Monday, March 23, 2015

Thoughts from a 40-Something Mom to All the 30-Something Moms who are Freaking Out about Internet Oversharing

Thou shalt not write about thy children online.
Photo courtesy of iceviking,
In 1994, when I was a senior in college, I searched the World Wide Web for the very first time. I still remember that Mosaic query: surfing conditions in Australia, a half a world away from Provo, Utah. The answer? A full report, including weather forecast, tides, and wave conditions. In that moment, I felt like I had won the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Knowledge Factory. This will change everything, I thought. I never once thought about trolls.

In 1994, you were ten years old. No one was thinking about what the Internet would mean for ten year olds.

In 1996, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, teaching assistants faced a daunting new requirement: virtual office hours.  The concept was so mysterious and misunderstood that some of my fellow students actually organized labor protests. But as a woman expecting her first child, I saw instead the potential to work from anywhere, which at the time seemed like an overwhelming positive. Maybe, with the help of a computer and a dial up modem, a mother could work from home, I thought.

In 1996, you were 12 years old. You were probably one of the 75 percent of public school students who were using the Internet for middle school research projects that year. In 20 years, working from home—or anywhere else, for that matter—would be your normal.

In 2001, I was a young work-at-home mother playing around with coding basic html websites, and a fleeting thought passed my mind: what if I could create a website to share pictures and updates of my two beautiful boys with our family and friends? A book editing project distracted me, though the idea never quite left my mind.

In 2001, you were 18 and headed to a very different college experience than the one I had a decade earlier.  In fact, the American Psychiatric Association reported that in 2001, one in ten college students was addicted to the Internet. A researcher explained the findings as follows:  "The sense of security afforded by the anonymity of the Internet provides some students with less risky opportunities for developing virtual relationships." (Ah, that sense of anonymity!)

In 2007, I joined Facebook so I could play Scrabble online with my siblings. I quickly realized that it was the perfect platform for that shelved idea of sharing pictures and updates of my now four beautiful children. I never once thought about privacy. Why would anyone other than people I knew and trusted want to look at my Facebook page? I also created my blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom. I loved the idea of an anonymous forum where I could be candid about the challenges (and joys) of parenting—and those challenges were becoming increasingly hard as my second son failed to respond to treatments for his erratic behaviors, which we would learn (much later) were caused by his bipolar disorder. Did I worry that people would know it was me? Of course not. No one—then or now—reads your blog.

In 2007, you were 24, transitioning to an adulthood that was shaped by unlimited access to all kinds of information. Maybe you had just bought your first iPhone, a device that transformed not only the way we access and share information, but refashioned our entire culture. Your adult life was shaped by a knowledge of this “revolutionary and magical” tool—the all-knowing computer in your purse. Before you had children, you had time to experience both the wonder and the terror of this new constant connection to all of humanity’s combined wisdom and ignorance.

40-something moms like me did not have that same luxury. Our children were young—or just being born—when all this wonderful and terrifying new technology was unleashed on us. In the 1980s, parents proudly carried wallet-sized print photos of their children. In the late 2000s, we started posting pictures, by the thousands, of our children online. We sincerely thought that the audience for those Facebook albums was the same as the audience for our parents’ wallet photos.

In 2012, when you had young children of your own, you knew better. You spent your early adult years watching people do stupid things and go viral. You experienced, either personally or vicariously, the extreme public shaming that only the Internet can facilitate. And you didn’t want your children to experience that level of public shame, with good reason. Internet bullying is awful, pervasive, and sometimes even fatal

So you created a new word to describe your criticism of the 40-something moms who were constantly posting about their kids: oversharenting. And you created a new commandment of mommy righteousness: “Thou shalt not write about thy children online.”

In 2012, in a gut wrenching intersection of a personal tragedy with a very public one, I shared a painful story about my own family on my anonymous blog. Then, after a lengthy conversation with a close personal friend, I decided to allow him to republish it, with my name attached. My revelation that my son had mental illness and we didn’t know how to help him has become Exhibit A in more than one essay about parental oversharing. For example, in 2013, Phoebe Maltz Bovy described my essay, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” as “the most outlandish version of a popular genre: parental overshare.”

In the aftermath of my viral blog post, I thought long and hard about my children’s privacy, and I made some pretty significant changes to the way I post things about my children on social media. I don’t ever use their names now. I think carefully about the content of any message concerning them, and I use privacy settings to limit access to people who can see what I post. Although I love Instagram, I try to make sure my kids’ faces are not visible in the pictures I share there.

But I absolutely refuse to stop talking about my family’s struggles with mental illness. In the case of mental illness, or any illness, advocacy trumps privacy.

Every parent writer struggles with how to talk about his or her children. Emily Bazelon presciently took on this topic in 2008. Wondering whether her own revelations about her children’s lives were violating their privacy, she asked, “Should we all close our laptops once our kids learn to talk?”

In response to her question, one honest blogger told her that he “mostly saw my hand-wringing over the ethics of writing about my kids as the result of ‘the same narcissistic impulse that causes us to write about our families in the first place. Because most people don't care what we write.’” 

This is a fact. If you write about your kids, or post their adorable pictures on social media, most people won’t read what you write. And your intended audience—real-life friends and family—are likely to appreciate your posts and feel more connected to you. I don’t see how that’s any more harmful to your children and their privacy than an annual holiday letter, and those have been around for a while.

But I also understand the privacy advocates who worry about what happens if people do in fact read what you write. Quite a few people read what I wrote about my son on December 14, 2012. More than four million, in fact.

My chief complaint with people who use me as an example of oversharing is quite simple: they all contend that what I wrote about my son was damaging to him or his future.

And that’s not even close to true.

I wish that Abby Phillip of the Washington Post had actually reached out to me to discuss the consequences of what she calls “oversharenting” when she quoted my blog. In our case, sharing our story had more positive than negative outcomes. Because I spoke up, my son got effective treatment and is now back in a mainstream school with friends who are totally fine with his bipolar disorder. In fact, they—and I—admire his self-advocacy and think he is brave for speaking out and sharing his story. We were also able to connect to an amazing community of mental health advocates. No one has ever approached us in the grocery store and said, “I know who you are. You’re that mom and kid who talked about mental illness after Newtown. You are horrible people.” It doesn’t work that way.

Google “oversharing child cancer” and see if you can find criticism of mothers who post about their children who have cancer on social media. (I couldn’t). Why was my alleged oversharing potentially damaging to my son’s future? Because we should be ashamed of his illness? Or because the writers who criticize me are ignorant about mental illness?

Would you like to know what is actually damaging to my son and his future?
  1. The appalling lack of access to mental health care for children and families.
  2. Our society’s decision to send children and adults with mental illness to prison.
  3. The stigma we perpetuate when we respond sympathetically to a mom who writes about her child’s struggle with cancer but cry “oversharing!” when a mom talks about her child’s struggle with bipolar disorder.

These struggles—cancer and mental illness—are only different because the second mom will have tremendous difficulty both in getting people to care and in getting access to care.

Even Hanna Rosin, one of my most vocal critics after my blog post went viral, finally got this last point after she researched and wrote a moving piece on Kelli Stapleton, who will spend ten years in prison after a failed attempt to kill herself and her then 12-year old daughter, who has autism. 

When I suggested on Twitter that Rosin’s thinking had evolved on the subject of parents who advocate for their children with mental illness, she responded, “For sure. I really didn’t get it until I read your book and talked to Kelli.”

Now, in 2015, I share the most important and relevant portions of my family’s story, with my children’s permission, in every place I can.

And this is my heartfelt request to you, 30-something moms: keep sharing, especially if your child has an illness that can benefit from awareness and advocacy. Parents of special needs children actually rely on Facebook for much-needed support. You never know when sharing your experiences might change someone's heart and help to heal a mind.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

People with Mental Illness Should Get What They Deserve

What if we treated cancer like we treat serious mental illness?
And what they—and we--deserve is treatment before tragedy.

You’re sitting in your family doctor’s office with your child, waiting. Your child fidgets, trying not to bite his fingernails. Your stomach is tight with worry, and you can’t meet each other’s eyes.

“Do you think it’s serious?” your baby finally asks. “I’m trying, Mom. I’m really trying.”

The door opens. Instead of the expected reassuring doctor in a white coat, you see a police officer, holding out a pair of shiny steel handcuffs.

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” the police officer says. “But your child has leukemia. We are going to need to take him into custody.”

What if we treated cancer like we treat serious mental illness?

Like many people who become mental health advocates, I arrived in this role entirely by accident. When my second son’s increasingly erratic and even dangerous behavior was finally diagnosed as bipolar disorder, he had already been in juvenile detention four times, and he had three stays in an acute care mental hospital. He was only 13 years old.

I did not know how to help him then. But I did know one thing for sure: my son was not a bad kid. He had behavioral symptoms of a brain disorder that had been with him since birth.

As a result of those behavioral symptoms, my son and many other children are sent to jail.

As I fought for justice for my own child, I learned that we were not alone in our struggle. All across America, children and adults with serious mental illness were being sent to jail because of their illness.

What if we treated cancer like we treat serious mental illness?

Treated, my son is just like anyone else. And yet when a child who brought a gun to school in Montana was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated, he was denied re-entry to the public education system. This child is likely to join hundreds of thousands of other children with serious emotional disturbance diagnoses who have ended up in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Do you think that 12-year olds with serious mental illness should be tried as adults instead of receiving treatment? That is exactly what is happening right now in Wisconsin with the Slenderman case.

Do you think that people who clearly committed their "crimes" while in the throes of psychosis should be executed? In our society, we’ve practically made that an expectation.

The way we “manage” serious mental illness is both expensive and immoral. So why do we keep sending sick people to jail instead of providing them with life-changing treatment?

I’ve come to an uncomfortable conclusion about how our society continues to ignore the obvious problem of serious mental illness. At some level, the fact is that we think people with serious mental illness deserve to go to jail. We tell ourselves that they deserve solitary confinement. They deserve homelessness. They deserve to be shot and killed by police. And because they are getting what we think they deserve, it's okay for us to turn away.

I can’t help but come to this conclusion as states everywhere (including mine) slash their mental healthcare budgets and services while leaving law enforcement and the criminal justice system to clean up the awful mess.

How do you stigmatize a medical condition? Make it a crime.

I’m ashamed—not of my son and the millions of people like him who are courageously living the best lives they can despite significant challenges. I’m ashamed of the rest of us, who tell ourselves that “those people” got what they deserved. We don’t want those “weird kids” in our children’s classrooms. We don’t accept that with the right supports, people can manage their diagnoses and live successful, productive lives in their communities. For those who cannot meet this worthy goal because their illness is too severe, we do not provide quality medical care, preferring instead the cold, harsh reality of a jail cell and solitary confinement.

At some level, we are all accountable for our failure to extend compassion and care to the sickest among us. We are all Adam Lanza’s mother, unable to acknowledge that our sons and daughters need help, not blame and castigation.

To everyone reading this who would send a sick child to jail: shame on you,

To everyone reading this who lives in fear and ignorance of your brave friends and neighbors battling to live a “normal” life: shame on you.

We can do better. We must do better. Our children are depending on us as a society to provide treatment before tragedy. People with mental illness should finally get what they deserve: compassion, admiration, support, and hope.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Maybe We All Need an Intervention

Dr. Phil’s #NickGordonIntervention highlights everything that’s wrong with how we view mental illness

I have to confess my shocking ignorance of popular culture: until I read this HuffPost article from Flawless Foundation director Janine Francolini calling out popular talk show host Dr. Phil, I had no idea who Nick Gordon was. And it doesn’t really matter who Nick Gordon is. What matters is the shocking and exploitative way a young man in mental health crisis was treated on national television, by a man who has tremendous power to shape public opinion about mental illness. 

I also have to confess that I have never seen Dr. Phil’s show, so I have not watched the infamous so-called “intervention.” But a friend of mine whose child was in crisis reached out to him seeking help for her out-of-control son. What she got instead was more of the same “shame and blame” that makes it so hard to parents of children who have mental illness to reach out and get the help they and their families desperately need. In one video clip I did see, my mom friend laughed nervously at her son’s explosive behavior. Dr. Phil chastised her, telling her that her cavalier attitude was contributing to her child’s problems. Newsflash, Dr. Phil: we laugh when our children lash out because we’re trying not to cry. And our children’s mental illness is not “our fault,” any more than a child’s cancer is the parents’ fault.

Dr. Phil McGraw describes himself on his website as “perhaps the most well-known mental health professional in the world.”  Since even I, a television-eschewing person who once thought that Anderson Cooper was a financial services firm, know who Dr. Phil is, I’d say that statement is quite probably true. I wish that Dr. Allen Frances or Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman or Dr. Paul Summergrad, all of whom are actual psychiatrists (unlike McGraw, whose Ph.D. is in clinical psychology) were the world's best known mental health professionals. The fact that these brilliant practitioners don’t have their own popular television talk shows speaks volumes about the problems with mental healthcare in America. As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon aptly observed about McGraw’s show, “Such a crudely manufactured look at someone else’s pain is numbing where it is intended to be affecting.” 

Numbing. That is exactly the problem with mental health advocacy today. After Sandy Hook, the general public has become so numb to the horrific pain that people like Nick Gordon (and so many others) are experiencing that things like school shootings barely register anymore. When mental illness is nothing more than a spectacle for our entertainment, we become desensitized. We stop caring for those who need our care the most.

Maybe it’s time for society to have a collective intervention about the way we treat mental illness. Stop criminalizing people who are sick. Stop making suffering people into spectacles. Stop treating mental health differently than physical health.  Dr. Phil has famously said, “You either get it or you don’t.” I’m afraid when it comes to mental health and stigma, America’s best known mental health professional just does not get it.