How Creative Maladjustment Helped Me Change America's Education System, John Laue, Joelmobius@aol.com, (831) 684-0854
As I write this epistle it's Martin Luther King Day, commemorating the birth of that great American hero who recognized that creatively maladjusted people such as he was can sometimes bring about cultural changes which benefit us all. In this context I also remember reading the works of Sam Keen, the American philosopher, who designated certain types of people as possible culture changers, among them, schizophrenic individuals.
In 1997 Santa Cruz County Mental Health Director Rama Khalsa asked Bonnie Schell, Director of the Mental Health Clients Action Network, to recommend some mental health clients who she thought could function on the County Mental Health Advisory Board. I'd been in a poetry group with Bonnie, and told her I was mentally ill, as I knew she was. (My most accurate diagnosis was probably schizoaffective disorder, if you believe that is important; I don't know what Bonnie's was.) She recommended Michael Eipp and me. We applied and in June of that year were appointed by County Supervisors to the Board..
I was a mental health activist at that time with very good reasons for being so. Not only was I personally mentally ill and stabilized on medications, but my mother had spent the last 23 years of her life in Greystone Park, The New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane, which she’d gone into when I was eight years old. For two years I had been going to local high schools as a guest speaker in health classes, giving presentations about mental health. Being a retired twenty-year high school teacher and counselor myself and dedicated to bringing about changes to make school systems more humane, I felt comfortable and justified in that role.
I addressed most of the high school health classes in the county, showed videos produced by such groups such as The Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and spoke about my own struggles with illness. During some of these presentations I saw several health textbooks and was surprised to find that they had almost no mention of serious mental illnesses. Aside from a few words on depression, there was nothing about the entire gamut of mental health problems.
I realized this gap was one of the effects of the taboo against talking about these crucial issues. Just as for many years no one would talk about cancer, so it was with mental illnesses. That taboo had affected me personally. Alhough he was a psychologist and knew I had majored in psychology at the University of California, my father had refused to talk about any of my mother’s issues, even in his later years when he was dying. No one had ever alerted me that because my mother had been mentally ill, I might have a predisposition to be that way myself.
At the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, I got a copy of the California Framework for Health Education, found the document almost completely lacking in information and guidance about mental health. The Framework, which mandated what should be taught in all levels of California public schools, included much about people's bodies, but had little information about mind/body problems. They apparently wanted to pretend that if kids took care of their bodies their mental health would follow.
I saw that a middle school teacher from The Pajaro Valley Unified School District, the same district where I had taught, was listed as having been on a previous State Health Framework Subcommittee. I called her and discussed my cause. She liked my idea to try to change the framework and make it more inclusive. She was the only out lesbian teacher that I knew about in the district, and said that when she'd been on the Subcommittee she'd been successful in bringing about some improvements. She gave me her full support.
I decided to call my friend Donald Rimac, my former principal at La Honda-Pescadero High, who was the retired head of Regional Occupational Programs for Los Angeles County, and ask his advice. He encouraged me to talk to the Director of Health Education for that county (over 100 school districts). When I called and spoke to that man, he was quite negative, remarking that there was no chance to change the Framework because Health Education was dominated by physical educators (exercise) and home economics teachers (nutrition). He did inform me, though, that they were taking testimony for the next edition as we spoke.
Armed with that knowledge, I called The State Department of Education and spoke to a woman named Linda Sain, the liaison between that department and the California Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission. She told me that the Health Education Subcommittee was in the process of taking testimony for the 2001 Framework. I could apply by writing to the Subcommittee’s chairman. I think she liked my cause, because she was very encouraging.
By that time Michael Eipp and I had been elected Co-Chairpersons of the County Local Mental Health Advisory Board, the only time it had been chaired by consumers although by California law one third of members were supposed to be in that category.
(Consumer is the legal term used to designate a person with a psychiatric diagnosis). I realized that because of my position as a Chairperson of the Board, I had a certain amount of leverage I could use to convince State Commission members of my point of view.
I set forth the case for including information about mental illnesses in the Framework, and requested to give testimony to that effect. I argued that mentally ill persons were a minority group unfairly stigmatized, citing studies I'd seen of news and entertainment media that portrayed us as either violent or laughing stocks. I included offers from two Ph.D.'s who wished to support me, Max Camarillo, a therapist and college counselor who was on the Board, and Rama, the Mental Health Director.
On May 10 of that year, I learned that my letter had been discussed by the Subcommittee. They were considering either an addendum or an amendment about mental illness and had set up a subgroup to investigate those alternatives. I was asked to appear before this group at their July meeting. On May 21 I received a formal letter scheduling me for Friday morning, July 17 and began preparing my testimony by reading recent books on the subject.
For several weeks I studied the literature and planned my presentation, cobbling together xeroxed paragraphs and pages from books to make a synthesis of information about the need to identify and treat these conditions, especially as they affected youngsters. Rosalyn Carter's book, Helping Someone With Mental Illness, was one of the main sources I borrowed from, along with five or six other current mental health tomes. There was no need for me to compose anything original; it was all there.
I knew what I wanted to say, but wondered how to present myself. I had the prestige of being a County Mental Health Board Chairperson, and the fact that six others from that group had asked to reinforce my testimony. I could declare myself to be a consumer for the effect it might have, but decided against that. I hadn't done so in my application letter. And In twenty years of teaching I hadn't come out about this to many people, knowing that because of the stigma attached it would have reflected badly on me in some eyes, might have resulted in me losing my favorite class, Peer Counseling, which I'd kept alive for fourteen years in spite of administrators' concerns.
When July 17 came I went with my wife to Sacramento the day before the presentation. I had bought a new brown jacket so I would look my best and wore that in the morning even though the day was hot, over 100 degrees. I found the building where the hearing was to be held, parked and went right in. While I waited for two other people to give testimony, I noticed that some of the Commissioners sat in a row elevated above others below at a long table. Apparently they were the ranking members. I wondered if this arrangement was designed to intimidate witnesses.
My turn came. I sat at the long table and read my speech. I had a few nervous butterflies, but when I got a minute into my presentation they went away. I'd planned my speech to last about half an hour, but after 15 minutes the Chair of the Subcommittee cut me off, saying that my testimony was running too long. I'd only gotten half way through my material, so I was disappointed, as were some members of the Subcommittee. As the meeting adjourned for lunch, two asked me about the high school shootings which had recently been in the news. One of the members, Vic Hovsepian, a mathematics teacher from Los Angeles, asked me to print out my full planned testimony and send it to him.
I returned to our County Department of Mental Health and asked Rama for secretarial help. Ester, the department secretary typed the entire presentation, which had been in bits and pieces. We made packets for each member of the Health Framework Subcommittee. Being a published writer myself, I decided to write items following the Framework's form, and include them in an introductory letter. I sent fifteen of these, one of which ended up surviving the long process verbatim and being used in the final Framework. Other items of my authorship were also incorporated, but in different words.
From Linda Sain I learned that one other person had given testimony along the same lines as I, but hadn't gone to the lengths I did. A month later, I got a letter from Kirk S. Ankeney, Chair of the Commission, thanking me for my testimony, and saying they were very impressed, especially by some of the statistics I'd sent, for instance comparing muscular dystrophy with schizophrenia. According to my sources there are 40 times more schizophrenics than muscular dystrophy victims, but every year muscular dystrophy has much good publicity (The Jerry Lewis Telethon, etc.) while schizophrenia gets only negative press. And schizophrenia is not so common as some other major mental illnesses (clinical depression and bipolar disorder, for instance).
The letter went on as follows: "You certainly made the point regarding the importance of addressing mental illness in a coherent, compassionate, and comprehensible fashion in the health curriculum." It stated that they were considering including some of the things I advocated when writing an addendum to the Framework. It did say, though, that health educators were not psychologists and couldn't be expected to know much about the topic. I wondered if any new material they wrote about mental illnesses would be so watered down it would be useless.
At that point I thought I'd been quite successful and that would be the end of it; however I kept talking to the Department of Education, in this case to Carolyn Roberts, a health educator who had replaced Linda Sain as liaison to the Health Subject Matter Subcommittee. I suggested to her that, since they were not psychologists, they might use consultants to aid in the process of writing the addendum.
By law new frameworks are put out every seven years, because textbooks based on them would be made obsolete if the period were less. I was told that new nationally produced textbooks are based on curriculum frameworks from three states: California, Texas, and New York. I thought if they wrote an excellent addendum about mental illnesses, it would influence textbook writers and possibly lead to better mental health training for teachers nationally, but kept myself from wishing for too much; I'd already been more successful than anyone thought possible.
Finally from Carolyn I found out that they had decided against making an addendum. but had rewritten some of the entire Framework using State Department of Mental Health personnel to give them content advice. It was much more of an improvement than I'd expected, although later, when I perused the new edition, I thought it still somewhat lacking. But I knew they had had to get every item approved by the State Board of Education, no small feat, and was certain there were other hurdles too.
I'm not perfect and never will be. Neither is the Framework. But it's a large improvement on how it used to be. Rama (bless her heart) recognized me as a writer and picked me out as a very persuasive person. Without her encouragement and help I wouldn't have been able to have the successes I did, which included completing other positive missions such as (at Rama's request) getting hold of the video of Tipper Gore's six-hour-long national mental health conference from Washington and getting it played three nights in a row on local TV. Working on some of these issues brought about some serious mental health problems for me, including a mixed manic/agitated depression state, but it was worth it.
Some of the changes I was instrumental in bringing about still influence the writers of national health textbooks, but I didn't do it alone. As Hillary Clinton said, "It Takes a Village" (Hillary beat a group of writers I was in as a finalist for the 1997 Spoken Word Grammy Award with her taped reading of a piece by that name). My quest for a more compassionate framework was supported by other people I enlisted, even some who thought that, like Don Quixote of literary fame, I was on a fruitless mission (What else would a mentally ill person do, but tilt at windmills?).
One never knows how one will affect the world. Many of us consumers have untapped potential; we see opportunities others don’t. If I’d never been mentally ill, didn’t have the mother I had, hadn’t fought through twenty years of teaching problems (with only mixed success), I doubt I’d have been interested in the subject, let alone pull off such a remarkable feat. I’m glad I had the foresight, skills, and persistence to take advantage of this opportunity and others like it. I'm no normal high achiever, but sort of a wild card, being creative in my own unusual ways.