Neurodiversity and the Power of Names

My son Alex came home all excited one day from school. He was 5 or 6 six years old. He said, “Mom, I just found out that me and Alex Jones and Alex Smith all have the same middle name!” “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “Xander.”

There is something else about Alex that is not as cute and funny. He, like nearly 1 in every 4 Americans is struggling with mental illness. That’s the politically correct name – mental illness. And it’s better than many of the common pejorative names we toss around haphazardly like psycho, schizo and freak. But today I want to introduce what might be a new name in your vocabulary: Neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is a movement to destigmatize mental illness and to recognize that brains are every bit as diverse as any other aspect of life. Our words are basically placeholders for ideas and concepts. Names are a special kind of word because they contain a whole collection of ideas and concepts. Names lead us to making assumptions about people – some of which are clearly true and some of which are undoubtedly false.

I like the term neurodiversity because it suggests that people are not diseased or broken – they are different. When we approach mental illness and developmental disabilities as evidence of neurodiversity, we create an entirely different perspective that challenges us to see the intrinsic worth of every human being and every human brain.

Neurodiversity proponents say that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions may have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage because they allowed a few people to think outside of the box. When no one else could come up with an answer, it may have been these creative thinkers that pointed to another way. This theory, which emerged about a decade ago, challenges us to celebrate the differences between our brains and moves us away from our almost instinctive focus on problems and deficits.

When we look at the whole make up of humanity, we see a range of different thinking that’s made our progress in science and the creative arts possible.  Picture a bell curve of humanity. To neurodiversity proponents, people who are disabled are not sick or broken, they are merely at the edges of the bell curve.

This approach strikes at the heart of the medical model that focuses on defects and deficits. Neurodiversity doesn’t ignore the struggles many people have to live functional lives, but it says we need to give at least equal attention to the assets, advantages and abilities of people who are simply wired differently.

The name “neurodiverse” tears down the false wall of separation that divides the “normal” from the not “normal” and calls into question the idea of normalcy itself. It allows us to see different ways of thinking and processing the world as natural variations instead of seeing people as bad, broken or in need of repair. To proponents of neurodiversity, the idea of a “cure” can actually feel like an attack on their being. This is particularly true in the autistic community where advocates believe autism is part of who they naturally are and who reject the idea that there is some other hidden self within. One autistic man writes that trying to cure him of autism is as detestable an effort as trying to cure someone of being gay.

Those of us who work with marginalized populations are not in the business of fixing people or changing them into something else. We are in the business of identifying strengths and finding ways people can use those strengths to succeed in society. We are also in the business of identifying accommodations that society needs to make to help them achieve that success. 

Now none of this is to romanticize the functional limitations of people on the edges of the Bell curve. I don’t propose stopping treatment or research in the field. But I am suggesting we stop looking at people as diagnoses that need to be fixed and start looking at how as a culture we can make accommodations so that everyone can survive and even find a place to thrive without having to be made into some imagined social ideal of normal.

When we name people as defective, disordered and ill, we build a wall that implicitly states that the rest of us are normal or whole, ignoring the fact that we are all flawed and imperfect. We make people into “them” and “other” in a way that might sound sympathetic and compassionate, but that also reinforces judgment and fear.

We ignore the reality that we all struggle with deficiencies and we all have aspects of our lives that we are working to improve or overcome.   

The real value of the neurodiversity movement may be in reminding us that we all experience joy and sorrow, pain and hardship, challenges and opportunities and that a humanizing society is one in which we are all given the chance to make the best of what we have been dealt.

Renaming mental illness as Neurodiversity. A change of name and our entire outlook and set of assumptions can change – because it forces us to change our perspective. A change of name can open us up to see and explore other truths that are out there just waiting to be discovered – and waiting to be shared.  


Scars of Love/ Not Going Anywhere By: Shingi Mavima

Scars of Love/ Not Going Anywhere
By: Shingi Mavima


She said…

“I’m not going anywhere

This house, this bed, this life, this is all I’ve known

These flowers, these children are mine, mine to watch them grow

These tears will surely dry so honey don’t be deceived

It will take a lot more than slaps across the face to get me to leave”

He is home, he’s drunk again

When he’s drunk there’s no restrain

Barely a shadow of the beautiful soul she loved in the past

And with every punch she gasps, each gulp of air painful yet cherished,

     for it very well might be her last


And he says

“You’re not going anywhere

Who’s gonna take you in, you’re old, broken and worthless

And I slap you around now and then, I’m sure you know you deserve it

What more do you ask for, don’t I protect you and feed you?

Come on woman, clean yourself up, dry your eyes, you know I need you”

Need you… need you?

Words more painful than the physical, emotional yet

Disrespectful rhetoric perfectly weighted to manipulate even angels

Leaving her blind to self-worth

An object sent for the sole purpose to give birth


Birth… Kids.  Kids


And the kids say

Mother, please don’t go anywhere

You brought us into it, see us through it, and don’t leave this weight upon our shoulders”

They surround her and hold her, “Momma don’t let our lives get any colder”

The dilemma, the vices of virtue of love and life unforgiving

She has to leave to live, but if she leaves, she leaves behind her reasons for living


Dear God… God…



But the church said

“You’re not going anywhere

Fight the good fight, you’ll rejoice when the battle is won

Virtuous women stand behind their husbands, haven’t you read Proverbs 31

But even Christ himself bade farewell to Mary

When both she and he had reached the limit of physical torment he would carry


Tears on Monday, parents say “Don’t you leave him, pull through the flame

Don’t you dare disgrace our family name”

Crushed spirit on Tuesday, society screams, “Stay put”

Black eyes on Wednesday, her boss tells her to dress up, “Scars don’t make good business, now

clean that mess up!

Thursday it’s the screams, Friday broken dreams

And on Saturday they were all right

She wasn’t going anywhere…


They found her body; face down in a pool of blood

Another casualty of domestic brutality

But more so, victim of a societal system that ignores infliction when it is right there

And you wonder why… We’re not going anywhere


Continuing the Conversation: Pathways to Freedom

What are pathways to freedom?

•We need to accept others who don’t “fit”
•Whichever signs and gender conversations
•Speak to offenses, end the silence
•Education on how to deal with disrespect
•Talk to the supportive men in our lives
•Raise our expectations of male behavior
•Celebrate other women instead of competing
•Support women’s organizations
•Use internal affirmations (I am beautiful!)
•BE valuable

What can we DO? Well for starters...
* Work to change laws for carrying protective devices (pepper spray, stun guns). Sara from Damsels In Defense Products will research starting a petition through and addressing this as a second amendment right
* Write letters to the governor, parole board and attorney general on behalf of women imprisoned for killing their abusers - see Justice Thru Storytelling, Inc.
* Talk to the Men in our lives
* Accept each other as women without judgment - end victim blaming and slut shaming
* Address the harmful effects of pornography including the objectification of women and the toll of addiction
* Celebrate alternative rites of passage that don't include strip clubs
* Watch our language and don't use words like "pimp" "rape" or "f**k" without considering whether those words are appropriate
* Don't support movies, music or companies who use advertisements that objectify or degrade women
* Advocate for harsher sentences for stalking and violence against women
* Challenge "old boy" systems
* Advocate for comprehensive sex education in our public schools to include information on sex trafficking and healthy relationships
* Mentor our boys and our girls

Own your beauty and your worth! The divine in me recognizes and bows to the divine in you! Namaste

Victim to Victorious: Claiming our Power

In the year 2000, I spoke at a Lutheran church in West Michigan. After the first service where I had delivered the sermon, there was an adult study group.  I made my introductory remarks and then a middle aged white man in the second row stood up and said, “The church has been going downhill ever since we started ordaining women.” I was rather shocked to hear him then. And I’m disgusted that 17 years later, that same attitude is still alive and well.

The sad reality is that sexism is well and even thriving throughout our world today. Women are globally and often systematically the target for mistreatment and abuse.  Now I know men are also victims and that also needs to be addressed, but today our focus is on women and girls. Because we deserve at least that.

The problem when addressing sexism is deciding where to start and how much to include. So let’s start with a quote:

"Rape isn’t a freak thing that happens to an unlucky few. It’s something that follows women around every day, a sense of perpetual physical vulnerability that’s not always conscious, but is ever present, like a shadow, governing what time we feel we can safely walk home at night by ourselves, or even the simple decision to get a drink with a guy we don’t know very well. You don’t have to be a survivor to appreciate what a singularly traumatic event rape is, or how much it sucks that a part of growing up female (and yes, gay or trans, too) means developing survival instincts to avoid being prey."

To understand how we got to this place, we need to go way back in time – to the Iron Age. Sociologist Lisa Wade sees the subjugation of women as a remnant of that time in history and the concept of chattel, a word related to cattle. Human chattel, like cows, belonged to their owner and were required to stay where they belonged. If livestock or women stepped out of line, it was the man’s social responsibility to restore order.

All of which gives us another lens through which to view the ongoing battle for reproductive rights.

One of the things that most unites us in our common humanity is that we all begin life the same way as a consequence of a sexual encounter. But the burden of pregnancy and giving birth is undeniably one that falls to the female half of the population.

Women are the ones who bear the pain of childbirth, the consequence of complications, the physical after effects of a body stretched and torn. And yet, women so often have no choice about whether they will endure these pains.

In all societies, poverty, discrimination, ignorance and social unrest are common predictors of violence against women. Yet the most enduring enemies of a woman’s dignity and security are cultural forces aimed at preserving male dominance and female subjugation—often defended in the name of tradition.

In many developing countries, violent practices against women are often part of the culture and wife beating is considered part of the natural order. At its most extreme, gender violence includes honor killings.

In industrialized societies like the US, where institutions formally frown on gender violence, it still permeates our cultural fabric. Rap music insults women and calls us ‘whores’; men's magazines, internet pornography and even mainstream advertising celebrate gang rape; and societal pressures, perhaps most dominant in women’s magazines, induce young women to starve themselves or use technology to create ‘ideal’ bodies, often destroying their health in the process.

This is the implicit oppression of women that permeates our own culture. Recent studies are more than disturbing. They tell us that 50% of 3 to 6 year old girls are already concerned about their weight. That half of all fourth graders are dieting and that 81% of 10 year old girls have a fear of being fat.

By the time girls turn 17, 4 out of 5 of them are unhappy with their body. In high school, 90% of girls are dieting even though only 10% are actually overweight.

And adult women? One study shows that women have 13 negative thoughts about their body each day and 97% of women admit to having at least one “I hate my body” moment every day.

First of all, there is not a women reading this who is not beautiful.


So I want you to stand up and now I want you to say it. “I am beautiful.” Now say it like you mean it. “I am beautiful!”  Now please, promise me that the next time you feel that “I hate my body” moment coming on, you will replace it with “I am beautiful” moment. This is about you – and it isn’t about you. Remember, we are teaching our girls. How they hear us talk about our bodies will directly affect what they think of their own bodies.

And then there is the overt violence practiced against women right here in the USA, including sex trafficking and sexual assault on the streets, in the military, on college campuses and in our own homes.

Do you see the progression and why everything we do has a consequence? This diagram comes from NOW NYC and The Service Fund. And it helps clearly illustrate why Donald Trump’s recent comments are not comic relief.

Jokes become part of our language. Language shows up in images. Images justify pay inequality. Pay inequality leads to verbal abuse. And verbal abuse escalates to rape. Sexist language is not only offensive, it is dangerous.

In so many ways, society drives home the message that a woman's life and dignity—her human rights—are worth less than a man's. From the day of their birth, girls are devalued and degraded. 

And too often too many of us have been broken by those messages. Here in Grand Haven we can speak up and speak loudly.

So our challenge is to overcome the internalized messages of our culture, messages that would try to tell us that we are incompetent or that we should be ashamed of our gender, ashamed of our self. 

My own history includes lots of those messages. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, I recognize that the I only moved from victim to victorious when I decided to claim my own worth and my own value.

Don Miguel Ruiz, in The Mastery of Love, says that if you are with someone who is beating you up more than you beat yourself up, you will leave. But if you are with someone who is beating you up just a little bit less than you beat yourself up, you will stay forever.

One of the most important things we can do for ourselves and for our fellow women here in Grand Haven and all around the world is to stop beating ourselves up, to own our beauty, to raise our voice, to claim our power to change the world.


The divine in me recognizes and bows to the divine in you.



The Power of One- Things Community Members Can Do

Here are things local councils, direct service grantees, community groups of faith-based organization can encourage community members to do:

Reach out. 

Anything you do to support families can reduce the stress that often leads to child abuse and neglect. 


  • Be a friend to a parent you know. Ask how their children are doing. If a parent seems to be struggling, offer to baby-sit, run errands, or lend a friendly ear. 
  • Talk to your neighbors about looking out for one another's children. Encourage a supportive spirit among parents in your community. Join a local Circle of Parents ( support group or Great Start Parent Coalition. (
  • Donate clothing, furniture, and toys to another family. This can relieve the financial stress that families may experience. 
  • If you or someone you know feels overwhelmed by the demands of parenting, call Parent Awareness Michigan (PAM) at 1-800-968-4968 for information about family support resources in your community or visit to find parents resources managed by PAM.
  • Become a volunteer/member of a child abuse prevention/advocacy group, or organization in your community. 
  • Make a financial charitable contribution to a cause which will support families and children. Each $1 donation can make a difference. 
  • Contact your county's CTF local council to inquire about prevention programs, educational opportunities and Child Abuse Prevention Month activities. 
  • Explore CTF local council websites by clicking the applicable county at the following link,
  • Incorporate Power of One approaches and principles as essential concepts in all prevention discussions.
  • Be a Power of One person/organization/faith-based community and share with others how you are making a positive difference in the lives of children. 

The Power of One CAN Make a Difference!

The Power of One- Things we CAN do...

Here are some things you CAN do as a local council, direct service grantee, community group or faith-based organization:

Raise the Issue. 

By educating yourself-and others-you can help your community prevent child abuse from happening in the first place. 

  • Explore the Children's Trust Fund (CTF) Website at to access the Child Abuse Prevention Month toolkit and other information you can download, print, photo copy and post in your workplace and in your community.

  • Find contact information for other CTF local councils by clicking the applicable county at the following link, You can inquire, share information and/or collaborate with other councils about your prevention programs and activities. 

  • Wear a blue pinwheel and tell people it stands for the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

  • Lead Child Abuse Prevention Month activities in your local community, e.g. Planting a Pinwheel Garden, Faith-based Campaign/Blue Sabbath, Fund Raisers, etc.

  • Attend and invite others to the April 27, 2017 Prevention Awareness Day (PrAD) rally in recognition of Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) Month at the Capitol steps at 11 AM in Downtown Lansing to show support and to celebrate our state's children and families. 

  • Participate in the Legislative Education Day (LED) component of the Prevention Awareness Day event. For more information about LED call CTF at 517-373-4320.

  • Contact your elected officials and educate them regarding the child abuse and neglect prevention need in your local community, and ask them to support funding and legislative initiatives for parent support and child abuse prevention programs. 

Next week, find out things local councils, direct service grantees, community groups or faith-based organizations can encourage community members to do! 

The Power of One-Statewide Initiative (Part 1)

The Michigan Children's Trust Fund's (CTF) statewide initiative for the prevention of child abuse and neglect is The Power of One. This initiative asserts that the power of one person, one community, one dollar, one action will help to protect children from abuse and neglect throughout Michigan. The Power of One encourages every citizen to take action toward providing the support and assistance that all families need. It is a compelling strategy for the primary prevention of child abuse and neglect. The Power of One is an ongoing campaign which is highlighted during April's Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) Month. 

The goal of primary prevention is to stop child abuse and neglect before it occurs. Primary prevention strategies create supportive environments that empower parents and help them access the tools they need to raise their children in safe, loving, and nurturing homes. Primary prevention efforts are found in places where families gather: neighborhoods, workplaces, shopping centers, libraries, faith-based organizations, schools, and clubs. The Power of One accomplishes primary prevention by raising awareness of the solutions to the problem of child abuse and by mobilizing citizens to engage in those solutions. 

Child Abuse Prevention Month is an opportunity for you to be a positive force on behalf of the children and families in your community. There are countless options to strengthening the mission of making child abuse prevention a reality. 

NO one person can do everything, but everyone can do something. And together, we can do anything!

Next week, we will cover what you CAN do as a local council, direct service grantee, community group, or faith based organization. 


Advocacy for Children: What We Can Do

What we can do:

  • Increase our comfort to report things to CPS when we think something is wrong, trust our inttuition- that's why they investigate - if nothing is wrong no harm/no foul
  • Offer programs for building self esteem
  • Let children tell their stories
  • Share our stories of our childhood - help young people understand that they are not alone - normalize the experience for those who think they are the only one
  • Educate parents
  • Offer a group for parents of teens who think something might be wrong
  • Keep asking youth what they need - then LISTEN to their answers
  • Support Public Schools
  • Mentor - programs in our area include READ, BBBS, Central High School, Kid's Hope, Ottawa County Mentoring Collaborative
  • Investigate Search Institute's list of Assets
  • Grow the Momentum Community Resource Area to include this information

Inspire! Advocacy for Children

I know we like to imagine childhood as carefree and innocent – and for some that may have been the case. But from my perspective, it’s never been particularly easy to be a kid. Growing up always comes with growing pains. Every kid will eventually learn about pain and grief and disappointment. 
But today, the whole process between being born and becoming an adult seems to be more difficult than ever.

According to the American Psychological Association, the stress level of American teenagers today has reached a level equal to that of adults – except during the school year, when it’s even higher than that of adults.

And stress is nothing to take lightly. Stress leads to illness. And, when stress is added to economic adversity, it can have a significant impact on a teenager’s developing brain.


One tool that seeks to address that question is the ACEs survey. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other marks of a rough childhood. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk for later health problems.

Adverse childhood experiences include physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; and household dysfunction including the violent treatment of one’s mother, mental illness, the incarceration of a relative, substance abuse, and divorce. Unfortunately, all of these experiences are far too common.

It’s no secret that we are struggling in our own community with the fact that our young people are in trouble. They are experiencing mental illness, they are experiencing homelessness, they are taking their own lives. And the ACEs survey can help shed some light on root causes.

It makes sense that children who experience abuse would be at high risk. What might not be quite as obvious is how common child abuse really is. The National Children’s Alliance reports that early 700,000 children are abused in the United States every year. In 2015, 1,670 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States. Right now Child Protective Services is working to protect more than 3 million children.

Even if home is safe shelter, there seems to be more danger than ever out in the world. When I was in school, we had drills for fire and tornados, and even for a nuclear attack. That was frightening – but it was a distant fear of a far away enemy. Today there are drills to survive a shooter coming into the school. And for good reason. Since 2013, there have been over 200 school shootings in America — that’s an average of nearly one a week.

And the nature of school bullying has also changed since I was a kid. Back then, I often came home in tears – but once I was home, I found respite. The bullies in my life didn’t have the technology to follow me home or harass me at all hours of the day and the night. And they couldn’t hide behind anonymity. I knew who my friends were and who I wanted to avoid.

While extracurricular activities have always played a significant role in children’s’ lives, social media now consumes two hours or more of a kid’s day. Time on social media robs children of much needed exercise. And tight academic and extracurricular schedules have robbed children of a chance to simply play together while learning how to negotiate themselves and settle disputes without the intervention of well intentioned parents.

All that being said, ACE scores don't tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. Psychologists say that having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may alleviate the long-term effects of early trauma.

Children build resiliency when we trust them enough to make their own decisions and to manage their own lives. When we perpetually rescue our kids from the consequences of their own actions, we rob them of the opportunity to learn important lessons – including how to get back up after you’ve fallen down. When kid’s learn early on when the stakes are low how to manage loss and failure, then they are far more likely to have the tools they need to survive when life goes to hell (and life always eventually goes to hell) and the stakes are higher. Rather than trying to protect our kids from feeling pain or trying to simply make the pain go away, we need to be willing to sit with them IN their pain.

What else can we do? Chris Nelson, with Attention Homes, has worked with young people for over 20 years. He says what we really need to do if we want to help young people is listen to them. “… for too long as a society we’ve not empowered young people enough to give us their voice and tell us what they need, and if we listen to young people, they’ll tell us how to help them.”

Resiliency builds throughout life, and close relationships are the key. Research suggests that just one caring, safe relationship early in life gives any child a much better shot at growing up healthy. Which means we are the key. As with every other topic we’ve covered this year, it’s all about connection. It’s all about reaching out to another human being with genuine care and compassion.


Supporting the Survivors

Town Hall on Suicide – Part 2
From March 27, 2017
 The Community Discussion



o   Don’t take it personally – it wasn’t about you. It was always about them.
o   Get grief counseling
o   Talk about it – Ask survivors how they are doing and talk about their loved one
o   Be aware of the risk of burn out


Existing Resources

o   Survivors of Suicide Group 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Patrick’s
o   Mercy Hospice – Grief Counseling
o   Eles Place in Grand Rapids for children
o   On Line Support Groups
o   Stephen’s Ministry through area churches
o   Funeral Home messages
o   Alternative therapies for stress relief (yoga, meditation, etc.)
o   Training in Mental Health First Aid
o   Community Mental Health
o   TCM Counseling – Individual counseling and Survivors of Suicide Group meets twice a month
o   Suicide prevention hotline 800.273.8255
o   Suicide prevention text hotline 741741


o   Connections
o   Specific survivor groups

Continuing the Discussion for Adult Suicide

Town Hall on Suicide – Part 2
From March 27, 2017
 The Community Discussion


o   When people reach out, help. They want resources.
o   There is stigma even about feeling stress particularly among professionals.
o   Is some suicide in older adults due to compassionate choices?
o   Chronic pain and illness
o   Prescription side effects
o   Mental illness
o   Reach out to people who have been hospitalized just as you would for a physical illness. People need connection to other people. Suicide decreases significantly when people follow up after hospitalization.


Existing Resources

o   Training in Mental Health First Aid
o   Community Mental Health
o   TCM Counseling
o   Suicide prevention hotline 800.273.8255
o   Suicide prevention text hotline 741741
o   Be.nice for corporations and professionals to decrease stigma
o   Stomp Out Stigma Walk
o   Hospice
o   Momentum Center for Social Engagement
o   Four Points
o   Parish Nurses at St. Patrick’s/St. Anthony’s, Ferrysburg Community and Second Christian Reformed Churches (and you do not have to be a member of the church to receive help)
o   Family Support Group
o   DBSA (Depression BiPolar Support Group) Peer Support 1st and 3rd Monday



o   Suicide Review Team (as in Muskegon)
o   Connection
o   MHFA/QPR training for organizations that reach seniors
o   Wellcare for mental health
o   Explore alternatives – what are they?
o   Media list (movies like Hope Bridge)

Considering the Youth

 Town Hall on Suicide – Part 2
From March 27, 2017
 The Community Discussion



o   How early do we start talking? What age is right?
o   When they ask.
o   By the time they are in 6th grade ask “Have you felt like that? What would you do?”

Existing Programs - Youth
o   Schools – contact the principal
o   Live, Laugh, Love at GHHS
o   Be.nice
o   OK to Say cell phone app to report concerns in Michigan and have someone go to the school
o   YMCA
o   Regional Youth Group
o   Building Resilient Youth
o   Training in Mental Health First Aid
o   Community Mental Health
o   TCM Counseling
o   Suicide prevention hotline 800.273.8255
o   Suicide prevention text hotline 741741

Needs – Youth
o   Trauma Informed Care – the earlier the better
o   Coping skills – resiliency
o   Connection to other kids
o   Parent support group
o   Use Social Media for positive
o   Transparency when there is a suicide – end the silence
o   "Postvention" reaction – protocol for after a suicide
o   Comprehensive sex education



Town Hall Meeting on Suicide: Part 2

And so our topic today goes to the heart of an epidemic in our culture and our community. One that rips a hole in the fabric of so many lives and always – always – leaves too many questions unanswered.

What is the size and scope of the problem?

According to a New York Times article from April this past year, the US suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high. The American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide reports that Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US and the leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 14.

Almost 43,000 Americans die by suicide – that adds up to 121 people taking their lives every single day.
For every completed suicide, 25 attempt suicide.

And they remind us that while this data is the most accurate available, they estimate the actual numbers to be higher. “Stigma surrounding suicide leads to under-reporting, and data collection methods critical to suicide prevention need to be improved.”


Here in the Tri-Cities, we have also seen an unprecedented rise in suicides.
The latest Ottawa County Youth Assessment Survey (2014) confirms that depression and thoughts of suicide have reached an all-time high.

26 percent of teens reported being depressed in the past year. That equals about 6,400 youth between the ages of 13 and 18.

17 percent of teens reported that they had thought about attempting suicide and 12 percent had made a plan to carry it out.

7 percent said they tried to kill themselves at least once in the past 12 months.

Our young people are talking about it, they are trying it, and they are completing it.

So are our veterans. Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. It turns out that overall suicide rates are up 56% in 15 years and still rising in almost every demographic you can define, including those who are over 85 years old.

In all, a suicide attempt occurs some place in this country every single minute.

And every 15 minutes, one of those attempts is completed. What does it mean that so many people in our society and in our own neighborhoods are taking their lives?

The easy answer is hopelessness. But when we delve deeper, when we ask the really hard questions, we find there are no easy answers. While suicide is often viewed as a response to a single stressful event, it is far more complicated than that. Suicide results from complex biological, psychological, social, and environmental interactions. Each story, like each individual, is unique.

Suicide cries of the tragic brokenness of life: that while we believe life is essentially good, there are times for some of us when to live is to be in hell, to know a torment that has no hope. As human beings, we can’t ignore, reject, or shy away from those who despair of life. Instead, we have a responsibility to protect and promote life, to be an agent of hope in the midst of suffering, and to act in love toward those who are troubled. That’s why we’re here tonight holding a second Town Hall Meeting on Suicide. To learn what that means and how we can all do it better. And to break through the silence.

Because so often we aren’t even aware of the suffering. People hide their pain and their loss because of stigma and shame. And that stigma is sticky. It attaches itself not only to those who consider suicide, but also to those who are left behind – the survivors of suicide – along with a complex combination of guilt, blame and fear.

Because of stigma, suicide is rarely discussed. And that makes even talking about thoughts of suicide very difficult. The fact that we can’t talk about suicide may well be one of the greatest barriers to preventing its tragic outcome. So let’s be clear. This is not a discussion that involves us and them. We have all been impacted by suicide in one way or another, just as we are all affected by mental illness in one way or another.

                  Which brings me to the need to clear up a misperception…

We hold town halls because we believe we need to normalize the conversation. When I can tell you my story of mental illness and a choice to live and the tragedy of my best friend’s suicide – then I create a space in which you just might be willing to share your story with me or with someone who hasn’t dared to share their story with anyone yet. And when people open up to us, we want and need to know how to respond.

Which is why we offer QPR Training before our Town Hall Meetings. TCM Counseling and others have been actively working to provide QPR Training throughout the community. QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Respond. It is suicide prevention training. It only takes an hour and there is no cost.

Community Mental Health offers Mental Health First Aid Training. This training takes place in 2 4-hour segments (8 hours altogether). I encourage every single one of us to take advantage of these opportunities to equip ourselves to intervene in the hope that we might help save a life.

Suicide devastates individuals, families, and communities. And those feelings are only compounded by the fact that people don’t talk about suicide. Too often it becomes a family problem, a personal secret, something shrouded in stigma and shame.

Hence the need for us to have this important conversation and to find the courage to confront what we would often rather ignore. The need to listen, to learn, to offer a lifeline and to be willing to take hold of a lifeline when it’s offered to us. Our lives depend on it.

Responding to Addiction: An Inspire!/Deeper Dive Conversation

As we tried to talk about creating better outcomes when it comes to addiction, it quickly became clear that “better outcomes” needed more definition. What kinds of outcomes are we talking about and for whom?

For the individual, a good outcome is any positive change as he or she defines it. For instance, determining to use a new syringe every time or resolving not to drive while drinking are both better outcomes than before.

For a community, better outcomes might mean that services are available in a timely fashion, that there are no deaths by overdose, or that people with a history of addiction are able to find stable employment. Families may define positive outcomes as the resolution of a conflict or healthier family dynamics.

However we define outcomes in the area of addiction, we can probably all agree that harm reduction and human connection are always good steps that are more apt to lead to positive outcomes for everyone.

How do we get there? Prevention is one focus. We agreed that early elementary education is helpful, but so often those messages are lost as one enters their high school years. We wondered if more education regarding the consequences of a criminal record or the risk of dying from carfentenyl (often laced with heroine) might have an impact on at risk youth.

Once someone hits rock bottom, there are resources such as sobriety court and hospitalization. But there is little in between prevention and the end of line. What can we do for people who are using and in the process of decline or who are beginning to ask questions about their own level of use and possible addiction?

We can…

·         Observe and talk about what we see. Don’t be silent about your concerns.

·         Offer workshops on having difficult conversations.

·         Start a Parent Support Group for parents who know things are not quite right but don’t know if they are really dealing with addiction, mental illness, or typical teen behavior.

·         Develop a community education series on addiction that offers people the opportunity to attend on a drop in basis to regularly scheduled classes.


If you want to be more involved in these solutions, contact me at


Barbara Lee VanHorssen,


My Husband's One True Love

Linda Bengston shared her writing with us at our Inspire! Event on Addiction, which had a deep impact on many of the participants there. Many had asked for a copy, and Linda has allowed us to share. 


My Husband’s One True Love

My husband says he loves me and I believe he does. But I am not his One True Love. I am not the love he cannot endure the thought of living life without. My husband’s One True Love is androgynous, genderless. It has many shapes and personalities. And while my husband occasionally ignores it a few days at a time, he always wants it and always returns to it.

My husband’s One True Love (OTL) is Siren-like with many faces and many personalities. He loves them all, some more than others and at some times more than other times. But he loves them all unconditionally and under any circumstances.

Sometimes my husband’s OTL is tall and graceful with gently rounded shoulders, clear complexion, and bubbling personality. Sometimes it is tall with squared shoulders and a personality strong and powerful. Sometimes it is square and squat with a complexion like sunlight through amber and a scent that exudes promise. Sometimes it arrives in multiples – clones. These clones are sometimes stubby and round, and he loves them most on hot summer days. Sometimes they are mid-size with fruity personalities. He loves them as well. Sometimes their personalities are dry and sophisticated. He savors them.

My husband and his OTL are frequently together – watching TV, reading, working in the yard, driving on errands. Nearly any time is a good time for their special camaraderie. When my husband can’t sleep and is up in the middle of the night, he turns for comfort to his One True Love. Often, OTL is nearby when he goes to bed at night, the last thing his lips touch before he sleeps. He does little without One True Love close at hand.

Sometimes my husband holds his One True Love close, embracing its clear, unique essence only for himself. Other times, he shares it with coffee, Diet Coke, 7-Up, Gatorade, orange juice, tomato juice, V-8. He and his One True Love are simply quite happy together under any circumstances.

But OTL has a dangerous side, one my husband either misunderstands or chooses to ignore. OTL can interfere with the medication that helps to regulate my husband’s blood pressure. It can do the same with other medications important to his health. It causes sleeplessness – perhaps, I sometimes think, out of selfishness so my husband will then be drawn to it for comfort. OTL can cause social and relationship difficulties because it encourages anger, petulance, defensiveness, belligerence. Perhaps, I think, OTL is jealous. If OTL strains my husband’s relationships, then he will have fewer distractions from it. OTL encourages my husband to say – and write – painful, hurtful things that cannot be undone and are best left uncommunicated.

My husband knows I know about his One True Love. I have tried to talk with him about it, but he refuses, even denies and ignores. Frequently, he tries to hide it from me, often shielding OTL from my sight as he walks past. Sometimes he leaves OTL in the garage or his car, but he checks frequently to engage with it and to make certain all is well and it is waiting patiently for him. Only when the time is right – or I am otherwise occupied – does he bring it inside where they can be comfortably together.

I have begun to reach an odd kind of acceptance of my husband’s One True Love. When I first discovered the relationship, I thought it was temporary and I was patient. When I realized it was a permanent part of my husband’s life, I felt angry that I, we, our marriage, our life, his health were less important to him than OTL. I finally came to the painful realization that his many pronouncements of my great importance in his life were just that – pronouncements. And I came to realize that OTL is as essential to my husband’s life as the air he breathes.

While my husband loves me, I know he does not love me most. Most of the time I no longer feel angry about that. I feel deeply sad. I miss what we once had and what could be. And I feel fear. I fear that one day OTL will not only gain total control over my husband’s life but that it will end his life.

If that happens, I hope his One True Love brings him comfort in the end.


Addiction: A Community Response

This is a heartbreaking topic and it has touched our community too closely and too often. The Friday night before Christmas, my son found his roommate lying lifeless on the bathroom floor. His friend and our music leader, Rich, had died of a heroine overdose.

At our first Inspire! event, Doug played a critical role in helping us set up, stuff brochures, and tear everything back down. Before our next Inspire! event, he indulged in his own drug of choice – alcohol – and in that state fell from a ladder in an accident that ended his life.

These losses have caused so much pain and so much soul searching among those of us that knew and loved these men. There is nothing we can do to change these outcomes and there are questions that will never be answered.

Addiction is a condition that results when a person takes in a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable, but instead becomes compulsive, interfering with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health. People who have developed an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.


Addiction is a coping mechanism. When something is going that is stressful, we react. We do something to try to relieve that stress. All of us. Everyone of us is addicted to something that takes the pain away. Sometimes we become workaholics, we escape into Facebook, we eat chocolate. Or maybe we seek out therapy, we take up a hobby, we change a job, we smoke a cigarette, have a drink, take a pill. And sometimes the choices we make become addictions.

Our response to addiction in general has been both shame based and punitive. Consequently, it has been ineffective. It’s important to realize that addiction isn’t just a search for pleasure. Nor is it a reflection of one’s moral character.

Recent studies are challenging our understanding of addiction and presenting new pathways for recovery.

We used to look at addiction as something that happens entirely in the brain – that when we use substances, chemical reactions happen that end up rerouting the circuits. Some people are more prone to addiction and get hooked faster than others.

We believed this because studies with rats showed that if you give a rat two bottles of water – one plain and one laced with drugs – the rat will ignore the regular water and drink the drug water until they are dead – which happens pretty quickly.

But Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander had another theory. He thought addiction was about living conditions rather than the properties of the drug itself.  So to see if he was right, he created Rat Park.  Rat Park was 200 times the size of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating.

When rats had something to do, they almost never used the drug water – and they never overdosed. Not once.

This would imply that at least part of addiction is about environment. In Johann Hari’s 2015 TED Talk he suggests that we call addiction “bonding.” He points out that we all have an innate need to bond. Usually we bond with people. But if we can’t do that because of our own trauma or circumstances that have overwhelmed us, we will bond with something else – pornography, alcohol, etc. He believes that the biggest problem is not being able to be present in your own life.

So when people most need to make connections with other human beings, our society is most likely to punish, shame, and put more barriers between people and the possibilities of reconnecting. We make it worse.

In 2000, Portugal’s drug problem was out of control. So they did something completely new. They decriminalized everything AND they also took all the money they had been spending on disconnecting addicts and spent it on reconnecting them with society. And addiction significantly decreased.

Today, a lack of connection may well explain why people are getting addicted to smart phones and social media. Our homes are getting bigger and our circle of friends is getting smaller. The connections we think we have are a parody of real connections. Ours is one of the loneliest cultures ever. If you have a problem, it won’t be your Twitter followers that help you out. It will be the people you look in the eye.

Now there is also a physical component to chemical addiction. Withdrawal can be excruciating and the rewiring of neural pathways can make the craving for an addictive substance feel like a matter of life or death.

But research is telling us that addiction is not just about individual recovery – it’s also about community recovery.  Which means our role in the life of an addict is not to tell them we’ll love them when they stop using, but to tell them we love them now and we don’t want them to be alone.

That doesn’t mean we sanction abuse and bad behavior. Addicts can be abusive. They can be destructive. They can damage those who try to help them. So we need to set boundaries and define the behavior we will and will not tolerate. Loving other people does not mean enabling them and we should never compromise our own safety.

But once safety is ensured, we can best end addiction not with wars against drugs or threats about behaviors, but with love. As Hari so beautifully concludes,

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.”