North America & Oceania

Options for People with Mental Illness in America Continue to Decline

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

Washington, D.C., U.S. – Psychiatric Services published a study that estimates about 3.4% of Americans suffer from some sort of serious psychological problems. That amounts to over 8 million Americans, roughly the population of New York City.  What’s worse is that there is a severe shortage of inpatient care in the United States which continues to rise wit the number of people suffering from psychological problems.

Psychiatric hospitals across America continue to shrink in number. Photo Courtesy of Paul Sancya.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that works to remove treatment obstacles for people with mental illness, published a study finding that, in 2012, there were only 50,509 state psychiatric beds. In raw numbers, that means that there were only 14 beds available for every 100,000 people suffering from a mental illness.

“Many times individuals who really do require intensive psychiatric care find themselves homeless or more and more in prison,” said Dominic Sisti, director of the Scattergood Program for Applied Ethics of Behavioral Health Care at the University of Pennsylvania“Much of our mental health care now for individuals with serious mental illness has been shifted to correctional facilities.”

Of the facilities that are still up and running today, many do not accept insurance. Considering most cost upwards of $30,000 a month, many people cannot afford the care. For low income individuals, their only hope is that they qualify for Medicaid. But even Medicaid has its limits. A provision in the law prevents the government from paying for long term care in such institutions.

Since so many cannot afford the care that they need, many end up in the emergency room during a mental health crisis. “We are the wrong site for these patients,” Dr. Thomas Chun, an associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at Brown University, told NPR last year. “Our crazy, chaotic environment is not a good place for them.” Usually, hospitals only take people who need such care for up to 72 hours. At that point, they are released back into the community.

Over the last decade, the disappearance of such long term care facilities and psychiatric beds has increased. This is because of a trend in deinstitutionalization in the 1950’s and 60’s that has continued through today.”State hospitals began to realize that individuals who were there probably could do well in the community,” says Sisti. “It was well-intended, but what I believe happened over the past 50 years is that there’s been such an evaporation of psychiatric therapeutic spaces that now we lack a sufficient number of psychiatric beds.”

One place people may find new support is Nonprofits. NAMI Appalachian South, a regional chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is one such nonprofit in North Carolina.

For more information, please see:

Smokey Mountain News – Nonprofits Offer Support, Funding to Mental Health – 21 February 2018

North West Herald – President Donald Trump’s Focus on Mental Health After School Shooting Denounced – 19 February 2018

NPR – How the Loss of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led to a Mental Health Crisis – 30 November 2017

1 Tweet Brought 120 Volunteers to Shovel Snow for Elderly

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

CHICAGO, United States – Many elderly people struggle to get out of their homes following snowy weather. Particularly, those with asthma, neuropathy, and oxygen tanks. This was the case after snowy weather in Chicago on the weekend of February 10th. Many of these senior citizens called Jahmal Cole about their inability to shovel their drive ways and side walks. “When you’re getting emails and calls, you don’t want to let people down,” said Cole. “I wasn’t trying to make a campaign. This was literally me trying to help out my neighbors. We had to organize on the spot,” he said.

Chicagoan Jahmal Cole is a community organizer in Chatham who runs the non-profit, My Block My Hood My City. He runs it without office space and only two full time staff members. My Block My Hood My City both organizes and brings teenagers from under-served communities on different field trips. With one tweet, Cole called for volunteers to help clear the snow of elderly neighbors in Chatham . That one tweet was retweeted more than 22,000 times and liked over 64,000 times.

What did that tweet say? “Meet me at the 79th St. Red Line stop at 10:00 am tomorrow. I got hoodies, hats and lunch for anybody that comes through.” The following morning, 120 people showed up offering to help shovel, some even bringing shovels of their own. “The people who showed up, they showed that whether people have privilege or don’t have privilege, everyone recognizes a need,” said Cole. Cole had brought 10 shovels and his 15 person van. With all the volunteers, he had to go buy more shovels. Then, he sent the volunteers to dozens of addresses that needed snow removal.

Jahmal Cole and 120 volunteers shoveled snow for the elderly in a Chicago neighborhood. Photo Courtesy of Jahmal Cole.

The volunteers came from all over, including Rogers Park, Roseland and even Indiana (a two and a half hour bus ride away). Men and women of all ages shoveled for more than four hours. The next day, 11 more people showed up. About his efforts, Cole said, “My mindset is always, ‘What’s something simple that I can do that’ll have a positive impact on my block and my neighborhood’? You don’t have to have a law degree to shovel your neighbor’s walkway.”

When all was said and done, Cole and the all of the volunteers went out to lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. “I’m proud of our city. We’re getting things done,” Cole said. “People could have been doing anything in the world. They could have been home with families or making snowmen, but they came out to help.”

For more information, please see:

KMOV – How 1 Tweet inspired 120 People to Shovel Snow for the Elderly – 14 February 2018

CNN – How 1 Tweet Inspired 120 People to Shovel Snow for the Elderly in a Chicago Neighborhood – 13 February 2018

Independent – Chicago Man’s Tweet Asking for 10 Volunteers to Help Clear Snow for Elderly Draws 120 After Going Viral – 13 February 2018

VA won’t Change Their Motto for Gender Neutrality

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA – A quote from America’s 16th President currently stands as the motto for Veterans Affairs. In his second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln stated, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” The language of this quote has been under fire by many who believe it is outdated and/or sexist. IAVA Executive Director Allison Jaslow wrote a strongly worded letter in October of 2017. The letter went unanswered by VA Secretary David Shulkin. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also called on VA Secretary David Shulkin in November to change the motto.

For the last 59 years, the VA motto has been a quote from President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Photo Courtesy of Stars and Stripes/ Veterans Affairs.

Despite the outcry for change, a spokesperson for Secretary Shulkin’s office stated that the VA will continue to use it’s motto. “[The] VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all,” Secretary Shulkin’s spokesperson said. In response to the spokesperson,  Jaslow said, “They’re missing the point — that women don’t feel comfortable at the VA. That action enshrined not only a motto, but a culture too that often renders women veterans invisible at the agency, even to this day. Every day that the VA preserves this motto, it ignores and obscures the needs of far too many women veterans.”

There are many who think the VA has bigger problems to deal with right now rather than the currentness of the motto. Some of those problems include the long wait time for appointments and various scandals. Some of these scandals are centered around women. One such scandal was a Facebook group of over 30,000 members sharing pictures of nude female service members without their consent.

A study was also recently posted by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine which stated that many female combat veterans said that they weren’t believed about their war experience and often belittled by VA doctors. The study was conducted over 4 and a half years and focused on VA mental health services.

The director of the VA Center for Women Veterans, Kayla Williams, responded to the pleas from IAVA to change the motto. She unofficially has been using a modified version of the motto which states, “To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors.”

“Recognizing that they can seem exclusionary to some women veterans, for many years I – along with other senior VA leaders – have honored the population we serve today by using a modernized version,” Williams said to Jaslow in a letter. “This symbolic update, which we are continuing to gradually incorporate alongside the original in digital and print materials, as well as spoken remarks, is an important acknowledgement of today’s veteran population.”

Jaslow calls for more change and for that change to be official. “I get it. The VA was designed for a male population, and culture change is hard,” Jaslow said. “But we’re talking 16 years we’ve been at war in Afghanistan. Women veterans are still feeling invisible and articulating they don’t feel comfortable at the VA. At what point are we going to get serious about addressing this?”

For more information, please see:

Washington Post – Is the VA Motto Outdated and Sexist? The Head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Group Thinks So – 6 February 2018

Stars and Stripes – VA Disregards Request to Make Agency Motto Gender Neutral – 2 February 2018

Computer Glitch leaves 11,000 Disabled Student Vets with Delayed Payment of Stipend

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – 11,000 disabled student veterans are facing a delay with their stipends this month. These payments are subsistence allowance payments. They help to pay for living expenses while the students go to school. The program which pays the stipends is through the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of its Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program. The money is supposed to be disbursed on the last day of each month. The money should have been disbursed on January 31, but the students did not see the disbursement until February 6.  An internal memo obtained by the Washington Post called the problem a “computer glitch.” In the memo, VA employees were told to apologize to the students and tell them their money was on the way.

The program gained popularity because it helps disabled veterans get job counseling. It also helps them earn college degrees or learn technical skills. There are internship opportunities and resume workshops. Although the problem was fixed in a few days, it may create a multitude a problems for the students. They may be late on rent or other bills or may not be able to buy groceries for a few days.

Army Vet Rick Collins is one of the students whose stipend is being disbursed to him late this month. Photo Courtesy of Rick Collins.

One army veteran who did not receive his stipend on the 31st is Rick Collins of Portland Oregon. Because his stipend will be arriving several days late, he has had to put off paying some of his bills and will not have to pay late fees as well. Collin had served in Afghanistan and suffers from post traumatic stress, severe memory loss, and chronic back and shoulder pain.

“This was going to be my first month with money left over after bills, and now that will all go to late fees,” said Collin. He is a father to four children aged 9, 7, 2 and 9 months. He is also studying photography at Portland Community College.  He has also said that he is in his fifth week of the term and still has not received the computer he was promised. He only received the camera he was promised last week.

“Any large bureaucracy has their glitches, but anytime veterans are not getting their benefits on time, especially when on a program like this, it’s a real hardship,” said Garry J. Augustine, executive director of 1.3 million-member Disabled American Veterans.

According to VA spokesman Curt Cashour, The glitch “has been fixed and it won’t occur again the future.” He also said, “We apologize to the veterans affected by this inconvenience.”

Even still the VA is facing a lot of scrutiny lately for several issues including long waits for appointment times and medical malpractice.

For more information, please see:

Chicago Tribune – 11,000 Disabled Student Veterans Left Without Rent, Expense Money Due to Computer Glitch – 2 February 2018

Washington Post – 11,000 Disabled Student Veterans Left Without Rent and Expense Money Due to Computer Glitch – 2 February 2018

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E)

Experts Ask Facebook to Pull Messenger Kids

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON D.C., U.S.A. – Last month, Facebook launched a new messenger app for kids as young as 6 years old. This is way below the previous minimum age that Facebook required users be for their apps, which was 13. Now, dozens of pediatric and mental health experts are asking Facebook to remove the app.

Facebook has created a messaging app for kids. Photo Courtesy of New York Times.

These experts composed a letter from the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood. Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood is an advocacy group which pushes companies to abandon marketing like the Pokemon Go app. The app sent children to all kinds of stores and fast food restaurants. McDonalds even advertised on children’s report cards in Florida.  But the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood says Facebook’s new app creates bigger concerns than those created by Pokemon Go.

“Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts,” the experts said in the letter. “A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to children and teens, making it very likely this new app will undermine children’s healthy development.”

In a study released in late January, the research stated that an increase in social media and smartphone use in children led to greater unhappiness in teenagers.

What is the Messenger Kids app? The app is a texting app that a parent can set up for their child. It works through the parent’s Facebook account. The parent sets up the account, but it is in no other way a part of the Facebook app. The app is missing “like” buttons and a newsfeed which are parts of what experts believe lead to depression and anxiety for teenagers on social media. What is included in the app are emojis, video chat, selfies and group texting.

Facebook argues that their new app provides a safer environment for children online than many other apps to social media sites. One such difference is that the app has no advertising. Facebook also says they worked with the National PTA before introducing the app. “Messenger Kids is a messaging app that helps parents and children to chat in a safer way, with parents always in control of their child’s contacts and interactions,” Facebook said in a statement.

Still, health advocates say that the app was created explicitly to hook users to keep using it and by allowing such a low age, they are giving themselves early access to the next potential generation of users.

Michael Brody, a former chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said, “Facebook is making children into a market, and the youngest children will be more likely to get hooked even earlier.”

For more information, please see:

BBC – Facebook ‘No Place’ For Young Children – 30 January 2018

Telegraph – Health Experts Urge Facebook to Pull Children’s App – 30 January 2018

NYT – Turn Off Messenger Kids, Health Experts Say to Facebook – 30 January 2018