Guest Blog: On Parkland --Mirtha Whaley, PhD, OTR/L


Guest Blog: On Parkland


-- Mirtha Whaley, PhD, MPH, OTR/L

I generally keep opinions to myself, but I cannot keep silent in light of yet another massacre. Those lives should never have been lost, nor any other lives that have been taken in a similar manner. This is a heartbreak for their families, their friends, their communities, our nation, and for all of us who feel impotent to bring about change. But, there are more than those victims out there. Most of my career as an occupational therapist has been in psychosocial rehabilitation, serving individuals who have severe and persistent mental illness. I now teach courses in psychosocial interventions, so I have an opportunity to address important societal issues like these with my students.

My experience, and the research evidence, indicate that individuals who are mentally ill are more likely to be victimized than to kill, and more likely to take their own lives, than to hurt someone else. Yes, you have to be insane to commit such an act, but to blame these massacres on the mentally ill as a group is to add insult to injury. Programs have lost their funding, and services are lacking. We blame, ignore, and judge these individuals, and we feel like we are doing them a favor with what little we have to offer, when their residential and treatment facilities are in dire need of repairs, and their treatment and community programs are insufficiently and inadequately staffed. Yes, we expect them to be content and grateful to be placed in silos and social warehouses.

Things have changed in the care of individuals who are mentally ill, and Florida is at the forefront of inadequate services. But, know that there are many states vying for that distinction. Whoever is "driving the funding and reimbursement bus" is more insane than our clients are. Let's put the blame where it belongs...let's be clear as to who the real mass murderers are. Let's look to legislators who are more interested in maintaining their positions (I would say "jobs," but I really don't think they work), heads of state, and those in the nation's capital. They are all shareholders in these events.

Fixing this isn't easy, a friend reminded me...“we can blame legislators but society in general has degenerated in many ways, beginning with the family unit and the loss of community.”  My friend is not an occupational therapist, but he understands the impact of contexts in our lives.  As OTs we know that any condition may be caused and are definitely impacted by both individual and contextual factors...cultural, political, economic, virtual, etc. As a people, we have lost ties, civility, and empathy, and membership in civic organizations has declined. Years ago, as a PhD student at USF, we were required to read an article titled "Bowling Alone,” addressing the loss of community. Now, we not only bowl alone, we bowl "virtually" with our high-tech devices.


There is plenty of blame to go around, and it will take a concerted "human community" effort. As long as we continue to point a finger in one direction only, we will remain paralyzed, angry, and impotent. The curious thing to me, is that while we continue to blame "the mentally ill," we are also contributing to the growth of that population by ensuring we have more people who will be growing and aging with anxiety, depression, and many more cases of PTSD. I guess I need Lucy Ricardo to "splain that to me."


One last thought...addressing any health issue (and this is a health issue) begins with solid scientific inquiry to determine the extent, the causes, and the risk factors involved, to try to develop interventions. That is how we came to have vaccines and how we developed treatments and interventions for a host of diseases and even accidental injuries due to motor vehicle accidents...that is how we came to have shoulder harnesses and air bags in our vehicles. This has become a public health issue of epidemic proportions, and yet attempts to study gun violence have been consistently and successfully blocked, I wonder how that might have worked with diseases like polio and HIV/AIDS. We are all not only at risk of dying or being injured by guns in the hands of a mentally ill person, we are at the mercy of thugs, criminals, and terrorists who have access to these very weapons.

My friend is right, our society has degenerated. We have taken recess and play out of the schools because we need to make sure time is dedicated to preparing kids for a test, but a large proportion of our students don't know how to study, write, or critically think. We decided that music and art are unnecessary expenses, so we have done away with many of those classes.  We don't seem to realize that encouraging and facilitating participation in team sports is a way to teach children to collaborate and work together toward a goal, to win with respect for their opponents, and to lose with grace. Our children should not have to endure drills for active shooters in the schools, and parents and any of us for that matter, should not have to think that when we step out of our homes we may not be coming back.

I know my post is likely to prompt heated responses, but know that this is not a political announcement. This is a heartfelt post from someone who grieves for the lives lost, including those of individuals with mental illness, who are pushed to the side and forgotten, until somebody commits such an unspeakable act. This is a conversation that needs to happen and we all need to put down our devices and come to the table. I think it is time we put down our arms, so that we can put our arms around each other.

Mirtha M. Whaley, PhD, MPH, OTR/L

Associate Professor

Chair, FOTA Mental Health SIS



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