Alchemy was the process studied during the Middle-Ages that combined chemistry, magic, and philosophy in an attempt to convert cheaper metals into gold or silver.
What does this have to do with school improvement?
Many schools have unsuccessfully attempted similar transformations on an educational level. Follow this Blog and find out how to improve schools, as I share 40 years worth of school leadership experience.
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Thursday, January 1, 2015
Hiding in Plain Sight - A Path of Mental Illness
Hiding in Plain Sight
A Path of Mental Illness
This Blog entry has been perhaps the most difficult piece
to write among the catalog of posts I've published. It has emerged from a recent personal experience that prompted
reflection on the plight of those people challenged by mental health issues.
Furthermore, this experience caused me to examine the opportunities of people
afflicted with mental health difficulties to navigate the ebb and flow of
society. Additionally, this Blog seeks to explain why our school district has
long recognized the value of actively addressing mental health concerns as an
integral element supporting instructional success, and maintains an investment in
the staff trained in delivering services to those in need. We have a full-time
social worker, a full-time school psychologist, and a full-time guidance
counselor for our preK-12 community of 344 learners.
She was born in Colorado three months premature, at a time (1959)
when few births in that condition emerged alive, and discarded in a plastic bag
that was discovered soon thereafter in a dumpster. She was adopted within days
of her recovery by a loving and accommodating couple who was fully aware of her
beginning and steadfastly committed to her future.
She died in Texas fifty-five years later (last month), alone,
of natural causes in the bath tub of her home, and was discovered by police
called by property maintenance staff to check on her whereabouts.She had been dead for approximately a month
without anyone aware of her status.
In between these two auspicious book-ends of a tragic
spectrum, in what in retrospect must have been a life shadowed by sorrow and understandably
burdened by bitterness, she existed on the edges. She was not cognitively
challenged enough to qualify for institutional support and mental health
assistance, nor was she fully capable of appropriately sustaining herself as an
adult in a complex society operating at a speed and direction beyond her
Her family moved to Maine when she was six years old. As a
child she experienced, and benefited from, a nurturing home. Her father’s
successful medical practice provided an income that accommodated her needs and
wants and allowed her mother, a former educator, to remain at home and offer
support in her development. Her parents were aware of her needs and sensitive
and responsive to her challenges. Her brother and sister, each adopted from
separate biological parents in the Denver area, displayed as much care and
consideration as they could render as they progressed from child to adolescent
Federal legislation promoting special education originated
in 1975, when she was sixteen years old and already in high school. Prior to
the introduction of that intervention schools typically did not differentiate instructional
practices or environments attendant to children identified with cognitive
deficiencies or social, emotional, or psychological issues other than those
with pronounced and obvious disabilities. Mental health issues eluded the reach
and grasp of public schools at that time. And too many of those with the greatest needs
were institutionalized.Nor were there
specialized schools available as they are today to address the unique needs of
learners challenged beyond the capacity of public schools. As such, with an IQ
that fell in the mildly retarded range, and developmentally delayed social
skills, she existed within the cracks between regular educational programming
and institutionalized/specialized schooling. She received private tutoring
funded by her parents to supplement her education at school and the help her
mother provided with her schoolwork at home. She was tacitly promoted from
grade to grade until “graduation” marked by what is frequently referred to as a
Her interpersonal communication skills were lacking so her
social experience at school was limited. She suffered from being ostracized by
her peers to the point she was rendered invisible at school and infrequently
invited to birthday parties and other activities common among children. She was
physically awkward so any of the athletic groups many kids were involved in
were out of reach for her. She was often left out or the last picked for
activities. These obstacles led her to retreat to her bedroom as a refuge where
she engaged with life through prolonged indulgences with her music system and
television. She began insulating herself from a world she found intimidating.
Her parents attempted to expose her to as many cultural and
learning opportunities as possible, with regular vacations throughout the
country, some extending overseas to London and Rome, and interesting events at
museums and concerts. Her parents devoted themselves to filling in the gaps,
educationally and socially, between her abilities and her needs and
interests.They were always aware of her
shortcomings and the expectations of functional members of society. Their goal
was to create a safety net to catch her for the inevitable falls.
Three years after completing high school, she moved with
her family to Texas, where her father continued his practice at a leisurely
pace of semi-retirement. Her sister, who had moved to the same city in Texas
and lived there for seven years, eventually moved to New York with her family.
Her brother, who had been living in Colorado since the early 1990’s, was
married and had cultivated roots in Denver. The three siblings would interact
during the holidays and special occasions such as weddings and anniversaries
that brought them back to Texas.
A paramount concern of her parents was her life as an
adult. This was a particular concern given the dispersion of their other children
to Colorado and New York, and the fact they were in their late thirties and
early forties when they adopted her and realized she would outlive them both. She
lacked the social acumen necessary to successfully maintain a job. As a result
they established a trust that would manage her financial requirements and
ensure her of a home and support for medical needs and living expenses. Her father suddenly passed away in 2003 and
her mother followed in death in 2004 after suffering with Alzheimer’s disease.
Prior to their deaths her parents were comforted by her marriage in 1997 and a
subsequent partnership with a man they hoped would bring her companionship and
support and assuage some of their fears. Unfortunately, her husband died in
2006, making it three years out of four in which she had experienced
devastating personal grief.
Those tragic losses precipitated a resolute and conscious
choice on her part to escape the harsh realities of life. She systematically excluded
those who could provide assistance and help with direction. This complicated
any efforts to attend to her needs. She was determined to withdraw from her remaining
family and society and live as a recluse within in a city of 200,000 people.
Not only did she stop attending church, consequently discarding the help of
those who ministered to her and supported her in a variety of groups like
chorus, but she insisted that the church erase any evidence of her membership. She
did not have a job so there were no relationships to maintain in the
workplace.She sequestered herself in
her home just like she had in her bedroom as an adolescent in a self imposed
exile. She regularly changed her phone number and refused to answer entreaties by
family members delivered by phone call, mail, or a knock on her front door. Hence, the lengthy period of time that elapsed
between her death and the discovery of her body.
The funeral director delivered the service at her
gravesite. He had known her when she first started attending the church where
he was a member. He experienced a friendly relationship with her when they both
participated in a singles group at church years ago.He and others in the group were accommodating
to her because as he stated, “she had the heart and mind of a child.” He shared
that he became concerned for her when she disappeared from the church.
During the service, attended only by her two siblings and
their spouses, and four representatives of the bank that managed her trust, the
funeral director volunteered that he hadn’t seen her in years until she showed
up at his funeral agency about a year ago with plans for her own funeral. She
informed him that she was a widow and he responded by saying he hadn’t even
known she was married. She had intimated her interests regarding a future
funeral. He noted that she frequently came in to place both informational and
unusual items in her “file” that she insisted he maintain for her involving the
funeral. She was adamant that there be no obituary in the newspaper or program
at the funeral. She stressed that nobody would be invited to the service except
for the funeral director and representatives of an obscure bureaucratic agency.
Nobody could ascertain or even guess at any relationship between her and the
agency. Even more startling was her request to fund a five course meal at an
upscale restaurant, complete with open bar (she never drank alcohol) for the
tiny group she had invited. This fantasy was just one of many that she
constructed to rearrange reality and make life more amenable in the final eight
years of her life.
The funeral director appeared to be the lone person that
she maintained even a semblance of a relationship with, at arm’s length and on
her terms. He described her with the term “child-like” at least three times
during the service. He explained that in her last couple of years she was a far
different person than the one he had known at church years before. He begged our
understanding and offered that he perceived her as extremely bitter and
manifesting thoughts and behaviors approaching paranoia. She would sometimes
visit his office with food stains on her clothes. She visited a local food
pantry for assistance, yet upon her death she left over $100,000 in the bank
and a home without a mortgage. She had evolved into a person of darkness. His
words were acknowledged by the siblings and in-laws of the departed since they
were all well acquainted with her challenges. And the bank representatives,
dealing primarily in numbers and objectivity, were not inclined to really know
the scope of the person at the receiving end of the money they managed on her
It was a very sad and lonely end for an individual who had
started life discarded in a plastic bag in a dumpster. It was a life that
exposed our nation’s lack of investment in the mental health issues and the
human infrastructure necessary for a free, democratic, civilized society. A
statistical analysis of national appropriations to mental health issues would
call our commitment to all members of our country into question. There must be
supportive programs and interventions developed across the country to help
those battling varied forms of mental illness.
I chose to title this Blog Hiding in Plain Sight because I feel that people afflicted with mental
health issues do not actually hide
per se, but rather they are obscured by the benign neglect of a society that elects
to look the other way and not address this critical need with the same
commitment expended on other social and civil issues. Many of us look but we may not see. In retrospect, perhaps
she didn’t hide, maybe she grew tired of people not finding her and then opted
to recoil from society and become reclusive.
We need to discover the people and their problems. It
reminds me of when my daughter was a toddler and we would play the game
“hide and seek.” Once, I found her hiding in plain view with her eyes covered.
She believed that if she couldn’t see the person looking for her then they
likewise couldn’t see her. That’s not an effective approach to ministering to
the needs of those suffering with mental health issues.
How many reports do we have to read about instances such as
the one on Adam Lanza (the young man who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook
Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut - http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/21/justice/newtown-shooter-adam-lanza-report/)
before we accept responsibility as a society to properly and systematically attend to the needs of the
mentally ill? This report cites the failure of institutions to act and work in
concert to craft appropriate and responsive programs and safeguards.
I may be guilty myself of not understanding, or worse, not seeking to understand. The subject of this Blog was my sister-in-law. Also, I am the son of a mother of seven who attempted suicide when her children were young.
aversion we have to confront those who are so different selectively insulates
us from their needs and undermines any opportunity to learn how to comprehend,
respond and support those wrestling with mental health matters. It is a fear
that leaves the rights of those suffering from mental health issues behind
those who have championed civil rights regarding gender, race, and sexual
orientation. In fact, there has been recent news coverage of people debating in
courtrooms over the legal rights of primates. All of this before we lift the
collective veil of discomfort and awkwardness in order to commit to, and
generate, a coordinated effort to defend
the rights of, and support the needs of, humans confined by their emotional and
From the standpoint of a school district leader I am
concerned that many public schools have reacted to decreased financial aid and budget
shortfalls by reducing staff that are not directly linked to the curriculum and
state assessments. Staff cuts in social workers, school psychologists and
guidance counselors may sever critical support systems for children who
experience emotional, social, and psychological problems that overwhelm or
impair their ability to focus on school achievement. Abraham Maslow's research on the Hierarchy of Needs contends that the need for achievement is more likely to be met after one has already experienced satisfying levels of prerequisite needs for health, friendship and acceptance. We must maintain that perspective and priority.