Archive for September, 2009

I’m really not sure where I’m going with these…

Owl/Skull

…but I know I’m going there slowly. I have a nice brass oval frame that I may use if I do this small and in watercolor. I may try it larger and in a barn wood frame in either watercolors or pastels.  Hell, I may even paint it,  tear it up and throw it away. It’s been known to happen. Lately these decisions seem even smaller than usual.

September 27, 2009 at 11:17 am 3 comments

Slow to Post

There’s been a lot to post about and no time to post lately due to life’s many surprises and demands. I hope to return with some regularity soon but frankly, my priorities lie elsewhere at the moment. I have a new painting to add, a sketch and a ton of noteworthy news from the past week or so.

September 26, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Grass Roots?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) calls itself the “nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization.” If they are a grassroots organization, then the soil is tainted and the land bought and paid for — largely by pharmaceutical companies. Over half of their funding in the just the past five years has been in the form of pharma money. That’s several million dollars. Their list of major contributors reads like a who’s who of psych drug peddlers — all of whom have their own ethics problems lately, including everything from paying doctors to promote for them to lying about adverse clinical trials findings and illegally promoting the off label drugging of children.

The latest glimpse into the NAMI’s affair with pharma is the report that, in light of the fact the drug companies can’t directly market their product for off-label use, Pfizer paid NAMI  hundreds of thousand of dollars in exchange for their promotion of Geodon, an atypical antipsychotic, for use on children and the elderly, for which there is no FDA approval and the dreaded black box warning in some cases. All of this is also in conflict with the group’s own professed policy against promoting drugs. When more than half of your money comes from drug manufacturers, you tend to keep it a bit less obvious.

”Drug manufacturers have developed relationships with front organizations – industry-funded grass-roots, consumer advocacy, research and educational organizations whose primary goal is to promote marketing, influence regulations or advance other industry interests,” according to the suit.

The Arlington, Va.-based National Alliance for the Mentally Ill… has received at least $1.3 million from Pfizer over the years, according to the suit.

What’s more, its former president, James McNulty, during his time as NAMI’s leader, “received thousands of dollars for regularly speaking on behalf of Pfizer and other drug makers,” the suit said. “McNulty’s relationship with Pfizer was particularly cozy,” the suit said, and the group’s Web site “goes so far as to promote the off-label use of Geodon in children and the elderly, as well as for long-term use in the treatment of bipolar disease.”

The promotion of Geodon goes against the group’s stated policy of not endorsing products, according to the suit. What’s more, the suit said, such uses of the drug have not been approved by the FDA, and the prescription of Geodon for dementia has received a black-box warning from the agency.

It may seem to some as though it is of little import but NAMI isn’t a just some group out to offer help and reduce stigma related to mental illness, although that is part of their claim. When government policy is enacted, when information is needed, when decisions are made about the treatment of people with mental health diagnoses, NAMI has a seat at the table — so much so that they refer to themselves as “the preeminent voice on Capitol Hill and in state houses across the country for the millions of Americans living with serious mental illness.” They are the loudest voice claiming to come from the corner of those diagnosed as mentally ill and often the only voice that is sought. They’ve presented themselves as an authority on mental illness and the buying public in this arena as with any other is desperately seeking an authority.

…  the off-label marketing of Geodon was all about money. And it may have paid off: According to the suit, initial sales of Geodon eight years ago were a disappointing $150 million, leading the company to offer sales incentives to boost the drug to the $1 billion blockbuster category, which it reached last year for the first time – three years behind schedule.

”Pfizer has engaged in a deliberate pattern of false and misleading promotion,” the suit said. “Off-label promotion of Geodon … became ingrained in the sales force and Pfizer management.”

It is harmful enough when drug manufacturers are more about profits than actually offering tools for care. It’s unconscionable when doctors and so-called grassroots groups are doing it, all while claiming to be a voice for the mentally ill. Dangerous things happen when a cash fueled machine teams up with the smiling face of an organization banded together to speak for you — and over you.

September 22, 2009 at 11:28 am 3 comments

China Imprisons Dissidents in Psychiatric Hospitals

In yet another report of things happening that you’d like to think can’t possibly be happening, China is using psychiatric diagnoses and imprisonment to silence thousands of dissidents. Petitioners and protestors are being given psychiatric labels such as paranoid psychosis and imprisoned in hospitals, sometimes even preemptively. One man reports of being picked up and detained in hospitals routinely before major events just to keep him out of the way.

From the PBS News Hour (9 minute video well worth watching)

…Since there are no national mental health laws protecting the rights of people who have been compulsorily hospitalized but there are rules limiting arbitrary arrest, hospitals are becoming a convenient means of silencing protestors

This type of violation of basic human rights isn’t unique to China, it’s just being done in a more blatant and politically direct fashion than seen in many other places. It is clear that in China and elsewhere psychiatric hospitals are being used as a shadow prison system for non-criminals and it’s not hard to see how this can happen. Psychiatry as an institution is largely unchallenged in its scope and clearly wields a lot of power over the lives of individuals. This level of autonomy is a perfect formula for abuses of power. Whether you argue that voluntary psychiatry does good or not, the fact remains that forced psychiatry offers a corrupt vehicle for the control of people whose behaviors are deemed undesirable but not criminal. Whether this is happening in America (and it is) or just has the potential to — there is something fundamentally wrong with any system even being in place that can imprison you without the constraint of due process and separate you from your freedom and the sanctity of your own body for speech and thought.  This is especially true when that system can do so under the guise of care when what they often really mean is the eerily familiar “common good.”

The fact that there are people like Qin Xinan and Teng Baio bold enough to speak out in a nation so violently opposed to social movement is both commendable and necessary. They have seen firsthand the fearless power that their government uses against them and face it down on behalf of themselves and their neighbors despite the risk. Meanwhile, we in America have the ability to speak up for the people around us and challenge similar oppression with (for now) relatively little personal risk and sacrifice and most of us choose not to. Perhaps we’d rather wait until the offenses are more blatant and widespread and act surprised.

September 18, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Woman Cuffed and Struck for Leaving Hospital

Apparently if you are diagnosed as mentally ill and check yourself into the hospital for physical pain and infection you damn well better stay there — at least in Portland Oregon. Anne Marie Hartwick, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, PTSD and a personality disorder was taken by ambulance from the Central Library in downtown Portland to OHSU’s hospital suffering from intolerable pain and infection brought on by her cocktail of psych drugs. When she didn’t receive care in a reasonable amount of time and had been away from her medication for three hours, she blew up at staff and stormed out, at which point she was tackled, cuffed and beaten.

“That’s when they tackled me and threw me to the ground,” Hartwick said.

In the incident reports, two officers said they witnessed another officer deliver “focus blows to Hartwick”. The officer in question said in a supplemental report that Hartwick was “handcuffed, [and] struck by focused blows” on the pavement outside the emergency room. Then in a car Hartwick was struck by “a closed fist to the right side” of her face.

“The first punch landed to the left side of my mouth,” Hartwick said. “The second punch landed to the right side of my mouth. The third punch was when I was already in the car, and it landed on my left cheek.”

… “I was handcuffed the whole time,” she said.

What kind of people repeatedly hit a handcuffed woman, mentally ill or not — a person who came to a hospital by ambulance already in pain? I cannot make sense of people’s actions. I suppose she was supposed to pull up a seat and make herself comfortable for a few more hours and get the appropriate level of treatment for a mentally ill patient.

September 16, 2009 at 9:01 pm 1 comment

The Art of Martin Ramirez

Martin Ramirez

Martin Ramirez came to the States from Mexico in 1925 to earn money for his family working mines and railroads. Unfortunately for him, as for so many others, he made it just in time for the depression. Homeless and unable to communicate, he was picked up by the police. He was labeled a catatonic schizophrenic and put into a psychiatric hospital, then a tuberculosis ward, closed off from the larger world for almost half of his life. Ramirez was a small, frail man who found refuge from the violence of the ward under tables, painting.

He used matchsticks dipped in the melted wax of crayons to draw and made his own paint pots out of scrounged oatmeal, formed and baked on the ward’s heaters. He used paste made of bread or potatoes and saliva to adhere magazine clippings to discarded paper and used tongue depressors for rulers. From these meager supplies and in a place few would say was ideal for fostering creativity, he made art that surpasses much of what today’s inflated artists can crank out with the best tools and most pandering art crowds in their corner. Still, for all this backstory, his work isn’t remarkable because he was diagnosed as schizophrenic or because it came from beneath a table in a mid-century psych ward but because, simply put, his work is remarkable.

Both his work and his ways remind me of Henry Darger. They both created for their own sake with the simplest of means. For the reclusive Darger it was simply that no one knew he was creating anything at all despite his 15,000 page book and grand two-sided, mural sized illustrations — a world to which he retreated almost entirely. Ramirez, in many ways, was a victim of his time and perceived illness. While he chose not to speak, he was separated from the word by a system, not a choice. He created knowing his hundreds of paintings were going to disappear from the sight of everyone, himself included. It was common practice for patients’ art to be confiscated and burned and his were no exception. That is until Tarmo Pasto came along. Pasto was an artist and psychologist studying mental illness and creativity. He was the first to take seriously Ramirez’s paintings and began saving them from destruction. He organized gallery shows and garnered an impressive amount of exposure for the work. As with most artists — whether by luck, tradition or good timing on the part of the seller — the works made no real money until five years after Ramirez’s death when Pasto sold them to an artist and his dealer to put his son through med school.

Since the explosion of interest and monetary value, many once lost works have been discovered, most having been stored in bundles in a state fitting of something just above garbage, tucked away in garages and forgotten corners. In an all-too-typical turn of events, now that he’s gone and famous, people are engaging in legal battles to determine ownership and sales rights regarding his work, even against his relatives. When he was just a mental patient, all Pasto had to do was be the man between an artist and a burn pile.

September 15, 2009 at 8:33 pm 1 comment

It’s not abuse if the kid’s really bad, right?

The perfect environment for learning

Imagine living at a school, hundreds of miles from your family, with devices on your limbs and torso to administer electric shock — your teachers walking around with labeled triggers hanging from their belts, ready to administer “level III interventions” at the slightest infraction. And in case their watchful eye isn’t enough, they have the help of  monitors to watch you on camera and report to staff when you break a “behavioral contract.” While this sounds like some sort of Orwellian worst-case scenario, it has been happening in one American school for decades.

In some schools, “student” is just a nice, clean word for “inmate.” Perhaps that is most true at Canton, MA’s Judge Rotenberg Center, a school attended exclusively by those who are emotionally troubled or developmentally challenged (including those with autism and asperger’s syndrome) and exhibiting behavioral problems. Somehow I don’t think their methods, which include electric shock, restraint, seclusion and withholding of food, are the fast track to well adjusted kids.

These methods certainly won’t get to the root of a child’s problems and while you’d think a lot of the school’s time and effort would be spent finding out why these children have trouble controlling aggression and impulses, that’s not how Rotenberg works. From the Village Voice:

One thing you won’t see at the center is traditional psychological counseling. While students do meet with clinicians, there are no regular appointments or group therapy. School literature states that counseling is done “as needed,” but not when it could be seen as a reward for bad behavior, and adds: “The purpose of the counseling is to enhance the student’s cooperation with, and progress within the program.” (emphasis mine)

While mechanical restraints and restrictive diet are common at JRC, it seems the institution’s favored approach is “skin shock” by way of their Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) which they manufacture themselves. It is, simply put, corporal punishment without having to actually hit the victim. From the NY Times:

Just how painful those shocks are has been an area of particular debate. Technically, the lowest shock given by Rotenberg is roughly twice what pain researchers have said is tolerable for most humans, said James Eason, a professor of biomedical engineering at Washington and Lee University. The highest shock given by Rotenberg is three times the lowest amount.

It’s not just the most offensive behaviors like violence and self harm that warrant shock at JRC. A child can be shocked for nagging, standing up without permission, swearing, sloppiness, raising his voice, speaking out of turn — any behavior outlined in an individual “behavioral contract” tailor made for each student — even if that behavior is a direct result of the child’s autism or other developmental disability. It is reported that some autistic children, seeing staff members reach toward their belts to shock other students, have screamed from fear that the shock was going to be for them. They were shocked for screaming.

In one event, a former student phoned in pretending to be a staff member. The staff, apparently without questioning this, shocked a student repeatedly for infractions the caller “reported” and on top of that shocked him repeatedly for noncompliance when he protested. By the end of that three hours, he had been shocked 77 times. From the Boston Globe:

… the staff tied Dumas’s son to a board, restraining all four limbs. The teenager, resigned to his fate, said, “Let them know I’m being compliant.”

During the next hour, he received dozens of rapid-fire shocks to his abdomen and limbs, which in fact violated his treatment plan. At one point, he complained, “Mister, I can’t breathe.”

On tape, the staff recounted the reasons for different shocks, including swearing, verbal threats, and noncompliance. Of the two power levels of shock treatments used by the school, Dumas’s son received the most powerful each time, school officials have said.

Shift supervisor Michael Thompson, on the job for two months, left the room at one point, saying he wanted to “either cry or throw up,” the report said.

This, as seems to be the case with most things lately, is the tip of the iceberg so I’ll leave you with excerpts and links to more involved reports on Rotenberg by people who have visited. It is nothing short of abuse and it seems more true than ever that abuse can be tolerated by the public if you find a way to call it therapy. It is not therapy and cannot be said to “work” simply because it reduces the unwanted behaviors on a list. These children are likely to live their lives knowing only limitations, anxiety and fear of reprisal. I don’t know that any one institution is likely to produce a greater number of broken and fearful “students” than Rotenberg.

The NY State Education Departments findings:

•The Contingent Food Program and Specialized Food Program may impose unnecessary risks affecting the normal growth and development and overall nutritional/health status of students subjected to this aversive behavior intervention.

•The collateral effects (e.g., increased fear, anxiety or aggression) on students resulting from JRC’s punishment model are not adequately assessed, monitored or addressed.

Mother Jones: “School of Shock”

Rotenberg staff place the more troubled (or troublesome) residents on 1:1 status, meaning that an aide monitors them everywhere they go. For extremely violent students, the ratio is 2:1. Soon after I arrived, right before I set off on my tour, a small crowd gathered—it seemed that almost the entire hierarchy of the Rotenberg Center was going to follow me around. That’s when I realized I’d been put on 5:1.
abellve: JRC founder, Matthew Israel responds in the comments section as does MFI’s David Oaks

Boston Magazine: The Shocking Truth

Soon after that, Israel’s commune fell apart. As did a second he started in the South End…But he wasn’t ready to give up. He thought if he opened a school, he could provide the commune’s inhabitants with jobs. A self-sustaining economy might lead, ultimately, to utopia.

The Judge Rotenberg Center’s Website

September 14, 2009 at 2:56 pm 1 comment

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