Monthly Archives: August 2019

Custodians of the Planet

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Years ago go after I had attended a band council meeting and watched representatives of this small nation wrestle with affairs that we divide up into federal, provincial, and municipal, I had dinner with a Chief. A friend had told me the Anishinaabe language contained no swear words, no blasphemes, and so I asked this Chief what his people would say when angry, when mad, even after twisting an ankle or hurting a toe. He replied with a wry smile, “You must remember, we Indians had nothing to be angry about until the white man came.”

I was thinking of this as we drove through a First Nations Reserve in the beautiful Q’Appelle valley in Saskatchewan. We have driven through many reserves this summer and there is a sameness to them: clusters of small, poor houses, randomly spaced, minimally maintained, in much the same manner as the temporary abodes of a nomadic hunting, gathering society.

And I am sure before the Europeans came the consciousness of this world, of the indigenous peoples, was limited to the land they could see, and of stories passed down through generations. And now they live on small islands surrounded by an organized nation of others, with full awareness of many other organized (or marginally) organized nations of others on this shrinking planet.

A few hundred years ago the First Nations People began to learn they did not own this land, they had no God given right to this land, this part of the earth. There were in fact hordes of others seeking refuge, a field to till, a place to live and raise a family. In truth the lore of the First Nations People had always been more about stewardship and custodian responsibilities for the land and it’s abundance than ownership.

There is a connection here with Marvin’s blog, for we are now, all of us, in the position of being First Nations 400 years ago. And what I am talking about, as Hungary closes its borders, as Britain isolates itself, as Maxime Bernier shouts NO to immigrants, as the US rounds them up, is that we must accept, as the First Nations People had to, that we are collectively just custodians on this small planet. We “own” nothing. And if we are to survive we must do a better job as custodians, and where there is bounty we must share, and where there is trouble we all must help.

The indigenous people, a few hundred years ago, did not know there would one day be a Brazil. And 50 years ago I’m sure I did not know the Amazon was responsible for 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen, the cycle of stripping carbon from CO2 and releasing oxygen to the air. But, apparently it is, and it is burning.

Canada has pledged $15 million and water bombers to combat the fires, on top of $20 million promised in a G7 meeting. Trump skipped the meeting.

The good news here is that, apart from Trumpland, we are beginning to accept the fact that we are collectively mere custodians of a fragile planet and must take this role seriously.

Whoops, I wrote too soon. I forgot we have managed to elect so many stupid narcissistic teenage boys to high office and positions of power.

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Refugees and Hypocrisy

By Marvin Ross

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Image by heblo from Pixabay

I’ve just finished reading By Chance Alone, a book of Holocaust survival, life as a refugee and eventual settlement in Toronto. Max Eisen, the author, is a Hungarian Jew who was rounded up with his family, neighbours and relatives from a small city in Hungary and sent off to Auschwitz. He was a young teenager at the time and the only one in his family to survive.

For many years, he has travelled across Canada lecturing about his life to schools, universities and even the York Region police cadets, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Canadian Forces College. He is one of many who devote their senior years to reminding us of what happened but, sadly, few of us listen. The world today is full of refugees fleeing war, poverty and misery while fascism, Neo-Nazis and white supremacy are once again growing.

In 2015, Eisen went back to Germany to testify at the trial of the SS official who was known as the bookkeeper. He was in charge of gathering valuables such as money, jewellery and gold crowns pulled from the mouths of gassed Hungarian Jews. When enough was accumulated, he carried the ill gotten gains in a large suitcase to a bank in Berlin a few times a week. The man was convicted but still maintained his innocence as a man simply following orders.

Mr Eisen commented “I have a great deal of concern for humanity should a supremacist ideology take hold again. It will be a threat to our way of life and our freedom.”

Sadly, this is exactly what is happening in many parts of the world and Mr Eisen puts into words the warning signs that we are presently seeing in many countries today. One of those warning signs is the increasing anti-semitism in the US particularly among Christian evangelicals.

Prior to and during the war, Canada and the US were reluctant to take in refugees fleeing Hitler. Canada’s policy towards Jews fleeing Hitler as described by  historian, Irving Abella was “none is too many”. The refugee ship, the St Louis carrying 900 Jewish refugees was denied entry into Canada and the US and the passengers all returned to Europe and their deaths.

After the war, both Canada and the US began welcoming refugees. First the Holocaust survivors, then thousands of Hungarians in 1956 fleeing Communism after the uprising. All have been an asset and contributed to the nations they settled in. Then there were the boat people from Vietnam, the South Asians kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin and countless others.

Thankfully, Canada has been quite open in letting in many from the wars in the Middle East and we now have a situation where in the past two years an estimate 45,000 people have come here via unofficial border crossings into Quebec from the US.

Refugees from Trump.

The US, in contrast, rounds up undocumented workers in its country and separates children from their parents on the southern border and locks them up in abysmal conditions.

The pressure of refugees is growing and, thus far, Canada has continued to offer them sanctuary although some are referring to those coming from the US outside of formal border posts as illegal entrants. These are the right wing politicians who do not understand that under international law, refugees are to be accommodated. Right wing politicians in Canada have argued for tests of Canadian values to determine who should be let in. They have also proposed a tip line to report those with barbaric practices.

Sadly, parts of Europe are forgetting their own history and acting despicably. Hungary, which gave the world so many fleeing people in the 50s, is now barring any refugees from its land. Recently, the news reported on a refugee boat in the Mediterranean that was not being allowed to land in Italy despite the horrible conditions on board. Italy has conveniently forgotten that so many of their countrymen migrated to North America for better lives which they found.

What stuck me about Max Eisen’s survival (a Jew) was the help he got from a Pole. Eisen was struck on the back of the head with a rifle butt by a German guard and carried unconscious to the camp hospital. The chief surgeon was a Polish physician, Dr Tadeusz Orzeszko, who was being held as a political prisoner. As Eisen recovered from his surgery, he was offered the chance to work in the camp hospital assisting with operations.

Max and the doctor became separated with the advance of the Red Army and the start of the Death March where the Germans forced the prisoners to march away from the camp and freedom to another one closer to Germany. They never did meet again but in 2010, Max met the now deceased doctor’s family at a reception in Warsaw. He has maintained a close friendship with the doctor’s son and then learned that Dr Orzeszko’s granddaughter, Julia, named her baby son Max in his honour.

The camp that Eisen was moved to after the Death March was liberated by the 761st Tank Battalion or the Black Panthers – a segregated unit of the US Army as, by law, Blacks were not allowed to serve alongside whites. One officer in that unit had been Jackie Robinson who broke the colour bar in major league baseball.

If we are not to descend into the actions of Nazi Germany, we will need to begin acting with more humanity than we have been. Germany, after all, has been trying and Angela Merkel deserves a great deal of praise. The hordes of refugees will continue to grow and we need to develop a compassionate policy to help them.

America, Come to Your Senses

By Dr David Laing Dawson

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Back Cover of Two Years of Trump on the Psychiatrist’s Couch

I am sitting by a fire in a campsite in a National Forest enjoying the cool mountain breezes, the clouds floating overhead with the last light of the setting sun. A CPR train moans in the distance, another fire crackles, someone chops wood for kindling, and families abound, some with tents and bicycles, some with big rigs. It is here one can easily see the nature of Earth, the complex ecology, and the fair and (mostly) equitable social order of Canada. The rules are stringent and thorough: two hours for generators in the morning and two hours in the evening, quiet after 11, no alcohol or cannabis off campsite, none of either after 11 on a long weekend.

We are ants on a planet, a fragile orb, and my thoughts should be of life and fellowship, of eternity and mystery, of the grandchildren who visited our campsite last night.

But instead, but instead they are of Donald Trump. I have not read a newspaper but google news tells me of his absurd antics, his wish to buy Greenland, his arguments with the the Fed over interest rates, possibly declaring the Antifa (anti-fascism) a terrorist organization, his statements about Jews and Israel, and his fight with the plans of American automakers who wish to produce environmentally responsible automobiles for California.

I know. I could decide not to click on Trump news while on holiday. But….

Previously I wrote about the dangers of a cornered narcissist but he slipped away from every accusation. So now the danger lies with an unbridled narcissist who has learned he can get away with anything, and whose insatiable need for praise and pomp has already reached the grandiosity of buying part of another country, declaring himself the chosen one, threatening annihilation of a few populations, and dabbling in car design and macro economics.

He is appalling. Please, America, come to your senses.

No good can come of this man. It will take decades to recover from his influence and we don’t have the luxury of time. Or, more specifically, this melting earth cannot afford 8 years of Trump and the damage he brings to it with every tweet.

The next day a Chinese couple identify for me the sound of barking in a fir tree as that of a Raven, an Alberta truck driver apologizes for momentarily blocking our path to the air pump for a trailer tire, large fat clouds sweep over the craggy granite ridges near Canmore, and we drop from the Rockies into the foothills, lush and productive. My mental health is restored.

Art and Schizophrenia Follow-Up

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Marvin’s recent piece and the comments that followed got me thinking about art and schizophrenia. There is a brief period in child development between the time a child can hold and manipulate a pencil or brush to make marks on paper and the time they begin to think and speak in symbolic language. That is the period, I think, Picasso was referring to when he spoke of retaining the gifts of a child to draw and paint as a child. For it is in that period that a child draws, perhaps with varying degrees of skill, what he or she sees or perceives at the moment, rather than what they expect to see.

With the development of symbolic language we begin to see what we expect to see and only in the amount of detail that we need. And the child then begins to draw not what is actually before their eyes but symbols. Hence a tree becomes a green popsicle on a stick, the sun a yellow orb in the sky with yellow rays, a house becomes a box with peaked roof, and humans become stick figures.

Generally we adults see what we expect to see but we can be persuaded to take a second look by others, by circumstances, by choice. In a delusional state the afflicted person also sees what they expect to see and they perceive what they see in a manner that supports their delusion. It is also impossible to persuade them to take a second look for to do so would shatter a conviction.

And that may be where the making of art and art therapy comes in. It offers the troubled, afflicted, delusional person a non threatening place to go back, back before symbolic thinking developed, and learn to see again.

And of course it also offers that which I think every artist pursues, and that is the possibility of reliving the moment when mother once took your childhood scribble in hand and exclaimed, “This is wonderful. My very own little Picasso. This is going right on the refrigerator door.”

Art Therapy and Schizophrenia – A Review of DrawBridge

By Marvin Ross
drawbridge Drawbridge, a book by Joan Boxall, about her travels in art with her brother with schizophrenia is a difficult one for me to review. Not because the book is bad which it is not and I do recommend it but because of my own problems with art and art therapy.

I am artistically challenged and can barely draw a stick figure. Art classes which were mandatory when I was in elementary school were torture for me so it is difficult to comprehend the enjoyment and benefit people get from it. David Dawson and I did a documentary on an art program for people with mental illness called the Brush, The Pen and Recovery and I did see the value that the participants derived from their participation.

The Home on the Hill program in Richmond Hill, Ontario does have an art program as well and I did attend a function where the art therapist explained the benefits but it was all over my head.

For those interested in the benefits of an art program, then I highly recommend this book. Written by Joan Boxall, a British Columbia based retired teacher, the book relates how she reconnected to her brother Stephen who had schizophrenia and developed a deep connection with him. As the book blurb states “Joan meets him (Steve) at the Art Studios in Vancouver, where he takes part in art classes for individuals with a mental illness in a safe, supportive environment. This marks the beginning of a remarkable journey into the healing power of art.”

Steve did attend art school in Vancouver in the 1960’s and has considerable talent evident from the drawings included in the book.

Explaining the role of art, Joan quotes from Picasso via Matisse that “painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.” And attending the classes at the art studio have resulted in Steve relearning how to focus and make good use of his time.

As the time the two siblings spend together and Steve becomes more involved with the art and the talent he left behind during his travels with psychosis, Joan comments that Steve is becoming unstuck and that he obsesses less and is lighter.

Soon, Steve’s work is displayed at the Art Studio and he has his first show called Dancing on the Interface. Of his 57 paintings on display, six sell along with cards of his images. Later, his paintings are accepted in the Art Rental Program at the North Vancouver Community Arts Council (now called North Van Arts). More paintings sell and his art begins to be displayed at some coffee houses in Vancouver.

Without wishing to give away too much of the book, let me just say that there is now a bursary given every spring to a student at the Emily Carr University in Art and Design in Vancouver to students coping with significant mental health challenges.

Aside from art, the book is a revealing look into the role that siblings can play in the support and help for those with schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses. It is often not an easy role but in this case it was aided by their mutual participation in art classes (and bocce ball as well.)

It also made me a bit jealous of Vancouver in that the community supported the art program and people bought or borrowed the paintings. We have not found that in our own community of Hamilton, Ontario. I did manage to get our local hospital with responsibility for mental health care to put on a premier for our documentary which they used for fund raising. One of the esteemed guests at that opening is a major donor to the hospital and now to their mental health services.

But when David Dawson held an art show for the artists involved in the film at his art gallery when we did the film, I do not believe that one painting sold. And they were  good pieces of work.

Either last year or early this year, David held another showing for some very talented artists with serious mental illnesses and again I do not believe anything sold. For that, I notified the VP of mental health services at the hospital about the show and suggested they might like to obtain art works from talented patients for the drab, monochromatic institutionalized depressing walls of the hospital. No reply.

So kudos to Vancouver for the support they give.

DrawBridge: Drawing Alongside My Brother’s Schizophrenia, by Joan Boxall  (Author), Stephen A. Corcoran (Illustrator) ISBN-13: 978-1773860022 and available

 

Canada VS the US From an RV

By Dr David Laing Dawson

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Image by Annalise Batista from Pixabay

RVing through the US and into Canada at Creston BC I ponder the shaping of national identity and patterns of behaviour, for the visual differences between the two countries are becoming stark.

The landscape and climate are the same in Western Montana and South Eastern BC, but the differences lie in organization, in care, attitude.

The signage in Canada thanks me for slowing through a construction site. In the US it threatens me with a $1500 fine and months in jail.

In the US we pass through half dead small towns in disarray, dumps of old trailers and trucks beside dilapidated clapboard houses. No matter how poor the small town in Montana, it has a windowless casino, from a shack with slots to Diamond Lil’s. It is a man’s world of heavy machinery, equipment, trucks, and minimal attention to design and decoration.

Crossing into Canada we enter a different world. Money has been spent on the roads, only occasionally do we see a shack or barn left to decay in place. And the small towns: suddenly people are sitting at tables outside cafes, the buildings are maintained, colourful, quaint, alive. Shops are open, people stroll. Some of these strolling, shopping people may be American tourists spending their overvalued currency while enjoying the pleasant sense of safety and security Canada offers.

And that leads me to the point of this. The American economy is good, I am reminded by Donald every day. So why does America not look better?

The arguments for Universal Health care and gun control are usually based on health improvement and fewer killings. But I would like to make them, as well, for a lessening of anxiety. For America, I think, is rife with anxiety, leaving a whole population over compensating with ‘America First’ appeals, and displays of power and self reliance, while driving rapidly by signs that read 110 people killed on this highway so far in 2019, and another sign telling us how many children per day were killed by guns.

Now some of that anxiety is the product of a violent, racist history, yet to be resolved, and some from a large and growing income inequality, and some from an otherwise beneficial value of self reliance and a little I am sure from genuine threat, though the fear and preoccupation with “adversaries” is far overblown.

These sources of anxiety may be difficult to overcome, but two major sources shouldn’t be: health care and guns.

And maybe if the average American was not worried about health insurance, the enormous cost of becoming ill, and of being in the wrong place when a boy with an AR 15 shows up, they might be able to relax and pretty up their town and sit at a sidewalk cafe sipping good coffee too.

The Complexity of Addictions

By Marvin Ross

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Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

I just recently finished reading an interesting essay on addictions by Dr Lloyd Sederer a psychiatrist at Columbia University. While I don’t agree with his recommendations, he does remind us of some seminal research from the 1970s that helps to explain the problem.

When I’ve written on this topic in the past, I always mention the large number of military personnel during the Viet Nam war who used substances. The US feared that many of them would continue when they returned to the US but most did not. Out of a war zone and back into leading a normal life, most had no need for substances. That was the topic of the research referred to as the “rat park”.

Rats who were caged were offered two types of drinks. One was pure water and the other was water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rats took the drug laced drink and continued to drink from it until they overdosed and died.

A second group of rats were put into social situations called rat parks. Here, they were able to play and cavort with their buddies, hold discussions and debates, have sex and generally enjoy themselves. While they occasionally tried the drug infused water, they mostly drank the pure water and did not overdose. The moral, of course, is that rats/people with meaningful activities in their lives tend to stay away from addicting behaviour.

Dr Sederer sees the solution to dealing with and treating those with addictions as having clinicians “focus on their families, their social communities, their sources of human contact and support”. Now Dr Sederer admits that he is not naive about human behaviour but he adds that “these questions open essential doors.”

The problem with his view is that it is over simplistic. He is correct that social situations are often precursors to addicting behaviour but those conditions cannot be alleviated entirely in the treating docs office. The problems are often societal and caused in large part by lack of meaningful work, low income, and the lack of societal safety nets. Work is disappearing to a large extent for those with minimal skills who used to be employed in factories, mines, and retail stores.

According to the Atlantic, The disappearance of manufacturing and the rise of opioid abuse has hit men in the Rust Belt hard. For many, the lack of work and low income with minimal social safety nets has lead to escape through drugs. And with increasing automation and artificial intelligence, more jobs will disappear in the future. We will be left with a society where the work force will continue to shrink resulting in even greater poverty.

Economists have suggested that there is a link between opioid addiction and unemployment. A more recent study by Vancouver Coastal Health demonstrated that The primary cause of the opioid crisis is a “complex interaction” of socioeconomic problems, such as unemployment and homelessness, combined with substance abuse and an increasingly dangerous black market supply.

Ten years ago, the Hamilton Spectator did an analysis of health conditions in that city and found that those who live in the poorest areas have the worst health and utilize health care more extensively. That paper just updated the study looking at opioid overdoses and deaths. What it found was that opioid addiction was far more prevalent in the poor sections of the city.

“This is about despair,” said Neil Johnston, a McMaster University researcher who was involved in the original study. He added

“It’s about despair, whether you’re hooked on something nasty and you feel you can’t get out or nobody cares whether you get out. One way or another it’s a terribly malignant force.”

The only viable solution, in my opinion, is a guaranteed annual income for those who are unemployable or whose incomes through work are very low. And this should be combined with making drugs available to those who are addicted. Portugal has demonstrated that the social and societal benefits of this policy are enormous.

Another group with addiction problems that I’ve just realized are those with serious mental illnesses. Again, a very complex issue but what I’m now noticing is that when the mental health system stabilizes people, they pay little or no attention to their other needs for meaningful activity or income. The system rarely provides any activities for them where they can be actively engaged,, possibly earn some extra money, make friends and have satisfying social activities. Drugs are a way of making themselves feel better when nothing else does.

Young Male Killers

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Several factors or conditions are needed to produce a mass killing. Examining them may inform prevention.

The first is simple maleness. The very instinct that causes boys to skip a stone on the pond, or push a toy car into a pile of blocks is behind the shooting of a gun. Effectance Behaviour. The impulse to cause an effect.

But this impulse or instinct can have very positive effects. So what makes a young man express this instinct in such an evil manner?

Social isolation: the absence of many adolescent years of successful socialization with nuance and inclusivity.

Failure: Failure to achieve meaningful relationships, memberships, and meaningful roles and activities.

Autistic Spectrum: the rigid, moralistic, “black and white” thinking of autism makes the autistic boy vulnerable to screeds, to simplistic amoral solutions and explanations.

The Internet: this now provides the vulnerable young, isolated male with a plethora of anti-social philosophies and calls to action, as well as heroes to emulate, and virtual friends to please.

Trigger or evolving mental illness: radical ideas and obsessions can evolve into delusions, including that of a suicide mission.

Sanction: A voice of authority giving a direct or indirect call to action, coupled with a dehumanizing message, e.g. cockroaches, vermin.

Arms: Readily available guns, especially automatic weapons with high magazine capacity.

As with all social and health problems some of these conditions are very difficult to detect and change. Others require improving that which exists: inclusive excellent public schools for example, and programs that ensure every teen transition to meaningful adulthood. And some of these conditions speak loudly for obvious and straightforward remedy.

Brace for More – Inspired by the Canadian Manhunt for Two Teens

By Dr David Laing Dawson

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In the ordinary course of development the adolescent years are ones in which the partially formed human being interacts with, bounces against, parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, music teachers, neighbours, peers, boys and girls, during supervised and unsupervised periods, strangers, competitors, bosses, rules, laws, expectations, in real time and real life, mostly from the same culture, speaking the same language.

And during these roughly ten years of negotiation the developing brain and personality of this young human being figure out at least some fundamental parameters of life. These include sexuality, value, worth, competence, control, power, responsibility, empathy, role, membership. Consciousness broadens, widens, and deepens.

People in this culture are fond of using the words “found himself”, or “followed her dream”, but really it is a process of genetic makeup being shaped by interactions with others. Real interactions. Real interactions, partial interactions, and even avoided interactions.

And always in those developing periods there have been opportunities for fantasy play and make believe, from role playing games to books to horror movies and dress up. And most developing humans have the capacity to tell the difference, to separate the make believe from the real.

Roughly 20 years have passed since video games and websites and forums and social media began their all encompassing exponential growth, with the games and forums and videos becoming more and more engrossing and “real”, and with the brief speak of texting plus emojis replacing the far more nuanced verbal and nonverbal communication of one human facing another.

And for some adolescents these have totally replaced those ten years of interacting in the real world, those ten years that allow the unfolding of identity, wishes, wants, friendships, sexuality, roles and purpose within the bounds of most community expectations in this real world.

There is a harmless side to it. It allows some of us to use this fantasy world as a way of more comfortably entering the real world: anime, comic, sci-fi and game conventions, dress up, animal costumes, Fortnite contests, online friendships.

But for others, that adolescent blank but yearning slate of questions about “sexuality, value, worth, competence, control, power, responsibility, empathy, role, membership” can be wholly filled with the primitive certainties of the virtual world. And these virtual worlds range from the medieval to the messianic, preaching entitlements, quests, wars, greed, conspiracies and revenge.

So brace for more in the future.

But in the meantime it behooves all parents and teachers and counselors and mental health professionals to try to pry the vulnerable teen away from his or her computer at least for part of the day, and help them find a place in the real world.