Friday, January 27, 2012

Crazy Is As Crazy Does

Spuds has a long wait for a Pasadena bus that takes him to the Goldline station where he boards the first of two trains he takes to arrive at my office. We have a quick lunch and then I drive him to his tutoring job. His evenings consists of dinner and homework ,which is interrupted when I need him to help me operate the remote for the television. He calls, a few blocks away from the office, and asks if I can pick him up. There's a guy following him and swearing at him. He reports that he was already creeped out because there had been a man leering and muttering at him on the train. Spuds will be eligible to get his driver's license in April which will spare him a bit from life on the street but open a new floodgate of maternal worries including encounters with mentally ill folks driving automobiles. I also have nightmares about being unable to operate the television when he goes off to college next year.

Himself, on route to a lunch meeting with his boss, manages to drop his tie in the driveway. It is raining hard when he pulls into the school parking lot. A car backing out of a space hits Himself's car on the driver's side and completely thrashes the door. The driver is threatening and belligerent, and accuses Himself, who even sans tie appears professorial to a nearly cliché extent, of being drunk. The insurance company immediately establishes that the other driver is at fault but the confrontation is so icky that being deemed inculpable is inadequate recompense. Plus the tie is a sodden goner.

I wage a long battle with a homeless man who sleeps and relieves himself on the porch of my office and after failing to get a social service agency to help the guy, I finally capitulate and install a locked chain linked fence to keep him out. It used to be much easier to take the mentally ill off the streets. The laws, in the spirit of humanitarianism, changed in the 1970s but it hasn't really panned out and there is an ocean of lost souls who'd be better off if they were collected and sent for care. I'm not talking about the old school insane asylums of horror movies, just clean safe places where physical and mental health needs are met and folks can be evaluated and indoctrinated about remembering to take their meds. Now the only legal recourse for dealing with the mentally incapacitated is a 72 hour hold. This means usually that a paramedic or police officer has to lay hands on and transport the afflicted which is often so repugnant that most authorities look the other way when confronted with the mentally disturbed. Even if someone is placed in an inpatient mental health facility for three days the resources to implement any sort of meaningful long term treatment plan just don't exist. The more common outcome is a stint in jail where there are scant treatment resources and a great likelihood that mental problems will be exacerbated.

Rosalynn Carter has always been a proponent of destigmatizing mental illness and there were provisions made for expanded mental health treatment during Jimmy's administration. However, most of Carter's mental health legislation was decimated under Reagan. In addition to the dearth of services available for the mentally ill, current brain research challenges much of the current methodology and raises myriad ethical questions. Studies seems to substantiate more and more that the physiognomy of the brain is as important as environmental factors in influencing mental health outcomes.

Adrian Raine, a professor of criminology at Penn State led a study on the island of Mauritius with 1795 three-year-olds. The children were tested for skin responses to two different auditory tones. One tone was deep in pitch and not unpleasant and the other was shrill and loud. Skin conductance was measured and for most children the unpleasant tone resulted in sweat secretion which is the body's normal reaction to fear. A small percentage of children had no reaction to the unpleasant tones, indicating a lack of fear response. Records reveal that twenty years later a high percentage of the subjects in the study, who at age 3 exhibited little fear response, had been convicted of serious crimes.

Brain scans of people diagnosed with antisocial disorders are compared to those of a control group of people with no history of mental illness and reveal that the volume of the middle frontal gyrus and orbital frontal gyrus in the frontal lobe of the brain is smaller in those who suffer mental illness. A study published in 2009 compares 27 psychopaths to 32 non-psychopaths. Brain scans of psychopaths reveal that the outer layer of the amygdala, considered the brain's seat of emotion, shows an 18% reduction in volume. Current brain research tied to criminology and mental illness may provoke a panic about eugenics or fears that criminals will no longer be held responsible for their actions. Fortunately, research also reveals that if children who seem lacking in fear response--a sign that they will act out later in life--are nurtured and have their physical health and nutritional needs attended to they are much less likely to become involved in criminal or antisocial behaviors. Just like obesity or heart failure, with monitoring and coaching to prevent a predisposed illness, diagnoses based on brain composition can be used preemptively.

It would be nice to think about Spuds traveling by public transportation or on the freeways and feeling less vulnerable to scary unbalanced folks. But it's not just certifiably mentally disordered people who make navigating the universe seem more threatening than it did when I was a kid. I have only vague memories of the genteel fifties, but it seems that since then more and more people you couldn't plug into a specific Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders category feel are disposed to behave like lunatics. Perhaps for the guy who smashed Himself's car going off was an aberration or maybe his typical response to any unpleasant situation is to spew venom. Nevertheless, folks becoming unglued is commonplace. I've even heard a number of one sided profane battles waged in public locations by people on cellphones.

I watch a lot of reality shows and while I realize that contestants are goaded for the sake of good TV drama, there is certainly a lot of shrieking into people's faces compared with the uber polite Ozzie and Harriet that I grew up with. Indulgent parenting and the decay of educational standards may be culpable for the decline of civility but I think it's something more pernicious, as even people who ostensibly hold themselves to the highest standards are prone to violent outburst. There have been a number of politicians I've vehemently disliked but to witness Jan Brewer, the Governor of Arizona, scream and shake her finger at the President of the United States, while on camera, makes me wistful for the uptight 50s.

I really wouldn't want to turn back the clock. Scientific and technological research and the Civil Rights movement lead a long list of things that have generally improved our quality of life. Perhaps people's manners were better but as a film archivist when I'm asked for images for a montage that will quickly read “1950s” polio wards and the McCarthy hearings are the first things that come to mind. I have to remind myself that for all the screaming and squawking, more Americans are opposed to the death penalty than ever before. 53% of Americans are in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Polio, for all intents and purposes, doesn't exist and after the plague of the 1980s, the AIDS virus is now medically manageable. There is a selfishness and lack of compassion that saddens me but when I think of how the world has changed so much for the better in my lifetime, it bolsters my optimism that mental illness will gain parity with physical illness and treatment for all will be available and that civility will eventually come back into fashion. In the meantime maybe I should cool it with the reality shows and chill with reruns of 50s sitcoms.


FionnchĂș said...

I do think the link between the 60s "let it all hang out" and today's venom-spewing, constantly-bleeped "reality" shows displays the type of evolution socially that makes us careful what we wish for. The hip claim of a half-century ago that nobody was really insane seems to have widened. What would Laing, or Warhol, think now? With YouTube, smartphones and social media, we're all broadcasting in CAPITALS

It ripples into an attitude that we all have a "right" to express ourselves, and nobody can censor us or each other. I'm weary of the cable on with what seems an unending blare of swearing dialogues, or more monologues. The shrill hoi polloi tries, crazy or not, to extend their fifteen minutes of fame into fifteen episodes a season. xxx me

Mike Maginot said...

I recently attended a film screening and symposium on homelessness in my Northern California community and learned about some of programs we have available locally. When I go out for a walk or decide to get up early and take pictures around town, it's not unusual these days for people to come up to me and ask if I have any spare change. It doesn't matter if you live in the city or a rural community in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, homelessness is in your face...and sleeping and pissing on your doorstep. When I was growing up,I watched a lot of movies from the 1930s on TV, even the Shirley Temple and Little Rascals movies featured characters who were "down on their luck". As I grew up, I learned that there were other ways to categorize the homeless. A lady who works at one of our local shelters says that many young people have embraced a lifestyle of homelessness, yes, for some it's a choice, but as they get older they begin to long for shelter and a safe haven from the elements. Mental illness might cause homelessness or road rage...and it is popular on TV. I guess the reason people like to see crazy people on TV is because it give them an outlet for their own crazy. Or, maybe it's a superiority thing, I may be nuts, but I'm not as nuts as that guy.