Thursday, August 31, 2017

How the mental health system fails the sickest – and the public

I didn’t know Megan Dix, but felt like I did.

Her friends and family all to a person say Dix was a great daughter, wife, mother and coworker. That’s what made the Lyndonville mom’s murder so unsettling – she was any one of us; a good-natured, high-character person always trying to do her best for those around her.

It was sickening how she was cut down randomly for no logical reason whatsoever a week short of her 34th birthday. It reminds you how short our life is on this planet, because anything -- and this proves anything -- can happen to you or someone you love.

Likewise, I didn’t know Holly Colino (the suspect in Dix’s murder) but felt like I could have.

While we all don’t know people who could coldly kill like Colino had been alleged to, there’s a good chance we know someone battling mental illness like she has been.

You wouldn’t know that, though, because it’s almost become taboo for anyone battling it (or caring for someone with it) to talk about it, for fear of embarrassment or ostracization. It comes in many forms, from body image issues to depression to schizophrenia and it is more common than many think – in any given year, almost 1 in 5 American adults battles mental illness. 

That doesn’t and shouldn’t give Colino a free pass for what she may have done. I, for one, am against all (dis)qualifiers for guilt of murder and rape; if some committed a heinous act while insane or feeble of mind, they’re just as guilty in my book as someone who knew better (and who’s to say that the insane person didn’t know better?).

But, this is just another in a long line of cases where society failed people like Colino and, in turn, innocents like Dix. By abandoning the ill, we’ve put others in harm’s way.

How did no one address Colino’s serious mental health issues with all of the warning signs that were out there?

If you feel like peering into the mind of a confused soul, check out Colino’s Facebook page, Blogger posts, and YouTube videos. They are incoherent, dangerous, and frightening. And they are all screaming for help.

How did that go unchecked? We have countless government agents who mine social media for terrorists. We have a federal artificial intelligence system that scans emails and the internet for threats. Facebook users regularly turn-in to administrators others who post overly-political or allegedly-hateful comments.

Yet, none of those powers or people raised a flag and said, “get this girl some help” or “lock her up.” There were Facebook users who even interacted with her unsafely who failed to inform authorities of the bizarre behavior and threats they experienced.

And, more so, where was society for the good of Colino and the greater good of the population?

It all starts with getting people the help they need, even if it requires being institutionalized or hospitalized.

In the 1970s it became the in-thing to close institutions once known as “insane asylums” due to a rash of such organizations mistreating their patients and the continued development of psychiatric drugs (never mind that those drugs create their own problems).

Sure, there were plenty of real world examples of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but many hospitals did wonders in helping get people cured or giving them a consistent, comfortable environment in which they could manage their illnesses and their lives.

There are still some psychiatric institutions in operation, but far too few. Mental health experts say there is a 95 percent decline in mental hospital beds since 1960, even though there are many more people who deserve that level of help.

And help is what they need. Help. Safety. Comfort. Rehabilitation. Asylum.

Yet, they haven’t been getting it nor will they anytime soon.

Our modern medical system treats mental illness like the so-called redheaded stepchild. New hospitals and health campuses are being erected across the country at spectacular rates and they are being handsomely funded by taxpayer dollars, but the focus is always on physical health. No one is interested in making multi-bed facilities for the mentally ill.

That’s too bad, because people like Holly Colino are being ignored. A just and moral society takes care of the people who need it, even if they don’t seem to be exactly like one of us.

When we abandon that calling, when it comes to hard cases like hers or the infamous Adam Lanza we inadvertently put innocents like Megan Dix or the little kids who were gunned down at Sandy Hook in harm’s way. When it comes to the better cases, we are robbing the ill of the best mainstream existence possible. 

Help the sick and you help society.  

Ignore them, and you hurt them….and potentially every one of us.

From the 04 Sept 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Our veterans deserve better VA healthcare

Recently, more than 500 veterans in upstate New York received some dire news that could be classified as tragic irony: After they survived wars and occupations overseas, the very health system that was meant to protect them at home — the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — could ultimately end up being the very thing that kills them.

Those veterans were potentially exposed to hepatitis, HIV and more after improperly cleaned endoscopes were inserted into their bodies by an employee of the Buffalo VA.

How one overlooked this basic commonsense procedure of medical care is beyond me, especially since this is not the first such failure to plague the VA and its patients.

In early 2009, the VA launched an internal investigation to figure out how it was possible that 10,000 patients from VA hospitals in three states (Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee) were put at risk after unsterilized colonoscopy equipment was repeatedly used. After checking every one of those individuals exposed to the dirty tubes, it was found that 16 of them were infected -- 10 with hepatitis and six with “unspecified viral infections”.

This wasn’t the Buffalo VA’s first major scare, either.

In 2013, more than 700 vets who were served by the medical center could have been exposed to HIV or hepatitis from resued insulin pens. Hospital staff did not follow protocol (and some people believe that necessary protocol didn’t even exist at the VA) and failed to, one, dispose of the one-time use pens, and, two, label the pens by individual patient if the incorrect assumption did exist that they were intended to be used more than once. A routine inspection brought this despicable behavior to light, discovering the unlabeled, previously used pens in supply carts ready to be used again.

What makes these incidents (three of many) so disconcerting is that the VA never learned from its mistakes. As a matter of fact, mistakes don’t even represent a catalyst for change within the organization. That was made evident during the 2009 HIV scare when, three months after the initial announcement of the colonoscopy nightmare, the VA discovered that half of their medical centers still had not developed standardized cleaning procedures, nor could they show that they properly trained their staff on using the equipment. If the thought of infecting a patient — or the liability that comes with it — wasn’t enough to facilitate change, then what would be?

That’s the difference between the VA and private sector care. In the world of private medicine, one HIV scare is more than enough. It would have set off an immediate domino effect by which capable and accountable people would have initiated the necessary changes to policy and procedure, not only with the failed practice in question, but also with a myriad of practices and equipment that could potentially create similar risk. Whereas the private sector reacts immediately and with purpose, the public sector moves at a snail’s pace, if even at all.

Furthermore, had any of these HIV scares occurred in regular hospitals, heads would have rolled. Workers from nurses all the way to upper management would have suffered the consequences and the clinics would have seen a necessary housecleaning that would have ultimately led to better-managed hospitals and better-served clientele. Failure to do so would lead to fewer patients and, more than likely, a loss of licenses for workers and organizations alike.

That didn’t happen in the VA. No one in a position of responsibility lost their job because of the 2009 incidents that mirror the most recent Buffalo incident; as a matter of fact, the head of the failed Miami VA clinic was only re-assigned. It also appears that no one is in the crosshairs for the 2013 or 2017 Buffalo debacles.

Accountability of “leadership” doesn’t exist in the VA.

That’s unfortunate on many levels.

For starters, no one enjoys working for unaccountable leaders. I know quite a few people who either interned or worked at VA hospitals. Most of them decided not to choose careers at the VA.

More importantly, no one wants to be served by unaccountable organizations. If these horror stories are any gauge of the care that veterans could receive at VAs, they run the risk of infection and premature death at the hands of a federal agency that allegedly has their best interests in mind.

Our vets gave so much and saw so much in combat. They did that for all of us. Because of those sacrifices the American Way they deserve far better attention than what we are giving them now. It’s time to reform the VA and veterans’ care in general. It’s the least that America can do for our heroes. 

From the 27 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Teach your children about the Constitution this September

There’s a long-held urban legend in these parts that I always have a copy of the Constitution with me.
It’s not a legend; I really do have a pocket Constitution on me at all times.

That may seem somewhat over-the-top in regard to patriotism and perhaps a little nerdy, but the Constitution is the Bible of Americanism.

That simple yet powerful document is the guiding light to what is the greatest experiment in self-government - and, from that, the greatest society - that Mankind has ever known and will ever know, the United States of America. I strongly believe it’s our founding principles that made our nation great by allowing and inspiring Americans to be the very best that we can be. America is unique in that our natural rights were officially recognized and deemed inalienable by the Constitution, allowing liberty, self-rule and free markets to flourish.

Over the course of our history, though, the Constitution has seen some rough spots. Presidencies such as Lincoln’s, FDR’s, the younger Bush’s, and Obama’s have trampled over our nation’s legal and philosophical foundation with zeal.

Sometimes we need a reminder that the morality and virtuous free environment recognized and provided for by the Constitution is what’s best for whatever ails us.

Can it put an end to what seem like never-ending wars? Yes.

Can it heal our sickened economy? Yes.

Can it kill the numerous and creative ways being used to invade our privacy? Yes.

The Constitution can be - or will lead us to - the answers for all of today’s problems.
Most people have forgotten that. To them the Constitution has become an afterthought, maybe even an antiquity or novelty. Some even forget that it exists.

Enter “Constitution and Citizenship Day”.

Introduced as an amendment to an appropriations bill in 2004, Public Law 108-447 requires that any public school that receives federal funding educate its students on the Constitution on or by September 17 of every year in observance of the Constitution’s signing in 1787. It’s interesting to note that the law was penned by none other than the now-deceased Democratic Senator Robert Byrd who was never really known to be a Constitution enthusiast and it should also be noted that the Constitution in proper practice should prohibit the federal government from funding and dictating to public schools. But, nonetheless, it is the law.

Even without its edict it’s good citizenship to revisit and be reeducated about the document on its birthday. It’s a day just as important to America as July 4.

On the evening of September 17 make it a point to ask your children or grandchildren if they received an education about the Constitution in the days leading up to it. It’s not necessarily guaranteed that they will. An obscure law like this can be easily overlooked and, as history shows, even if it were followed our schools aren’t necessarily the best places for civics (teachers have to be super-focused on other matters while being forced to teach to standardized tests).

Plus, although many modern parents may not agree, it’s your responsibility to educate your kids as much it is the schools’; education shouldn’t end when the school bell rings. Take the time to discuss the Constitution with them. It doesn’t have to be a dry subject. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have shown that teaching about government can be exciting and character-building. Start young and they’ll better understand their duties as citizens and, as they age, what their government can and cannot do to and for them.

If your understanding of the Constitution is a little limited itself take the time to make it a shared learning experience with your family. There is plenty of great material on the web and among the very best is the “Overview of America” video which can be watched in its entirety on YouTube. You’ll come away enlightened.

Regardless of your knowledge, it’s imperative that you take the time to reacquaint yourself and your children with the Constitution. If more people did, it’s guaranteed that America would be in a better place than it is now during these trying and seemingly crazy times.

Sometimes, the old fashioned ways are the best ways. Our Founding Fathers were really onto something.

From the 21 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers