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psychology

Outdoor Schooled

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I got back last week from a trek out into the California redwoods to visit my brother. He’s a teacher at an outdoor education school, where students spend a week exploring the forest and Pacific coast as a state-mandated part of fifth grade curriculum.

Aside from seeing my baby bro all grown up and kicking ass in a highly challenging job, it was a cool policy to see in action. Here in 2016, us humans are growing more aware of the damage we’re doing to the natural world. But we’re also regaining our awareness of the benefits of being connected to it. Studies have found, for instance, that tree density is correlated with human health, and that nature walks mitigate ruminative thoughts. In California, I was surprised to see how much ten-year-olds (many of them who lead pretty difficult lives back home, including the kid silhouetted against the sea anemone in this photo) were connecting. They absorbed themselves in plucking edible plants from the forest floor, writing in journals under giant trees, and turning over rocks to find hermit crabs.

I had thought today’s kids would already be too cool for this by fifth grade, but no: my brother joked that he and his fellow teachers measure their performance each week according to the proportion of kids crying at the end of it. So maybe more of school should happen outdoors, no?

When I Dream It’s Hounds On My Heels…

The world gets a little bit big and scary when you stop taking Zoloft. It’s been a week, and my go-to emotion since then has often been fear: fear that my boss thinks I’m doing a poor job at work, fear that friends are upset over tiny transgressions, fear that the client who dislikes me is a threat to my physical safety. I have to work to avoid thinking that my wellbeing isn’t constantly at imminent risk.

I started taking the medication a year ago as a ploy to regain control over my own brain, haunted incessantly by demons far more potent than the ones described above.

But that strategy came with a cost. SSRIs have a way of making you feel, as a friend put it, “zombified”—cut off from much of the emotional range that gives life its zest. Coming back from that has been unspeakably satisfying. Sights and sounds and moments have a depth that, for much of the past year, I struggled to experience and almost forgot even existed. I have more energy.  Conversations are more rewarding. I feel more creative, more compassionate. It’s like the minute when “Wizard of Oz” suddenly flips from black and white into full color.

I’ve opted for the full-color world, even if it means being a little jumpy for a while. Despite this rocky transition, the medication unquestionably worked—I can handle the anxieties on my own, and I’m sure they will diminish as time goes on. I couldn’t have said that a year ago.

How We Connect

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Forgive the poor photo quality. I took it with my phone on a moving Metro train. Caption reads: “Cable. It’s more than TV. It’s how we connect.”

A bit scary, no? The ad is more than a bit hyperbolic, but there’s a grain of truth here. It’s empirically true that less human interaction these days is face-to-face; more and more is digital. For a thoughtful stab at the trouble with this trend, see Sherry Turkle in the New York Times.

Making Cents: Rep Payee Clients Tackle Financial Literacy

From my day job:

Have you ever seen an $800 gas bill? Michael Jones has. A year ago, this DC resident was having trouble getting his bills paid, and the gas and electricity in his apartment had been cut off. He came to our Representative Payee Program for help.

“I came to this program because I wasn’t managing my money correctly,” Jones said. “I had my electric cut off because I wasn’t paying that, my gas cut off because I wasn’t paying that. I was back on my portion of the rent that I had to pay. I just wasn’t showing responsibility.”

Read the rest at Bread for the City.

More on the Shooting

David Brooks is the token conservative columnist at the New York Times, and I don’t agree with him often. I was really pleased, though, to see this in his column today:

“It’s probably a mistake to think that we can ever know what ‘caused’ these rampages. But when you read through the assessments that have been done by the F.B.I., the Secret Service and various psychologists, you see certain common motifs.”

He goes on to cite delusions, schizophrenia, megalomania, fractured self-esteem, depression, and suicidality as recurring themes among rampage killers like James Holmes. If we are going to prevent future Auroras, Brooks says we need a more assertive network of mental health treatment.

I’m 100 percent on board so far. But this is where he gets into trouble:

“The crucial point is that the dynamics are internal, not external. These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones. Yet, after every rampage, there are always people who want to use these events to indict whatever they don’t like about society.”

He’s sly about it, but Brooks is scoring some big ideological points here. If “the dynamics are internal” to the brain chemistry of troubled killers, then we need not worry that the rat race of a society we’ve created deserves some of the blame. The American capitalist system may be unequal and it may be alienating, but it has nothing to do with what happened last week.

The problem is that mental illness doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s deeply intertwined with environmental, “external” factors. For instance, this study mentions the link between changing life circumstances (“a lost job, a divorce or a school failure,” as Brooks puts it) and depression. There are also well-documented correlations between depression and socioeconomic status. And some researchers have raised questions about child abuse’s link to schizophrenia.

The risk of child abuse is of course exacerbated by an unstable family life, which is often triggered by economic insecurity, which is aggravated by a shrinking social safety net and so on and so on. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to say capitalism is the true culprit here. But this is starting to sound a lot more like sociology, isn’t it?