7 posts from February 2011

February 28, 2011

New Environments and New Norms

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

At the beginning of every semester, students come into our offices looking for professors but not fully knowing how to find them. They walk in, look around at the walls and doors, and ask where they might find someone. Often, they are in the wrong building or are asking for people whose offices are elsewhere. If they are looking for someone who does have an office, they are not sure where to look, so they try to find names or other identifying information.

We do have blue and white name plates clearly posted on the light brown doors. We also have our schedules, phone, and email on 4”x6” cards posted on our doors, usually on bright yellow or green paper. We also have a “mailbox” or wooden cubbyholes next to the door so that students can leave us papers or messages without having to go to the administration building.

That first week of class, most of the questions we get are, “Where is Professor X?” or “How can I get in touch with Professor X?”File:Suite Hallway.jpg

Thinking sociologically, it is clear what is happening. These new students have never encountered our offices and in the chaos and pressure that is the first week of classes, they are not always able to clearly decode and read the information we have posted.

We insiders know what is posted so it seems odd that people wouldn’t see it clearly since we’ve made an effort to make it visible and accessible. When you are in familiar territory, you can take such things for granted, especially if you helped create it.

When you are an outsider, everything is new so it’s not always immediately clear how the space is laid out. And insiders may not even notice things that distract newcomers.

When one enters our suite of offices, in addition to the layout mentioned above, there are two large and one small bookcases, a desk that sometimes has a chair, a large cabinet, and many plastic holders with flyers and handouts on our programs. Because the doors to the offices are placed in between all this furniture the students have not only doors to look at but also a lot of other stuff!

Since we work in this space, we posted all this information to have it accessible to students in the attempt to make it helpful and inviting space. I’m not sure we succeed at that, at least in the first few weeks of the semester, since students come in overwhelmed with the paths they have to navigate on campus. Later, once they know where their professors are, they do often spend time picking up flyers and reading the posters.

I was reminded of this when I became the new person at another space. I’ve started working out a new gym and it’s taken awhile to figure out how it is laid out File:ITPB health Club.jpgand how people use it. There are a lot of trainers in the room with their clients and one of the first things I noticed was that the trainers, as insiders, know who is where, what they’re doing, and where they (and perhaps others) will be moving next.

As a newbie, I had to observe the patterns before I felt comfortable moving through the rooms. The first few times, I went to the same treadmill – actually, I still go to the same treadmill if it’s open. This is probably akin to how students sit in the same seats in class that they claim on the first day.

It took a few visits before I figured out that there was a second floor that was accessible and open to everyone. I’m slowly becoming an insider at this space, much as students eventually figure out our offices.

Each society, workplace, or group has a set of expected behaviors – norms – that make it easy for people to fit in once they learn and follow those norms. Having been a gym member in the past, I know much of the etiquette or customs but each gym has its own set of norms. From signing in, to machine turn-taking, and interacting with others, exactly what is expected can vary but there are always norms. (See Janis Prince Inniss's post on gyms and gender.)

So far, I’ve made it seem as if an outsider only experiences chaos until they learn the routines. Yet I’d like to conclude on a different note. As an outsider, if one has time to observe, one can see things that insiders might not see at all.

Once you become an insider, you tend to take for granted certain patterns, limiting your perception of what transpires while you’re there. As an outsider, you don’t know yet what to pay attention to so you may notice things the insiders are oblivious to or are no longer focusing on.

For example, one of the things I noticed early on was how particular people related to one another – at the time, I did not know if they were clients or trainers. It seemed that one was particularly interested in the other who appeared oblivious to their attention.

Similar dynamics have happened in our offices. One student noticed another flirting with someone who also seemed oblivious like at the gym while they were all three looking for their professors’ offices. As an insider, I was there during that interaction but didn’t notice it. All I saw were students looking for their professors.

That outsiders can see things that insiders may not is why research methods includes techniques like participant observation. It is also why we train researchers to retain some level of distance or objectivity so that they are not blinded by the insider perspective.

Have you ever moved from an outsider to an insider? What was your experience like? What made the process easier?

February 21, 2011

Social Mobility and Higher Education

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

If you want to move up the economic ladder in the United States, one of the best ways to do so is to earn a college degree. Education has been central to upward mobility, particularly during the last century. You might have grandparents or great-grandparents who came from humble beginnings, earned a college degree, and were able to find high-paying jobs. In fact, that might be your goal right now.

You might be surprised to know that education was not always central to upward mobility historically. According to the census, in 1940 less than five percent of all adults 25 and older had a four-year college degree, increasing modestly to eight percent in 1960. In a manufacturing-based economy, education is less important to ensuring economic stability. Likewise, in farming-based economies, an education about agricultural procedures makes sense (which is why most states have agricultural programs in rural areas), but other majors had less practical uses before World War II.

Changes in the economy have made an education more important in the labor force; by 2009 the percentage of college graduates reached nearly thirty percent. In an information-based economy such as our own, higher education is increasingly valued economically. As Bureau of Labor Statistics show, those with college degrees are less likely to be unemployed, and are also likely to earn higher salaries.

But lately there has been a growing obstacle for many people seeking to earn degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the cost of a public four-year degree has nearly doubled between 1964 and 2009 when adjusted for inflation. Private school tuition, fees, room and board have increased nearly three-fold during this time. As you can see from the graph below, tuition was relatively steady before increasing in the mid-1980s.

Public College/University Tuition, Room and Board (held constant in 2007-2008 dollars)

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Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

This increase means that many more students have to borrow money to attend college. According to the Project on Student Debt the average debt load students carry after graduation nearly doubled between 1996 and 2008, from $12,750 to $23,200. The majority of students graduate with some debt: 62 percent of those attending public universities, 72 percent who attended private non-profit universities, and 96 percent of those who attended private for-profit universities.

Debt repayment has become common today, but in the middle of the twentieth century it would have been rare to graduate with debt. This is partially because before the Federal Student Aid Act of 1965 students who needed financial assistance might not have been able to get help. This act enabled millions more people to attend college, many who likely could not have without loans or grants.

Some critics argue that the higher number of college degree seekers has created credential inflation. One the one hand, employers might require job applicants to hold a college degree, although the position might not really involve anything the applicant learned in college. In a tight job market, like the one many job seekers face now, holding a degree might be one way to narrow the field.

A degree might be used as a proxy for other traits, like commitment, maturity, and determination. Ironically, the more jobs require a degree, the more people might be likely to turn to colleges and universities of questionable quality (especially those that are not accredited) for their degree, racking up student loan debt without adding marketable skills.

As a Los Angeles Times entertainment columnist wrote, in Hollywood a college degree is not really necessary to rise in the industry, where hands-on experience is king. There are also some other industries, like the restaurant business, where you learn on the job and don’t necessarily need a college degree to move up the ladder.

That said, those with a college degree fare better in tough times. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in 2010 for those with at least a bachelor’s degree was 4.7 percent, compared with 8.4 for those with some college, 10.3 for high school graduates, and 14.9 for those without a high school diploma. A degree might not guarantee upward mobility anymore, but it is a good insurance policy against downward mobility.

February 16, 2011

Man Caves and Mom Caves

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

According to an article in the New York Daily News, the newest trend in home design and consumerism is the Mom Cave, a place for moms to retreat to have some quiet time. This is in contrast to an earlier trend of Man Caves, where men have a refuge to celebrate all things masculine including sports, cars, and bodily functions. What can these “two trends” tell us about our society?

Our consumer culture is driven by trends, and media outlets and production centers work together to get their services and products to the consumers who want them.

The first thing I noticed was the gendered aspect of the name of these trends. “Man” Caves can be had by any man yet “Mom” Caves seem distinctly for women who are mothers, not for all women.

According to a USA Today story, designer Elaine Griffin “coined the term mom cave with HomeGoods,” has teamed up with this retailer to market Mom Caves. She acknowledges that “It's really a woman cave but mom cave sounded better.”

While Ms. Griffin says that any woman can have a Cave, the marketing suggests otherwise.

Mom Cave’s marketing, reinforces the societal norm of motherhood. If a woman can be a mother, she might be rewarded with a Mom Cave where she can retreat to have some time to herself. Women who have not achieved motherhood are denied this apparent reward.

clip_image002Why does Mom Cave sound better than Woman Cave? It might be because of the age-old societal fears about women’s bodies, thus “woman cave” sounds a bit too closely resonant with (and our societal ignorance of) women’s anatomy. In our dominant culture, the word “Mom” isn’t as associated with bodies as “Woman” is.

In defining the Mom Cave, the “need to nurture oneself after nurturing everyone else” presumes that relatives and other people are present in the household. This reinforces our societal norm that women should be married and have children. Can’t women who are childless and single and live alone or with roommates have a “Mom” Cave? It seems they don’t deserve a Mom Cave since apparently they aren’t fulfilling their nurturer role.

If you look at photos of Mom Caves, it is readily apparent that the Moms are supposed to really like pink and pillows! This is a limitation of the designers’ and marketers’ visions, I suppose, but it does reinforce traditional societal gender coding that associates girls with pink, fluff, and frills and boys with blue, rough, and tumble. This resonates with our social norm of the feminine as passive and decorative and the masculine as dominant and active.

The Man Cave is illustrated with dark wood paneling, sound proofing, and images or functions related to barbeque, sports, cars, cigars, porn, and loud music. File:Man cave.jpgThere are now websites devoted to selling man cave accessories and furniture (and there is even a TV show).

Note the difference in items to furnish the respective caves: Mom Caves are filled with items and colors with that would look appropriate in little girl’s rooms while Man Caves are darkly masculine centers that would not be appropriate for little boys’ rooms. This reinforces our normative view that men are powerful adults (even if they act like immature teenagers) and women are childlike and passive, rather than autonomous and adult.

The Man Cave articles specifically demand a door that can be closed to give privacy. Some also mention the need for sound proofing to create a totally separate space from the rest of the household. However, the Mom Cave articles suggest alternatives to an entire room, like a nook or an under stairway location. It is apparent that women’s need for personal space isn’t as important as that of men. Thus, our societal norm of gendered power is again reinforced-- men get entire rooms but the women (moms) might only be entitled to a nook. (Sounds like Harry Potter’s abusive childhood….)

When we think sociologically about this “cave” phenomenon, it’s also important to consider social class. To be able to devote an entire room to a Man or Mom Cave, one must have living space that has such space available or have the funds to build it. Caves are not accessible to those living in smaller spaces or to those who can’t afford to create one.

I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s "A Room of One's Own" and the stark contrast that the Mom Cave offers to Woolf’s vision. While the essay focuses on the need that women have for a separate space in which to write (as well as financial resources), it can be read less literally as an examination of the subordinate location of women in society and the need for “space” in which to reach one’s potential. The marketer’s vision of the Mom Cave does not seem to offer that possibility; instead, it seems more like a place to take a “time out” so as not to upset the status quo.

One more issue that comes to mind is that by having totally separate Caves for men and women, we are reinforcing the norm that men and women are oppositional and very different from one another. This separation of spheres keeps us from seeing the similarities men and women share and obfuscates the possibility that our definition of gender as two polar opposites is problematic.

It reinforces our societal gender norms and normalizes the idea that men and women are from such different places that they couldn’t possibly interact with each other in a relaxing manner nor might they have similar interests in activity or décor.

Perceiving gender as two polar opposite categories reinforces the societal power structure in which men as a group are dominant over women as a group. The ideas of masculinity and femininity are intricately linked as relationships of power with masculine as powerful and feminine as powerless.

February 11, 2011

Gasparilla: More than a Moral Holiday?

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

When I first moved to Tampa and heard about the Gasparilla Pirate Fest and its central figure, José Gaspar—“last of the Buccaneers,” both were foreign to me. I felt slightly embarrassed that my knowledge of history was so lacking that I had never heard of Gaspar, the former Spanish Navy lieutenant who instilled terror among West Florida residents at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th century.

Gasparilla dates back to 1904 when the first reenactment of Tampa’s capture by pirates was staged. That first year a tradition was born image when Tampa’s leaders held a surprise (mock) pirate invasion of Tampa as part of a festival. Inspired by the legend of Gaspar, the original members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla dressed the part—as pirates—and captured the city, having arrived on horseback. During Gasparilla 1916, Tampa was invaded by a ship normally used for hauling animals, but in 1954 a 165 feet long, 100 feet tall, 18th century West Indiaman replica was commissioned. The Gasparilla tradition has remained an annual event with only about ten exceptions in more than 100 years. Made up of about 700 of Tampa’s business elite, Ye Mystic Krewe continues to spearhead the carnival. (Like the Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans, Ye Mystic Krewe members are fully costumed—except as pirates.) The festival takes place over several weeks. There is a Saturday afternoon Children’s Parade which includes krewes, marching bands, along with various school and other organizations. This is an alcohol-free event with an Air Invasion and a “Piratechnic” Extravaganza featuring fireworks.

The invasion of the city is held on the last Saturday in January every year. My first attempt to attend the day parade that follows the invasion did not go well. image Minutes after arriving I grew ill; police who saw me being hauled home by my husband and friends probably assumed that I was just imageone more person engaging in the festival’s public drunkenness, to my chagrin. (I’m a teetotaler.)

This year I returned but witnessed the invasion instead. (The events are broadcast live on a local television channel.) What a noisy  event! After the appearance of hundreds of boats in a flotilla, along came the José Gaspar with cannons booming, loaded up with hundreds of pirates who fire (fake) pistols. The boat docked at the Tampa Convention Center just after noon and the mayor of Tampa surrendered the key of the city to the pirate captain. A portion of the crowd that watched the invasion scurried to collect beads from the arriving pirates before the pirates boarded buses that would take them to the Parade of Pirates held that afternoon. Many other onlookers rush to secure any remaining good spots along the parade route, along which the pirates and other krewes toss beads and coins at throngs of onlookers.

Gasparilla: Mayor surrenders Tampa: MyFoxTAMPABAY.com

 

It seems that much of the first three months of every year are chock full of Gasparilla events: Gasparilla Pirate Fest includes an Annual Festival of the Arts, a Distance Classic, Half Marathon and an International Film Festival among other events. The third parade takes place at night and winds up in “party central”: historic Ybor City. I haven’t braved this event as yet but know it draws a large crowd as well. The final event is “The Gasparilla March Triumphant: The Return to the Sea” at which the key of the city is returned to the mayor by pirates before they board José Gaspar, signaling the end of the festivities. The impact of Gasparilla on the local economy is said to be around $14 million annually.

Gaspar is a symbol with a long reach. The local football team is named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; their logo is the skull and crossbones associated with pirates, and their mascot is Captain Fear, a pirate. Guess where Captain Fear lives. Anchored in the stadium, that is home to the team, is a 103 foot pirate ship which fires its cannon when “the Bucs” score! (The ship is Captain Fear’s residence.)

Given all of this, imagine my shock to discover that it is highly unlikely that José Gaspar actually existed or that the José Gaspar has no motor and sits on a barge during the invasion! What meaning is there in an annual invasion by barge for a fictional character? Is it a moral holiday? A time to let people ignore the usual rules of propriety?

Or is there more to Gasparilla? The fact that krewes refused to allow racial minorities or women join until the 1990s reminds us that Gasparilla began as entertainment for Tampa’s (white) elite. In 1991, the lawyers, bankers and other white businessmen of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla cancelled the festivities rather than allow people of color to join! By the next year, the first four blacks had joined this krewe and an all female krewe was formed; the party was back on! (I’m not sure how racially diverse the 700 invading pirates are but I think they are all male.) However, the celebration draws people from a variety of racial/ethnic and class backgrounds suggesting—if not necessarily demonstrating—a racially and socially unified city. Anthropologist André-Marcel d’Ans argues that some of the newer events, such the marathons, help to diversify Gasparilla in terms of race, class, and age. What explanations do you have for this century-old tradition based on a fictional character? What do you think we learn about race, class, and gender by examining Gasparilla?

 

February 08, 2011

Stardom and Social Mobility

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

“You’re going to Hollywood!”

This line, as anyone who has caught a glimpse of American Idol knows, triggers screaming, jumping, hugging and loud celebration. It seems to mean one thing to everyone: you have a shot to make it big.

Hollywood has become a shortcut in the American lexicon—and probably internationally as well—for upward mobility, or moving up economically and improving one’s social status. Watch this clip of an American Idol audition from the latest season and pay attention to all of the language of upward mobility both the contestant and the judges use:

    

Beyond her singing ability, this contestant references her desire to improve her status for herself and for her special-needs child. Social mobility often involves intergenerational mobility, or improving your economic standing from one generation to the next. This is a core principle of the American Dream, a belief that those who are talented and work hard can achieve upward mobility, and that each generation can do better than the one before. Part of American Idol’s immense success over the years has been its frequent references to the dreams, talent, and hard work of individuals, some of whom will be rewarded with fame and fortune. Because the public votes for their favorites, the show appears to reflect the American ideals of meritocracy and democracy.

American Idol is not alone in promoting the idea that fame creates new opportunities for people to move up from the proverbial rags to riches. In fact, celebrity status itself in part functions to suggest that upward mobility is widely available to all.

I recently completed a study of celebrity fan magazines, dating back from their first publication in 1911clip_image002 to the present. While I had initially started the research in order to assess when celebrities’ private lives became a topic of public fascination, I found something far more interesting: that regardless of who was famous, why they were famous, and whatever they were up to in their personal lives, the magazines’ stories and advertisements promoted the idea that the fantasy of upward mobility was real. Celebrities embody the American Dream in action—they made it big, reinforcing the idea that no matter what the economic realities of the time were, those who work hard and have special qualities can rise to the top.

Rags to riches stories intensified during the Great Depression, when becoming wealthy was likely to be extremely difficult, particularly when so many people were just trying to get by (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1933 the unemployment rate reached nearly 25 percent). As I write about in my book, Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility, fan magazines of that era seemed to go into overdrive to detail how wealthy movie stars were.

clip_image004They played golf, tennis, polo, sat by their private pools attended by servants and bodyguards, according to the magazines’ features. While the median household income hovered around $1,000 a year for most Americans, fan magazine stories told of the six-figure salaries the stars drew and about their lavish spending.

This might have been a recipe for revolt at a time when many people struggled to find their next meal. But coverage of Hollywood celebrities reminded readers not to lose hope, that you could still control your destiny with the right hygiene and beauty products. Women—the primary readers of fan magazines—could hope to snag a wealthy husband, according to ads like the one at left that promised that the right soap could make or break a potential life of glamour.

The stories and ads in fan magazines might have helped readers overlook the realities of structural mobility, which causes upward or downward mobility based on changes to the economy or the growth or death of an entire industry. As Todd Schoepflin wrote about recently, when a factory closes many people will lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Likewise, during a depression or recession, layoffs and cutbacks will cause millions to lose their jobs or part of their income.

The start of the Depression coincided with a major structural change in the film industry: the conversion to "talkies" during the late 1920s and early 1930s. For many silent stars with foreign-sounding or heavy regional accents, this was the end of their career. But within many fan magazines, their failure was recast as personal rather than structural: perhaps they didn’t manage their money well, or maybe they gained weight or just weren’t talented enough.

Upward mobility is real, although the dramatic rags-to-riches stories are less common than we may think. Fame and celebrity help reinforce this quintessentially American ideal (although according to this recent report people from other industrialized nations may have an easier time moving up than we do in the U.S.). What other examples can you think of that reinforce the notion of upward mobility?

February 04, 2011

Crime Trends or News Trends?

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Recently, there have been several shootings in the news both nationally and locally, leading several of my students to conclude that violence is on the rise.

The shootings in Tucson got the most national attention, when Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was wounded and many others were killed or injured. People were shocked by the Arizona shooting and that context affected their reactions to subsequent local shootings. Just in Los Angeles the week following that event, there were three shootings at or near high schools, leading to the conclusion that high schools are extremely dangerous.

  • The first shooting happened when a gun in a student’s backpack accidentally fired and hit two other students. As of this writing, one remains in critical condition.
  • The second came a day later when a school police officer allegedly questioned a man estimated to be in his forties that appeared to be breaking into cars outside a high school. The man shot the officer, who was apparently protected by his bulletproof vest as the officer questioned him about what he was doing.
  • That same day, a student was shot and wounded at a fast food restaurant off campus.

News reports emphasized the similarities among the three shootings, noting that they all were on or near high schools. Thinking about these events more File:G20 police helicopter.jpgcritically, it’s clear that while all three examples involved shootings, none of them have much in common, nor do they indict high schools as highly dangerous places.

In the backpack incident, it is important to ask why that student felt the need to bring a gun to school. According to reports, the special education student was a victim of bullying and felt that he was in danger. The school is also located in an area often plagued by gang violence, which could have added to his sense of danger. This of course does not excuse him for bringing a gun to school, nor should the school’s security practices be ignored. But this story is clearly about more than just schools and security practices; it is also related to peer interactions and broader crime patterns.

In the second shooting, the apparent attempted car theft and officer shooting, proximity to the high school was the only factor related to the school. If someone is looking to steal a car, targeting cars parked in a large lot—any lot—is not uncommon if the would-be thief thinks no one will see them. This event led to the lockdown of nine schools in the area, and over 350 officers searched for the suspect who had apparently shot the officer. Helicopters hovered over the area for the rest of the day and residents had limited access to their homes if they were outside the area before it was cordoned off. Local news coverage focused on this event non-stop, interrupting scheduled programming for most of the day. (Although a week later the officer admitted that the incident was a hoax, that there was no alleged car thief. At this time it is unclear whether his gun accidentally discharged or he made it look like he had been shot in his bullet-proof vest.)

The third incident of the shooting at the fast food location got less news coverage. It took place off campus and unlike the second example, which took place in a middle-class suburb, this area has a higher crime rate and shootings in that area are not often covered in the news. This particular shooting made it onto the news because it happened while the ‘manhunt for the suspect for the second incident was taking place.

On the surface, news coverage may make it seem like schools are dangerous places. But this is largely an overblown concern. Take a look at the graphs below, from The 2010 Crime and School Safety report, released by the Department of Education each year. Schools have become progressively safer in recent years, and serious violent crime is all but absent at school (and more likely away from school). Also, crime in Los Angeles has dropped--the homicide rate is lower than it has been since 1964.

clip_image002

These incidents all sprang from different dynamics, yet we tend to focus on the most superficial issues, like location.

How might our society focus its attention on the difficult issues, such as mental illness, bullying, poverty, and violence perpetrated through gangs?

February 01, 2011

Mental Health Care in America

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

Recently, millions of Americans—and people all over the world—have been deeply saddened by the shooting of 19 people in Tucson. The victim receiving the most publicity has been U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who was shot in the head; we've watched with baited breath as her condition has improved from being “critical”. We have been horrified to see Jared Lee Loughner’s grinning mug shot, the man accused of killing six and wounding 13.

In a tight economy—to understate our current financial reality—mental health services have been on the chopping block across the country, with already overburdened state mental health budgets suffering a $2 billion cut in the last couple of years. In Arizona, funding was cut in half and the state tops the most recent National Alliance on Mental Illness list of top 10 states hurt by mental health budget cuts.

What does this have to do with the shootings in Arizona? (First, a disclaimer: While I am trained as a family therapist, I am not currently licensed nor have I met the accused gunman.) I think the case highlights many mental health issues, given that Loughner’s actions that day and others seem to be evidence of an unstable mind.

How do you think we (as a society) should respond to someone like Loughner before the shooting? What price—literally—do you think is a fair one to provide treatment to such individuals? How should we handle a person like Loughner in their late teen/early twenties who appears “troubled”?

clip_image002According to published reports, Loughner’s demeanor was odd. The emerging portrait suggests that as he got older, Loughner exhibited increasingly bizarre behaviors. Although described as somewhat of a loner in high school, his classmates recall him as intelligent and engaging, if he was sought out. After dropping out of high school as a junior, Loughner seems to have been arrested a few times on drug and alcohol charges. The U.S. Army rejected his bid to enlist. Teachers and classmates from his college classes reported that he stared and spoke out of turn.

Only a few months before the shooting, Loughner was told to leave his community college where he had repeated contact with campus police for disruptive behavior. Many students said that Loughner behaved inappropriately in the classroom. Finally, Lougner was suspended when officials at the school found a Youtube video he made in which he claimed that the school was “illegal”. In a meeting with Loughner and his parents, school administrators said they were willing to have him back with clearance regarding his mental health from a doctor. It is important to note that at age 22, Loughner is of the age (late teens, early 20s) during which many people first exhibit symptoms of certain specific kinds of mental illness.

clip_image004All of this leaves us with many questions about how to respond to someone like this. Do we breach confidentiality and call his parents, in consideration of some greater good such as his mental health and the safety of everyone at the college? What mental health resources should colleges and universities have? And at what point should we be able to force someone into treatment? Would you want someone (even your parents) to have the legal right to make you undergo mental health evaluation and treatment, involuntarily? (In most states, the period of commitment is around 24-72 hours.)

In most states, the only way to commit someone to treatment against their will is if the person is considered a danger to themselves or others. (Florida’s Baker Act, is one example of the kind of statute governing involuntary commitment.) Of course, proving that someone is dangerous is very difficult and no mental health professional can forecast dangerousness with full certainty. The age at which some serious mental health conditions surface or worsen is an age at which people are legally adults, even if they are young; what should we be allowed to do on their behalf or to protect ourselves?

Let’s assume that someone can recognize the need and they want to avail themselves of services. Where will they find them given the budget cuts? Mental health care systems in many states have been in shambles for a long time and many cities have long wait times for any kind of services: to see a psychiatrist, to get a case manager, to find an empty bed in a psychiatric hospital, and to receive supported housing. And how do people pay for treatment? Given the great numbers of Americans without health insurance this is no small question. The newly enacted Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act states that health insurance coverage must include equal mental health services (with exceptions for individual and smaller businesses)—if mental health care is provided by the employer.

Given the budget shortfalls most states are facing—and the rancorous health care debate--how do you think we should better address mental health needs?

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