“Ignorance is the enemy and it fills your head with lies.” ~ Rodney Crowell

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So, the Grand Poobah (my office buddy 😃) and I were yacking yesterday while he was working on an assignment that he didn’t know was appropriate or not. In the chapter he teaches on depression, he wanted to focus attention on suicide with the students reading various articles and watching a documentary about it before writing a paper. He wondered if this would be too triggering for some and we had a discussion about this.

Here’s the thing about triggers: we all have them. After my nephew died in the Navy, every time I heard anything about the military, my heart would pound and my stomach would get a hollow feeling. Before I was open about being bipolar, I’d get nervous talking about mental illness and the importance of awareness, yet I was living a lie which made me so anxious. After I engaged in self-harm, I would get horribly defensive if anyone mentioned cutting or accused me of doing it until I was able to share what I had done. And yes, after I attempted suicide myself, I was extremely sensitive to the topic.

But being a prof of Psychology and Sociology, I can’t back away from these issues because I talk about them in most of my classes. I’ll admit that the first time I taught about suicide after my attempt, I started crying…right in front of my class. I was so embarrassed because that has only happened a couple of times in my entire 3 decades of teaching, but the incident was still fresh in my mind. When I started crying, I quickly thought of lying to my students and telling them I wasn’t feeling well, etc. but then went back to how hypocritical I had been covering up being bipolar for most of my life. I lecture to my students how you have to live authentically and how there is no shame in having a mental illness or having attempted suicide. With that in mind and after a deep breath, I shared that I had attempted suicide myself and explained where I had been in my life at that time.

As I was talking, I couldn’t believe the reactions of the class…some shed tears and some nodded so genuinely that I knew they had had suicidal ideation themselves. After the lecture was over and resources perused, papers were turned in and this is some of what was written to me (with any identifying info taken out but all words of the students as they were written):

“I think the reason it was so hard for me to watch this film is because I have a history with depression. I will not lie and say I have never had a suicidal thought because I have. I used to be in a dark place with my mind and I am not ashamed of that because of how much I have grown. My chest started to get tight while watching the film because it took me back to that time in my life when I was really unhappy. I paused the film and took a break and it helped me. I thought this documentary was very sad and it shows a part of human life that is not shown that much. Suicide is not talked about as much as it should be. There should be more awareness and conversation.”

“This week was a very hard week for me when going over the material. I personally have battled with thoughts of suicide but never had the courage try anything. I grew up with a bipolar mother and struggled with my own anxiety and depression.”

“This topic is tough for me to discuss. I have lost multiple friends due to suicide. I was also almost a suicide victim myself. I struggled my entire life with depression and anxiety. To fully understand the impact of mental health and suicide, I will lay out my story. This is hard for me to do, but I feel it is essential to speak about it.”

“Lastly , I am a survivor of depression and attempting suicide as well. I chose article one because it really touches my life in the last year. My son was self harming by cutting himself on the legs and arms. The day I was told I stopped at nothing trying to find my son’s help. It went from that to last month I found out my son tried x-pills, 2 years of alcohol misuse, becoming withdrawn, rebellious, and just 2 months ago he attempted fighting my daughter and I , he would go from saying he wanted to kill himself, to nobody loving him, to breaking down crying. Glass shattered everywhere, holes in my wall that I’m still trying to get fixed, me trying to console him and my daughter, finally having to call for assistance and watching my son leave by the ambulance screaming he loves me.”

“I can relate to those who express suicidal thoughts, as its something I myself have struggled with. The best way to describe it, is a voice inside your head telling you that no one cares, and your life doesn’t really matter.”

The saddest thing about these comments is that I only picked out these 5 out of the 20 students I had; however, EVERY one of them wrote about their own personal struggles with suicide (the majority) or having a friend or sibling that has attempted or completed. That boggles my mind.

There is so much pain out there. So much loneliness. So much neediness in terms of connection. How horrible that for my students that this has already touched their lives. And from comments in other classes, I also know this class wasn’t an anomaly at all.

Now we talk about triggers which is something I hadn’t heard of or been cautioned about until a few years ago. Us professors are told to tell students when we’ll be studying a subject matter that could be triggering to them and to offer them alternatives. On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. However, the research begs to differ.

Take a look at findings published in Clinical Psychology Article:

“The consensus, based on 17 studies using a range of media, including literature passages, photographs, and film clips: Trigger warnings do not alleviate emotional distress. They do not significantly reduce negative affect or minimize intrusive thoughts, two hallmarks of PTSD. Notably, these findings hold for individuals with and without a history of trauma.”

Also, Forbes magazine reported this:

“Across all the variations in the studies, trigger warnings had trivial effects. In the words of Mevagh Sanson, senior author of the study, “The results suggest a trigger warning is neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful.” “The format of the presumably upsetting content, whether in text or on video, did not matter. Neither did a personal history of trauma; participants who reported they had experienced actual trauma in their lives responded to the distressing material similarly, regardless of whether it was preceded by a trigger warning or not.”

Finally, the Chronicle of Higher Education says this:

“We are not aware of a single experimental study that has found significant benefits of using trigger warnings. Looking specifically at trauma survivors, including those with a diagnosis of PTSD, the Jones et al. study found that trigger warnings “were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas.””

What do psychologists think? Let’s take a look-see at an article in Psychological Science:

“Specifically, we found that trigger warnings did not help trauma survivors brace themselves to face potentially upsetting content,” said Payton Jones, a researcher at Harvard University and lead author on the study. “In some cases, they made things worse.” Worryingly, the researchers discovered that trigger warnings seem to increase the extent to which people see trauma as central to their identity, which can worsen the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long run.”

So, this sheds all new light in terms of triggers. Not only do they don’t seem to work, but they can also increase the distress of a student.

Now, what are usually seen as triggers? Suicide, eating disorders, sexual assault, domestic violence, mental illness, sex, murder, death and anything else the professor deems might be triggering to a student.

There’s absolutely no doubt these are very difficult subjects to learn about, but they are very important to understand. Every 11 seconds, another American takes their own life while there’s also 14 people being hurt by their intimate partner. One in 5 Americans live with a mental illness (51+ million people) and someone is raped every 68 seconds.

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Look, these are serious numbers and obviously going to touch all of our lives in one way or another. I once had someone tell me, after a difficult lecture, that ignorance is bliss. Heh? IGNORANCE is bliss? NOT understanding and being oblivious and uninformed is better? For who exactly? You? Us? Me?

If we don’t address these issues…talk about these issues…and learn all we can about them, how in the hell are we going to work at turning these numbers around?

You know, I was really distressed over the sexual abuse I experienced from my psychologist and I’ll be honest: anytime I heard about sexual abuse or rape, I would break out in a sweat and feel like my stomach dropped 10 floors down an elevator. Worse, I started working on a psychology degree and guess what I had to learn all about? I was really nervous when the topic was being presented but the way the professor taught it, I was able to look at it academically and there was truly a comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. That what I was going through was normal. I learned about sexual abuse and realized that if I always turned my head away from it, I would never be able to use what I’d been through to help others. And that’s what I try to do now.

So here’s the answer to the Grand Poobah who is going to be reading this: keep your assignment on suicide. Students can take breaks when reading articles or watching videos but the information is vital. Suicide (as well as so many other topics I mentioned) is an epidemic and NOT talking about it and teaching about it only keeps it hidden away. I want my students to understand why people want to kill themselves…what signs they can look for…how to talk to someone who is suicidal. I want them to know what early signs of domestic violence are and to understand the pathology of mental illnesses. I want them to be educated in the issues that Americans face every day of their lives.

Unfortunately, I’ve had students come to me days after being raped and I would never ever expect them to complete a unit on sexual assault so soon after the traumatic experience…so there’s obvious exceptions to this. But, ignorance is not bliss and the info we teach isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. Until we face things and help students to understand that their own experiences can be talked about and explored and validated, we are doing them an injustice. We’re simply keeping everyone in the dark.

Kristi xoxo

“It took all the strength I had not to fall apart…” ~ Gloria Gaynor (I Will Survive)

So, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and although I’ve written about this before, it’s such an important problem to understand and address with so many myths abounding about it.

Let’s take a look-see at some facts which clearly illustrate what an epidemic DV truly is:

  • 20 people are physically abused every minute by an intimate partner in the U.S. Total number: 10 million a year. Now take a look at this, peeps: by the time you read through this blog post which I’m going to gauge at 5 minutes, 100 people will have been physically abused by the one person in the world who is supposed to love them. And remember…I said PEOPLE, not women. BOTH men and women experience DV with 1:4 women and 1:9 men experiencing some level of physical violence in their lifetimes. That’s a scary thought.
  • Domestic violence is the #1 leading cause of violent death for women in the U.S. – even more than rape, muggings, and car accidents combined.
  • 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year with 90% being an eye-witness. This is heart-breaking to me and we know that kids exposed to DV experience a plethora of behavioral, social, psychological and even physical issues.
  • On average, 3 women are killed by her partner every day (the UK has the same stat). Every. Single. Day. Worldwide, it’s over 50,000 women a year which is about 137 a day. Every. Single. Day.
From The Guardian – the faces of some of the women killed in the UK.

Even scarier? According to an article in TIME: “Growing evidence shows the pandemic has made intimate partner violence more common—and often more severe.” And why? Because COVID has given abusers more tools and more chances to control their victim (COVID doesn’t cause one to be abusive but it can exacerbate abuse). One main thing all abusers do is isolate their victims and the pandemic made this extremely easy to do.

How do we know this for sure? Well, The American Journal of Emergency Medicine found this: In Portland, Oregon public schools closed March 16th, 2020 and residents were quarantined at home beginning on March 23rd; soon after, the Portland Police Bureau recorded a 22% increase in arrests related to DV compared to prior weeks. The same thing happened in San Antonio, Texas. After schools closed on March 20th, 2020 and stay-at-home orders began March 24th, the San Antonio Police Department experienced an 18% increase in calls pertaining to family violence in March 2020 compared to March 2019. And, this trend is happening all over the country.

Excellent book by Leslie Morgan Steiner that tells her story of being in a DV relationship and how she was able to leave. It’s available on amazon.com.

In other words, this already horrible problem is worsening.

When I teach about DV in my classes, one of the first questions my students pose is this: “Why does she stay?” which is something VERY wrong to ask about a DV victim. Couldn’t we also say: “Why did she allow herself to get robbed? Hit by a drunk driver? Mugged?” There is no other crime, except rape, where the victim is more often than not blamed and we wonder why victims are reluctant to seek help. (You know, it’s also interesting that the pronoun ‘she’ is always used when asking about victims…men who experience DV are a ‘hidden’ group).

So, I use the Power and Control Wheel to explain why it’s so difficult for victims to leave (this wheel was developed in 1984 for female victims and work has been done on a wheel for male victims which is similar in most regards):

Research Gate
  • Being intimidated and constantly reminded that this person is one to fear (including showing weapons, breaking things, and creating an atmosphere where there’s always the threat of violence).
  • Being beaten down emotionally and made to feel as if they don’t deserve anything better.
  • Being shut off from their family and friends and having every part of their life controlled from computer use, to miles driven in a day, to trackers on phones.
  • Being told that ‘everyone’ has problems, that the abuse wasn’t ‘that bad’ and making light of it, or that the victim caused it themselves.
  • Using the kids: if anyone told me to do something or my son would get hurt, I’d do it in heartbeat. Hands down.
  • Using male privilege in that the man is ‘king of his castle’ and even using scripture to justify the abuse.
  • Using financial abuse by controlling all of the money. You need money to leave and to live.
  • Living in an atmosphere of constant threats. “If you leave, I’ll kill you.” And this is a viable threat since around 75% of victims who die were killed as they attempted to leave the relationship or after the relationship had ended.

There are other reasons why the victim finds it extremely dangerous and difficult to leave:

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Trauma bonding which is experiencing powerful feelings it’s difficult to make sense of since the abuse is also alternated with kindness. Also, the person the victim fell in love with is still clear in their mind.
  • The hope for change is strong, and the love from the ‘love-bombing’ stage is powerful. At first, this person is your soulmate! The one person who understands you! The one person who reflects back what they know you want to see! The one person you can confide all your secrets in! And then, after the person has completely fallen in love, the devaluation begins and abuse comes into the relationship…just bit by bit…until the victim is trapped. BTW: love-bombing is not LOVE on the part of the abuser! It’s a manipulative technique used to trap victims.
  • Societal denial (“But he’s a nice man!”)
  • Threats of retaliation (threats of custody; threats to withhold money; threats to interfere with the person’s job; etc.)
  • Access to a shelter that is available, can take kids, is accessible for those that are deaf, disabled, etc. A study in 2017 showed that “…while more than 72,000 victims of domestic violence received services on a single day, nearly 12,000 requests were turned away because programs lacked the resources to help.” Also, shelters are cutting staff due to a lack of resources/funding.

So, are there signs that someone could be an abuser? Red flags? Oh yeah. However, when someone is falling in love, the emotions supercede the rational side of our minds and we either don’t see these signs clearly or rationalize the signs away.

  • Jealousy – “He loves me so much he can’t stand me to be with anyone else!” 🙄
  • Controlling behavior – picking out clothes, looking at phones, insisting on shared social media accounts, etc.
  • Isolation – ‘We only need each other.’
  • Blames others for problems – nothing is ever the abusers fault and they are incapable of taking responsibility for any of their actions. However, they insist others take total responsibility for anything they perceive was wrong.
  • Hypersensitivity – I once had a partner who called me some pretty horrible names (along with some threats) that I ‘had’ to forgive him for since we were committed to one another, all while being chided for being sensitive. However, when I finally got so angry during an argument and called him a name (which wasn’t a curse word), I never saw him again. Go figure.
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Use force during arguments or ‘playful’ use of it during sex
  • Verbal abuse – names, put-downs, etc.
  • Sudden mood swings – from nice to angry and back again. When I experienced this, I was simply told “I have an anger issue.” Ya think?
  • History and/or threats of violence
  • Also, abusers are also more likely to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Anti-Social Personality Disorder, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Anyhoot, that’s just some info on DV that is so important to understand and so important to share. No one deserves to be abused and this isn’t an individual or a couple problem. It’s a WE problem. The annual cost for DV in the U.S. is estimated to be around $12 billion which includes health care, counseling, emergency services, work missed, etc. There’s also the threat of others being caught in the middle of incidents and 3/4 of victims are harassed at work by their abuser.

Just writing this today has made me sad because whenever I talk about DV, it’s ma’s face I see. Ma was young and vulnerable and heart broken when she met R and he used all of that to his advantage. I saw ma with black eyes, bruises all along her arms/legs/face, with internal injuries, and the list goes on. Plus, I know me and sis didn’t see it all…she tried to cover up as much as she could.

Ma!

I also saw ma go from a vibrant, funny woman to a shell of who she had previously been. To survive R, she drank with him and now has liver damage and esophageal varices that pose a risk to her. For 28 years, the light in ma’s eyes dimmed and a lot of times it was completely out. After she left R and was safe, she slowly started to blossom. Started to live again. Enjoy again. She’s made friends and goes places and is believes in herself more and more. Of course she carries scars from her marriage to R…how could she not? She lived with a monster for 3 decades and was abused throughout. But, ma is strong and has come through on the other side with a new lease on life. We’re so proud of her!

So that’s why I’m passionate about teaching this to my students and writing about it to you, my sweet peeps. This is an epidemic no vaccines or store closings are going to fix. And the saddest part of all? Long after COVID is under control, women will still die everyday because of DV. Kids will be damaged for life. And both men and women will experience assault from the one person they wanted to love forever.

Kristi xoxo

“But you are not alone…I am here with you…” ~ Michael Jackson

So, the beginning of this post is going to show you my ‘Professor K’ side and I hope you’ll bear with me…and maybe learn a new bit of info to boot. In the United States we have awareness months and here is a SHORT list of issues that I feel are particularly important…let’s take a look-see:

  • January:
  • February:
    • American Heart Month – leading cause of death in the U.S. and a person dies of this every 36 seconds.
    • March:
      • Colon Cancer – it’s estimated that around 150,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year and is the 3rd leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.
    • April:
      • Autism – 1:54 kids diagnosed each year with boys representing the majority of cases.
      • Child Abuse Prevention – there are 3.6 million referrals to agencies every year which represent 6.6 million kids. Between 4-7 kids die each day due to abuse/neglect.
      • Sexual Assault – 1:6 women and 1:33 men will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
    • May:
      • ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s Disease) – 5,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S. 80% die within 2-5 years of their diagnosis.
      • Brain Tumor – 24,530 new cases are diagnosed each year.
      • Mental Heath Awareness – 1:5 adults (with 45% seeking treatment) have a mental illness and 1:20 have a serious mental illness (schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar) with 65.5% getting treatment. 16.5% of youth have a mental illness with 50% receiving help. And, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for ages 10-34: 46% have a diagnosed mental health condition and 90% have symptoms of one.
    • June:
      • Alzheimer’s – 1:3 seniors die of this each year and 6 million are living with it currently.
    • September:
      • Childhood Cancer – 16,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and it’s the #1 cause of death by disease in children.
    • October:
      • Breast Cancer – 13% of women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer over their lifetime as are 2620 men (who are most likely to die from the disease).
      • Domestic Violence – 1:4 women and 1:9 men experience SEVERE physical violence which figures to 20 victims per minute.
      • Bullying – 20% of student are bullied at school and 31% of people have experienced it as an adult. Bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicide ideation/completion.
    • November:
      • COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) – 16 million adults and 4th leading cause of death in the U.S.

Whew. Now remember, this isn’t all of the awareness months we have…just a sampling of the major physical and mental diseases that are experienced by so many people.

What’s my point? Well…this: around 9% of people have had COVID with 1:6 experiencing severe symptoms; approximately 2% will die from the infection and as of today, there have been 561,052 deaths in the U.S. Yes, COVID is serious and we need to tackle it. (By the way…did you know that during the same time period, 24,000 – 62,000 Americans died from the flu and pneumonia and is the 9th leading cause of deaths yearly? I didn’t. 😳) But, 48,500 people (kids – elderly) die of suicide each year and we take 1 month to highlight it. There’s no vaccine…no daily advice…and very few PSA’s, etc.

Sssssooooo…why do we only take a month to tackle the huge issues we have consistently in the U.S.? One month to focus on mental health when 20% of us have a mental health issue or illness? And, thanks to COVID, this number is increasing. The loneliness and depression people have felt during the pandemic…the stress and anxiety of losing jobs…it’s worsening and I think this trend will continue.

Let me tell you what it’s like to have a severe mental illness, which for me is bipolar: it’s hell. Truly…it’s that simple of a description. Hell. Every single day I’m on this earth I struggle with what’s happening in my mind. I can’t remember ever not having this…it’s been with me for the vast majority of my life. Like I’ve shared before, it was evident something was wrong with me as early as 3rd grade and by the time I was 13, my grandma talked to my mom about her worries regarding my mental health. I attempted suicide in high school and was either so depressed I could barely slog through my days, or I was so manic I could hardly sit still in class and did some really stupid things after school that I’m not real proud of. It was hard for others to handle this, so I really had only 1 close friend, but she was amazing; I know it was sometimes hard on her to be there for me like she was (thank you, M…I love you🥰) .

My brain has a little demon bastard in it. This guy (I picture him as a guy…go figure 🙄) dictates when I’m up and when I’m down. When I can function around other people and when I can’t. When I can go out without either crying or having anxiety or when I have to stay home and try to deal with the panic/mania my brain is producing. It tells me to spend $1000’s of dollars at a time and when I get depressed, it shames me for that money spent so I eat noodles and salad every night to save a few bucks (and remember, my anorexia feeds off of these small menus). It dictates how much love I can give at any one time or compels me to push people away. In other words, this mother fucker (sorry, ma…but you feel the same way about him 😐) has control over me.

Think about that. Control. Other words for control are: Power. Command. Dominance. Pretty strong stuff. ‘Kristi’ is rarely in control…and even when I think I am, it’s only because this guy has loosened his hold for a while and is allowing me that privilege. Look, try to understand it this way: when ma had breast cancer (over 20 years ago and has been fine every since 🙏), she had good days and shitty days. But regardless of how she felt on any given day, she always had the cancer. It was there with her for a year.

In the same way, no matter how those of us with mental illnesses feel…we still have the mental illness. This is why you simply can’t tell someone suffering from depression to ‘cheer up!’ Or someone suffering from anxiety to ‘calm down!’ Or someone suffering from a personality disorder to ‘get right!’. It’s akin to telling someone suffering from ALS to just ‘get up and walk’. See my point?

To be honest, I never knew the strength of my demon-guy until I had a mental breakdown 3 years ago and I realized that he is one strong son-of-a- bitch. He took me from being a fairly confident, secure woman to someone who was absolutely nothing. Everything that had been good in my mind was tossed away and only a shell remained. He filled this shell with suicidal ideation until I attempted again. He told me to cut myself all over my body…and I did. He poured words into my head like ‘worthless’, ‘ugly’, ‘you deserve to die’, and I believed them. In other words? He tried to kill me, and he almost succeeded.

Long after COVID is under control with yearly vaccinations, etc. we will still have people suffering from everything I talked about above. There’s no vaccine for cancer…for sexual assault…for human trafficking…for domestic violence…for child abuse. None. And there never will be.

That’s why it’s so important that we don’t have special ‘months’ where these issues are highlighted; instead, they need to be talked about all year around and publicized continuously. If we can all come together as a society and fight COVID…why can’t we do that with mental illness? Come together and learn how to recognize it in ourselves and others…how to seek treatment…how to help a friend or family member…how to direct people to the resources they need…how to listen…how to help…just how to talk about it.

Yes, I know suicide and mental illness and domestic violence and rape and child abuse and all of these other things are ‘icky’ to talk about. Just like the ASPCA commercials that show abused and dying pets. It kills me to see those and I used to look away. I don’t anymore. I watch them when they come on. Why? Because animals are being abused and killed daily and the only way to stop these commercials is to stop this treatment. I donate to local pet shelters…I rescue dogs…I always tell new puppy owners to spay or neuter their pets…I try my best to do what I can.

From Beacon Health Options

We can’t turn away and say: “I don’t want to see a PSA commercial about suicide while I’m trying to watch Wheel of Fortune.” You know what I don’t want? Someone committing suicide while I’m watching Wheel of Fortune. Why can’t we have these months where we strongly highlight various illnesses/diseases, but still talk about them and learn about them always? Domestic violence awareness shouldn’t end on October 31st. Sexual assault awareness should continue past April. And mental health awareness shouldn’t only be in May. We can’t let these arbitrary ‘months’ and the media dictate what we pay attention too. People are dying every single day due to mental illness. We need more than a month.

The ‘theme’ of this month highlighting mental health is “YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” But you know what? When those of us who suffer from mental illness only hear and feel this support for 31 days out of the year, it pretty much feels like we are.

Kristi xoxo

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