Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How do we prevent violence? That has been one of the myriad questions that have been asked on this Tuesday following that awful Monday on which so many died. I have no idea how what happened yesterday could have been prevented. But I have some thoughts and I'll share them.

I worked fourteen years in mental health. I have many stories to tell. Here are two.

I was a counselor on a locked psychiatric unit in western Massachusetts. One day, as I was about to walk off the unit and go to lunch, another counselor rushed out of a room.

" She's in the bathroom, she has a razor! "

I walked into the room and saw the patient, a woman named Tina, sitting on the floor of the bathroom. She had a double edged razor in her hand and was holding it to her wrist.

" Tina, what are you...! "

Then I caught myself. My tone of voice was all wrong. Anger and authority had no place here. I calmed down and said, " Talk to me, Tina. What's going on here? "

She said a few words. I said a few words. Then I looked over my shoulder at the crowd that had gathered behind me. Two psychiatrists, five or six nurses, three or four counselors and a social worker stood there. Watching me talk to Tina. Who continued to hold the blade to her wrist.

One of the shrinks edged his way into the doorway. Said something to Tina, I can't recall exactly what he said. Then a nurse said something. Tina wasn't responding with words, but her body language spoke to me and I didn't like what it said.

Fuck this, I said to myself. Way too much talk and no action. I walked over to to one of the two beds in the room. Grabbed a blanket. Wrapped the blanket around my right arm. Walked back over to the the bathroom and said, " Excuse me. "

I reached into the bathroom, extended my arm, which was wrapped in that blanket, toward where Tina was sitting on the floor.

" I want you to place the razor blade here, on my arm, " I said. " I want you to do it right now. "

And she did.

A potentially violent situation defused.

About an hour after this happened the charge nurse came up to me. Said he heard the medical director say to the nursing supervisor, " Terry did a hell of a job. "

The medical director never said anything to me. The nursing supervisor never said anything to me. I didn't get a pat on the back. And the charge nurse? He didn't comment on the job I had done. All he did was pass on the information about what the medical director said to the nursing supervisor.

That's story #1. Here's story #2.

I was working part-time at a group home in Rhode Island. I was working alone, the other staff who was supposed to be there had taken a break. Left to run some kind of errand. It was dinner time. The eight residents were all in one room, the dining room, eating dinner. I was in the living room, observing the residents. Making sure they didn't choke on the food. Trying to make sure they didn't start fighting.

When two of them starting yelling at each other. The resident who was being called names got up from her chair, rushed over to the guy who was calling her names, and started to punch him. She was a large woman, a strong woman, an angry woman who, I think, would have killed him...

If I didn't rush up behind her and grab her arms. I'd been in situations like this before, on the pysch unit. I'd been a certified violence prevention instructor. I knew what to do and I did it. Long story short, I got the two separated and got someone to call 911. The cops came.

Situation defused.

This happened in November of 2004. Since then I never heard from the higher ups in the organization. No one in charge of the residential program ever acknowledged what I had done. A rank and file staffer told me, after the incident occurred...

" You saved his life! "

But as far as the powers that be were concerned, the incident never happened. No one said, " Nice job. "

Sour grapes? Far from it. I don't need validation. But some people might. Some people, who are working hard to prevent violence from happening. In their workplace. In the home. On the campus...

Need to get a pat on the back. Need to hear, " Nice job. "

How do we prevent violence? It's a large question. I have no idea what could or should have been done in Virginia. All I know is what I know from my own experience.

I did a good job. And wasn't recognized for having done a good job.

What's wrong with that picture?


Kimi said...

You have hit on so much truth in this post that I'm having a hard time knowing where to begin in the sea of possible comments.

First, thank you. You are someone who has served your country on the frontlines of the homefront. Few people understand let alone acknowledge how important that is. When you give people an alternative to violence, some human respect, and a way to save face they generally take it. You showed that. And once they try something new the odds that they will lash out at someone out in the "real world" start to decrease a little. Well, that's true if a few other people reinforce what you do. Unfortunately, the mental health world often gives conflicting messages. But thank you for doing your part to make the outside world a little less violent for everyone.

I know what you mean about not needing to be validated because at one level the observable outcomes matter, not what people say. BUT the kind of work you did takes emotional energy that needs to be refueled from time to time. In the long run, the synergy of human connection is necessary for that. Secondary trauma, common among caregivers, is largely ignored. It's a shame. We waste much human potential because we get so focused on blame that we forget to support the good. It's not that hard to catch people doing something right, yet we don't like to do it. I think some people are afraid that acknowledging other people's strengths will somehow make them weaker.

As for preventing violent tragedies, I've been thinking about that for a long time because in the late 80s, I saw the most vulnerable population of young kids in Connecticut start to grow more violent. The things that are happening today seemed inevitable then but somehow seemed too horrible to actually happen. What was seen as "normal" was far tamer then, and no one was willing to look at the signs pointing to the future downward shift of the bell curve.

A lot can be done to prevent future violence. I can't put it in blog-sized soundbites, though. I do know this: the answers are either right in front of us or pretty close by. The first steps just takes a willingness to observe, ask, and build solutions together. We've got to get away from the blame game. We've all got a part to do. It's not for someone else "out there" to solve. We have to stop dehumanizing each other.

Terrence said...

Thanks Kimi

Kimi said...

I'm starting to notice that the problem goes beyond people failing to acknowledge positive behavior. I think a good number of people actually resent compassion. Two things have happened to me recently to illustrate this.

First, I was driving home late at night, and a mouse or some small critter ran in front of my car. A car was coming the other way, so I was unsure as to whether I had run over the mouse or not. As I drove on, I wondered about it, and then I just wanted to know what had happened and whether the thing was suffering half-alive in the road. So, I turned around and checked. I found nothing, then headed home, chapter closed, or so I thought. When I later told this story, I was met with disdain, scolding, and accusations. Okay, I can see people thinking going back to check on a mouse is not something that they would do. Heck, I almost didn't. But, I was glad I did. It felt right. But why does that behavior need to be so upsetting and offensive to people who weren't even involved? Compassion envy?

The second incident happened tonight. I was at Barnes & Noble and asked whether they carried Fair Trade coffee. As is almost always the case when I ask such things, the counter staff asked me to repeat myself because they had never even heard of Fair Trade before. (That in itself is amazing. In a place where people actually read books, you would hope that at least a couple people a day would ask about the ethical standing of their coffee.) I briefly explained what Fair Trade coffee was, which then led the man standing next to me to make some negative comments, the gist of which was that I shouldn't be concerned about the farmers in foreign countries because farmers in this country are in bad shape, particularly in Appalachia. Well ya know, I would be totally glad to support Appalachian coffee growers should the climate get warm enough for shade-grown coffee in Appalachia. Anyway, I talked to the guy a bit. Turns out he used to be a farmer and they lost the family farm. He seemed much happier when I understood what that was about.

Lots of people just seem to act like there's not enough compassion to go around. It's like compassion for anyone or anything else is stealing from them.