You Can’t Sit With Us. What the Mean Girl Effect has on Mass Shootings

“You Can’t Sit With Us!”

The recent tragedy in Thousand Oaks has invoked a heated and polarizing debate about gun control, even within my own family. I have people that I love and value dearly on both sides of the political spectrum, they are all good people, they’re all intelligent, they all essentially want the same thing: protection and safety for their families and themselves. The difference is in ideologies of how to get there.

I was having a conversation with my dad about the matter, and a trait he has (that I like to think I inherited to some degree) is really being able to see a disagreement from multiple vantage points. We got into the same impassioned conversation that I’m sure millions of people were having across the country: what role gun control and what role mental health treatment plays in stopping these senseless massacres. Our conclusion came to an agreement mirroring the nature vs. nurture question, and the answer being that “it’s both.”

He asked me a poignant question after we agreed on this, asking about what the root of the problem was. I came to a very simple conclusion:

We need to stop being horrible to each other.

I’ll stop a subset of people right here who will say “People need to stop being such damn snowflakes” or something of the sort. This is not one dimensional in that the “mean girls” have sole responsibility for every violent action that happens. A huge part is also being able to accept that others have differing opinions, views, and beliefs from us, and that’s okay. We also need to be able to accept criticism and accept that we are not the entity the world revolves around, and that we are all capable of fault.

I’ve talked about “internet autism” in previous posts, but it is applicable here too. On whatever platform, may it be Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Facebook, whatever, you will likely find a plethora of comments: You’re ugly. You’re a bitch. Go kill yourself. Slut. Drink bleach. You’re a waste of space. Everyone hates you. Your mom should have gotten an abortion. …. etc…etc…etc….

My point is not to say that people saying mean things to a person in some way excuses or justifies a person committing a horrible crime. My point is rather that we, as a culture, have fostered and fertilized an environment (in many areas/ in many people) of anger, hate, exclusion, and intolerance. My point is that yes, we need to figure out some common sense gun laws that at the same time protect the second amendment, but also ensure people who purchase/own firearms are competent to do so. Another piece is mental health treatment and eliminating the obstacles people face in seeking treatment (I’ve had patients come in for initial evaluations [especially kids/adolescents] that have been waiting weeks/months to be seen). This really is only the tip of the iceberg, in that by the time most people are sitting on the couch in my office they have been struggling with whatever issue it is for a long time…it has now just gotten to the point where it is unmanageable and they are at such a point of distress they are willing to get help.

Psychiatric treatment is no different from any other medical specialty whether it be family medicine, oncology, neurology, etc. in that preventative care, or early treatment are going to have the best outcomes.

But why is there such an influx in the need for this treatment? There is no easy answer for this, but it goes back to a few key factors: from an early age we need to be teaching and learning emotional intelligence and distress tolerance, learning how to deal with failures, adversities, and unmet expectations (the snowflake argument), while also not subjecting each other to mental torture. It’s easy to say that millennials are being overly sensitive on the surface, but this really is the first generation that has been exposed to 24/7 notifications from their classmates and peers, often receiving sentiments similar to those mentioned earlier.

There have been numerous studies showing the effect negative experiences such as insulting/negative talk have in comparison to positive talk. This has been shown on many things from plants to pitchers of water and the outcomes are pretty astounding. It makes sense if a person is told something enough, odds are they are going to believe it.

Sometimes all it takes to change someone’s life is a smile or a kind word. If you’re not able to do that, at a minimum don’t be a jerk. More often than not if someone has a need to put others down it’s likely because of some insecurities/perceived inadequacies, or unresolved emotional issues the perpetrator is experiencing.

The truth is we can have great gun control laws, we can even have great mental health care, and these things will likely make a difference, but the reality is we’re not going to get very far without kindness and compassion for each other.

Recently when the Dali Lama was speaking at UCSD he was asked how he dealt with difficult people or was abe to continue expressing compassion for them. His answer was simple but remarkable, “I think of them as my fellow human being.” He went on to describe what an amazing thing it is that out of all times we could be living, out of all the matter we could be, as humans we’re sharing this planet as the same beings, and that as humans, largely, we all have the same objective and are just trying to get through our day, rarely are we meaning intentional harm to another person. As different as our life circumstances may be, we have this in common: we’re all human beings just trying to live our lives. So he said in unpleasant situations he reminds himself to think of the other person as “my fellow human being.”

It’s something that seems so rudimentary, but it really can be profound. I found myself in a day of the grumpies driving home from work in gridlock and saw a car going around and cutting in front of dozens of other cars all patiently waiting to move down the freeway. My mom was sitting next to me in the passenger seat and watching this happen, and I let her know what a jerk i thought the guy was for purposefully using an exit lane to cut in front of dozens of people in traffic.

Later that night talking with her I reflected on how bad I felt about getting so frustrated. I thought about it and realized how I had no idea what was going on in that person’s day. Maybe his wife was giving birth to their first child unexpectedly and he was trying to get to the hospital, maybe he just got laid off from a job he loved and his family was depending on him to provide with, maybe his best friend just got served divorce papers and he needs to go talk him off the so to speak, ledge, we just don’t know.

In psychology there is something called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This model tells us that love and belonging are some of the most basic needs a person has aside from food, clothing, and shelter. Whenever a violent act occurs it comes into question if the person was mentally ill. When most people think of this it’s in terms of whether the person was psychotic or not. However that’s not the case. No one who can go into a school, bar, movie theater, etc. and murder innocent people can be mentally healthy. They may have the capacity to understand what they are doing, or be in touch with reality but there is clearly something wrong with the individual’s thought process, impulse control, and/or other executive functioning. This goes back to the importance of early intervention in mental health, to identify, assess, and treat this.

This is clearly a complicated, emotional, and political issue with no easy answers. I think the solution is a combination of common sense gun regulations, better access to mental health treatment, but also starting to just be nice to each other.

I have many patients who participated in the school walk-outs following the Thousand Oaks shooting, and I think this made a powerful statement. However, my challenge to any kiddo who participated in these walkouts, to any adult who has participated in the debate on gun control or mental health treatment to just actively engage in the simple act of being kind to each other. Think about what you say or type, insulting or berating another person accomplishes absolutely nothing, being kind on the other hand can change the whole dynamic of our culture.

Mental Health in Mexico

It seems that the topics of deportation and the matter of separating parents from their children has been everywhere lately. This made me want to explore (setting aside any arguments about the legal/political issues associated with this on either side) what is this really doing to these kids, these families, and what kind of mental health treatment is available in Mexico for these people? How is mental health treatment approached in Mexico?

So what really happens when a child experiences a trauma like being separated from a parent? Childhood is when a lot our core beliefs, patterns of thought, and coping skills develop. This is a time that really sets the stage for how we relate to others and the world around us. A trauma like this certainly could lead to depressive, anxiety or trauma related disorders as well as problems with attachment. When a trauma like this happens it may lead the child to view the world as an unsafe place, have difficulty trusting others, develop feelings of inferiority, or have difficulty establishing their own self-identity. It would not be unusual for the parents in these situations to  develop extreme feelings of guilt, hopelessness and subsequent depressive, anxiety, or trauma related disorders. Personality disorders, especially Borderline Personality Disorder are also very strongly related to unhealthy attachment and fear of abandonment. The cultural importance of family puts these individuals at even higher risk.

I wondered if providers had been seeing an increase in people seeking mental health treatment specifically related to these issues. So I went down to Tijuana’s only psychiatric hospital, Hospital de Salud Mental de Tijuana and met with some of the providers to learn about the treatment and perspective of mental health in Mexico. While the providers I spoke with said they may have seen a very modest increase in hospitalizations/treatment specifically related to these issues it didn’t seem to have the major impact I suspected it would.

There is still a fair stigma about mental health issues in the U.S. and the providers I spoke with felt there was a similar if not harsher stigma about mental health treatment in Mexico. This stigma often discourages people from getting mental health treatment, frequently a person may be afraid to tell his or her family there is a need to seek treatment, or may be actively discouraged to do so if it is discussed. Mental health conditions are frequently seen as something that should can be managed by religious or family support. This puts individuals experiencing a mental health condition in a very difficult spot and seemed to be the primary barrier to seeking treatment.

I toured the facility for about two hours while the doctors I met with patiently answered my 1,001 questions. About five minutes into the tour it hit me like a Mac truck, these people have it right. There were some stark differences in how treatment is approached and I started to take note of what we need to bring to the states.

1. Length of stay. The average length of stay for inpatients is about 2 weeks. That is the average, frequently stays are 3-4 weeks. I compared this to the inpatient units I’ve worked on where the average length of stay is probably 2-3 days. If someone’s length of stay is approaching a week administration usually starts to sweat. Why is this? The most basic answer is insurance coverage. Generally speaking an insurance company will only provide coverage for a psychiatric hospitalization if a person meets one of three criteria: they are an imminent danger to themselves, others, or are gravely disabled (cannot provide for basic needs like clothing, shelter, food, or water, due to a psychiatric illness). This means that people are generally not hospitalized until their symptoms are so severe it becomes a liability if not treated. What’s more, the minute a patient no longer meets this criteria insurance coverage stops (some really good plans may authorize a few additional days, but this is pretty rare). This basically means we are using inpatient treatment as basically a means to stabilize someone to the bare minimum level, or until they are no longer assessed to be a liability.

2.  Holistic treatment. This kind of goes along with the idea of what really is the purpose of treatment, to simply stabilize someone, or actually provide treatment of the symptoms. Most inpatient units in the states will offer things like group therapy, AA meetings, and maybe art therapy, these activities are fairly minimal and not the largest part of treatment. I was amazed to see at Hospital de Salud Mental de Tijuana they had displays of expansive works of art therapy done by patients, there were volley ball courts, a gym, yoga classes, even a garden that patients tend to and what is grown is used in the meals served that are specially planned by a nutritionist. We know that good nutrition, exercise, a sense of community and purpose are vital for our mental health and yet we put such a minimal focus on it.

3. Community outreach. As mentioned above the stigma about mental health treatment is prevalent across borders, these providers are rolling up their sleeves to fight it. They host meetings, and also visit schools and other community facilities to provide education about mental health to the community. Starting in elementary school these providers are actively working to change how the next generation perceives mental health.

I left the facility dumbstruck and with one thought. As providers, as a community and society we need to be better. I believe that the vast majority of providers do want to give the best care possible and heal their patients but become limited by administrative and financial barriers. like any other kind of medical issue, doing primary prevention is without a doubt the best thing we can do, we first need to start educating our kids about mental health treatment and  and we need to be better about community outreach. We also need to fight for the ability to actually be able to treat our patients instead of giving them the bare minimum level of stabilization. It’s up to us to talk to our legislators, and to push for expanded coverage of treatment. Let’s be better.