Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rest in Peace Pete Seeger

The world lost another icon today. Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died quietly in his sleep at the age of 94. I suppose it’s inevitable that it is the season for some of the earliest baby boomer icons to be saying their final good-byes but that doesn’t make it any less sad.

I’m not sure if most millennials even know who Pete Seeger was. But, I am sure that anyone of any age who went to camp remembers the words to “If I Had A Hammer” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The lyrics to his song “Little Boxes on a Hillside” were printed in the back of my 8th grade social studies book. The song touched me deeply. I decided I would never be “made of ticky-tacky or put in a little box” to come out the same as everybody else. In other words, his songs inspired me to think for myself and embrace my individuality; and to value skepticism, social justice and creativity. To this day, I remember happily singing “Little Boxes” while rowing an aluminum boat on Surprise Lake with my camp counselor picking out the guitar chords on the hot bench beside me.

Here is a link to the youtube video of "Little Boxes on a Hillside."

I went to Surprise Lake Camp (SLC), a sleep away camp in Putnam County New York. Some of my happiest childhood moments were spent there. It turns out that Pete Seeger’s home was near our camp. Because of this proximity, I developed a strong emotional attachment to Pete Seeger and his music. He felt like my own personal folk star. Whenever we sang one of his songs around a campfire or on a hike, there was something magical about the fact that his home was only a few miles away. It felt like I was in the company of greatness.

The presence of the nearby Seeger home was always discussed with a kind of reverence. Metaphorically, it was considered a beacon of light in the distance. Our neighbor on the opposite side of the campground was called “Cornish.” “Cornish” was always spoken of in those hushed tones of delighted horror unique to adolescents. The mythology was that Cornish had been the home of the founder of Pittsburgh Paints. A terrible tragedy was supposed to have happened there. It was presumed to be haunted. Campers and counselors alike would swear they had seen ghosts wandering among the ruins there. One of the ways to prove you were an absolute bad-ass SLC-style was to hike to Cornish and say you weren’t afraid.
During the summer I was 14, the head counselor on teen side, Larry, decided to arrange a scavenger hunt.  A few days ahead, the counselors hiked the local trails, distributing colored rocks as they walked. Each team would be assigned a color to scavenge for. Whichever team found the most painted rocks would win a watermelon. My team was assigned the gold rocks. We were also assigned the “Breakneck Ridge” hike because Larry decided we needed to toughen up a bit. Breakneck Ridge was a difficult hike and Larry knew I didn’t like it. Perhaps he thought the promise of a watermelon would institute an attitude adjustment on my part. It didn’t.

It was a blistering hot day and I was miserable. As the heavy rocks accumulated in my backpack, I grew more and more resentful.  Sweating and exhausted, I finally reached the top of breakneck ridge. Looking out over the Hudson River and Route 9W, I had a moment of adolescent rebellion. No watermelon was worth this amount of effort and misery. My friends and I stopped and sipped water. We removed the rocks from our packs and piled them in a pyramid. And then we moved on.

By this time, we were lagging way behind the rest of our group. We decided to take our sweet time and enjoy the rest of the hike, which was mostly downhill back to our camp. Unfortunately, we seriously misjudged the time this would take. Dusk was settling and we started to get nervous because we couldn’t see the trail markers anymore. A disagreement ensued as to whether we should continue on what looked to be the trail or “bush-whack” through the brush in the direction where I was sure our camp was waiting.  2 friends and I headed into the brush while the rest of the group continued on the trail. After a while, my little trio was happy to recognize a baseball field and the camp road. We arrived at the dining hall in the dark and were rewarded with a watermelon for our efforts.

This is where Pete Seeger comes in. The group that had continued on the trail ended up at Pete Seeger’s house.  While he was not at home, the campers were welcomed by his wife who offered them drinks and snacks while she listened to their tales of the day’s adventures. Then she called the camp, which sent a bus to pick the wayward kids up and drive them back to camp. It turns out they got watermelon too. In fact, it was always the intention that we would all get watermelon.

I’ve always regretted my decision to “bush-whack” that day. Had I stayed on the trail, I would have met Pete Seeger’s wife. I would have had my first real brush with greatness. I would have had the chance to sit at his kitchen table, chat with his wife and see his house. On the other hand, I made it back to camp by blazing my own trail. Ultimately, trusting my own instincts got me and my friends home. I’m sure Pete Seeger would have approved.

RIP Pete Seeger. You will be missed but I hope your music and the values you lived by live on.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fixing What's Broken: What to do About Mental Health Care in America

Tonight’s episode of CBS “60 Minutes” really touched a nerve for me. It discussed how broken our mental health system is through the lens of one family’s tragedy. Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds told CBS’ “60 Minutes” news program about the loss of his son Gus, who had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.  Last November, the Deeds family had tried to find inpatient mental health care for their son Gus, but no beds were available. Gus went home with his family. He subsequently attacked his father, inflicting multiple stab wounds, before shooting and killing himself.
Senator Deeds spoke with “60 Minutes” since it was “the biggest megaphone I could think of to talk about the system’s failings.” He has declared it is his mission to protect other families from the horrible misfortune he has experienced. As a state senator he is committed to changing Virginia’s mental health laws to keep anything like this from happening again.
I wish it didn’t take a personal catastrophe of this magnitude to enlighten government officials about the need for change. I wish it didn’t take Mr. Deed’s attack and disfigurement and the suicide of his son to raise awareness. The fact that it usually takes something this extreme to bring the need for change to the forefront is just more compelling evidence as to how broken the system really is.
I started graduate school in 1981 as a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) fellow. The NIMH fellowship program was set up as part of Lyndon Johnson’s great society, which recognized that good mental health care was an integral part of a successful, productive, enlightened country. After Reagan took the presidency, he redlined the NIMH fellowship program out of the federal budget. The loss of my fellowship created a challenge for me as to how I was going to pay for my graduate education. Instead, I worked as a research assistant on a federally funded grant that paid my tuition and provided a stipend. I was fortunate. Many others weren’t able to find an alternative and had to give up their dreams of helping others as mental health professionals.
Throughout my early career, I watched as the residential treatment system was dismantled. I don’t remember many homeless people as a child but the homeless have been a fixture in my adult life, mostly because there were no longer residential treatment programs or institutions to house and care for them. I’m not implying the old institutional system was perfect. But needy, fragile, patients were turned out into the streets, with nothing in place to fill the resource gap.
During my years as a clinical psychologist, I’ve been frustrated by the increasing fragmentation of care and the lack of emergency and support services. I’ve watched care plans dictated by limitations imposed by insurance coverage rather than patient’s treatment needs. I’ve seen the number of psychiatrists dwindle. Most psychiatric medications are now handled by internists, family practitioners and pediatricians, who are already overburdened and freely profess to a lack of confident expertise in managing psychiatric medications.
The multiple failures of our current  mental health care system isn’t news to me or anyone else interacting with the system as a health care professional, patient or family member. A crisis of this severity, breadth and magnitude can only be solved by government mandates and intervention. Insurance companies won't freely provide the coverage needed for adequate services and hardly any one can afford the level of care needed for serious mental illness without being incredibly wealthy. This moment has been inevitable ever since Ronald Reagan started dismantling the system during my first year in graduate school. Nothing has ever trickled down to restore it. It is so heartbreaking to bear witness at the front lines.

Instead of shaking our heads in helpless frustration we need to ask, “What can be done?” We can legislate the availability of more affordable long-term residential treatment resources funded by insurance, government programs or grants. Lawmakers need to step up and push for programs that will once again fund training for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, particularly those who can provide services in rural, impoverished or blighted areas, We must have enforceable mandates for true parity of insurance coverage for mental health. Emotional and physical health are so intertwined, there should be no question that the standards of coverage should be the same. We used to have government programs to fund residential and outpatient treatment and scholarships and grants to fund education and training for mental health professionals. It wasn't a perfect system but it was vastly better than what we have now. So far, no for-profit model has worked effectively for mental health services except for those who cater to patients with sufficient wealth to pay for care or who have exceptionally good health insurance that has far-better-than-average mental health coverage. 

Let’s fix what’s broken before more high profile tragedies occur. The consciousness raised by the horrors we’ve already witnessed, as well as what we’ve learned about the day-to-day heartbreak of families and patients currently struggling with mental illness, should be sufficiently motivating for us all.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Only Connect: A Retrospective on the Changing Face of Friendship

It’s the rare individual that doesn’t fondly remember the close friends of childhood. Through the gauzy haze of nostalgia, we idly reminisce about youthful games of tag, lazy summer days, sleepovers, intense angst-ridden phone calls, and languid hours spent hanging out doing nothing in particular and having a great time doing it. As humans, we are social beings. We have a biological hunger for social connection. This hunger is expressed in many ways, including our penchant for watching movies and TV shows featuring BFFs, such as Thelma and Louise, Mary and Rhoda, Lucy and Ethel or the glittering gals from Sex and the City. Some of our favorite books, like the Harry Potter Series, or the Betsy/Tacy stories, are about close friends who share interests, support one another, spend lots of time together and know each other's dreams, secrets and vulnerabilities. 

I had my first best friend when I was 3 years old. She was also named Jill. Because we were both Jills our middle names were added to our firsts so she was Jill Robin and I was Jill Shari. Jill Robin's mother, Carol was my mom's best friend. We all lived in the same apartment building so our mothers were constantly back and forth, drinking coffee and chatting while we played. Then my family moved to the city. Susie was my new next-door-neighbor. Suddenly, at 4, I had a new best friend and it was Susie!  Once Susie and I started school, we were in different classes and we drifted apart. In elementary school, I was part of a little posse of girls including Andrea, Doreen, Bruni and Joanne. In middle school, high school and beyond, the cast of characters underwent numerous revisions, but the special feelings of closeness, connectedness and trust that characterized these relationships will always hold a cherished place in my heart.

For most of us, as we move into elementary school, we grow increasingly selective and we begin to choose our friends based on common interests rather than proximity or our parent's choices for us. We also become more sensitive to social status and being picked on. We want friends who are "like us." This pattern continues into high school, although most of us experiment with different types of friends as we explore and develop our own self-image. Most high-schoolers fervently pledge eternal fellowship, though in practice, this is rarely realized. In college, friendships tend to grow more complex. Since many college students are starting the friend game over from scratch, they willingly push outside their comfort zone as they explore new types of relationships with a greater diversity of people. Social hierarchies are still prominent concerns and can cause a lot of anxiety for college students. College friendships can be emotionally intense and incredibly close. The devotion and loyalty characteristic of these relationships appears to be the gold standard by which later adult friendships are unofficially measured. Statistically, these alliances have a greater chance of lasting than high school friendships traditionally do. This is partly because personality is better formed and many career and lifestyle goals that might otherwise interfere with the stability of the relationship are more defined by this stage in life.

Friendships among young singles are often dominated by fun and partying. Young adults who are not into drinking, parties and bars may experience significant loneliness at this time in their lives. Once married or in long term committed relationships, young couples without an established social circle often have trouble making new friends, particularly when it's important for all 4 people involved to like each other enough to spend considerable time together.

Many of us have pleasant fantasies about close friends who have children of similar ages who can all grow up together, like cousins or even siblings. The kids will play and be BFFs too. Everyone will help each other through life’s rough spots while celebrating all of life’s joys in happy harmony. Unfortunately, it frequently turns out that the kids actually don't get along, schedules don't jibe, and other priorities interfere. Work, household responsibilities, extended family obligations, school activities, lessons and team sports trump the needs of the relationship.

When we think idyllically about friendship, we imagine childhood pals who never move away and BFFs with similar disposable incomes, interests and schedules. These friends will have spouses and children we adore who will be lifelong buddies with our own spouses and children. Everyone involved will enjoy one another’s company. There won’t be too much stress and there will be lots of fun. Nobody will be too busy, cranky or unreasonable. Dining, troubles talk, encouragement, shopping, vacations, parties, adventures, games, and celebrations will be enthusiastically shared. What could be better? Except things usually turn out to be a lot more complicated than this fantasy predicts.

As it often turns out, many of us disperse around the country, moving far away from our childhood homes and leaving our old buddies behind. Building our careers takes precedence over building our friendships. Roommates don't necessarily progress into BFFs. The reality is that people can be competitive and judgmental rather than supportive and encouraging. When you move to that new neighborhood, the local ladies may not show up with casseroles or welcome you with open arms and party invitations. In the workplace, we are frequently discouraged from forming friendships. It is often against company policy to be friends with people you supervise. The higher up the ladder you go, the lonelier it can get. Old friends may be envious of your success or find they can’t relate to you anymore. Or, it may be that you simply have so little time. If you are a married woman, your husband often considers you to be his best friend. You may not be sure that he is yours but you know any available emotional energy needs to go to him and your kids, not your friends, who may be too busy, competitive or exhausted to care anyway.

Our society seems to place very limited practical value on real connectedness. Even if we personally value our friendships, our actions don’t always approximate our desires and intentions. We may sit in our lovely houses with designer kitchens and large gracious dining rooms fruitlessly awaiting those magazine or movie-style moments when close friends come over, hang out and have a wonderful picture-perfect time. As we move around the country and go through life's various stages, it can get harder and harder to make new friends. In order to be worth our limited time and other resources, it starts to feel like prospective “candidates” have to be as similar to us as possible including the right age, political party, level of education, social class, marital status, and career path. Kids need to be of similar ages. Literary, movie, music, TV, cultural and culinary preferences should dovetail seamlessly. Not only must potential friends have common interests, their pursuit of these interests should be at the same level of expertise and intensity as ours. She should be the right religion (or lack there of) and engage in compatible spiritual practices. If you recycle, so must she. If you don't eat meat, she'd better be a vegetarian too.

Of course computers, smart phones, social media, video games and the internet can either enhance or hinder our ability to make and maintain friendships. This, however, is a topic worthy of its own post, so I’ll be writing that one soon. Be sure to check back so you don’t miss it.

Awareness is the first step towards change. As Ghandi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world." If you want friends you must be a friend. Decide to make a personal commitment to reaching out and finding meaningful ways to connect with others. Put down your electronic devices and pay full attention to the people around you. Build your listening and conversation skills. Find time in your schedule to develop and maintain friendships. Be patient with the process. It takes time and effort to get to know someone. Make the choice to be sociable an active choice. Go out of your way to get to know your neighbors. Take time to chat. Be more open. Include others in activities you might otherwise do on your own. Invite people over. Make a conscious effort to think beyond your immediate family. Get involved in organizations that will allow people to get to know you and you to know them. Learn to approach people and cultivate your own approachability. Strive to be pleasant and agreeable. Smile, catch someone's eye and strike up a conversation. Dust off your social skills. Learn a few jokes. Take some risks. Allow a little vulnerability. Dwell in possibility and rethink your preconceived ideas about friendship.

I’m sure you know how to do a lot of this already. You probably did it without much thought or special effort when you were younger. What happened to the friendly child you used to be? Reconnect with your quiescent sense of wonder, curiosity and possibility.  Let that fuel the motivation to reach out and make some new connections. Your life will be so much richer for it.

TEDxVailWomen: Naturally Awesome

Happy Birthday TED!

TED talks are officially 30 years old this year. TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “Ideas Worth Spreading”. The acronym TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. The scope of topics covered in contemporary TED talks is much broader than what was originally envisioned at TED’s inception in 1984. TED conferences bring together some of the world's most creative, gifted and fascinating luminaries. These brilliant, provocative and inspiring speakers are engaged to give “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes or less.  The mission of TED is “Spreading ideas. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.” TED talks can be viewed for free on the TED website, TED.com, or on Youtube. If you have a little time to spare, just type TED talk into your browser’s search bar. It will take you to TED.com. Click on the “Playlists” button at the top of the window. Choose whatever entices you. Then, sit back and prepare to be amazed. If you are anything like me, hours can slide by and you will barely notice the time passing.

Even better than watching TED talks online is attending one live. While there is only one official TED conference each year, there are now independently organized TED events, called TEDx, which allow local communities and organizations to have a TED type of experience all their own. I’ve been regularly watching TED talks since they first become available online in 2007. Early last year, I was reading our local paper, The Vail Daily, and discovered that we had a TEDx group here in the Vail Valley. I contacted Kat Haber, the curator of this group, who offered me the chance to work on putting together the TEDxVailWomen event to be held December 5, 2013.

I had already officially designated 2013 as my “year of saying yes.” Since I had relocated to this area in the spring of 2012, making new friends, getting involved in my community, and networking were all high priorities for me.  Therefore, it didn’t require any thought at all for me to reply to Kat’s offer with an enthusiastic “Yes, I would love to!”

Creating our TEDxVailWomen event was exciting, challenging and, of course, a great deal of fun. The speakers had already been selected so I helped with logistics, financial planning, general organizing and photography. We ramped up our efforts in the weeks preceding the event and by December 5th we were a little weary but a lot of ready.

The stage at the Edwards Interfaith Chapel, where our event was held, was simply beautiful. Expansive clerestory windows framed the mountains in the distance. One of our speakers is an artist who repurposes used bottles as art. Glorious painted bottles from her “Message in a Bottle” project were suspended from the ceiling. Since our theme was “Naturally”, verdant vertical hydroponic gardens bracketed the stage. Banners printed with the name of each talk and the speaker’s photo adorned the walls. A grand piano for 10 year-old Carnegie Hall concert pianist, Ursula Hardianto, reposed gracefully in one of the room’s front corners.  We scrambled to get all the computers, lighting, cameras and a/v equipment to sync.  Finally, everything was in place.  Kat took to the stage and the magic began.

This is not the appropriate time or place to describe all the moving parts of our event with the level of detail they so richly deserve, so I will have to make do with a simple list consisting of a quote from each of our speakers along with the title of their talks:
  • ·      “Well-being is independent of circumstance.” ~ Christina Danyluk: Why I Smile at Pain.
  • ·      “Walking Like Mountains is a way to think about and act on sustainability leadership in the 21st century.” ~ Dr. Kim Langmaid: Walking Like Mountains.
  • ·      “I coined the term ‘conservation photography’ and in doing so, I started a movement.” ~ Cristine Mittermeier: Photography won’t change the world.
  • ·      “Everyone has a story…the best storytellers will create the future.” ~ Mikela Tarlow: Everybody’s Journey.
  • ·      “The simple act of riding a bicycle can change your life.” ~ Elysa Walk: The Joy of Two Wheels.
  • ·      “When you’re stuck, shift perspective.” ~ Dr. Susan Canney: Punch Above Your Weight, Mali Elephant Conservation.
  • ·      “Rain or shine, I do it with a smile.” ~ Ursula Hardianto: Jazz Piece.
  • ·      “The Fishing cat’s story is our story.” ~ Mo Heim: Fishing cats & The Foolish Girl’s Guide to Success.
  • ·      “Our inability to perceive what has been lost to us prevents us from valuing and conserving what remains.” ~ Asher Jay: Last Exhale.

In addition to these speakers and performers we arranged social spaces to encourage people to meet and chat, along with interactive art, literary and paper projects so participants could play between sessions.  We rocked out to original rap music celebrating our “Naturally” theme from MCDT. We hosted a workshop on putting ideas into action, and listened to charming kids from Stone Creek Charter School give their own TED talks sharing clever innovative ideas for solving some of the worlds most pressing problems.

We enjoyed an abundance of delicious food and snacks. Beverages were served in water bottles donated from the Giant Bike Company and we all got to keep one. After the rap music performance, a multitude of beach balls were tossed from the stage. The audience was visibly delighted by this impromptu pseudo-volleyball extravaganza. Who can keep a smile from their face while busily batting at bright red and white TEDx emblazoned beach balls careening crazily around the room? Giggles and laughter rang out as the beach balls soared and bounced.

At last, the speakers were done and the livestream from San Francisco was over. The meals were eaten. The attendees said their good-byes with bellies full of delicious healthy fare and heads awhirl with new ideas and many happy memories of a passionately exciting day.

As we picked up trash, boxed items for next year, and restored the venue to its original pristine condition, a peaceful contentment settled over the team. More than 200 people had joined together to create a vibrant and exhilarating learning experience we hope they never forget. We did our job well. And now, it is time to set our sights on next year. Just think of the possibilities ahead! I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish for 2014. Whatever it is, I am sure it will be well worth the wait.