knowledge

Joining the dots

I’ve been following the NZ herald series on suicide, not closely, working as a school counsellor gives me some insight to the phenomenon but I am always cautious about my own understanding, even with close to 15yrs experience. But the Herald series is a bit like throwing out a series of dots from which people can join to form a picture. Here is where I’m a little unsure just which dots are standing out, how they are being joined and what picture/s are emerging. It’s tragic, compelling, emotive and unfortunately political. The dots could be seen as key ideas, some backed by research, others personal experiences, experts like (Sir) Peter Gluckman are mixed in with Mike King. Much like a join the dots activity I did as a kid, if there are just a few dots they have to be joined carefully and in the correct order to get the picture, more dots gives more detail. Sometimes you didn’t need to see the numbers to join them correctly – but at other times connecting the 2 with 8 really threw things off and you got a duck instead of a bunny. And this is where I think some of the discussion on suicide has gone – into duckbunny land.

I’ve read Gluckman’s report, it’s worth reading but how many people will actually bother to pick up his dots? He suggests the key work needs to be done much earlier than secondary schools, but also that adolescents is a vulnerable period regardless. There is a link between communities that have a low sense of worth, less hope for a future. I am saddened at the risk for Maori and other communities such as LGBTQI+ youth, this is where I think schools continue to ignore the dots and avoid responsibility for creating safe, genuinely inclusive (including bi-cultural values) environments. When principals deny queer young people safe places to meet (i.e. not allowing students to form gay-straight alliances), be valued members of the community– they increase risk. When schools fail to provide trained, qualified counsellors because pastoral care is not seen as valued – risk increases.

You see a couple of dots that people keep ignoring or leaving off the page, is the spike in suicide with the rolling out of ‘Tomorrows Schools’ when secondary schools could opt to not have counsellors in favour of the rather vague idea of ‘providing adequate guidance’ – and there are so many weird, vague interpretations of this. Key also is the gradual rising of the school leaving age, with university entrance now requiring completing level 3 (7th form for old school people). So if a young person is able to consent to their own medical treatment at 16, surely we should be enabling them to access mental health support as well, and schools that do not employ trained counsellors deny young people a potential lifeline.

Because every day, I talk to young people who have lost hope, who feel adults they have turned to have freaked out, got angry, dismissed, not believed them or blamed them for what is going on. They have thought about suicide, might be ready to die, but they somehow managed to get to my office. They aren’t making this shit up, they are survivors of bullying, sexual abuse, rape, family violence, they are from all cultures, they are LGBTQI+ and they had a free resource available, a fence at the top of the cliff – a trained, qualified, professionally affiliated counsellor.

It’s election year though, so I say this to all politicians – Stop ignoring these dots because they do not fit your convenient picture. Make a commitment to resourcing schools and agencies at the coal face of this work. Stop political point scoring around education, especially with vulnerable populations. No more dots are needed, just draw the lines FFS.

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Spotlight on Mental Health

Next week is mental health awareness week and I’m already anxious. It’s also the first week back of the term and part of me is bracing for the inevitable leap onto the treadmill at full pace, desperately grabbing for the handrails of coffee and the sturdy support of my colleagues. Being a counsellor in a large secondary school is complex and next week puts the spotlight firmly on our area of work, but it’s one that I think is too directional and follows only certain players on the mental health stage.

I’m anticipating the light to fall on anxiety, depression, suicide, as well as debates around diagnosis, medication and looking for warning signs. There might be some promotion of strategies for coping with stress, mindfulness, and lots of other positive psychology techniques. It’s a life-coaches smorgasbord and while I respect there are a lot of good people doing great things to support people to live happy fulfilled lives there are some things that bother me greatly about the intense focus on western concepts of mental health and the mind as well as the emphasis on individual responsibility for managing your own wellness. The effect of the spotlight is to reduce mental health down to brain chemistry, managing emotional states (where some emotions are deemed not healthy) and a checklist of tasks.

So I want to scatter the light, diffract it if you will through some uncomfortable contexts that in my line of work are all too frequent yet avoided in public conversations. It’s a little like poverty – people prefer to see something about the lack of personal management of money or make it about some failure in individual people. There is the pervasive believe everyone can be well off if they just tried hard enough. Mental health is similar.

Some themes I’ve encountered in my 20 years working in schools that I think need to be considered as much as discussions about depression etc:

  • Family violence is traumatic – whether it be physical, verbal, psychological, sexual and it happens!
  • Sexual abuse is traumatic for all people and it happens across cultures and genders
  • Adults rarely think about how the ways they speak to their children and about them impacts on their well-being – we’ve had generations of values that suggest put-downs, harsh language, smacking and basically denigrating children and young people is good for their character. The other end of the spectrum is also unhelpful both are harmful for developing balance
  • Few adults say ‘I’m sorry’ to their children and take responsibility for their actions
  • Bullying happens in families first and in other community settings, not just schools – young queer people of all cultures are often more exposed to this
  • Trauma impacts on the brain – especially a developing brain, but also adult brains (see my blog on the limbic system). Young people can experience post traumatic stress (PTS) just like adults.
  • Young people are resilient but they need adults to listen and BELIEVE THEM when they talk about abuse and support for who they are as people
  • There is an expectation to be happy 24/7 these days – normal responses to grief, loss, stress are being lost to medicalisation – thanks google
  • The future is uncertain rather than bright for many young people – schools are also very stressful places. NCEA requires them to be on their game for 3 years! Good grief people of my generation came out of hibernation for about 3 weeks for exams. That level of sustained pressure is not good for anyone (including teachers).

Finally we need to critique the separation of mind and body and recognise that this is simply one way of viewing people and might not be the most useful in the 21st Century. Bringing in the range of spectrums of perspectives from other cultures could enable new conversations that move beyond the single white spot that is white western health concepts that leave many in the dark, isolated and invisible.

Managing self – by others

Managing self. It’s a Key Competency in the New Zealand Curriculum. I sat in a meeting recently that left me in a state of hysteria – quite literally – complete failure to manage myself. The battle to ensure young people focus, manage their time, ideas, thoughts, emotions, bodies. To fit into the expected regimes of performance, presentation, and to stay inside the lines at all times. But where battle lines of power are drawn there is resistance. Break-away and rogue moments of irony.

This was a particularly intriguing intra-active moment. The diffractive medium was Attention Deficit Disorder and its pharmaceutical solution, Ritalin. There was concern some students were accessing medication they should not have, while others were not able to access it. Evidence was produced that some needed it and that dosages might need increasing. Parents were contacted to address the potential harm of taking it, not taking it, not taking enough of it. Medical authority, school authority, parent authority making decisions on behalf of young people, talked about and not to. Contexts and relational meaning, making way for the grand narratives of individual responsibility, harm and expert knowledge. Juridicial and biopower teaming up. Discipline decided, doctors diagnose and dispense, docile bodies must be fully engaged.

And at the end of the week a bunch of us went for self-medication for ADD – Adult Disillusion Disorder at the pub. Where our conversation bounced all over the place, attention was lost in moments of distraction until more medication was needed.

Hit with the truth

A long term study determines that ‘smacking’/hitting children isn’t such a good idea for their long term well-being and functioning. Wow – really? I’m shocked. So let’s put the research aside for a second, because there will be plenty of people not willing to accept the evidence.

Regardless of your beliefs, whatever values have been instilled in you from whatever sources perhaps an approach to this delicate topic of parental ‘rights’ and who gets to police that always evokes a challenge to the moral order.

But how about trying to look at this purely from a neurobiological perspective, particularly the fundamentals of the limbic system, namely the amygdala and the associated structures that mediate and process environmental info and emotional responses then how this is mediated by the frontal cortex or the ‘reasoning’ part of the brain. Abuse and trauma in early life (infancy-childhood) directly effects the amygdala producing structural and functional changes. Emotional responses and anxiety are heightened in response to stressful situations or stimuli. This early life trauma has been shown in studies to stay relatively permanent. The amygdala does not work alone, it is part of a network and this is also effected, including the relationship to the frontal cortex.

The brain has some level of neuroplasticity which is great and why children and young people need access to good support and resources to mediate the affective development and not be exposed to more abuse. There are some important places other than homes where children and young people can be exposed to stress and abuse, sometimes in the name of love and support. Schools in particular can be such sites.

While corporal punishment has been outlawed in New Zealand since 1990 the use of shame, humiliation and other threatening tactics are still employed and punishment is still seen as the preferred option. In light of this research I hope that approaches come under the microscope and we can look beyond blaming parents and take a collective responsibility for abuse – all forms including institutional. The growing movement of restorative approaches gives me some hope, neuroscientists such as Daniel Reisel back this process for healing and developing empathy.

So back to the truth – all forms of abuse have an effect, regardless of the intent. The courage our society faces is to start putting the effects ahead of peoples intentions and support the taking up of responsibility for harm.

Staying grounded on Earth Day

How do you celebrate Earth Day? My Facebook feed is a mix of dire warnings, and warm fuzzy hug a tree type messages. I guess what it comes down to is Earth Day is an attempt to pause and think. But what to think about? The catch for me is the meaning of The Earth how it is understood in terms of our relationship to everything else. Humans have a habit of seeing everything as serving our needs to survive. This anthropocentrism is most entrenched in our current global economic and political structures. So for me I am wondering about the constraints on our thinking and relating to the diversity of life. I’m curious about the other cultural and ancient views of harmony with life that have been forgotten or suppressed and who’s interests this has served.

Science is keenly invested in finding answers with climate change being a bit of a well-worn path of common concern. But as Cary Wolfe and Karen Barad note:

‘Notwithstanding the diversity of possible reasons, the stakes in managing and accounting for these conceptual configurations are significant, for how the fault line of discrimination between the human and the nonhuman/animal/environment is drawn also motivates the reasoning behind claims for which life forms deserve more equitable kinds of moral treatment.’

So my call is for the brave step into something ‘epistemic vulnerability’ (Jennifer Logue) when some forms of knowledge are seen as dangerous or threatening there can be a shutting down, she notes that:

‘By examining ignorance as a defense, the activity of its process becomes clear. We can see non-knowledge is consciously constructed, used to leverage authority, close down community, and exonerate the culpable in a range of different legal and cultural arenas. This ignorance is a series of carefully constructed forms of not knowing that are used to protect power.’

So I am putting my certainty aside about how to ‘save the planet’ to question my own assumptions and beliefs about what it needs saving from. I’ll also compost more just to be on the practical side.

Articles referred to:

Chiew, F. (2014). Posthuman Ethics with Cary Wolfe and Karen Barad: Animal Compassion as Trans-Species Entanglement. Theory, Culture & Society31(4), 51-69.

Logue, J. (2014). The Politics of Unknowing and the Virtues of Ignorance: Toward a Pedagogy of Epistemic Vulnerability. Philosophy of Education Archive, 53-62.

Shoe in

It’s an oft used analogy to indicate perspective taking or developing empathy ‘to walk in someone else’s shoes’. I’ve been thinking more and more about why slipping into someone’s experience would be as simple or whether the familiarity of the idea is both why it works and fails miserably. Because I would go even further to say that excludes a wide range of people and other beings who either do not walk or don’t wear shoes.

So perhaps this way of helping short cut understanding has set up a rather unhelpful set of assumptions. We are all conceptually limited although at times we’d rather pretend to ‘know’ than deal with the uncomfortable realisation that we might just not ‘get it’. To ask the question ‘how do we know what we don’t know’ or ‘why did this form of knowing become accepted’ invites an alternative, agnotological approach to the shoe idea.

What got me thinking about this again was my experience of starting bare foot running, not exactly, but the ‘shoes’ I wear are simply a piece of rubber and some rope (the silver toe nail polish is optional but I reckon it makes me run better). Peoples responses were intriguing, no-one believed they were running shoes. The model of the shoe did not fit, a preconceived idea had already defined how my feet should be covered for the purposes of training. My shoes were wrong according to the dominant knowledge available from the various scientifically based truths about human physiology and biomechanics. Therefore the idea of trying to run in my shoes was so against popular knowledge my decision seemed incomprehensible, illogical and irrational. Judging from some of the condescending comments and Spock like eyebrow raises, I was deemed a little bit cray cray, a sort of ‘these aren’t the shoes you’re looking for’ Jedi mind trick was even tried.

It’s taken my body a while to adjust to a different style of running, but I love it. All the concern about what harm I might do running in a more natural way seem a little cray cray to me. Some lives are like my new running ‘shoes’. They are incomprehensible because of the ideas used to construct them. When people imagine wearing them they have already decided how it might feel, how painful and uncomfortable and awkward they’d be. It might not cross their mind that they could feel light, free, sensitive and liberating. I suspect people who identify as transgender or are seen as ‘disabled’ have their lives miss-imagined or only framed in pejorative ways.

But I think if we can become open to the idea that we might be wrong, to be curious and prepared to recognise the ways our own vulnerability shapes our perception, that is, to understand our own shoes, why they feel comfortable, where they fit best, what terrain they give traction on and where they become unstuck could be more useful. But again, from the outside our ideas simply reflect our own fears, doubts and insecurities and not necessarily the lived experience of others.

And as for seeing through the eyes of another? Well that is no mean feet.

Moment Of Impact

Last night those dearest to me were in an accident. I was home making toast and cups of tea awaiting their arrival. When they didn’t arrive, I wondered if I should eat the toast. Then a call to say ‘we’ve been in an accident’ the next few moments seemed to last forever as I heard the words ‘we are ok’. Relief instantly overwhelmed me followed by anger and frustration.

Why are humans still in control of vehicles? I think once transport is fully automated then human ego’s will no longer kill others with wheels of mass destruction. Problem is we are attached to the idea that we – with our limited reaction times, varying degrees of visual acuity and general sense of entitlement and selfishness – should not give up our right to injure and kill others trying to move themselves around.

That’s what road deaths are – death by transportation is utterly ridiculous. To spend more money and resources to improve ways to do this is even more insane. I wonder if in 200 years we will look back on this era of obsession with cars like we might on the era of medicine where bloodletting and trepanning were acceptable.

Well, come to think of it many politicians do seem to talk like they have a hole in their head. Maybe trepanning is making a come-back after all. Or they have found a way to recycle crash test dummies.