Thursday, May 9, 2013

Teachers to watch out for mental health “symptoms”

The NIMH will no longer fund the bible of Mental Health Diagnosis, the DSM. And yet the problems associated with symptom-based diagnosis will be perpetuated in the government initiative to have teachers on the lookout for mental health disorders.*

To ask teachers to watch for Mental Health symptoms, when they are already seriously overtaxed after 6 years of decreasing budgets, is a recipe for disaster. Teachers already threaten the parents of creative and occasionally non-compliant students with “your child’s (drawings, behavior, comments, etc.) are disturbing and inappropriate”. In reality, every creative child’s drawings could be construed as “disturbing” or “inappropriate” – in particular by an over-stressed and over-worked teacher. Not only is it an unreasonable expectation, it allows teachers to control children with the threat of a mental health assessment or diagnosis.

As a teacher, I completely understand how frustrating it can be in an over-crowded classroom to have agitated, bored young people exercise their individuality and creativity. But it would be unfair to ask teachers to make an assessment about an individual’s mental health condition. Even under the best conditions this task is difficult for doctors. It is also an inappropriate expectation. It skews the teacher’s role toward surveillance, and will breed mistrust between students and their teachers.

We could more accurately predict mental health conditions through software that analyses an individual's computing and online habits. I am not advocating the use of such software, but in fact mental health disorders are in many ways very predictable, and one’s online and computing activity do reflect behavioral patterns and mental shifts. The question is: What is the goal of this "early alert" program, and what negative impacts may it have? If schools or our government want a tip-off regarding potentially dangerous conditions, there are more accurate ways to accomplish this task. There are also more humane steps we can take without undermining the trust essential for a healthy and productive teacher-student relationship.

Claudia M Gold on her blog Child in Mind advocates for a more holistic approach to understanding mental health ( ). The discipline of Infant Mental Health engages a process that is, according to her blog, “characterized by four key components. First and foremost, it is relational, recognizing that humans (and that includes their genes and brains) develop in the context of caregiving relationships. Second, it is multidisciplinary.. Experts in infant mental health offer different perspectives.  They come from many fields, including, among many others, developmental psychology, pediatrics, nursing, and occupational therapy.  Third, it encompasses research, clinical work and public policy.  The field looks at mental health within the context of culture and society. And last, it is reflective, looking at the meaning of behavior, not simply the behavior itself. The ability to attribute motivations and intentions to behavior is uniquely human, and research has shown that this capacity is closely linked with mental health.”

Let’s hope that instead of policing for false “signs” of mental health disturbance, we can proceed with intelligence, engaging the wide range of existing and evolving tools.

* “According to a January report the Obama administration planned to spend $50 million to fund Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), which would train teachers to identify signs of mental illness or provide "Mental Health First Aid" and ensure that students have access to mental health care. According to the report, Project AWARE would reach 750,000 young people” –

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Cannibalism in Jamestown Colony

from the Smithsonian Institute

This story amused me because the young William Henry Spellman would have already arrived in Jamestown from England or Wales by the “Starving Times” in Jamestown. But when I examined accounts about William Henry I found that he was sent in 1609 to live among Powhatan Indians, and returned after this rough winter had past. Luck served him well many times, as he was spared from death on more than one occasion. He seems to have had sticky fingers (Business acumen?!) and, despite his youth, a sharp tounge regarding those who ruled the colony – perhaps as a result of the role the Spellmans (Espilemans) played in the legal profession over many generations in England (judge, scribe, counsel, etc.). He learned the Powhatan language and wrote a book about them – apparently during the time the colony was under seige by the.Powhatan Confederacy. He was sentenced to death for challenging authority in the Colony but spared by the efforts of Pocahontas. I have wondered if his precociousness was the reason for his “exile” among the Powhatans. His thieving ways eventually caught up with him and he was ultimately killed by Powhatans while leading a trapping expedition downriver. He had married a Powhatan woman and fathered children with her before his death.

After the “Starving Times” only 60 survived from the 300 Jamestown settlers. If W.H.S. had not joined the Powhatans during this time, would he have survived? Surely, with his trapping and skinning skills, he would have done a better job dismantling the skull of the 14 year old English girl they feasted on that winter. Though I suspect he only acquired these skills from the Powhatans during that winter.

My musings about William Henry are often about inherited characteristics which I “see” in myself or my son. Of course in reality so much DNA has come between ourselves and the Spellmans who left England for the New World. And of course in the west it is the patriarchal lineage, and not the significance of our common DNA, that inspires this speculation. We lose sight entirely of the matriarchal lineage, just like they do with racehorses. My shoptlifting tendencies when young? – definitely the fault of William Henry. My difficulty with authority, and that of my son’s? – again, I see William Henry. This speculation is mere folly, of course. But one speculates nonetheless. And so I can’t help but see William Henry – with his survival instincts, his cunning, and his incredible luck – on Mars. Not the 1609 Henry, dressed in tights and a feathered hat, but the same individual transported 500 years and 34 million miles away.

I think about the horrors of arriving in the New World. Those who survive the trip are not the same individuals suited to managing things once arrived. Trapping and farming skills were absent among the ragtag groups that arrived on these shores (this deficiency was exploited by Powhatans in 1609). Again and again one is confronted with surprises. How does the brain respond to these demands? Did William Henry have Bipolar? He was certainly argumentive, creative, motivated, fearless, and a risk-taker. So I will transport W.H.S. – an anachronism, a freak, a survivor who simultaneously endangers and enables those around him and after him – into the future.

He is – or claims to be – a logistics expert, a driller, a gleaner, a salvage operator. A friend and an enemy. Guileless, fluid, hard to pin down. If fuel runs low on Mars – call William Henry. Underground crops failed this year? – call William Henry. Shipment from Earth delayed or destroyed? There’s always Henry. You may not know what you are eating, but you will eat.