The Problem with Mental Health

A woman named Ellen Baxter goes to a mental institution to visit her mother. What she sees startles her. Her mother sits in a wheelchair, her speech is incredibly slurred, and she is clearly, heavily over medicated.

This was a moment described in an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, from NPR. This is the stereotypical example everyone thinks of when they hear “mental institution.” People drooling, with their heads tilted awkwardly to the side, eyes glazed over. It is a scary thought. This sort of image is the reason “mental institutions” have such a negative and frightening stigma.

But I work in a psych unit, and it’s not like that. My patients don’t drool, and they don’t have glazed over eyes.

This episode of the podcast is dedicated to the idea of solving problems. It begins with a family of a million girls, and the horrible, but inevitable issue of drain hair. And how they managed to find a solution to vastly easier drain cleaning. It is just a quick example of the innovation and ability to solve even the most obscure problems. But at about the 6 minute 15 second mark of the episode, we get to the meat of the matter. We hear Ellen Baxter’s story.

Ellen actually ran from home, and her mentally ill mother the first chance she got. She went to college and became a psych major. Influenced by her visit to the institution where her mother was, she made it her mission to find a more humane way to treat mental illness. She put herself through the experience most people would be too afraid to do. She fakes a mental illness and gets checked into an institution. While most people are probably suddenly hearing the Eagles song Hotel California, Ellen only stayed for one week. One week was enough time for her to see and understand that there really wasn’t any useful therapy provided to the patients. When asked what the patients did all day then, Ellen answered that they watched TV, they stared out the window, and they waited for the bell to ring. The bell that tells them it’s medication time, that tells them it’s snack time… She said she could “almost see the humanity of the people evaporating.”

And the more I thought about this description, the more I realized it actually sounded uncomfortably close to the day-to-day of the unit I work on.

I graduated college with a bachelors in Psychology also. I think I also had a deep seeded desire to help people. To help find a way to guide them through their most personal struggles. I am not a nurse, so I can’t give my patients medications. So I have to work twice a hard to find ways to help them through their crisis. Whether it is a cup of double bagged chamomile tea to help ease their anxiety, a warm blanket to ease their fear, a shower to burn off some steam, or just someone to talk to. I had decided a long time ago that the most important thing was to see each person as an individual rather than a patient, to remember that they are at possibly the lowest point of their lives, and to remember that, for some of them, this is the first time they will have someone who is there to support, and listen to them. And if I can’t do anything else for them, I can certainly listen to them, and to remind them that they are still worthy of someone’s attention.

Ellen Baxter sat down and did some research to find a place where “dependent and disabled people were not thrown away.” What she finds is a town in Belgium called Geel.

This town has an extraordinary way of dealing with its mentally ill population. They are taken into the homes of the towns folk and cared for. The obvious question that burned on Ellen’s mind, and probably many many others was, isn’t it a burden?

Every single host family she asked said, “no.” Apparently this tradition had gone back all the way to the 1300’s. For the towns folk, this way of life is just normal. The mentally ill of the town are treated as any other member of the town. And while hosting some of these individuals can be difficult at times, they do not see it as being any more difficult than dealing with an outburst by someone who is not deemed mentally ill.

What made these towns folk so different in their treatment of the mentally ill, is simple acceptance. They do not see mental illness as something than needs fixing. The host mother allows her boarder to nervously twist the buttons off his shirt, and each night she would sew them back on. While this seems tedious, she is not burdened by doing it. This is just an aspect of who this man is, and she accepts it. The man who hallucinates lions coming out of the walls, his host mother would simply chase the lions away, and the man feels relief.

While it’s easy to imagine how this method with the mentally ill could fail in so many ways, somehow it is managing to work. Maybe allowing each mentally ill person to remember that they are human has some benefits.

It is certainly something I see less and less on my own unit. I see it less in the community as a whole. Mental health has such a negative stigma, it is treated as almost a death sentence. While individuals gain the label of “mentally ill,” along with it seems to hang the label “doomed,” and society turns its back on them. It breaks my heart to see how little funding there is for mental health resources, how alone people suffering from mental illness feel, and how scared they are to seek help.

I think what makes a town like Geel so successful is that the mentally ill aren’t taken somewhere to be hidden like a stain from society, they aren’t taken somewhere with the expectation of walking out the doors “fixed,” they are taken somewhere to be supported and treated as a human.


These were only my thoughts on the first half of the podcast. There is a whole other half hour continuing Ellen’s mission for the humane treatment of the mentally ill.

Here is a link to the full podcast episode. The Problem with the Solution.


Here is a link from NPR exploring the episode deeper, with links and resources.

https://www.npr.org/2016/07/01/483859375/explore-the-episode


Here is a link to an article written by Angus Chen for NPR on the town of Geel and this boarding program, titled For Centuries a Small Town has Embraced Strangers with Mental Illness.

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/01/484083305/for-centuries-a-small-town-has-embraced-strangers-with-mental-illness

What it’s like to be Asian…

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As an Asian-American who has lived nearly her whole life in America, I never really felt the negativity of racism. I was fortunate to grow up with a family who were very open about my being adopted, my culture, and being open to other cultures period. It wasn’t until 2016 that I really began to experience a lot of hostile racism. By this time I was 30 years old and knew some about history and what America was built on and it struck me as even more hurtful. America, the melting pot that used to call itself “The Land of Opportunity,” a country that people from varying other countries still look to as an opportunity for a better life. 

At the beginning of this year, Covid–19 really began to come to our public eye for its growing cases in China. It’s extreme contractability and death rate creating fear. By mid March, cases of the virus were confirmed in America, as well as many other countries. America went into full Pandemic mode, citizens were panic shopping, and many states issued a stay-at-home order. 

The virus was senselessly called the “Chinese Virus,” and the level of racism and anger against anyone who even looks Chinese grew exponentially. To the simple point of walking the other way when they might pass someone of Asian decent, to the extreme level of chasing and beating up someone of Asian decent. Regardless of their actual race, ethnicity, heritage.

As a Korean born American, I never thought I’d be so scared of being Asian as after Trump was elected president. Today, during this national pandemic, I am even more fearful to be Asian. 

Here is an article written in USA Today on the growing racial problem during this pandemic. What It’s Like to be Asian During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

The most heart breaking thing I had ever heard was from an Black French woman, Surya Bonaly. An Olympic level figure skater who could never seem to get first place, no matter how much training and finessing she did. In an interview she was asked if she thought that in any way it was because she is black. She said no, it was just that, “when you’re black, you know. Everybody knows that you have to do better than anybody else who’s white.”

There have been times in my life lately when I have felt the same sentiment. In my work place, 1 of 3 non-white employees on my shift. I have felt like I have had to face a lot more negative criticism than my peers, that I have had to work twice as hard. 

And even though most of the time, I don’t even think most people even consciously think about it. That a negative view of Asian-Americans is so deeply ingrained. People still blame MSG in Chinese food for feelings of dizziness and headaches. An idea brought about in 1969, despite no scientific proof of the correlation between MSG and the symptoms of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.”

Here is an article written earlier this year about “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” MSG in Chinese Restaurants isn’t Unhealthy…

Racism has always been a part of Asian-American history. But American’s forget that it was Asian immigrants who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, which physically brought the country together. American’s forget that it is through Asian companies that we do our everyday communication with others, everyday internet work, stream televison programs… Sony, LG, Samsung, HTC… All companies from Asia. 

As an Asian-American who has lived nearly my whole life proud of my Asian heritage, I have never felt more fear and shame of this country I call home.

Playing God

If you have an hour of your time, I recommend you listen to this episode of Radiolab. Things tend to fall into my lap at very appropriate times. While driving home, in the middle of a nationwide Pandemic, this episode fell into my lap.

On August 21st, 2016, Radiolab collaborated with The New York Times reporter Sheri Fink to talk about the difficult process of hospital Triage, and inevitably the idea of deciding who gets to live and who doesn’t. And in some ways, it has never felt more appropriate than right now.

We hear three crisis situations, in which resources were limited, and hospital staff were faced with the difficult task of triaging their patients. Hospitals are not designed to handle a mass surge of patients. So when that happens, how do you decide who’s needs are more necessary? How do you decide who you stop giving care to? How do you make these difficult decisions, and is that too much responsibility for a person?

In the middle of the episode, they talk about a critical situation that happens to be exactly the situation we are in now. And ironically, one of the decisions we as hospital staff are having to make. Who deserves to live, and who does not?

For further reading, here is the original article Sheri Fink wrote for The New York Times on a public debate that she attended, in which a critical care physician from John’s Hopkins asks, how should we make that decision?
Whose Lives Should Be Saved? Researchers Ask the Public

Melting Mendenhall Glacier

Heres an news story from NPR that, though a couple years old, is still so valid.

Visitors to a Shrinking Alaskan Glacier get a Lesson on Climate Change

“It’s just a statement that’s out there, normally… And it doesn’t really mean much to you until you really see the physical evidence of it. Especially since we’re able to touch the glacier there and know what we’re losing.”

Within the article is an audio news clip, also from NPR about Obama’s visit to Alaska during his presidency. Though perhaps not the most popular person for his actions during this time, but attempting to bring awareness to the issue, rather than denying it.

This is the famous Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska. These are some Then and Now pictures showing the dramatic change over the years. Try to tell me Climate Change isn’t real.

(Also, Grizzly – Polar Bear hybrids. So real. So scary.)

Jake Gyllenhaal

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Jake Gyllenhaal, man, mystery, actor. Most known for movie roles such as Donnie DarkoJarhead, and Prince of Persia. But what is the mystery about the man known as an actor? One woman takes on the case of finding out just exactly how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?

If you didn’t already have a crush on him, this episode of podcast Mystery Show will probably seal the deal for you. Hosted by Starlee Kine, and though short lived, proved there is no mystery too great to solve. Every week she tackles a mystery, “mysteries you can’t solve online, mysteries you can’t solve yourself.” 

It sounds kind of silly, but I found Mystery Show to be extremely well written. It was named by Apple as the Best New Podcast in 2015, and one of the episodes was even listed as #1 in The Atlantic’s top 50 podcast episodes of 2015.

Here is the episode if you have the time to enjoy it:

 

This episode actually gained so much traction, that Conan had Starlee on his show to talk about it.

Here is a clip of the follow up from the Mystery Show episode:

 

And if you want to listen to any other episodes of Starlee’s Mystery Show, here is a link to the rest of the episodes:

Gimlet Media’s Mystery Show

Never Gonna Talk Again

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Radiolab did an interview with Andy Mills, about his amazing friendship with Kohn Ashmore. In college Andy Mills heard a strange noise down the hall, and upon further investigation, discovered fellow student Kohn Ashmore. Most striking about him was the fact that he moves and speaks extremely slowly. It wasn’t until much later in their friendship that Andy discovered that for years Kohn didn’t even know that he spoke slowly.

It is an example of how resilient the human mind can be. That after living with the sound of his own voice for so long, it no longer seemed a strange thing. And admittedly, after listening to this interview over and over, Kohn’s voice no longer sounds strange to me.

Here is that interview by Radiolab. In honesty, the song at the end of the interview always chokes me up a little. It is filled with so much pain, and courage, and maybe a bit of hope.

 

Here also is the original audio story by Andy Mills that had initially caught Radiolab’s attention. Though most of the information is the same, and some of the clips were used in Radiolab’s interview, this version is put together and told entirely by Andy Mills.

 

(And for a deeper look into the life of Kohn Ashmore, he published a short biography, which can be found here on Amazon.)

Yellow Rain

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This interview by Radiolab gets pretty real at the end. It draws that line that stands between Victims and Truth Seekers. The interview seeks to dig deeper into the 1975 Yellow Rain that fell in parts of Laos. The controversy behind it, and the consequences of it. The host of Radiolab, interviews a man, Eng Yang, who was in Laos when the rain fell.

The podcast was initially released in September of 2012. After much uproar and upset over the end of the interview, it was amended and rereleased less than 2 months later. This is the amended version.

 

Here also is the 2 part 1991 New Yorker article that got Radiolab interested in this story in the first place. (if you have a subscription)

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1991/02/11/i-the-yellow-rain-complex

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1991/02/18/ii-the-yellow-rain-complex

 

 

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Eng Yang’s niece Kao Kalia Yang, who acted as translator for him during the interview, and spoke on behalf of the injustices placed on her people. Born in 1980, in a Thailand refugee camp, right as the world was beginning to open their eyes to the idea of chemical weapons. Her first book, published in 2008, 4 years before this podcast, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, recounts the Hmong people and her own grandmother’s experience during the Vietnam War. She is a writer, public speaker, and a teacher. Here is a link to her website: http://www.kaokaliayang.com/

Unraveling Bolero

The podcast by Radiolab titled Unraveling Bolero, “a story about obsession, creativity, and a strange symmetry between a biologist and a composer that revolves around one famously repetitive piece of music.” They present two randomly connected cases of progressive aphasia, transmodal creativity and the right posterior neocortex. Super interesting stuff.

Anne Adams – Unraveling Bolero