will generally do it in terms of a disease, and get a real person suffering from the condition who has had it improved by taking this medication,” Friedman [PR executive at the aforementioned firm DWJ Television] says.  “So we may see him or her with a physician; we may see him or her doing things in everyday life; and we’ll also interview on-screen, and interview the physician on-screen.”  Many production companies build VNRs around disease-awareness events.  The national Sleep Foundation, an organization funded by manufacturers of sleep drugs and other sleep aids, often uses National Sleep Awareness Week as a hook, usually coupled with a survey about how much trouble Americans have sleeping.  “To me, that’s the last possibility,” says Friedman.  “There’s always a day, there’s always a week, there’s always a month.”

(from Carl Elliott’s White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the dark side of medicine; emphasis added)

Why do I bring this up?  Believe it or not, it’s not so that we can all joyously engage in another round of pharma-bashing [I’ve had enough of that].

It was fun while it lasted... cathartic, even. But it's time to move on.

I believe that there is a desperate need for a Mental Health Awareness Month.  Speaking as someone who – just 2 short years ago – knew NOTHING about the mental health world except the so-called “common knowledge” the general population shares, I am well aware how much was missing.  But, given the origins of these “awareness months,” is this May going to fill the gap?


The Mental Health Awareness Month we’re likely going to have is one envisioned, carefully outlined, and “generously” funded by pharmaceutical companies and their friends, one that efficiently conveys only the dominant, pharmaceutical companies’ profit-enhancing message.

In this pharmaceutical-funded framework, there’ll be no room for alternatives.

No unauthorized survivor voices.   No stories of [un-medicated] recovery, resilience, survivance.  Of alternative healing, balance, and perhaps even acceptance of some of these pathologized “extreme states of consciousness.”

Unless… we step outside the framework.


We humans, we who aspire to join the ranks of soul healers, we who have either experienced “extreme states of consciousness” or support those who do – we have to claim Mental Health Awareness Month as our own!  As our rightful platform to speak, in the first person voice, about what these experiences might mean, to individuals, and to society!

If we raise our voices, we could be the start of a true awakening, a renaissance, a new and much truer awareness of so-called “mental health,” and the integral role that it plays in individual and collective health (wellness/balance).

That being said, here are a few things about the mental health world I wish I’d known, I wish everyone knew as part of that cultural package of “common knowledge” every member of the general population has.

If it were up to me to envision the central message of a “Mental Health Awareness” Campaign, it would include these key points:

Those mental health labels that people have attached to them – labels like “schizophrenic” or “bipolar” – somebody, somewhere, at some time, subjectively made that shit up.

Despite the mantra (“Mental illness is just like diabetes; mental illness is just like diabetes…”), mental illness is fundamentally NOT like diabetes.  Diabetes is a physical illness, a grouping of bodily pathologies (the body fails to produce sufficient insulin) that produce certain recognizable symptoms (low blood sugar, susceptibility to infections, constant urination).  There is a physical test for diabetes (blood test), known treatments that are proven to directly address the underlying disease mechanism/pathology.

These “mental illnesses” are something else entirely.  Take schizophrenia, for example.  The inventor of the term, an Austrian doctor by the name of Emil Kraeplin, was trying to describe a common set of symptoms he saw in many asylum patients.  But it later turned out that these patients were suffering from a [rare, now, but somewhat common, at the time] disease called encephalitis lethargica, which produced Parkinsonian-type problems in its victims (shuffling gait, drooling, vacant expression, uncontrollable, jerky motions, psychosis).  When psychiatrists subtracted all the patients who had the physical, virus-caused encephalitis lethargica from the schizophrenia roll call, there were almost no patients remaining!  So the term “schizophrenia” began a long process of evolution and shape-shifting, its parameters changing with every new edition of the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual] to match the cultural prejudices of the time.  The term was so amorphous for so long, in fact, that the writers of the 2nd edition of the DSM-II freely admitted:

Even if it had tried, the [APA] Committee could not establish agreement about what this disorder is; it could only agree on what to call it.

(from the 2nd edition of the DSM)

They [the committee of psychiatric experts, literally “sworn to secrecy,” that develops the diagnostic criteria] are at it again, set to release a new edition of the DSM in 2013.  You can rest assured that it will contain quite a few more “diseases” with neat little acronyms and pre-approved drug therapies included.

Back to diabetes: there’s a huge difference between Doctor A who tells his patient “You have diabetes,” and Doctor B who tells his patient “You’re schizophrenic.”  Doctor A knows his patient has diabetes – he did a blood test.  Meanwhile, Doctor B only thinks he knows his patient is schizophrenic, and that is based mainly on the patient’s willingness to self-report symptoms and the doctor’s interpretation of those symptoms.  Keep in mind that Doctor B might have made this decision in 15 minutes or less, and that his subjective decision is likely going to stick with the patient for life (regardless of the patient’s later “return to sanity” it’s “once diagnosed, never undiagnosed”).

You’re getting the picture: these labels don’t [objectively] mean much.

The so-called “mentally ill” person’s experiences and interpretations of those experiences are where true meaning lies – but it is up to that person (with the help of his supporters) to assign meaning to the experiences, in his own way, his own time.

I like to refer to this person as “our hero” — because that’s really who he/she is.  Here’s a quote from one such hero:

Just as there are many forms of “cancer” so too there are many forms of “psychotic experience.” Just as with any other illness, we don’t get to choose what kind we get. It is however, up to us to determine how we are going to interpret our experience and find purpose and meaning in it. I would not have made it through that experience of mine were it not for a few critical factors[:]… my ability to accept that my experience was uniquely individual and mine alone… my willingness to accept whatever came up and deal with it, not necessarily in graceful fashion… [and] the very vital support of people who cared about me: my husband, some exceptionally good friends, and some very kind strangers. Love alone was my saving grace.

(from an inspirational psychiatric survival story which you can read in full here)

I also talked a little more about the right to experience reality for oneself once here.

So-called “mental illness” does not have to be a chronic, lifelong experience.

Objective, scientific data describing the psychotic experiences of people in underdeveloped countries (where mental illness is treated, not with drugs, but with increased social support and engagement in community) show that for many, a psychotic episode is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Outcomes there are much better than in the US, where it can indeed turn into a chronic problem – because of the “treatment” applied to it.  Please see this entry for more info.  And, if you like, read the study (a controversial duplication of a previous study; both produced the same results: outcomes for “schizophrenics” in countries where drug therapy is uncommon are consistently better than in so-called developed countries where drug therapy is the first line treatment).

The very best medicine or “treatment” for a psychotic episode/spiritual crisis/extreme state of consciousness (or whatever you want to call it!) is LOVE.

Love, compassion, empathy, support.  The willingness to listen calmly, to avoid at all costs doing anything which might threaten, dehumanize, or traumatize an individual that is already going through so much.  These are all things which you definitely don’t have to be a professional to provide (or, rather – give).   In fact, it’s been shown that it usually works better if you’re not (in America, once, here; and in the present day, here!).

JUST IMAGINE: what if, this month, May of 2011, the general public learned these four basic ideas, became aware and self-aware on a societal level, of them.  What would the future hold?

Would we see changes in the way the so-called mentally ill (the outliers, the exceptions) are treated?  Would life in this modern, corporate, industrialized society be a little bit less traumatic for both those who experiences things differently, and those who have learned to empathize with them?  Would there be more love, more compassion, more sense (as opposed to senseless waste and hurt)?


We gather together… to eat this pot roast! 05/03/2011

Posted by ALT in Children's Mental Health, Mental Health Policy and Inititatives.
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(and to prevent childhood obesity)   

What am I talking about?  Something positive in the anti-childhood obesity world, for once! 

No, not THISNote to childhood obesity activists: kids don’t like being locked in school buildings, with no windows and very little self-determination; they want out!  So if you associate exercising with being inside the school—well, that’s just self-defeating.

Even a scantily-clad, flouncy Beyonce isn't enough to make a school cafeteria a fun place to work out.

I’m talking about the most recent edition of the journal PEDIATRICS, which includes a pretty impressive study (or meta-analysis of previously conducted studies, to be more exact) that points to an intuitive (but very encouraging!) conclusion: the more meals a family shares together, the less likely the kids are to have issues with obesity or “disordered eating.”

Disordered Eating, or if you want to get all DSM-IV with it, “Eating Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified),” includes things like: bingeing/purging, deliberate vomiting, excessive fasting, missing meals, taking diet pills, smoking as a weight loss strategy, using diuretics or laxatives… essentially, any excessive misuse of food to resolve emotional problems.


Statistics and Such

The study authors compared the effects of sharing 3 or more meals per week versus 1 or none, using a total sample size of 182,836 children and adolescents (ages 2.8-17.3 years).  When it comes to statistical analysis, that’s HUGE!  For those of you who like to throw numbers and percentages around, here’s a bit of ammunition:

(As compared to families that shared less than 3 meals per week, children in families that shared 3 or more meals per week were…)

  • 12% less likely to be overweight
  • Had a  20% reduction in the odds of eating unhealthy foods
  • Had a 24% increase in the odds of eating healthy foods and maintaining healthy dietary habits (like eating breakfast, eating fruits and vegetables, and taking a multivitamin).

Additionally, children and adolescents in families that shared 5 or more meals together per week were 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating than those who did not.

The study looked at different ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses and found that, for the most part, there wasn’t a significant difference between these categories. 

A family meal is much more likely to be a home-cooked meal (as opposed to pre-packaged) – so nutritionally it’s a lot better.  What’s more, the dinner table is a place to air concerns about the day, share funny tidbits, to joke around and just have some quality time together.  It’s a place to address some of the emotional problems that might lead to “disordered eating” in the first place.  I think we can all agree that getting love from your family is much more satisfying than getting it from a piece of cake.

... sure you do.


Families have the power!

The best part about this study is it puts the power to achieve balance/wellness where it belongs: with families and the love they hold for one another.  Institutions have nothing to do with this!  They can’t touch it! 

I’d bet good money that if they did a similar study of kids who shared at least 3 meals with their friendly area social worker, or perhaps their principal, or psychiatrist, or probation officer, the results would be different.  Having a meal with an authority figure that makes you feel uncomfortable and restricted (and is billing you for their time) would probably give you indigestion!   

So this study’s policy recommendations – quite simply, that families eat meals together (I’d also add: and schools get the HELL out of the way!) is exactly the direction I’d like to see the so-called “campaign against childhood obesity” go.  Let’s keep moving towards intuitive (some might even say obvious), family-focused actions that are not blame-based. 

For example, instead of schools recruiting parents to guard the entrances of corner stores to stop kids from buying junk food (literally calling them “foot soldiers in a battle over children’s diets”) — what if kids were given a little more time in the morning to eat breakfast with their parents and had enough time to go home and eat lunch, too?   Instead of school officials blaming parents for their lack of nutritional knowledge, why can’t we recognize that a meal eaten together, as a family, has a certain amount of [mental and emotional] nutritional value independent of the kind of food served (which will nevertheless almost certainly be more wholesome than what they’re serving up in school lunches)?

Ah, the simple things in life!  Love, family, togetherness.  Away-from-institution-ness

I think achieving wellness, as individuals, communities, and as a society, is something we can do without Michelle Obama and her cadre of “experts” convening conferences here, there, and everywhere; without intereference from schools or any of the other “helping professions” so bent on justifying their supposed “expertise” and keeping their jobs.

I think we can do it, quite successfully, just by using a little common sense and by reclaiming some of those aforementioned simple things in life.


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