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The Legal Battlefield

The Few. The Proud. The Marines are an elite branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, tasked with protecting their country’s interest internationally. However, when at home, their battles are very much different, especially for those with mental illness, reports The War Horse in an article posted this month. When Lance Corporal Kameron Duval, inebriated, wandering in the river, and planning to take his own life, accidentally injured a fellow marine, he was interrogated without an attorney and charged with a felony, without even being given a fresh change of clothes. He was locked up for 240 days and denied treatment. Ever since he was arrested, professionals for both the prosecution and defense agreed that Duval had severe PTSD, but the Marines did not drop the charges, claiming that Duval was simply making trouble and faking mental illness to get out of trouble. The Marines even tried to have a doctor testify against him, an act which would have violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protected medical information. The Marines, however, maintained that “Evidentiary rules are separate and distinct from HIPAA.” Duval had sought psychiatric help before, but therapy sessions were not helpful, and it felt like the military did not actually care about his mental health, since he was scheduled to be discharged soon. 

An investigation found that Duval’s commander was fostering a hostile work environment: verbally abusing, harassing, and unjustly relieving her subordinates and forcing them to punish Marines, as well as lying in official statements. During a training exercise in a blizzard, she prevented a Maintenance Battalion from delivering supplies to starving Marines, claiming that they were not sufficiently trained for the weather. However, the Maintenance Battalion had had training, and the commander was just looking for an excuse not to be held responsible for any potential incidents. Marines could not dispute her authority, and she was never punished for her actions. Out of the hundreds of Marines interviewed, the only people who had anything good to say about her were the most senior officers, whose performance reviews were signed by none other than the commander herself. The investigation suggested that the commander be fired and punished, but she was only given a slap on the wrist and kept her job.

Duval is not alone: many other Marines were brutally treated, unjustly punished, and their careers ended by a system designed to deny them help and recourse. Major Anna Rubio-Fleischer had experienced multiple traumas in her career as a marine: being thrown over a desk by an officer and told that she should “watch the tone of her voice,” being sexually assaulted, and being abandoned by the administration. When Rubio-Fleischer tried to kill herself, the Marines tried to have her interrogated, but thankfully were denied by the hospital staff. Rubio-Fleischer was not mentally capable of answering inquiries; the leadership was just trying to find a reason to get rid of her. Despite doctors’ orders, Rubio-Fleischer’s superiors required her to resume full duties, and a few days later she made a second suicide attempt after having been denied vacation. After being released from the hospital, she was transferred to a Wounded Warrior Battalion, which she was fine with, since being a marine was a negative experience. However, she was given an adverse performance review which called her “derelict in her duties as a leader,” even though her few absences from work were excused absences to take her special needs child to medical appointments. This performance review could negatively affect her future employment opportunities and demonstrates that the Marines were just looking for ways to hurt Rubio-Fleischer, since they couldn’t charge her with anything.

Veteran Corporal Thae Ohu was recently threatened with a gag order because she spoke up about the failed investigation of her sexual abuse allegations and the legal controversy surrounding her mental illness. Like Duval and Rubio-Fleischer, Ohu sought help multiple times, having been admitted to the hospital several times, diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, and recommended for medical retirement. In a psychotic episode, Ohu attacked her boyfriend and was charged with attempted murder. Her officer was offered multiple choices (the decision was not left up to the court) for how her case should be handled – medical retirement, administrative separation, or punitive discharge. Of course, her officer chose the latter, denying her the all the benefits of veterans, including mental health care. Ohu was imprisoned in an “anti-suicide cell”, where she was denied a Bible and sufficient menstrual pads, clothing, and bedding. The toilet was literally a small hole in the ground, and she had to push her feces through the holes – with her bare fingers. She wasn’t given enough toilet paper and wasn’t allowed to wash her hands before eating food for which she was also denied utensils. The “anti-suicide cell” only served to promote suicidal ideation, and over and over she tried to saw off her legs using the threads of her nylon tunic. Even after leaving confinement, Ohu was denied mental health treatment. Not only did Ohu’s punishment permanently affect career, but it also left an indelible psychological scar.

If this article does not effectively demonstrate the extent to which the military judicial system has failed, nothing will. Mental health treatment doesn’t exist in the military, even if it’s serious: if you have mental illness in the Marines, you are doomed from the very start. Duval, Rubio-Fleischer, and Ohu all visibly needed help, but none was given. In Rubio-Fleischer’s case, the Marines followed none of the doctors’ orders after she had tried to kill herself, and even took away her vacation – almost as if they were trying to cause another incident. And, when an incident ocurred, as it inevitably would, the Marines did everything in their power to destroy her, even going so far as, in Duval’s case, to toe the line of the HIPAA or claim something as ridiculous as faking mental illness. Marines with mental illness are seen as nothing more than liabilities. In fact, it seems to me that some of the punishments meted out to these three former Marines were motivated not so much by a misguided sense of legal duty or even lazy expedience, but rather by a deep hatred and disgust. When given the role of judge, jury, and executioner, Ohu’s officer delivered the harshest possible sentence, sending her to the accursed “anti-suicide cell”. The brusque interrogation and treatment of Duval was unnecessary. The Marines even did their best to ruin Rubio-Fleischer’s life with a bad performance review, even though at that point she was already out of their hair. I can’t say with absolute certainty that some of these injustices were motivated by stigma, but it definitely played a role.

This problem is not limited to mental health – the faults within the military judicial system go far deeper. The case of Duval’s autocratic commander and the physical, verbal, and sexual abuse of Rubio-Fleischer and Ohu are just some examples among many. The Marines’ ability to skirt federal law and Ohu’s commander’s ability to override judicial rulings are yet more issues with this system. To be blunt, the military is an institution where prejudices can run wild. What the Marines needs is accountability: accountability of its officers, accountability of its administrators, and accountability of its judical system. Accountability not just to the law, but to the moral standards of the public, in order to make it harder for civil rights violations to triumph and to prevent stigma towards mental illness from creating such a hostile environment. We also need to stop thinking of the military as a separate bubble. It’s a large institution, one that is most definitely not exempt from scrutiny. The irony is, the military might require more mental health services than any other government institution, due to its strenuous requirements and environment. Maintaining discipline and order within the military is a difficult task, but it should not come at the cost of careful, objective consideration of the facts with a particular emphasis on mental health.

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The Mental Health of Cancel Culture

Therapy is aided self-reflection and self-improvement. However, as psychologist Maggie Mulqueen opines, cancel cultureis increasingly harmful towards mental health, and even encroaching upon the haven of the therapist’s couch. Social media’s mob mentality and hostility towards even the slightest indication of an unpopular opinion often create anxiety and conflict within a person. For example, the mother of a transgender child socially withdrew out of fear that people would negatively interpret her actions. A professor who held an unpopular viewpoint at his university started to lose sleep and fear losing his job, driving him to seek therapy. Even during therapy sessions, however, he made sure prevent potential misunderstanding about his beliefs. Only when he was able to speak openly did the healing process begin. Self-expression is important to connect to others and be happy, yet cancel culture prevents people from doing so. Moreover, therapists may themselves be vulnerable to repercussions if they aren’t careful about what they talk about, such as guns. Barriers to therapy are not just institutional – perceived difference between the therapist and patient, in identity (such as sexuality) or beliefs (such as vaccination status) often cause the patient to alienate themself out of a belief that the therapist will not understand them.

            This post is sort of a follow-up to my previous post about the mental health of politics. What is happening with cancel culture is, if you think about it, terrifying. The universality of social media and the loss of privacy invoke images of a dystopian future where the government spies on its citizens and immediately kidnaps anyone who shows a sign of subversion. Obviously, nothing as extreme as that is going on. Rather than the government, the orchestrators behind cancel culture are the forces of society itself. The way I see it, a clash between therapy and cancel culture is inevitable: more people than ever are seeking therapy in an increasingly polarized political climate. Beliefs are inextricably tied to the highly personal discussions of therapy, so controversial discussions are inevitable. However, as Mulqueen asserts, these conversations are very important, so something must be done. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily canceling cancel culture. I think it is a good thing that so many people are passionate about speaking up about difficult subjects. The issue is the way that a trend that was once benign and intellectual has been corrupted and turned into a vehicle for thoughtless mob action. Like how a neutrophil at the site of an infection may start to harm tissue cells if left unregulated, cancel culture has started attacking people indiscriminately, sometimes doing more harm than good. Thus, in trying to regulate cancel culture, we must be careful to avoid the overcompensation that dysregulated cancel culture in the first place. The key lies in the name: the goal is not to cancel, but rather to educate and inform. Thus, instead of canceling cancel culture, we should share more stories about just how much it is spiraling out of control. Maybe then, only then, can we restore the sanctity of the therapy room.

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Is Mental Illness Related to Gun Violence?

No, explains Butte County Behavioral Health Director Scott Kennelly. Only 3-5% of mass shooters have a mental illness. Yet, when politics fails us, people often turn to the wielder of the gun rather than the gun itself. It is easy to categorize mass shooters as mentally ill, as if they have a disease that makes them intrinsically different from any of us. However, this heuristic model skirts the real issue, which Kennelly calls “adverse childhood experiences.” This may sound flippant and clichéd, but those who resort to gun violence have had hard childhoods. The traumas of their early years motivate them to do what they do. These traumas are in turn created by the many problems of society: poverty, prejudice, privilege, etc. It’s a story we’ve all heard before, but that does not mean it is not true, nor does it take away any of its importance.

Reframing the narrative on gun violence and mental illness -

            Gun violence may not be generally related to mental illness, but the two are not entirely unconnected. It is a sad truth that society’s disregard and stigma can lead people with mental illness to do things that they would otherwise not do. This begs the question of how we treat those 3-5% of cases where there is a clear connection between the shooter and mental illness. For example, a Texas man was recently acquitted of murder, due to a mental illness. This case raises several issues: where do we draw the line when mental illness is concerned? Some people may be concerned that mental illness may become an excuse to get away with crimes. Doing so would only cause more misunderstanding of mental illness. However, it is imperative that we not forget the importance of understanding people holistically. Thinking through the lens of mental illness is valuable in many ways. In other words, then, as with all topics which are posted on this blog, my answer to this problem is complicated. One solution is to treat every gun violence case with the most attention to detail and nuance as possible, gathering as much information as possible to make the most informed decision possible. Meanwhile, we must enact sociopolitical reform to reduce both the connection between mental illness and gun violence and reduce gun violence in general. The fundamental goal, however, is always the same: educate and inform about mental illness.

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The Letter

Angela Bryant, diagnosed with Bipolar I and PTSD in January of 2020, was an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, until she found out that she had submitted an angry letter of resignation during a manic episode in November of the same year. Horrified, when she tried to rescind her resignation, Ohio State refused to let her back, even though she had recovered through therapy and medication, and had the backing of many of her colleagues and her therapist to go back to work. Turning to the law did not help either: the Ohio Civil Rights Commission ruled that Bryant’s case was not discrimination, as she had not submitted formal documentation of her disability to the university. The reality, however, was that the aggressive letter to the chair of the sociology department, with whom Bryant was on good terms, was clearly out of character and an indication that something was wrong. This case has caused criticism from within the university, but the institution’s sole response is that the decision should be left to the professionals. At the same time, school officials hold that Ohio State is an equitable space for its faculty and students.

It is quite easy to see that Ohio State is vainly trying to deflect. Moreover, the court ruling relies almost completely on semantics. It’s hard to decide which is more pathetic – the school’s lack of mental health policy, or their efforts to pretend that they’re not at fault. To the school’s credit, it is possible that there are extenuating circumstances to which the public is not privy, but it would be naïve to just leave it at that. It is very hard to believe that the university wholeheartedly believed that Bryant was in her right mind when she sent her resignation letter, if it was indeed as uncharacteristic as the article asserts. Perhaps the school was looking for a reason to get rid of her, as she had been excused from her teaching since her diagnosis in order to receive treatment. Whatever the exact reasons, the university took advantage of the lack of legal infrastructure concerning mental health, and that is unacceptable. Almost as unacceptable as the judicial lapse which cemented Bryant’s unjust fate.