This has been a “horrible, terrible, no good, very bad” week for the country … again.
Ever since the Sandy Hook shooting last December, it’s been on my mind … mental health. Most of us have willingly and accidentally played frustrated psychoanalysts at one point or another.
Even the casual phrases, “she’s a nut case,” or “he’s deranged,” however jokingly uttered, indicate that we judge others’ mental health status at times. Casual remarks side, though, can we really comfortably assess another’s mental state, especially a situation where we might consider alerting the “authorities?”
Even experts in the fields of dealing with psychoanalysis rarely make such unequivocal declarations regarding another human mind. Or, one could argue that perhaps precisely because they are the experts, they are all the more reluctant to issue a black-and-white verdict. More importantly, for those of us who might occasionally wonder about our co-workers’ mental health states, it isn’t easy to be decisive about our judgment.
It’s difficult to detect troublesome signs on a daily basis unless the person in question makes a sudden outburst or exhibits dramatically errant behavior. It’s much easier to make a positive pronouncement, or denouncement, in hindsight, or play an armchair therapist.
We ask for “signs” to watch out for our co-workers, fellow students, or family members, but signs are superficial manifestations. Signs may be episodic because the person has a bad week, and they may mean different things to different people. A quiet introvert suddenly becoming the center of attention? Would occasional diatribes against government or fellow human beings set off an alarm? How do we straddle conforming and acting uniquely? Do we treat social dissent as potentially violent? (Before you say, “of course, not,” remember the WWII internment camps and the McCarthy era.)
Lucinda Roy, a distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, had extensive interactions with the perpetrator before he committed the shooting spree. Professor Roy had worked with Mr. Cho in one of her classes, and saw enough signs to disturb her. She was one of the few people who managed to penetrate his wall and had some genuine interactions. She had alerted the campus counselor and authorities, but ultimately, it was extremely difficult to prevent anyone from acting up … till he acts up. The professor did not stay quiet, but to no avail.
The majority of people who may be somewhat mentally unbalanced do not shoot innocent people randomly. Most people at work who are pushed over the edge and “go postal,” – while bad enough – don’t shoot mass numbers of innocent people, instead going after their immediate supervisors and the unfortunate few who happen to be nearby.
Even if we become highly suspicious of a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a friend’s child, how likely are we to approach the person, or the person’s parents, and say something … like what? “Your son (sorry, the majority of these cases are committed by males) kind of scares me. Have you taken him to a psychotherapist?”
It just isn’t easy to take action on mental health issues. It requires enormous patience, a tremendous amount understanding, and a lot of time. To have a national list of mentally-ill people is laughable at best; to have a similar list at each organization would be downright scary. As a collective, we have made huge strides in medicine, computer technology, and weapon design, using rationality and intelligence; why are we so afraid of (or, stingy?) committing similar resources (not just money) to make improvements to recognition and treatment of people who need help with mental issues?
What I am struggling to stay is this: Our work life and life in general have gotten more and more stressful over the years. We can’t seem to find enough time to chill and pay meaningful attention to our fellow colleagues. Till something happens. When stuff happens, we want explanations and we want to find someone or some aspect of life to blame. And then, we go right back to living the same way, or seemingly so.
This is one of many reasons I have always advocated for people to take some time off, to reflect, to hum a song, to actually taste lunch, or to find a colleague with whom to share some stories and laughs … etc. It cannot be just each employee “sneaking” the odd moment here and there. Management needs to stop erecting more hurdles. Make it a sacred principle to eliminate five rules for every new one you want to install. And give employees more space to do their work at a less frantic pace, and to occasionally “play.”
I think such “simple” heuristics applies for schools, too, don’t you?
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
Direct Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.