Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Stigma of Mental Illness

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) made public the results of a survey on Canadian attitudes toward mental health. And the results are not encouraging. Despite efforts by those working with people who have mental health difficulties (such as the public ad campaign run by the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health that profiles prominent Canadians who have lived with mental health difficulties) the stigma of mental health persists.

The President of the CMA, Brian Day, stated, ""We are looking at the final frontier of socially acceptable discrimination. It's a national embarrassment." I happen to believe it is more than an embarrassment, it is harmful. This type of discrimination gives impetus to neighbourhood associations to act irresponsibly in attempting to deny housing to the homeless, and for politicians to exploit the vulnerable when they see fit. For example, the Conservative Party of Canada is now running an ad campaign targeting so-called "junkies". They are suggesting that people with serious addictions will be forced into residency (incarceration) in "rehab" programs. The Conservatives are able to get away with this type of rhetoric only because most Canadians don't know that drug addiction is a serious mental illness, and even if they did, they would demand that these people just simply, "get over it".

We have much work to do.

The positive message in this year's survey is that 72% of survey respondents felt that funding of mental illness programs should be on par with funding for physical illness. This is energy we can use.

Letter to the editor of KW Record here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Instructions to the Cook

Rachel (who has a blog I've participated in) recommended a book to me after she learned of my interest in supportive housing. The book, Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life That Matters, by Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields is a real gem! Thanks Rachel.

The premise of the book is based on a metaphor, proposed by the 13th century Zen master Dogen, that serves as a guide to living a complete and fulfilling life. The Zen master is a cook, who using the ingredients at hand, creates the "supreme meal" for the guests. Glassman invites us to be as cooks, practical in our spiritual lives, vowing to make a difference for those around us by using "local ingredients".

The fives courses to this meal we are preparing are:

1. Spirituality - taking time to centre and explore the "oneness" of all life.
2. Learning and knowledge - developing our intelligence for the job to be done.
3. Livelihood - being able to support ourselves through our work and efforts.
4. Social action - being aware of the needs of others.
5. Community and relationships - recognizing our interdependence with others and working for harmony.

Laying the foundation, Glassman then spells out clearly and concisely how to be a social activist in your own back yard, in the place where you live; helping others build lives that make a difference.

This gem of a book is quietly inspirational and it just so happens I baked a great loaf of bread today!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The roots of empathy

While listening to the CBC radio yesterday morning I heard Dr. Anne Russon (author of The Evolution of Thought: Evolutionary Origins of Great Ape Intelliegence) relate an amazing story about one of our close relatives on the biological family tree, the orangutan.

Dr. Russon is a developmental psychologist studying the orangutan in the wild. Her research involves the rehabilitation of orphaned young orangutans back into the wild. She conducts her research through the Orangutan Social Learning and Cultures Project operating through the BOS Orangutan Reintroduction Project at Wanariset, Borneo.

Dr. Russon described a situation, that she observed, where a young orangutan got confused and frightened as the rest of his peers (all about 6-7 years old) left to return to their nighttime compound. While the human caretakers concerned themselves with locating the youngster in a tree, one of the youngster's peers doubled back and positioned himself in an adjacent tree. This young ape then gently got the attention of the frightened youngster and eventually coaxed him down to safety, leading him back to the compound.

What is so revealing about this story is that we recognize, immediately, that this was a kind, sensitive and socially responsible thing to do - in fact we would expect no less from our own children. Why are we able to recognize empathetic behaviour in a creature to which we are related through evolution? Check out Marc D. Hauser's book Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong, for some possible answers.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

White Water

Rumi's "The Guest House" expresses the idea that life is guest house into which uninvited guests stream daily. We never know who will enter the door; but we are to greet each guest with enthusiasm, so that we may live life to the fullest.

Murray McLauchlin's song, "White Water" has a similar theme. The river is much like a guest house, in that each turn offers a new vista and new experiences. Again, what the river has to offer must be accepted with enthusiasm in order to live skilfully and contentedly. In this video I tried to synchronize the two themes with my photography of Killarney and Temagami, Ontario and Nahanni, NWT.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Youth Justice - Revisited

The Canadianl government is seeking public consultation on the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The folks in the policy research branch would like to get input from Canadians on how to address the needs of youth, in an effort to divert the small minority of them away from the criminal justice system. As I have noted below, doing a little preventive work might go a long way.

The Canadian Psychological Association has taken the opportunity to reply to the request for input and have sent a letter of recommendations for the policy folks. The main recommendations are for the continuance of programs to divert young people away from the criminal justice system and to conduct research into crime prevention and rehabilitation programs for more serious offenders.

And just how big is this problem in reality?

Well, there has been no increase in youth crime rates. In fact, since the last government enacted the YCJA in 2003 there has been a 15% decrease in youth arrested. Why? Because the system realized some kids make mistakes that land them in trouble. The vast majority of these kids when allowed to atone for their mistakes never get in trouble again. The diversion programs within the YCJA provided for community discretion when dealing with what amounts to petty drug charges and acts of minor vandalism.

There has been a 3.7% increase in violent crime. But rather than the YCJA, itself, being the problem, the CPA hints that maybe the increase may have something to do with the mental health status of those committing these crimes. Having worked in the field for nearly 30 years, I would suggest that child abuse, poverty, criminal neighbourhoods, involvement with drugs and school dropout might be some of the factors that have been on the increase in recent years, along with the cuts in dollars to community programs that deal with these more troubling issues. I wonder whether anyone has done a study yet on the increase in violent crime among youth in relationship to the decrease in community mental health programs, rates of retention in secondary education and rates of youth employment?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The myth of justifiable motives

Canadian involvement in the war in Afghanistan is based on a collection of untruths. Young men and women are sacrificing their lives in a war that our leaders compare to the Canada's involvement in WW I and II. Marjorie Cohn points out that not only is the war in Afghanistan an illegal one, but also an unnecessary means to an end that would be better served through diplomacy.

End the Occupation of Iraq - and Afghanistan by Marjorie Cohn

The article below underscores why the justifications used by the Canadian government for the Afghanistan war are fallacious.

Freedom, Justice And Human Rights Versus Islam In Afghanistan
By Donald B. Ardell

There are many threats to liberty right here at home.These threats exist despite centuries of democracy, a constitution with a treasured bill of rights and all manner of additional legal safeguards. In some ways, it seems a distraction from the challenges before us in this country to become concerned about and involved in seeking to prevent human rights abuses in distant, strange lands with very different cultures This is particularly so in a country like Afghanistan, where freedom, human rights, democracy, civil safeguards and basic justice have no foothold. Who would expect human rights to be respected in a fanatically Muslim country of backward, warring tribes, a place from which sprang the horror of the Taliban? I would not – would you?

Yet, American taxpayers have been supporting all these rights and safeguards for Afghans since we invaded that country after 911. We invaded to destroy the religious barbarians who, among other offenses beyond the pale, were believed to be harboring Osama bin Laden and other lunatic jihadists. We had to deal with our enemies in that country who viewed us all as infidels to be destroyed. As part of our response, we not only fought against and removed the Taliban but also leaned on the natives to adopt an Afghan constitution that incorporated American-style freedoms, safeguards for basic liberties and adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Alas, getting the people of Afghanastan to incorporate such rights and freedoms into their value systems steeped in religious fanaticism has not been easy – and probably never was a realistic goal.
Which leads to mention of the case of Sayed Pervez Kambakhsh, a 23-year-old journalism student sentenced to death a few months ago for the victimless crime of blasphemy! I’m not making this up.
It seems the poor fellow insulted Islam. Hard to believe but there it is. What a country. Mr. Kambakhsh’s insult leading to the charge of blasphemy was downloading material offensive to certain religious clerics. The material apparently contained statements that the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad oppressed women. Duh. Good thing that kind of offense is not a capital crime in this country. The unfortunate infidel Kambakhsh was taken to an Islamic court, charged with a litany of “crimes” (e.g., “un-Islamic speech and activity, socialism, rebelliousness and improper instigation of religious debate”) and found guilty - of blasphemy. The punishment? Death.

Human rights groups in this country, including the Center for Inquiry, are trying to save Mr. Kambakhsh from the imposition of the sentence. They are appealing to the country’s leaders to honor the Afghanistan constitution. That is, the document we more or less imposed on this theocratic society. The Afghan constitution makes freedom of expression inviolable and guarantees every Afghan the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means. Well, that’s all well and good, but the religious authorities don’t take such secular affirmations very seriously. Nor do they care much for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though the country has signed on to that, as well.

Efforts are underway to get signatures on a petition for mercy for Mr. Kambakhsh. The petitions will be sent to the nation’s president, Hamid Karzai. The Free Inquiry petition notes that the accused was “tried without legal representation by a private Islamic court, and was accused of doing only what any promising student should do - independently seeking information, and stimulating discussion among classmates. If Afghanistan is to be a free, open society, it cannot allow religious orthodoxy to trump free inquiry among its citizens, and it certainly cannot impose deadly penalties on those who dare speak out. Such charges are an affront not only to the basic political and legal structure of Afghanistan, but to the freedom and dignity of its citizens as well.”

The president is then urged to “condemn this injustice and to secure the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Kambakhsh.” Well, I signed the petition at the Center for Inquiry website and I urge you to do the same. Maybe such expressions of concern and good will can save this particular victim of religious intolerance. However, I suspect that, given the mindset that infests the Islamic world, the prospects for this student and others who take Western-imposed documents of freedom and human rights too seriously are very bleak.

The case of Mr. Kambakhsh and the power of religion in so much of the rest of the world is all the more reason to celebrate our own freedom this coming weekend during the Independence Day festivities and every day thereafter – and do all we can to vote out of office Republican zealots who themselves would make blasphemy a criminal offense, though probably not a capital one. But then, if Bush had another term, you never know.

Donald B. Ardell, Ph.D. publishes the ARDELL WELLNESS REPORT

Global Climate Change

In the last issue of Skeptic magazine there are a series of articles on global warming. The most controversial is that of Dr. Patrick Frank, a chemist working for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (funded by US Dept of Energy). He contends that the models of global warming are all wrong, and conclude that the observed climate changes are not for certain due to man's activity. The trend though, in real world observations, are incontrovertible. Global temperature has gone up, concomitant with increased levels of CO2 emissions from industry.

The problem with Dr. Frank's conclusions:

Dear Editor (Skeptic):

I have read and re-read Dr. Frank’s article on the accuracy of global climate models (GCM) and most of it leaves me in the dust. I’m familiar enough with statistics to understand the point he is making about the accuracy of the models and will concede that he may have a point here. I won’t quibble about his analysis of the models and their accuracy – he likely has done his homework well enough to get this part right. I’ll leave any criticism of his analysis of the models to those who have skills and expertise in this area.

Where I will take issue with Frank is in his concluding remarks where he caricatures the skeptics of his conclusions about global warming in this way:

‘Some may decide to believe anyway, “We can’t prove it”, they might say, “but the correlation of CO2 with temperature is there (they’re both rising after all), and so the causality is there, too, even if we can’t prove it yet.”’

Frank is right in suggesting that some of us have noticed that man-made CO2 production has seen a precipitous increase since 1850. Since 1850 the amount of carbon we have put into the atmosphere per year has risen from insignificant amounts, through to two billion metric tons in 1950, to 8 billion tons in the latter part of the 20th century to present day. Furthermore, direct measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere show an increase from 312 ppm in 1958 to 375 ppm in 2005 (this is the so-called Keeling curve). Measurements of global mean temperature show an increase of 0.60 C ± 0.2o C in 20th century. (see http://www.greenfacts.org/studies/climate_change/l_3/climate_change_1.htm#1p3). These are the correlations in the data that give some of us pause.

Frank points out that it is an error in logic to go from correlation to causation – no problem here (we’re all taught this in Stats 101). But isn’t there another alternative in our application of scientific principles than jumping from correlation to causation? Those of us who notice the correlation just might suggest that we continue with the investigation. We might argue that the continued use of fossil fuels isn’t sustainable (we’ll simply run out) and we may be concerned that all of the pollution generated by fossil fuels may be a causal factor in some of the ecological events of recent decades (the bleaching of coral just one of many). If that were the case, couldn’t we act rationally and try an experiment that would meet the gold standard of science?

In psychology, the behaviourists taught us a really good technique to test a causal inference called the A-B-A design. In phase A of the experiment we measure behaviour at baseline. In phase B we institute the treatment and note any changes in behaviour. Finally, in the second phase A we withdraw the treatment and note whether the behaviour returns to baseline. That observed pattern leads to pretty strong statement of causality, but to be on the safe side we institute the treatment phase again and run another B. What is practical in the climate change scenario is to do an AB design. We already have the baseline data as noted above. Now we do the B part – run the treatment; namely reduce CO2 (William Calvin has some excellent suggestions on how this might be done in his book Global Fever). If things get better, and it will take time to get the data – these things take decades given the size of events we are talking about, a tentative hypothesis can be made about man’s involvement in global warming. If the results are negative – no effect on climate change, we have at least found cleaner energy that is less polluting and all those other toxins and particulates will have made our air and water safer.

To just simply deny that there is a possibility that climate science has some of the picture right and to continue as usual seems counterproductive and not very scientifically minded – we have the chance to conduct a wonderful experiment in living more sustainably; what could be more scientific than that?

Barry Cull

A better approach:

William Calvin in Global Fever points out that the direct and careful observations by Keeling at Mauna Loa in Hawaii have shown a steady rise in mean global temperatures since 1958. This isn't a "model", it's the real thing.

Treating the planet as a "patient" with a high fever, Dr. Calvin offers some viable strategies to first halt carbon emissions from tracking higher and second to begin decreasing man-made CO2. The cure isn't going to be easy, and the initial costs may be high, but Calvin shows that it is doable. Having just finished the book, of which the Skeptic article is just an excerpt, I suggest that Calvin has a better grasp of the subject matter, and has covered more of the findings than Frank has. My money is with Calvin in this debate.