Deadpool, Gaymers and Girlfriends at London ComicCon

10 Video Games for Gay Gamers

Being gay and being a geek are, you might think, quite different things. But sometimes these two aspects of identity collide, creating a wonderful spectrum of possibilities. London ComicCon 2018 raised the rainbow flag and became a sparkling example of one such space for the  LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community.

Glittery linguistic stereotypes aside, London Gaymers presented a funny, intimate and hopeful panel about LGBT gamers and the video gaming community at large.

They started with startling offline statistics from the LGBT charity Stonewall which found over 60% of university graduates return to the ‘closet’ and over a quarter are not ‘out’ at work. Conversely, the panel was comprised of Charley Hodson, Ashely Spindler, Izzy Jagan, and Nathan Costello all work in the gaming industry and all are ‘out’ in their workplaces.

So, how can we continue the good practice, and ensure that more geek workplaces are queer-friendly?  “We need people leading organisations to be supportive, to be open, to be kind most of all – from the top to the very bottom”.

Working in small firms, where one is known and appreciated as a person, was seen as a Good Thing with regard to sexuality representation. At some points, the positive storytelling had an almost bashful edge – perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that this is counter to the dominant narrative of hardships.

That is: It is much more effective if someone from a dominant (or privileged) position espouses the values and principles of equality. In addition to the usual impact of management/leadership positions, a privileged individual is not subject to a fallacy of vested interest when they promote equality. Allies have “access to cultural capital, and cultural power to change the world” (well said, Ashley!).

Doesn’t that sound just like a superhero power?

Of course, some gamers in online communities may need help to adjust their belief in the ‘post-homophobic era’. That era, sadly, is currently as much of a fantasy as a crocodile shooting out bananas from its Kart in order to trip up a pink-clad princess (ten points for getting the reference). It may seem as though LGBT persons have ‘enough rights’, but the sobering statistics say otherwise.

Whilst the London Gaymers panel was in agreement that true equality is on its way, it is still in its infancy. It needs nurturing, and time, and effort… and, yes, the occasional time-out. Ashley was candid regarding the online abuse aimed at her, purely for being trans, leading to necessary banning. Likewise for times that people need to shut their comments sections or step away from the gaming community’s occasional toxicity.

A soft hug of an idea to address this comes from Overwatch. The popular first-person shooter game translates unsavoury phrases into, for example, “It’s past bedtime. Please don’t tell my Mommy” and “I feel very, very small… Please hold me”.  A nudge into nonviolent communication – with humour.

Indeed, the voice actors who play Genji, Mercy, and Zarya noted in their panels that the popularity of the game it partly its inclusivity and diversity – not just within the game but within its community – “There is something for everybody”.

London Gaymers suggested the Overwatch model “holds people accountable” without necessarily stepping into the shaming, combative dance which can so often play out. Banning users from chats can ‘work’ in the short term – in order to remove hate or bigotry from online spaces – however, in the longer term, change will be created by supportive re-education.

Well, that, and visibility: the old adage we’re here, we’re queer still has its place. The fact of the matter is that gay people are game. “We support the industry, and the industry needs to support us too…. We deserve this respect – if we’re not getting it, demand it.”

There are, of course, different kinds of representation. It is not all about mere presence. There is the bells-and-whistles flounce of a queer archetype, whose one discerning feature is their sexuality. However, there is also the happens-to-be-gay character, whose queerness is part of ordinary – or extraordinary! – human richness.

We have seen this in television with shows such as The Wire, The Walking Dead, and Brooklyn Nine Nine. There are already games which allow same-sex romantic interactions, such Dragon Age, The Sims and more recently The Last of Us and (author favourite) Life is Strange.

The number of Gaymers who explored their gender and sexuality through The Sims (Nathan helpfully chimed in, “I’m gay, so I could make lesbians!” compared to actual lesbian Izzy, who unfortunately couldn’t) was cute to the extent of heart-warming. True sandbox play.

In short, as Nathan stated: “You can put gay characters in the game, and if the game is good, people will want it”. If an audience is interested in the story, the game will be popular.

However we must be careful about how we cater to online spaces: “It’s not a bonus if someone isn’t homophobic, transphobic, racist”. We must expect better from our online communities. Most importantly, “Sharing the positivity, enthusiasm, passion, and love we have, speaking up against injustice and misrepresentation, pulling people up to our level rather than going down to theirs” are all ways that the Gaymers think we can make a difference.

Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead, from Deadpool) (R)

Indeed, it isn’t just video games that are changing to represent audiences. Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead, from Deadpool and the more recent Deadpool 2) noted that she was respectfully asked by bigwigs (or biggish wigs) in the industry whether she wanted to keep quiet about her own sexuality, given the presumed response from audiences.

Brianna did not want to ‘keep quiet’ although she didn’t want to shout either. Her sexuality emerged in the public eye quite casually in a tweet which has been covered extensively elsewhere (not to be sensationalised as a ‘reveal’, mind). Responses have been supportive, and Brianna said that ComicCon 2018 had provided a platform for queer kids to talk to her about the importance of herself and her character in representing queerness in geek pop culture.

And it didn’t stop there. Not only is Brianna officially gay, but so is her character Negasonic, who was ‘outed’ in the same lowkey style. Ryan Reynolds – the characteristically ‘sweet guy’, the eponymous anti-hero, and co-writer of Deadpool 2–asked Brianna, “Hey, would you mind if we gave Negasonic a girlfriend?”.

(It is important, of course, to ask first).

Brianna claimed, with a wry smile, that she responded, “Mind?! I’m ecstatic!”.

And so, love of a feminine and lilac-becostumed variety struck the teenage warhead. Brianna discussed how they thought it would be more impactful if Negasonic’s love interest was mentioned, but ‘not a thing’. (This, by the way, has been considered by some theorists as the mark of ‘true diversity’; a celebration that neither erases nor exotifies difference).

When asked how Deadpool 2 covers such tender and sensitive issues amidst its swearing, sexuality and gratuitous violence, Brianna and Stefan Kapičić (who plays the well-mannered, gentle giant Colossus) said it’s because of the “Magic of Deadpool”. It’s the use of humour, the fact that these issues are treated as if they’re “Not a big deal”.

And it is magic. It’s the magic of fun, and fantasy, and play. It’s the fun about engaging in media that represents you – or gives you empathy to understand someone who is different to yourself.

It’s putting equality as a casual thread, not as a snazzy sideshow, the same way that the many queer vendors at ComicCon’s Comic Village market were just.. there. Not in a special LGBT section, but integrated with all the other talented artists. (Pride comics, and Joe Glass in particular, I have to give you a mention because you expertly encompassed the superhero realm with the adage, I didn’t see anything like me, so I created it. Allow me to share your creation.)

In short, pop culture is evolving, and much like an Eevee (ugh, too dated?) it comes with a range of elements. It is okay in the modern era to get your geek on. It is becoming steadily (or sporadically) more acceptable to get your gay on. And of course, at ComicCon, you can even get your gay geek on.

Call for the change you want to see – and if you can’t see it, be it. Rainbows for the win.

Transgender TV Characters Have the Power to Shape Audience Attitudes

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Watching transgender characters on fictional TV shows has the power to influence attitudes toward transgender people and policy issues, according to new research from USC Annenberg. Just published in the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles, the research further highlights the ways political ideology shapes viewer responses to transgender depictions in entertainment.

The researchers surveyed 488 regular viewers of the USA Network series Royal Pains, of whom 391 saw a June 2015 episode featuring a portrayal of a transgender teen, played by transgender activist Nicole Maines. Those who saw this episode had more positive attitudes toward both transgender people and related policies, such as students using bathrooms aligned with their gender identity. The fictional Royal Pains storyline was more influential than news events; exposure to transgender issues in the news and Caitlyn Jenner’s transition (which was unfolding at the time of the research) had no effect on attitudes.

Beyond the impact of the Royal Pains episode, the study is the first to demonstrate the effect of cumulative exposure to transgender portrayals, across multiple shows. The more shows featuring transgender characters (such as Amazon’s Transparent and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black) that viewers saw, the more transgender-supportive their attitudes. Viewing two or more transgender storylines reduced the association between viewers’ political ideology and their attitudes toward transgender people by half.

According to Traci Gillig, a doctoral candidate at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the lead author on the study, “While media visibility of transgender people reached new levels in recent years, little has been known about the effects of that visibility. Our study shows the power of entertainment narratives to influence viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people and policy issues.”

The research was conducted in collaboration with Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a program of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that serves as a free resource to the entertainment industry on TV storylines addressing health, safety and national security issues. HH&S Director Kate Langrall Folb explains: “We worked closely with the Royal Pains writers, connecting them with medical experts and providing information for the storyline.”

The results of this research suggest increased visibility of transgender characters in mainstream entertainment can have far-reaching influence on public perceptions of transgender people and the policies that impact them.

“Watching TV shows with nuanced transgender characters can break down ideological biases in a way that news stories may not. This is especially true when the stories inspire hope or when viewers can relate to the characters,” said HH&S Senior Research Associate Erica Rosenthal.

Read more about the research in an analysis by Gillig and Rosenthal. “Can transgender TV characters help bridge an ideological divide?” was published by The Conversation.

Celebrity Roles in Mental Health, Awareness Campaigns and Social Change

Kendall Jenner – Pepsi Commercial

I’ve always found celebrity culture fascinating. The idea that certain people in the world become so wealthy, well-known and influential just because they portray a character in a TV show, or movie, or play music or a sport well seems so bizarre to me.

Of course, these days people don’t even need to be talented in the traditional sense to become famous. In the last few years we’ve seen the rise of the reality TV star – from the wealthy socialites to the ordinary, everyday Kiwis on cooking shows and dating allegedly eligible bachelors – it seems anyone can find their fifteen minutes of fame.

There has been plenty of discussions both online and off about the negative influence of celebrity culture. At times it almost feels like there is an unhealthy obsession with celebrity and fame. Certainly social media, particularly image-focused sites like Instagram, play a central role in the glorification of super-skinny, hyper-sexualised celebrities with impossible body proportions. This undoubtedly has had an influence on the rise of depression, anxiety and eating disorders – particularly amongst young people.

Although it is true, celebrities can also play a powerful role in social change. A great example of this is the support of celebrities in increasing awareness in the area of mental health in New Zealand and internationally too. Almost everyone is aware now of John Kirwin “coming out” about his depression, as well as the Like Minds Like Mine campaign.

Mike King, Denise L’Estrange Corbett, Ian Mune, Polly Gillespie and our very own Philip Patston have all spoken publicly about their experience of common mental health issues like anxiety, depression and addiction – and there are of course many, many more. While I think we still have a long way to go, celebrities have truly led the charge in increasing the awareness and conversation around mental health in New Zealand.

I’m not even a person who engages with a lot of traditional media. I deliberately don’t read or watch much news, as it’s usually relatively depressing stuff.  My work involves a certain degree of emotional input, so I try to cultivate a more positive and restorative environment in my personal time.  I don’t even watch a lot of television in general for the same reason. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person in New Zealand that hasn’t seen Game of Thrones.

But, I must admit that I do find the rise of non-traditional media interesting. It seems like anyone with a laptop, a camera and a social media account can cultivate a massive following which could garner a considerable amount of social influence.

However, I believe celebrity culture like social media is neither a good nor a bad thing inherently. Celebrities can play a role in shaping and creating our social values, but I often think they are more of a symptom than the root of the problem itself.  Those who promote certain body types and lifestyles only do so because it gets them more fans and fame.  We have a choice in creating a demand for the type of media we want to consume.

Celebrities who choose to promote a certain social cause may lead the way in creating new conversations. Perhaps it’s less about the celebrity voice and more about tapping into an existing desire for these new discourses – I’m not sure.

So what do you think?  Is celebrity culture a good thing, a bad thing, or somewhere in between?

Wilhemina’s War: Women of Color with HIV/AIDS in Rural South Carolina

Wilhemina’s War first aired on February 29th, 2016, and the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of family matriarch Wilhemina Dixon, her daughter Toni who is HIV positive, and granddaughter Dayshal who contracted HIV at birth. Filmed over a period of five years from 2009 to 2014, the feature highlights the stages of caring for loved ones with HIV/AIDS using limited resources. Despite working odd jobs to keep the family afloat, Wilhemina pours her spirit into encouraging her daughter and granddaughter to survive.

This intimate look into the daily life of women of color with HIV in rural South Carolina along with the social and political barriers they faced adds to the appeal of this 55 minute docudrama. Every person in the film whether it be the survivor, activist, social worker, politician, pastor, or resident-is impacted by HIV/AIDS.

Cassandra Lizaire, author of “S. Carolina’s Haley Slams Door on HIV Prevention”, stated that, “Wilhemina Dixon knows this devastation well. A 64 year-old great-grandmother living in the dusty backroads of Barnwell, S.C., she spends her mornings in the field picking peas before the onslaught of the midday sun. Her odd jobs provide for her family of six and she takes pride in making an earnest living. Afterwards, as she sits in the shade of her porch, far removed from the political machinations, I imagine Dixon thinks of her daughter Toni who died of AIDS last year [2011] and ponders the future of her granddaughter Dayshal, who was born with the virus.”

“In South Carolina, we are ranked eighth in the nation in the rate of AIDS. Eighty percent of all women in South Carolina living with HIV/AIDS is black. Eighty percent of all children living with HIV are black. Seventy-three percent of all men living with HIV are black. This is a black epidemic for all practical purposes,” clarified Vivian Clark-Armstead, South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council member in the film, “Wilhemina’s War.

June Cross, in the article “June Cross Tells the Story of a Family Fighting HIV in South Carolina”, chose to develop this documentary to raise consciousness and dispel myths about HIV/AIDS among African Americans in the rural South.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • In 2009, the highest number of adults and adolescents living with an AIDS diagnosis resided in the Southern part of the United States.
  • In 2010, in the South, the Northeast, and the Midwest, blacks accounted for the largest number of AIDS diagnoses.
  • At the end of 2010, the South accounted for 45% of the approximately 33,015 new AIDS diagnoses in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, followed by the Northeast (24%), the West (19%), and the Midwest (13%).
  • In 2013, an estimated 776 adults and adolescents were diagnosed with HIV in South Carolina. South Carolina ranked 17th among the 50 states in the number of HIV diagnoses in 2013.
  • In 2014, 44% (19,540) of estimated new HIV diagnoses in the United States were among African Americans, who comprise 12% of the US population.
  • In 2014, an estimated 48% (10,045) of those diagnosed with AIDS in the United States were African Americans. By the end of 2014, 42% (504,354) of those ever diagnosed with AIDS were African Americans.

The CDC implies that knowledge of the regions where HIV and AIDS have the greatest impact, informs the equitable distribution of resources for prevention and education in those areas. The CDC also suggests that its approach to the HIV crisis is driven by the 2010 National HIV/AIDS Strategy introduced by President Obama. The four main tenets of the strategy are to: lower the infection rate, expand healthcare availability and improve the quality of life for those who are HIV positive, lower HIV-related health inequalities, and attain a more organized federal approach to the HIV crisis.

However, Lisa Ko asserts in her article titled, “African Americans Hit Hardest by HIV in the South” that, “As seen in Wilhemina’s War…Governor Nikki Haley’s rejection of billions of federal dollars through the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) and cutting of $3 million in AIDS prevention and drug assistance programs has resulted in substandard or nonexistent health services, medication, and medical care.” Wilhelmina’s War brings these statistics to life as it exposes the social and political obstacles Wilhelmina and her family encounter while inspiring the audience to advocate for collective change. Wilhelmina’s War can be accessed through the PBS.org website.

To assist the Dixon family and others with HIV in the rural South, June Cross shares the following ways to get involved:

  • Cross has established a GoFundMe page for Dayshal Dicks.
  • Cross suggests that organizations involved with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and other social justice efforts connect with local HIV advocates.
  • Finally, making financial contributions to HIV foundations to help them continue their community outreach.

In my previous experience working with HIV positive clients in a residential setting, my goal was to promote a safe, drug and alcohol-free community living environment. As residents, clients could access intensive case management, group and individual counseling, and intensive outpatient addiction treatment for up to two years.  During this period, most clients were empowered to acquire and sustain permanent housing. I learned that the best thing I could do for these clients was to show empathy and treat them how I would want to be treated. The only difference between me and them was time and circumstance.

I encourage social work students, practitioners, other helping professionals, and community activists to watch Wilhemina’s War to increase awareness about the status of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the rural South.

Call The Midwife and Social Justice

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For those who follow my writing, you know I am a devoted fan of Call the Midwife.  My husband and I just finished watching the conclusion to season five and wow! While the story is quite different from the show, I fell in love with it during seasons one through three — where they were drawing from Jennifer Worth’s memoirs and based on her experiences working in London’s East End in the late 1950s — season five proved to be an amazing journey.

The season fully explores topics of social justice — issues of power, race, and misogyny. In fact, season five seems to be the point of reinvention. This is where the show decided to really take on themes that are sadly still relevant today such as queerness, the lesbian love story, poverty, how differently women have to navigate the world, and how difficult it can be for women to govern their own bodies.

From the start, season five addresses powerful topics and does not shy away from where and when people in the “helping profession” cause harm. Such is the case in episode two, which deals with breastfeeding or using formula. What is lovely is that our dear Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) is able to offer some repair work to a woman who was unable to breastfeed.

Episode three was very difficult to watch and deals with how we treat pregnant women who are not married and also takes on the issue of abortion. I strongly recommend this episode, as here in 2016 women still face so many of these same barriers. Of course, if we then look at intersecting identities, we look at how women of color and queer women may face even more barriers.

The show also takes on sex work, poverty, and the clandestine lesbian affair between Patsy and Delia. We also see the advent of the pill and how we look at women’s reproductive health and choice. I have to say that every episode is very intense and well done. I will continue to use many of the episodes in social work classes I teach, as they address what good social work can look like and what intersectionality is.

While I am exceedingly sad that our Pam Ferris has left the show, and I still miss Chummy (Miranda Hart), I am thrilled that Call The Midwife will return for a sixth season.  Rumor has it that our Chummy will return. I don’t know of another show that takes on social issues the way this show does, especially around the disparities in how we treat women. This ensemble cast continues to provide not only a narration of birth, they also give us a didactic story of health care, social work, feminism, and social justice. Each episode is like a gift — a remarkable story that is utterly compelling.

Sadly, season five is far too relevant to social issues I would have thought should have been resolved at least 40 years ago. Even more regrettable is the current discourse in the United States which is violently anti-woman, racist, anti-queer, and vilifying of people in poverty. Bloviating candidates shout epithets and invent their own reality, stirring the passions of an angry subset of the electorate. This trend is so baked into one party’s discourse that it will take a resounding electoral failure to still the voices of hate.

As an antidote, Call The Midwife gives me hope that we can find a way to reach out to our shared humanity. If you have not had a chance to watch this amazing series, I encourage you to watch at least one episode, for I know you will become addicted to this very sweet and sad story of humanity from birth to death. Well Done! Stay tuned for Season Six.

Is Mental Health Really ‘All in the Mind’?

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Recently, the mental health world of the UK has been struck by quite a debate about the nature of “mental health.” The debate concerns a BBC series called ‘In the Mind.’ An episode called The Not So Secret Life of a Manic Depressive: 10 Years On focused on Stephen Fry’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and his journey to maintain well being. Notably, the programme was entirely medical in its approach to understanding the experience of ‘bipolar’ and followed a similarly biomedical understanding of what we call post-natal depression from BBC documentary ‘My Baby, Psychosis and Me’.

Critiquing the medical ‘illness’ model of distress isn’t new. Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote about this half a century ago in his work The Myth of Mental Illness (1961). Dr Szasz believed that ‘illness’ could only be a helpful metaphor. He also suggested that the appropriation of medicine-like understandings has created a ‘psychiatry’ of pseudoscience predicated on social control.

However, recent critics included psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff, clinical psychologists Richard Bentall, Lucy Johnstone and Rufus May, and journalist Robert Whitaker in their evaluations. They all urge caution on the dangers and limitations of the medical model, particularly the over-prescriptions of drugs which can cause social and physical damage. These symptoms include white matter shrinkage, sexual problems, weight gain, sleep loss, increased suicidality, hand tremors, dribbling, numbness and a loss of concentration. Additionally, there is evidence to support the theory that antidepressants aren’t effective except in very severe cases of distress.

Others supporting this theory have developed into social movements such as Mad Pride, the International Hearing Voices Network, and Psychiatric Survivors groups. According to the National Health Services website, the process of antidepressants isn’t fully understood and antidepressants are usually used in combination with therapy to treat severe depression or other mental health problems caused by emotional distress.

The BBC programme The Not So Secret Life of a Manic Depressive: 10 Years On was released despite criticism and nuance against a simple biological understanding of distress. Stephen Fry responded to the theory in an open letter written by aforementioned clinical psychologist Richard Bentall after the show aired. The letter sent to Stephen prior to its publication is compassionate, but it also summarises the evidence of social and psychological factors contributing to the phenomena labelled ‘bipolar disorder.’

Whilst Richard Bentall’s letter has been largely welcomed, it was about a specific programme. It was built around the president of the British Psychological Society, Peter Kinderman, who has suggested that the BBC as a whole should place more emphasis on offering a diversity of perspectives on mental health. This letter has now been signed by more than 1,000 people across a range of disciplines.

The British Psychological Society’s document Understanding Bipolar Disorder says the illness metaphor can be helpful for some people. It is one way of understanding distress and it may have an important personal meaning. However, it is not the only way of understanding individuals. A biomedical sense of distress can, for some people, be disempowering. It can suggest that they are internally defective, narrow the range of options and also encourage people to feel helpless. Additionally, as the BBC programmes have demonstrated, a biomedical understanding often leads to treatments with drugs, not social support or a listening ear.

As such, the call is not for BBC media to disregard medical understandings of distress, but to place them in their proper, evidence-based context. The scientific evidence base for medical models is arguably lacking in terms of its scope, validity, generalisability, consistency and its methods – much of which is explained in Kinderman’s letter. To uncritically present medical ideas as ‘fact,’ represents a bias in the way that BBC mental health programmes are presented.

This is not to suggest the BBC is being asked to offer alternative understandings in the sense of niche or counter-culture models. There is nothing niche about a psychosocial understanding of distress. It is not a radical idea to suggest that it is likely that difficult experiences cause or exacerbate personal distress, especially when this idea is compared to the dominant model of an underlying illness which cannot be physically detected and has no consistent aetiology, trajectory or mode of expression.

Such a biomedical documentary also does not represent the real world of mental health in the UK, whereupon multidisciplinary teams often work together to support a person as part of a full and holistic understanding of distress. It doesn’t include the crucial role of Social Workers and Occupational Therapists in supporting a person’s efforts to improve their outcomes and connect with their community. It doesn’t include the role of family and partners with their loved ones when actually couples therapy for depression can be more effective than antidepressants and doesn’t cost any more money.

There is robust evidence that trauma plays a significant role in creating problems with relationships, moods and unusual experiences. More evidence shows simple changes to diet and exercise can help alleviate sadness. Positive, fulfilling interactions with other people have a huge impact on well being such as mindfulness meditation and developing self-compassion changes one’s brain structure and assist with growing the brain’s dopaminergic soothing system.

As such, a solid biopsychosocial understanding of distress suggests humans are not simply walking minds but are embodied beings. So whilst distress is experienced partly within the body, it does not mean that those problems within the body caused the distress in the first place. Even if one takes into account social or psychological triggers within a medical model, there is still the assumption that a person’s experience is what set off the biological problem, rather than the embodied distress being the problem itself.

People should be aware of the range of different models they can use to understand their distress. This allows people to seek help which works best for them.

The Dilemma of the Professional Helper: Cognitive Dissonance, Wellness, and Unhealthy Systems

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Did you ever see the movie, Jerry McGuire?  Jerry wrote a manifesto based on the ills he experienced in his sports management company in an attempt to effect positive cultural change. Do you remember how that turned out? In case you missed it, Jerry was fired.

Another similar real life story was told to me by one of my social work professors who is no longer with us in this world.  He blew the whistle on the corruption in the insurance industry in a Canadian Province which literally led to him being driven out of the province and landing in Ontario.

What Jerry and my professor shared in common was that they were driven to try and make their worlds better places.  In the end, they ended up where they were meant to be and were healthier individuals as a result of it. They rid themselves of the cognitive dissonance and incongruence of working in a system that made them mentally unhealthy and morally/ethically bankrupt.

I’ve attempted to write versions of the following article many times in my life, but fear always prevented me from sharing my perspective and from ultimately blowing the whistle on a system that is making me – and I suspect many others – ill.  I hope to generate honest discussion and thought about the current state of society and the people charged with treating society’s ills.

I am a Social Worker in my 18th year of front line practice.  As I write, I am not well.  Although in the current positive climate of mental health and wellness strategies in our society, I should not feel shame or guilt to admit this, yet I do.  In fact, it makes my skin crawl to utter the words that I am mentally ill.

Although my legitimacy as a professional helper comes from social work education and practice, there are many other people in our field who have other education backgrounds and are equally skilled in there capacity to help, so I will herein use the term “professional helper” to refer to the field generally.

My illness is of the brain and emotional regulation kind.  Diagnosed as panic disorder it is much more complicated than that for me.  While I know that I am human, I have relied on my brain and more fully my “self” to be the treatment for my clients over the years and I feel like I am somehow broken in that I am currently unable to employ my “self” to help others. Although professional helpers rely on knowledge of human behaviour and systems, the multitude of theories and interventions designed to help people in crisis during periods of suffering, those interventions flow from the professional helper.

In addition to the tangible and measurable symptoms I am currently experiencing, I believe my illness is due to much more than my personal mental health functioning.  I have felt like I have been dancing with and around a slow wave of melancholy and dysphoria trying to taint me with its toxicity for several years.

I am under no dissolution that my situation is unique, worse than, or perhaps different than that of others who treat people for a living, but in this day of digital information I find it’s further isolating that other people in similar situations aren’t out there sharing their experiences. I suspect that the lack of information about and for professional helpers isn’t there because like me, others have and continue to suffer in silence.

I finally took a medical leave – but of course like any good helper I argued with my doctor against it – after a chain of events left me in a poor state of functioning.  At the final moment before I called the time of death, my memory was defunct and my focus was non-existent.  I could no longer exude hope for those in my charge who needed hope more than anything.  The hopeless helper is not okay because we adhere to professional ethics and values which above all else necessitate that we are hopeful and active in bringing change to our clients’ lives and society as a whole.

So, in addition to my own intrapsychic mental health, what is the toxicity that I speak of?  I think there have been several factors which have combined to help me along the path to compassion fatigue or burnout or perhaps more aptly, general malaise of the existential variety.   For the purpose of brevity and significance, I will talk about three of these factors and try and explain how these have combined to break one’s spirit.

Cubicle divided offices.

Most professional helpers do not work in offices.  The cubicle or in some cases wall-less office is not an office.  In my opinion it is in fact a legitimate workplace hazard that can make people sick.  How you ask is this possible?  Allow me to explain.  It is well known that stress and traumatic stress is a measurable and real phenomena.  When one of your colleagues is particularly stressed or experiencing trauma or secondary trauma, the stress from that person or the situation that they are dealing with impacts on everyone around them.

If you have ever worked in child protection you will understand immediately what I am referring to.  Once an apprehension has been started the details of the matter and the preparations are inherently traumatizing and everyone in close proximity is impacted by that stress.  Have you ever heard a colleague learn about a devastating event on the phone?  Of course.  What is not so tangible and measurable about the modern day cubicle divided office, is who and how much a person will be affected.  Moreover, if you are an introvert, the mere effort it takes to function in a cubicle divided office is life altering.

One size fits all therapy.

Brief solution focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness based approaches are the most used modalities for therapeutic practice. Many new professional helpers may be hard pressed to be able to identify many more therapeutic modalities than those listed above and for good reason. However, these evidence based treatments which have been the focus of the profession for more than a decade have now created client outliers whose suffering continues and who feel personally responsible for their problems and suffering.

What I mean here is that some people require more time to change and heal while some people may need more evidence based tested therapeutic long term interventions. The longer term the intervention it increase opportunity to develop a stronger therapeutic relationship consisting of accurate empathy, warmth, and positive regard.  Unfortunately, the good old social work texts such as Turner and Tuner social work treatment have no place in the political and economic climate of today.

So, we have people who are once again abused by the helping system in that the conclusion left upon service users who don’t benefit from CBT may be a feeling of failure. It may seem as if they aren’t trying hard enough to change their thoughts, perhaps worse they are resistant to therapy and want to remain in suffering. Ultimately, they are discarded from therapy and left to pick up the pieces alone.

I think would be remise of me not to note that even more appalling than an adult being left after therapy feeling that it is somehow their fault that they aren’t better is the current situation for at risk children who are treated in schools.  Same situation applies.  Although the literature and research surrounding the therapeutic and developmental necessity of at risk children having a caring adult is profound, our helping systems do not support a professional helper being that person. Do we ignore the systematic oppression and poverty while using therapy to help clients cope with society and social justice issues, and how could this be successful?

So, we have children referred for counselling for a variety of reasons (depression, anxiety, domestic family violence, substance abuse, to name just a few), they aren’t cured after six sessions but they have formed a therapeutically important and significant relationship with the helper.  What do we do to these children?

We terminate therapy, and I would suggest do them harm by adding a loss and bereavement to their list of risk factors.  I personally cannot ethically do this to children and I believe many of us in the field have found ways to undermine the system so that we can remain involved with these children beyond six sessions and even for as long as it takes.  But, this comes at a cost to us because there is a great deal of stress associated with breaking the rules even when it is best for children.

The shrunken size of the world.

It is a small world after all.  We now live in a world where global trauma, anxiety, and the perpetuation of fear are common place.  It is hard not to see that our communities and more globally, the world as a whole has both benefitted from the age of technology as well as created a Pandora’s Box.  Readers familiar with the great writing of George Orwell, Adolf Huxley, and more recently, Neil Postman, will understand the dire warnings they tried to convey to humanity as a whole.  While the benefits of technology are widely known and praised, the hazards and negative outcomes for people and communities are less discussed.

For people already suffering with anxiety, for example, symptoms are increased on a daily basis by being consumers of information.  It is next to impossible not to see the world as a scary and unsafe place.  The internet tells us every day about human atrocities and the positive psychological movement which has many potential benefits cannot counter the global anxiety index.

I believe that the global anxiety index is a measurable phenomenon which raises anxiety symptoms in individuals and human systems.  One need not look very far to see the impact of the heightened and highly sustained impact of global anxiety.  We read daily about the increase in sleep disorders, anxiety in all of its forms and symptomology, depression, and all other mental health disorders are at levels not previously seen in humanity.

I believe that this new baseline of high anxiety is not sustainable and is the root cause of many of modern day illness and dysfunction.  Ironically, this is not something imposed on us by some external entity rather than the result of technology in which we have created and embraced. Postman wrote tirelessly about the negative impact of technology on human literacy and intellect.

In my experience, the cures for global anxiety – namely meditation in its many brands – work for some people but herein lies the problem.  I strongly suspect that those of us who have resisted the destruction of our thought processes are more immune to the helpful benefits of meditation and CBT strategies. Why?

In effect, modern day therapeutic strategies are based on one’s capacity to trick one’s mind into thinking positively.  Some of us just aren’t susceptible to trickery.  We have tried and tried again to adopt mindfulness and thought distortion changes in our lives but in the end, we conclude that it is not our thoughts that are distorted.  In fact, nothing is distorted and we live daily with the impact of global trauma and anxiety.

I believe further that the only potentially possible way to get through this life as a professional helper and more generally as a mentally well citizen is to revisit and readapt existentialism. Yalom and others have embraced existentialism and used it to treat people with many mental health ailments.

But, existentialism needs a revamp in the technological age because what many people struggle with is not just the notion that we are ultimately alone, but we must now examine the unretractable information technology systems we are reliant which also may serve to perpetuate our symptomology.  I will be brutally honest, I’m not sure how else we will get through this.

For sure, existentialism is a depressing ideology, but the help in it lies in the paradoxically and poorly understood and discussed end result.  If we can find a way to embrace existential tenets, eventually the suffering goes away.  But, this is a lengthy treatment and one that requires periodic revisiting. Therefore, it cannot be supported by our current mental health systems. If you can’t trick yourself into getting better, you will be discarded to the land of “it’s your fault”.

I am not sure where we proceed from here but I am finally ready and able to be the face of change if that is what is needed.

Should Russell Brand Stay Out Of Politics?

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I have a rather embarrassing admission to make. From the ages of 18 to 21 my best friend and I used to spend almost every single Sunday morning YouTubing videos of Russell Brand. We were somewhat obsessed with his stand-up comedy and both quietly confident that if he was to ever meet us, he would fall as head-over-heels in love with us as we had with him. Then, Russell began getting political.

I am not entirely sure what made me shy away from taking an interest in what he was saying but I know that, for several years, I have made a conscious effort to avoid listening to his opinions on ‘serious stuff’. Maybe it was partly because I worry about a political system based on the cult of personality, or maybe, more selfishly, I did not want to experience the fall of a hero when I realized Russell’s charm was entirely sophomoric. But as Russell’s political musings gained publicity, particularly around the issue of drugs and now the conflict in Gaza, my friends have begun insisting that I take notice.

I was filled with joy to discover that, not only does Russell speak utter sense, but also he is courageous enough to say what needs to be said, regardless of the fact it can and will impact upon him negatively. His intellect and courage are laudable but it is his love of humanity that makes him brilliant.

You do not have to agree with what Russell Brand is saying, but you cannot deny that what he is doing is incredibly important. He is promoting debate and interest in politics and the political system; a system that is failing to engage and inspire the next generation and is furtively happy with a lack of public participation.

Russell clearly recognizes the danger of apathy and knows that whilst we continue to stand with our backs turned away from politicians, business people, and media moguls, they will continue to push through personal agendas which only advantage the elite.

Russell received a great degree of criticism when he called for British people to abstain from voting, stating that:

“As long as the priorities of those in government remain the interests of big business, rather than the people they were elected to serve, the impact of voting is negligible and it is our responsibility to be more active if we want real change.” 

There were remarks made by several newspapers that Russell’s proposition was further alienating those who already lack power and was undermining British democracy. But I believe Russell is what the philosopher Cornel West would describe as a ‘deep democrat’. As Cornel states, “democracy is not so much a form of government as a set of principles.” Russell advocates for the core principles of true democracy: accountability, justice, and a fair distribution of power. Though his proposal may seem extreme, it is motivated out of a love of people and a belief that they deserve better:

“The only reason to vote is if the vote represents power or change. I don’t think it does. I fervently believe that we deserve more from our democratic system.”

With the recent online fracas between Russell Brand and Sean Hannity of Fox News, I have seen numerous Twitter comments calling for celebrities to “stay out of politics.” Such comments are missing the crux of a fair, democratic society. No one should stay out of politics. Behind fame and fortune, celebrities are people too, with personal and political beliefs which are as valid as anybody else. Whilst we should always be wary of the cult of personality, the responsibility rests with us, the receiver of celebrity opinion, to critically analyze any information we hear and make up our own minds about political issues. We cannot and should not prevent others from having their say.

What Russell is saying is not new. The fact that he has managed to wriggle himself into the diminutive group of people who can say what they want and still be published in the papers and shown on television is a game well played. It is likely that if Russell had not been a successful comedian that he would now simply be another well-meaning lefty without the platform to make the necessary change.

As Russell himself acknowledges, he is an obvious target for ridicule: “It’s easy to attack me, I’m a right twerp, I’m a junkie and a cheeky monkey, I accept it.” And I admit, at times, I squirm a little when he makes an incredibly brilliant and illuminating point and follows it up with a cheap comment for entertainment purposes. People castigate his eccentric presentation and his interweaving of jokes with serious issues for undermining the content of what he is saying. Regardless of the fact that his presentation is jocular, Brand is being listened to; the same cannot be said for many of our politicians. Sadly we are at a stage where our comedians are politically braver than our politicians.

It is a depressing reality that more attention is paid to the glitz and glam of Hollywood than is paid to the flaws in our system that mean a poor man can go to prison for falsely claiming £72 a week, whereas a rich man can get away with not paying £120million income tax. It is our reality nonetheless and one that Russell Brand is not responsible for. However, whilst he is part of the glitz and glam, it can only be beneficial that he uses his moment in the spotlight to draw attention to issues of real importance. Long may his moment last.

Mental Illness in ABC’s Black Box

ABC's Black Box
ABC’s Black Box

ABC’s Black Box premiered on April 24th with Kelly Reilly as the main character. Reilly plays Dr. Catherine Black, a brilliant neurologist, who suffers from bipolar disorder which is a chronic mental illness involving periods of mania and depression. The illness can have elated impacts on one’s mood, energy levels, and decision-making.

Those with this disorder are distinguished based on their intense highs and lows. Riley’s character is shown through the manic and depressive episodes of the illness throughout the show. The show refers to the brain as the black box, and Dr. Catherine Black is known as the curer of all neurological disorders while disregarding and hiding her own mental illness.

Catherine Black’s manic episodes conveniently occur when she’s away from work and the demands of the job. This show has brought on much controversy based on its portrayal of mental illness. Some questions I had while watching the show are:

  1. Is this a glamorized representation of mental illness?
  2. How accurate is the portrayal of Bipolar disorder?
  3. Can someone be in a 2-year relationship and hide their bipolar disorder from their partner?
  4. How can a neuroscientist hide their mental illness in the workplace without compromising their patients?

The creator of the show, Amy Holden Jones, grew up with a first hand witness to bipolar disorder. Her father was diagnosed with the illness and experienced the associated stigmas. When asked what sparked her inspiration for the show she answered:

“I’ve always wanted to get into the world of the brain, having personally lived in a family dealing with mental illness for a long time—I was 43 when my father finally died. In my era, with my father, there was so much secrecy. I never even had a conversation with him about his illness. We would live through his episodes and we’d never talk about them. He was very brilliant, high-achieving, worked 24/7 when he was younger. Then he had his first big breakdown at around 40.  He finally began taking lithium and it made such a difference in our lives—but there are a lot of things I don’t understand. Looking back, I assume he had something like high-cycling mania. When I read Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, I suspected maybe he sometimes stopped taking his medication. And I know, as a doctor, he often experimented with self-medicating.

In Kay’s book, I saw someone that had a full life, success and had mental illness. Black Box is not a show about bipolar; I only saw it as an opportunity to have a character that lived with it who had a full and interesting life. Because of my father, I did an enormous amount of reading about the brain always, people like VS Ramachandran, Steven Pinker, and Oliver Sacks, who was a big influence. What I took in most of all is that behavior is not the result of how your mother raised you, but the biology of brain you are born with. Our brains our built by our genes, just like our hair and our eyes and everything else. Read Full Article

In Defense of Justin Bieber and Other Child Celebrities

I was pretty unimpressed with the rather ugly responses to Justin Bieber’s misdemeanours back in January. Sure, some of the reactions were comical, like this YouTube video, and RuPaul’s tweet of his rather beautifully made-up mugshot in which I was told it’s transphobic appearance was no offense intended.

Justin Bieber mugshot profileHowever, an online White House petition was created to have him deported from the US, for doing something that a good many if not most teenage boys do, seems pretty mean-spirited and exaggerated to me. Particularly as Americans have, until now, been happy to claim him as their own, and I didn’t even know he was Canadian until this hit the news. According to the Daily Mail,

The petition created by a Detroit resident asking to eject 19-year-old pop star from the U.S. and have his green card revoked has drawn nearly 261,000 signatures as of Friday morning, becoming the second most popular cause in the three-year history of the White House site. At 204,500 signatures, a petition to declare the extremist Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is a distant second, followed by a plea to pardon CIA leaker Edward Snowden in third with 153,000 signatures. Read More

If it were within my influence, I’d lobby for it to be illegal for kids under 18 to be signed by record labels and Hollywood studios. Perhaps that’s an over-reaction in the other direction, but it seems that there are plenty opportunities on social media for kids to self-promote from their bedrooms, rather than being shoved in the public eye by money-making media moguls.

The blatant exploitation of child celebrities by the music, film and television industry has never sat well with me. Michael Jackson is a classic example of what happens when children are exposed to the crazy hype of modern entertainment from too early an age.

Even in NZ, the media seemed to be getting back at Lorde, for her tweets about their behaviour on her post-Grammy arrival into the country, by broadcasting explicit details of her sickness that made her 20 minutes late for her concert the same evening.

Let’s have a bit of compassion and generosity with these kids. No other 19-year-old boy would be deported for speeding on drugs and alcohol at 4am. I’m not condoning Justin’s behaviour and I know he’s considered a role model for kids. But he didn’t set out to be the model teenager — that’s a by-product of his fame, which was engineered by adults.

So, as adults we need to take responsibility for the direct and indirect consequences if we’re going to profit from putting kids prematurely in the limelight. We need to protect them, mentor them, and above all forgive them.

Compulsive Theft and Spending: The Hidden Epidemics

According to recent statistics and surveys, more than 10% of Americans shoplift. The vast majority of them shoplift not out of economic need or greed but in response to personal and social pressures in their lives. For most shoplifters, it’s not about the money or the thing–Winona Ryder proved that. Most act out of feelings of anger, loss, disempowerment, and entitlement, and many become hooked, and addicted. Nearly 70% of shoplifters arrested will shoplift again. Have you or anyone you know ever shoplifted?

Terrence A related behavior, employee theft, is even more pervasive. The American Society of Employers estimates that retailers alone lose 2-3 times as much from “internal theft” as from shoplifting and that 55% of employee theft is committed by managers and supervisors.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that 75% of employees steal from their workplace and that most do so repeatedly. Even “time theft” or loafing costs U.S. employers nearly $500 billion per year in lost productivity. The FBI calls employee theft “the fastest growing crime in America.” Have you or anyone you know ever stolen anything from the workplace?

In addition, you’ve no doubt heard Oprah, Suze Orman, or dozens of others sound an alarm about the growing problem of individual and collective debt and financial “dysfunctions.” The primary culprit is out-of-control shopping and spending. In 2006, Stanford University published the results of its landmark study which identified “compulsive buying disorder” as a phenomenon affecting 6% of Americans (nearly 18 million people).

Men and women suffer about equally from this disorder which often results in lying and hiding behaviors—similar to other addictions—as well as hoarding. Other statistics show that the average American is nearly $10,000 in debt due to discretionary purchases and that arguments about money and spending are the leading cause of conflict and separation/divorce among couples.

Have you or someone you know ever had a shopping or spending problem? What is common about shoplifting, employee theft, and over-shopping or overspending is that they have only recently been identified and treated as mental health issues. Most compulsive theft differs from kleptomania—a rare impulse control disorder that affects 6 out of 1,000 Americans, mostly women from age 20 and up, and which remains the only officially recognized diagnosis for theft behavior.

Theft is typically viewed as merely a legal or a moral issue, as in “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” With shopping or spending, we joke about “retail therapy” and label ourselves or others “shopaholics” with pride. Telling someone with a serious shopping or spending problem to just cut up their credit card is like telling an alcoholic “just don’t drink.”

As a therapist specializing in treating compulsive theft and spending and as a recovering theft addict myself since 1990, I have had the opportunity to help thousands of people over the last 16 years. In 1992 I founded C.A.S.A. (Cleptomaniacs And Shoplifters Anonymous). Only a handful of such support groups exist in the world. While there are more Debtors, Anonymous groups, around, there are no Shopaholics Anonymous groups. Most therapists fail to recognize, let alone effectively treat, people who are afflicted with theft or spending issues. Frankly, most clients themselves rarely bring them up out of fear, shame, and ignorance.

In the mental health profession, we have failed to recognize these behaviors as both widespread and treatable. On most of our basic screening forms, we assess for all sorts of problems but not about stealing or shopping/spending. It may only be when a client is formally asked “Have you ever had a problem with shoplifting, employee theft, or shopping, spending, or money?” that we, as well as the client, may recognize this as a vital and relevant issue.

It takes extreme sensitivity and competence to navigate the waters of a client who has chronic theft or spending issues. Some questions to explore are whether a client can go to stores or back to work; whether they should get rid of certain items or money and if so, when and how? What are “gray areas” they need to be alert to? How do they regain the trust of their family and friends? Indeed, many keep secrets from loved ones and wonder whether to tell at all.
Let’s take a closer look at some categories of people who steal and over-shop or overspend. Taking theft first, I have theorized there are primarily seven types of people who steal:

  • Common Thieves/Professionals — The plain opportunists who work individually or in “rings” to shoplift or steal from work purely for profit or greed. It’s a job to them, whether part-time or full-time. Most won’t benefit from C.A.S.A. or therapy. (10%)
  •  Drug Addicts/Gambling Addicts — Those who steal to support an underlying addiction. They usually need treatment for their underlying addiction(s) first but may have picked up a theft addiction along the way. (10%)
  • The Impoverished — Those who perceive that they need to steal to survive. It’s tempting to put morality on a shelf during tough times but don’t let people justify it. Explore resources and issues of pride and fear in asking for help. Often grief and loss issues are present. (10%)
  • Thrill Seekers — Mostly younger people who steal as a dare, due to peer pressure, or who are drawn to various risk-taking behaviors. They must discover how this developed and find safer, more affirming ways to experience the excitement. (10%)
  •  Absent-minded — Mostly older people, those on medications, those with cognitive disorders, or those who need to slow down their pace. Accidents do happen… but tell that one to the judge! (1%)
  • Kleptomaniacs — Those who steal impulsively, not out of anger, mostly to calm themselves when anxious. Items stolen are usually discarded, hoarded, or not even needed. Treatment usually is with medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy. (1%)
  • Addictive-Compulsives — Those who tend to get a rush from stealing but stealing is the acting out of emotions, the ritual effort to distract oneself from pain and to make life right. The stealing is the drug. Medication and therapy are often essential but may also need ongoing recovery and support. (58%)

Similarly, there are several categories of compulsive shoppers or spenders:

  • Classic Compulsives—Those who habitually overshops or overspends, especially when triggered by painful emotions or events. Shopping or spending is like a drug.
  • Bargain Shoppers—Those driven by the need to get a good deal—regardless of income level. They often feel “one up” or “victorious” and often get into debt nonetheless.
  • Image Shoppers—Those who buy things less for the inherent value of the item and more for the status of the item or the way they feel or think they will be perceived by others. Their self-esteem is all tied up in images and things.
  • Trophy Shoppers—Those who typically buy less to impress others and more to feel an inner satisfaction of buying a rare or expensive item. It becomes problematic when it takes up time and effort and money and is outward-focused satisfaction.
  • Collector Shoppers—Similar to trophy shoppers except there is usually more frequent shopping and accumulation of things to the point of hoarding. Items are often symbolic and collecting is obsessive and control-oriented.
  • Co-Dependent Shoppers—Those who buy things primarily for other people to gain or secure love or approval and to keep others from leaving. They feel their primary worth or value is in what they can give others.
  • Bulimic Shoppers—Similar to actual bulimia, these are folks who typically go on a shopping or spending binge and then feel guilt, shame, fear, or remorse and attempt to return items or things purchased. The cycle repeats over and over.

There are those who are less concerned with “things” than experiences or who may make occasional—rather than frequent—purchases that are financially excessive. Overspenders may splurge on dining out, vacations, theatre/concerts, hosting parties/weddings/gatherings, or may exceed their budget on cars, homes, an engagement/wedding ring, or other “lifestyle purchases.” With compulsive theft and spending, there are roughly ten emotional issues that often
are at the root of the person’s behavior, the fuel that is driving it. These motivations can be applied to other addictions as well.

They include:

  1. Anger — to try to take back, to make life fair
  2. Grief — to fill the void due to a loss
  3. Depression — to distract from sadness, to get a lift
  4. Anxiety/Stress — to calm fears, to comfort
  5. Acceptance / Competition – to fit in
  6. Power and Control – to counteract feeling lost or powerless
  7. Boredom/Excitement – to live life on the edge
  8. Shame/Low Self-esteem — to validate a reason to feel bad or to create a sense of competence in something even if it is a negative behavior like stealing
  9. Entitlement/Reward — to compensate oneself for over-giving or having suffered
  10. Rebellion/Initiation – to break into one’s authentic identity

I offer this work not to make excuses for stealing or over-shopping/overspending but to help us become aware that we need treatment alternatives. We need to look at the roots of these behaviors which are not merely personal or familial but are related to increased stress, materialism, emptiness, and addiction in our society and world. We need more research and new perspectives. Like with any epidemic, the longer we wait, the more we will all suffer. My hope is that with more open conversation and more resources available, we shall see a transformation in the awareness of how we view these behaviors. Then, and only then, will we attain a more honest, balanced, and abundant society and the world.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Oprah.com

WWE and KaBOOM! Partner to Keep Children Active

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Whether it be on the playground during recess or after school at a community park, children cherish their recreation time. Unfortunately, there are several neighborhoods and schools across this country where such facilities do not exist due to a lack of resources. However, WWE  has partnered with KaBOOM! to build a new playground at Woodland West Elementary School in Harvey, La.

KaBOOM! is a national non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring all children get the proper balance of active play they need to become healthy and successful young adults. Founder and CEO Darell Hammond was inspired to begin the organization after reading a 1995 Washington Post article about two local children who suffocated while playing in an abandoned car.

In his mind, the tragedy could have been avoided if only the children had a safe environment to play in. Since its inception in 1996, KaBOOM! has raised more than $200 million and led in the hands-on construction of over 2,000 playgrounds.

“We are honored to partner with WWE to help give the children of this community the childhood they deserve with this play space,” said Hammond. To kick off the project, WWE Superstar Kofi Kingston hosted a Design Day at Woodland Elementary, where the children were able to brainstorm and design various ideas for their dream playground.

The children will have their final design come to life during WrestleMania Week on Friday, April 4 when WWE Superstars, employees, and community volunteers will spend the day constructing the playground from scratch. Kingston, a 4x Intercontinental Champion, spoke at length to the children about how his adventures on the playground as a child played a significant role in fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a professional wrestler.

“Practice, dedication, and wanting to succeed; it all starts at the playground,”  he said. The playground build serves as part of WWE’s week-long lineup of community outreach activities leading up to WrestleMania 30 on Sunday, April 6 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

WWE is utilizing all its assets, including TV, live events, PSA’s, in-arena, digital and social media to generate awareness of the playground build and partnership, and the initiative ties directly into First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign

Since her husband, President Barack Obama, took office in 2009, Michelle has embarked on a comprehensive mission to bring awareness to the health of America’s children.  In addition to healthier eating habits, she cites a lack of physical activity as a major contributing factor to childhood obesity. It is recommended that children participate in at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity on a daily basis.

Recent studies have also shown a correlation between physical activity and academic performance. A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine states that children who are more active show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.

Children From Adversity: Interview with Travis Lloyd

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Children from adversity is a term often used to describe children who have experienced childhood traumas, abuse, and/or stressful conditions which could dwarf their emotional and physical growth. When we think of children from adversity, we tend to imagine children heading down the wrong path towards prison, and we often hear the horror stories of the foster care system going wrong.

What about the successes, and those who defy the odds of escaping their circumstances? Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Travis Lloyd, an artist, and motivational speaker, who had to navigate his way through many foster homes and group homes in order to get where he is today.

The experience and knowledge of a child from adversity is a valuable resource helping professionals should be utilizing more often as a source of expertise. Are we adequately measuring, identifying, and using as resources children from adversity who have escaped their childhood circumstances in order to determine what’s working and what’s not?

Children from adversity who are able to flourish despite their environment often display resiliency and survival skills many researchers still can not predict. Fortunately, Travis is using the skill sets he has developed in order to help others. I ran across Travis on Twitter when I viewed a YouTube video someone tweeted me, and I had to share his story with you.

SWH: Tell us a bit about your background, and what lead to your current role as a motivational speaker.

Travis: I have a story of Achieving Success Against All Odds, which is the mantra that I’ve built my speaking platform on.  This stems from beating the odds of the negative statistics related to foster care.  As far as my young mind could tell, I had a fairly normal life as a child. All of that changed when my parents divorced around the age of 9.  My parents had a rough divorce, as far too many people can relate to.  My father ended up in county jail due to the physical altercations and my mother wasn’t quite able to hold things together so she ended up hospitalized for her emotional instability.  My sister is six years older than me and struggled to cope as a teen.  She ended up running the streets and doing drugs so she went to drug treatment.

I ended up in two foster homes for a couple of months before my mother, sister and I relocated to Iowa, where my mother’s family is from.  Middle school was a struggle between a constantly unstable home life and bouncing in and out of a few group homes.  My aunt and uncle made a difference in my life by taking me out of that environment and giving me a permanent home to live in when I was about 14.  I stabled out in high school, but still struggled with some identity issues when I went away to college.  I started as a business major, but switched to nursing to have a guaranteed good income upon graduating.  I started a career as an ER nurse at the same time as taking custody of my 9 year old nephew.  I wasn’t satisfied working long hours in a high stress environment so I sought other ways to spend my time.  I ended up volunteering for a foster care empowerment program where after only 3 weeks I became the regional program facilitator.  Soon after that, I realized there was a need for people to speak and inspire foster youth and launched my first website.

SWH: When you are sharing your story, what is the reoccurring narrative or feedback you receive from your audiences?

Travis: People often share comments like “your message was very inspiring and encouraged me to stay true to my dreams. I really feel like you touched the hearts of every single person in the room.” I always get a few people who said that they started crying.  Most of these people are the ones who can relate to the childhood struggles or have a close friend or family member who has been through similar things.  They love seeing that “its possible” to overcome and succeed.

SWH: What do you believe are some of the biggest barriers and challenges facing our youth?

Travis: A lack of inspiration for dreaming and a lack of encouragement from the adults in their lives.  There’s a difference between being supportive through providing basic needs versus providing all of the unconditional love and compassion that encourages someone to never see a glass ceiling.  The majority of our youth haven’t had the basics of how to be successfully demonstrated to them.  It’s hard to do something that you’ve never seen before.  And if you don’t have a dream, or feel like your dreams are unrealistic, then what’s the point in staying on the grind?

SWH: How do you feel hip-hop helps you to reach youth who have difficulty opening up to adults?

Travis: I see how drastic of a difference there is with the varied approaches to youth on a regular basis.  I actually still work part time as a mental health crisis worker.  I do psychiatric evaluations for people who are suicidal, homicidal, psychotic, or otherwise in emotional distress.  Sometimes I run into teens who won’t talk to the police officers or any of their friends or family.  When I am able to take off my “professional” hat and talk in their language they almost always start to open up to me.  Sometimes I’ll even spit something a-cappella or encourage them to share something creative of their own.  It is pretty simple.  People open up to people they can relate to. Being able to relate to people from different ages, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds is key.

SWH: What future aspiration do you have, and where do you hope this path leads you?

I plan to expand the reach of the message “Achieving Success Against All Odds” into books, audiobooks, hophop CD’s, and training videos.  I recently released my first ever music video for the song “Take Me Away” and plan to produce several more music videos with inspirational messages related to topics that are relevant to youth, social service, child welfare, and mental health advocacy.  As this brand grows, I will expand my company Changing Lives Entertainment to hold hip hop events that make a difference and have a speaker’s bureau for speakers in various markets with similar goals.  Sometime down the road, I will go back to grad school and potentially pursue a doctoral program.  I also have a dream of being the next Dr. Phil.

You can learn more about Travis Lloyd by visiting www.travislloyd.net or visit him on Twitter at @travislloyd

Remembering a Pioneer: Desi Arnaz

Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III or Desi Arnaz for short was born on March 2, 1917 in Santiago de Cuba . He migrated to the States in the 1930s because his parents wanted to escape Morales’ dictatorship in Cuba. Desi Arnaz became the first Latino role model in the United States as a result of his role on the popular tv show “I love Lucy”.

Desi Arnaz or Ricky Ricardo as he was known to the American viewing audience of the 1950s was a Cuban who moved to the United States as a band leader and served in WWII as an American Citizen which was an era of deep seeded racism and discrimination.

With his thick Cuban accent, Desi was well aware of the racism that existed in the United States. I Love Lucy was significant because it depicted the first interracial couple on television in America.  The show used light-hearted humor and likable personalities to portray this interracial couple trying to make their way in the world. I Love Lucy premiered three years before the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. The United States was still segregated and it took Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz 2 years to get their show on the air because of the controversy it would cause.
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During his time, Desi was not often thought of as a Latino hero or role model. The interesting part about I Love Lucy was that this was not a manufactured TV couple. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were married in real life:

“ In an era dominated by racial strife, it says something about the man, his wife, and the audience that allowed them into their home. In the end, his Cuban heritage became a source of pride as opposed to the butt of jokes.”  Wrote Don Keko of the Examiner.

In remembering the sitcom, many people can pull out racial humor by making fun of Arnaz’ accent, but in the end, Desi Arnaz played a genuine character that transcended the racial prejudices of the day and warmed the hearts of all in such a racially divided time. Today, modern Latino entertainers work to improve the image of Latino families and Latino stereotypes.

We must not forget pioneers such as Desi Arnaz who used his career to improve the image of Latino males in the 1950s at the height of discrimination and racial tension. Through comedy and likability, Arnaz and Lucille Ball were able to provide a picture of a thriving interracial relationship where both partners respected one another while taking on hot social issues of their era with grace and comedic timing.

Mary Lambert Releases “She Keeps Me Warm” Video

Last fall, LGBTQ individuals and allies found solace and strength when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released “Same Love,” The fourth single off of their album “The Heist,” featuring Seattle based singer/songwriter Mary Lambert. The song was recorded during the campaign for Washington Referendum 74, the ballot measure that legalized gay marriage in the state of Washington. “Same Love” became an anthem for gay rights activists across the country, a rallying cry for legalization and recognition of same sex marriages. The single topped out at number #11 on the Billboard top 100 charts but reached #1 in Australia and New Zealand.

Mary Lambert co-wrote the song and composed the hit’s hook chorus in less than 2 hours. Mary Lambert a self-taught pianist from age 6, pulled her inspiration for the song from her personal experiences.

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Lambert had a tumultuous upbringing she and has spoken candidly about the abuse she suffered as a child.  “I had a pretty traumatic childhood,” she said.  “I ended up being a depressed eight-year-old.  I was really, really sad.”   Desperately in need of an emotional outlet, Lambert’s obvious choice was music, an inclination that runs in her family.  “We always had a piano in the house, and Mom always had her guitar,” she added.  Lambert continued to struggle with overcoming sexual abuse, bipolar disorder, and realizing her sexuality, but said she considers music to be what she can pinpoint as, “an immediate turnaround.”

Lambert was raised Pentecostal, and saw firsthand the prejudices many within the church have against the gay community when her mom came out as a lesbian.  “My mom started dating women when I was six,” she said, “and the church ostracized us.”  Growing up in poverty, their forced severance from the church took not only a toll on their faith-based lives, but also on their finances.  “We were sort of a charity family, and so we lost all of that, and that connection to that community.” read full article

After the unprecedented success of “Same Love,” Mary embarked on a journey to expand on the story glimpsed in “Same love”. With the support of co-collaborators Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, she wrote and recorded a beautiful extension to the hit song, “She keeps me Warm.” The new song was released nationwide in July.

Today exclusively on the Billboard Music website, Mary Lambert released the video to accompany “She keeps me warm.” In the interview with Billboard Mary described her motivation, and inspiration for the video.

“Two years ago, I did an extensive YouTube search for a mainstream music video that depicted a lesbian relationship,” she says. “I was disappointed, shocked and a little hurt that I couldn’t find a single one. Sure, there were hot girls rolling around in lingerie, girls briefly holding hands, or something involving a man. Lesbians were used as shock value. This video came to fruition with an all-queer female crew who shared my vision. It was an incredible experience.” read full article

Mary Lambert will be performing along with her co-collaborators, the nationwide hit, “same love,” at the Video Music Awards this coming Sunday Night. The VMA’s will broadcast live on MTV on August 25th at 9pm/8pm Central. Follow the link below to view the exclusive premiere on the Billboard Music website, before its wide release at noon on August 25th.

Samuel L. Jackson Will Host the Fifth Annual Shooting Stars Gala to Benefit the Alzheimer’s Association

Former social worker and Django Unchained actor, Samuel L. Jackson, has announced that he will be hosting for five years running the Fifth Annual Shooting Stars Gala 2013 with this year’s donations benefiting the Alzheimer’s Association. Mr. Jackson’s decision to continue hosting the event each year in its five year existence shows his commitment to lending his celebrity to promoting worthy causes. The Samuel L. Jackson Foundation is responsible for organizing the event in order to raise donations for various worthy causes.

This year’s event is especially important to Mr. Jackson due to the tragic loss of his mother in 2012 after a long battle with the disease. The goal of the Samuel L. Jackson Foundation is to raise money that will be put towards research for Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Mr. Jackson makes a passionate plea to help him raise donations and awareness for the Alzheimer’s Association.

There are only 12 days left to make a donation before the event, and Mr. Jackson is asking for donations of $3.00 or more. Let’s show this fellow social worker turned celebrity that we got his back on this, and you can make a donation using this link.  I guess that I should mention that a $3 dollar donation will also enter you to win tickets and a plane trip to the UK to attend the event. For more information on the shooting stars event, you can visit http://www.shootingstarsbenefit.com

Affinity Real Estate was chosen to be the event’s primary sponsor, and it will be held on June 14th and 15th at The Grove luxury resort in London, United Kingdom. The Shooting Star’s event is a charity golf tournament packed with other compassionate celebrities willing to lend their personas to help raise awareness for important causes. Here is an excerpt from the Alzheimer’s Association website to help you become familiar with the good work they do in fighting this incurable disease:

The Association is the leading voice for Alzheimer’s disease advocacy, fighting for critical Alzheimer’s research, prevention and care initiatives at the state and federal level.  We diligently work to make Alzheimer’s a national priority.  Join our effort.

  • We develop policy resources, including Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures and Changing the Trajectory of Alzheimer’s Disease, to educate decision makers on the economic and emotional toll that Alzheimer’s takes on families and the nation.
  • Our advocates engage elected officials at all levels of government and participate in our annual Alzheimer’s Association Advocacy Forum, a march on Capitol Hill to meet with elected representatives.
  • With our chapters, we work to pass legislation at the federal, state and local level.  Learn More

 

Photo Credit: Freedom Bay St. Lucia

Jackie Chan’s Dedication to Charity is Amazing

Jackie Chan Sits With Kids As They Learn

Many of us know Jackie Chan as one of the most memorable actors of our generation. His stunts have dazzled people for decades. Although his role as an actor may be what we remember him by, his dedication and loyalty to charity are just as amazing as him leaping off of a building onto a moving train.

In 1988, Jackie Chan founded The Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation. A foundation that aids Honk Kong’s occupants by offering scholarships, medical services, and assisting with natural disasters and illness. In October of 2002, Jackie also founded The Dragon Heart Foundation.

The foundation is driven to fulfill the needs of the less fortunate populations in China. Since the foundation’s birth, it has helped build over a dozen schools. The organization has also raised over one million dollars toward the education of poor kids and reached out to the elderly by donating warm clothes and wheelchairs.

Dragon Heart Foundation School
School Building Funded by The Dragon Heart Foundation

Chan’s long list of charity work is truly one of the more amazing things any man could do for his country. Below is a list of charity work and events he has sponsored from 2010 to 2011.

  • Organized “Love Without Borders 3/11 Candlelight Gala” to benefit Japan earthquake/tsunami victims.
  • Donated books to poor children in Qindao, China
  • Raised US $2 million for the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation in Hong Kong
  • Ninth Annual Bazaar Charity Night sold Jackie Chan’s Dragon’s Heart
  • Richard Mille watch for US $800,000
  • Attends Wuhan Charity Concert
  • Hosted the “Believe in Love” charity event in Beijing
  • Sponsored Dragon’s Heart Summer Camp in Beijing
  • Donated 5 million RMB (US $732,000) to help Haiti earthquake victims.
  • Worked with WildAid to support preservation of endangered tigers.
  • Donation of school supplies to “Charming Schools” in China
  • Raised US $5.2 million in donations for the Singapore Thong Chai Medical Institution
  • Helped raise US 29 million for drought relief in China.
  • Visited Qinghai, China to bring food, water, and supplies to victims of the April 14, 6.9 magnitude earthquake
  • Participated in the “Artistes 414 Fundraising Campaign” concert to raise money for victims of the April 14th earthquake in China
  • Charity mission to Tongren in the Guizhou province of China to bring much-needed water and supplies to the drought-stricken area.

This list can’t even begin to sum up the hard work and dedication that Jackie Chan has put into charity. It gives you some insight into what change he has made in only a small period of time. Jackie Chan’s dedication to charity is still as strong as it has ever been.

University of Kentucky Social Work Student Lands Role on New BET Series Being Mary Jane

Although he is not a household name yet, University of Kentucky College of Social Work Student, Trey Lindsey, landed a role in the original BET series “Being Mary Jane” starring Gabrielle Union.  I was able to catch up with Trey for an interview with SWH as a result of an impromptu Twitter exchange.  Trey was excited to do his part in using his soon to be celebrity status to help bring some visibility to social work.

It was a great interview, but what struck me most about Trey’s responses is that he still self-identifies as a social worker although actor is probably more appropriate.  Trey’s character is a superstar pro-athlete from Tennessee who gets suspended for six games for testing positive for Adderall. Being Mary Jane will begin airing sometime this Spring. You can follow Trey on Twitter using @treylindsey.

Trey Lindsey SWH: Tell me a little about your background and why you chose social work as a major.

Trey: Well, I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I had a great upbringing as a child and caught the acting bug at a very young age. I have three older siblings; two sisters and a brother. I am of course the baby of the clan. I came to the University of Kentucky (UK) originally wanting to major in Broadcast/Communications and switched my major a few times until I fell comfortably into the College of Social Work. I have a strong passion for helping others. I know what it’s like to struggle and have the odds against you, so helping others and giving back in some capacity has always been a priority for me. I believe social work allows me to do that among many other things.

SWH: Tell us about your social work program, and what kind of school projects have you been working on.

Trey: The Social Work program at UK is great. It’s one of the smaller colleges at the university so everyone pretty much knows one another. The professors are very hands on and provide great resources for the students to use. With being a male in the field though, you kind of find yourself outnumbered when it comes to the ratio of male to female. It was a little difficult for me to get use to only because I had never had classes before with all females. Being an African American male in a college full of majority Caucasian females, it was definitely an environmental adjustment for me lol. However, I have grown used to it.

I haven’t really been working on too many school projects. Mainly,  you can catch me writing research papers constantly and interning at my practicum which is where a lot of my free time is utilized.

SWH: Is there any crossover between your social work skill set and acting skill set? 

Trey: I believe there is a great relationship when it comes to my social work skill set and acting skill set. What I’ve learned about the Social Work profession is that you have to be a great listener. You want to meet clients at their levels and always follow the Code of Ethics, and lastly, always be professional.

When it comes to acting, you’re a professional and you have to behave as a professional at all times. It’s a very demanding profession that requires a lot of discipline, focus, confidence, determination and perseverance. When I’m on a set filming, I am focused 100% on doing my job. Acting uses the “Give and Receive” method that I find useful in the social work profession as well.  

SWH:  How did you prepare for your role, and how did you get your big break? 

Trey: Well once I’ve been hired for a role, I usually prepare myself mentally by learning everything I can about the character and transforming myself into it. I’ll read the script word by word at least twice from front to back, and dissect on a separate sheet of paper some of the emotions and different view points on how the character may respond to a particular given situation. Once it’s time to film though, I zone out. I’m all about performing to the best of my ability and listening to the direction of the director. I try to stay in character even in-between takes and blocking so that everything stays fluid and realistic when it’s time to start filming again. A lot of people don’t know this, but I HATE being in my trailer! Haha

I would much rather be on set watching everything and learning as much as I can behind the scenes. The film industry is its own world that has its own language and set way of doing things. I am truly in my most comfortable state when I am on a set filming. It’s my passion, it’s my world, and it’s what brings me a level of contentment and happiness that words can’t describe.

I guess my introduction to the big leagues was when I filmed on “Big Momma’s: Like Father, Like Son” with Martin Lawrence. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot because of it. As an actor, you want to always be progressing in your career, and I am blessed to say that so far.  God is providing me with amazing opportunities. 

SWH: Even though, you are entering show business, are you open to doing any public service announcements or using your celebrity in the future to educate about social work?

Trey: Absolutely! I’m not one who’s focused on the title of being a celebrity. Quite frankly, it’s a false illusion. If the privilege of having that title allows me to educate, advocate, and bring awareness to others about certain issues affecting our world, then I think that’s AWESOME.

The Social Work profession does not receive its due credit or recognition in the way it should. It has a very negative stereotypical image that was created by the media, and I want nothing more than to be a contributor to turning that image around.  I would be honored to show people just how passionate we social workers are about helping others in need.

 

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