Friday, June 24, 2016

The REAL Threat to Public Safety is Marginalization

Over and over, we're hearing about the problem of 'mental illness.'  Those of us who have been diagnosed are considered in need of special surveillance.  In the eyes of the public, politicians and quite possibly you, we are a potential threat and a danger to the safety of good, law-abiding Americans everywhere.

However well-intentioned, I can't begin to tell you how dangerous - literally dangerous - attitudes like these and the policies and programs advanced to enforce them are to the very interests that average Americans want to protect.  The problem with this kind of thinking is intuitive to most of us who have been there.  However, coherent, thoughtful responses have been, sadly, few and far between.

Part of the issue is probably the intuitive appeal.  In simple fact, a lot of us who scare others (abuse power, damage relationships or manifest aggression in some way) either have a pre-existing mental health diagnosis or someone eventually gives us one.  So far, so good.

On the other hand, if you really want to get down to causes and conditions, you have to get one thing. As Matthew Cooper pointed out in a related article on this topic that appeared in Newsweek several months back: Correlation is NOT causation.  ‘The sun doesn’t come up because the rooster crows, even if they happen at the same time.”

Another way of saying:  To understand the connection between psychiatric labeling and violence, we have to go deeper than that.  To be sure, fish that fly together often fry together.  However, that doesn't mean that being fish made them fly, much less that it made them fry.

To make meaningful sense of things, you have to understand a variety of things about fish - their relationship to the environment (they want food) and human beings (they make good food).  Only then, can you intelligently make sense of the associations.

A long way of saying that the deeper connection with between psychiatric labeling and public safety, from my observation, has little to do with chemical imbalances or genetic predisposition.   A far bigger contributor are the public attitudes about people who are considered 'different.'  We are labeled and excluded because of our presumed difference from dominant culture norms in socially undesirable ways.  The result is a lifetime of social exclusion and marginalization and the impact this has on the human hearts, minds, bodies and spirits of those of us so labeled.  The effect is ever-expanding in modern society as increasingly vast numbers of us are being identified, then labeled socially undesirable and excluded and marginalized by the culture we live in. Once siloed in this way, there is increasingly little access to meaningful recourse and increasingly little hope of escaping our socially assigned destiny as cultural 'others.'

The result is actual, predictable, measurable.  There are outcomes that a society with the will to perceive and understand could tangibly appreciate and comprehend.

While this is not the only explanation - no difficult social issue has only one - I think it is an important piece of the puzzle.  More than any other single explanation, it holds promise for addressing the public safety and policy concerns that are being raised in modern times.

Here is why:

1. Marginalization not only follows psychiatric labeling.  It routinely precedes it.  

It's now well known that 90% of the public mental health population are 'trauma survivors.'  Equally, important the same is true for other groups -  substance use, corrections, homeless -  that society sees both as 'problems' and as groups with a propensity for violence.

The reality for those of us in these groups is that, almost invariably, our marginalization preceded our so-called 'problem' nature.  From childhood, we were already dealing with heavy duty stuff like abuse, neglect, domestic violence, sexual predation, discrimination, bullying, poverty, homelessness, disability, adoption or foster care, marginalization or prejudice against our families of origin, etc. Moreover, when these things happened to us - not because of us or anything we did -  all too often the rest of society put its head in the sand.  Even worse, we were shunned for just for being in these situations.  A lot of time, people with power who were supposed to change things actually betrayed us.  They turned around and labeled us the cause of the social judgment that was careening our way.

2. The social consequences of widespread marginalization are drastic and dire.  

Literally millions of us are being treated as if our needs (and lives) do not matter.  The message we get - and not just from 'perpetrators' but from upstanding community members and society at large - is that we have no worth, we do not deserve to belong, and there is no room for us in the world community of human peers.  This kind of marginalization is happening everywhere and every minute in all kinds of relationships and in all outposts of society - families, friendships, neighborhoods, schools, churches, workplaces, agencies, offices.  It is even happening - and perhaps most painfully - in the very organizations and institutions - that society has set up to help 'problem' people like us.

The damage is deep and destroys not only individuals, but the very fabric of community relationships that otherwise would and could be protective.  What you learn as a vulnerable person growing up in a social context like this is that human beings are NOT a resource.  You learn not to go for help, not to trust the help you get.  You learn, time and again in your deepest, darkest hour, that human beings make things worse, not better.  

You learn you are alone.  That it is your problem.  That if there is going to be relief you need to find it yourself.  That if there is a problem you can only count on yourself.  That other human beings are worthless when you really need them.

  • End of asking, end of new information, end of learning from others about the issues that are most important for human beings to make sense of.  
  • Enter drugs, alcohol, addiction, sex, avoiding, distracting - anything to kill the pain of being alone and having no other outlet for feelings and problems that no human being should have to deal with alone.  
  • End of loyalty, affection, compassion for the rest of humanity.  Where were they, where are they, when you really need them...?  
  • Enter violence and crime and getting what you need to feel better, do better, escape by any means possible.   

3. The practical effects of widespread marginalization make society predictably unsafe for all concerned

The practical effect of mass marginalization is that millions of human beings are growing up in a constant state of fear and threat.  This fear and threat impacts people on two levels.  It is not only about the emotional pain and hurt of social exclusion.  To be sure, it is emotionally devastating to live day in and day out with the constant awareness that the community you live in - if not actually out to get you - would be at best indifferent and quite possibly happier if you did not exist.

But that's barely the half of it.  If you haven't been there, it's hard to appreciate what it means on a gut human level to try to live and survive when no one you know gives a sh*t whether people like you live or die, have a place to live, enough to eat, clothes on your back, etc.  The effects this produces on human bodies - not just hearts, minds, spirit - is drastic and dire - and not only for individuals but for the communities and society as a whole.

To understand why this is, consider the human survival response.  This response is not abnormal, it is not a pathology.  It is the universal, self-protective reaction that comes up in all of us when, in our lives, we are pushed too far:

  • When the stakes are high and the options low.  
  • When threat, fear and pain reach the breaking point. 
  • When there doesn't seem to be a peaceable or friendly way out.

Human beings in this space become hyper-focused on threat.    Our singular focus is to limit damage and make it go away.  Until this happens, we stay continually on guard.   Defending against potential loss is paramount and all-consuming.

We don't eat, don't sleep and don't get good rest or good nutrition when we do. Energy and resources shift from brain to brawn.  New learning is next to impossible.  Mental and psychological development become nil.

Thinking, when it does occur, is binary and reductive.  This is the place of live or die.  Conscious thought stops and sheer instinct takes over.  Even in human beings who might otherwise think about consequences.  Even in citizens, friends and neighbors who might otherwise be inspired to care.

It is a desperate place where reasonable people can no longer think and compassionate people no longer care. What matters here is self-preservation.  The choices that follow reflect this concern.

The world through this lens looks incredibly simple:  Friend or foe.  Predator or prey.  You are actively for me, or else against me.  If you want to live, make up your mind.  Declare your loyalties now.

Imagine living here for a lifetime, getting no relief.  Ever.  Because for some of us, it has always been this way.  There is no other awareness, because there never has been another way to think or be.

That is the social justice state of America for far too many Americans today.

4. This is where the violence becomes predictable. 

Violence in these circumstances is a matter of statistics and odds.  It is no longer a matter of individual morality of self-discipline.  It is not about bad actors who need to learn how to calm down and 'act appropriately.'

To the contrary, to navigate this frightening space -  nature, in her wisdom and kindness - gives us three basic tools: fight/ flight/ freeze.  A lot of people flight or freeze.  They run, they hide, avoid, distract, do anything, by any means available. The urgent point is to escape the threat, its consequences, or even the awareness of being threatened.

Those of us who react this way tend to stay under the radar.  Out of sight, out of mind.  We don't come to much concern unless our passivity causes others to have to pick up the slack.  In the face of conflict, we are the ones who disappear. We live to see another day. Passive in the face of even the most egregious abuses of power, we tend to be preferred by the dominant social order.

On the other hand, flight and freeze have their limits.  In a social world of flighters and freezers, nothing ever changes.  There is no effective counter-voice.  The powerful take more power.  The rich get richer.  The compliant become more pliable and plied.

Thankfully, however, flight and freeze are not all we have as a human race.  Some of us will fight.  Even when threats do not seem immediate to others.  Even when, for others, these are are not matters of life and death.

This is not pathology, it is human diversity.  It is good and necessary.  It ensures not only the survival of the human species, but also protects the quality of our collective lives together.

While few people recognize this, the existence of social fighters keeps the rest of us safe and able to sleep at night.  We count on them and we need them.  They virtually assure the following:  When things get bad enough - or stay that way for long enough - some fighter, somewhere, is going to break the tension.  They are not going to run or hide.  They are going to face the facts and take the problem on.  

Hence, far from being a frustrating, inappropriate burden on the rest of humanity, the human 'fight' response - and those who wield it - serve a valuable, necessary social function.

5. Crisis meets 'opportunity'.

Given natural human diversity, the overall incidence of the human fight response and its the underlying social function, the occurrence of violence is a predictable statistical given.  When you push enough human beings far enough for long enough, some fighter, somewhere is going to speak up, rise up, take the problem on.

And that is exactly what social dynamics like marginalization, exclusion and oppression guarantee.   Yes, there will be flighters and freezers who make it appear that the circumstances are tolerable to those in the subjected class.  But those of us who are fighters will be worthy of our name.  Even if it's life or death.  Even if we take everyone, everything, the whole world down with us.

For better or worse (and, by all appearances, evolution and natural selection has voted that it is for the better) that is the nature of the human fight response.  Rather than retreat, those of us who are fighters will go after, take on, the very things that scare us.   So, for as long as oppression and marginalization exist, you can bet your bottom dollar, that somehow, somewhere a fighter will rise up and attempt to tell the listening world, by any means necessary:

 This is wrong!   The damage is far from negligible, the treatment far from enjoyable and the deference seemingly being expressed is in fact a bald-facecd lie.  

We are the 'lone wolves' of modern society.  We are doing what fighters do.  Consistently.  Across marginalized groups.  We are standing alone and taking on the threat.   Because someone has to.  And because the gentle, more conciliatory spirits - those of our kin who are the flighters and freezers  - have totally ceded the field.

For this reason  - and this is really important for the dominant culture to get:

You can't stop violence by marginalizing human beings.  You have to grapple with the shadow side of humanity.  You have to find a way to understand, transform and meaningfully include the human differences you most fear.  The more you reject about human beings, the more you violence you are likely to get.  The fighters and fight instinct inherent in our kind will ensure that no important aspect of our humanity gets left behind. 

6.  Force and drugging away differences is not the answer

Once you understand these things, the problem with force and coercive approaches becomes pretty clear.  Force, by nature is threatening.  It scares people and also increases marginalization.  Factor these things into the equation, along with the predictable, statistical fact of the human fight response. The result is a never-ending, forever-escalating cycle of exclusion-related trauma and the predictably reactive survival responses that pretty much explain how we have gotten to where we are with these issues in the world today.

I also want to say a word about drugs.  Many, many people I know have said to me that drugs cause, not alleviate violence.  What makes sense to me is that drugs-based approaches are dangerous.  They introduce a new, potentially destabilizing variable into a situation that is already precarious and fraught with potential danger.  At a minimum, the effects of drugs are unpredictable.  They diminish the mental resources available to make meaningful human connections and can actually cause the very harms they are intended to alleviate.  Moreover, the social judgments inherent in prescription (who gets drugged and who doesn't) exacerbate social differences and solidify, rather than heal, relational disparities between human beings.

Given the context and history of social exclusion, by far the safest response is to try to make a human connection.  More than anything else, what has has worked the most for me is to reach out, to risk, to share vulnerability --  to try to bridge the gap, to put our hearts and hope on the line and be willing to 'identify in' as they say in 12-Step circles.  This kind of self-sacrifice - of laying down power and privilege, of leveling the social playing field between human beings - is the place where miracles can happen (openings, insight, breakthoughs that go both ways).

That, in effect, was the solution proposed more than 7 decades ago by a world community still reeling from Nazi genocide, the atom bomb and World War II.  In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the peoples of the world proposed a simple, effective recipe for not only international - but also individual and community - well-being and peaceful relations.  They melded the personal and the political.  They proclaimed in unison at that time that the solution to our common problems was NOT surveillance, scapegoating, retribution or curtailing human liberties for the presumed majority good.  Rather, they declared with courage, in effect:
  • We are all members of a human family and should treat each other that way.
  • We are equal, everyone everywhere, in dignity and rights.
  • We are all endowed - intrinsic to our nature as human beings - with reason and conscience.  
  • Everyone, everywhere needs access to the means to make a living and support a family.
  • Everyone, everywhere has a voice and perspective that deserves the respect of our neighbors and inclusion in the communities where we work and live.
  • Our problem is fear, want and the social injustices and power abuses that prevent us from treating each other this way.  
  • The solution to our common problems - and the highest aspiration of our humanity - is to create a world where these simple rights and freedoms are accessible to all people, everywhere as equal valued members of a human family. 
In other words, it's a lot simpler, more staight-forward than you think.  You don't need an MD, a mental health license, or a degree in neuroscience to understand these problems or make an impact. You just need awareness of your own humanity.  You need to access your human decency and be willing to offer it to others.

It is not easy, it is not risk free. But it is worthy of the human spirit and the world we all are saying we want to live in.

I'm in.  How about you?


  1. This is a superb articulation of the circumstance of trauma. It is right-on, and right on target. Society-at-large and the mental health system need to take the steps necessary to see that people are never subjected to the conditions described herein. There will be no peace until this has been done. Drugs are not the answer.

  2. As always you so articulately describe the reality we face within our culture and the lack of true understanding and acceptance as persons with mental health diagnoses. Thank you!!!


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