Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Lisa Lambert ~
Do you have outrage fatigue? Yeah? I think I do, too. I’ve noticed that it feels a lot like the disbelief and exhaustion that comes with parenting a child with mental health problems.
Each day my inbox, Facebook and Twitter feeds, social media and most of all, the 24/7 news are filled with stories that are designed to outrage. Much of the time they truly do. We have a presidential election going on that seems more like a reality show with way more than the usual sniping going on. We hear the over the top comments, new twists on old scandals and on top of the television pundits, our friends and family are happy to post their opinions too.
Nearly every week I see (and you probably do, too) the video feed of a new shooting and many times (though not always) the police are involved. In some cases it’s clear that racial bias plays a part in how events unfold and in other cases it’s less clear. There are other times where the shooter may have significant mental health problems and has not received the treatment he needed. Sometimes people with disabilities are the ones being shot. A few weeks ago, a deaf man was shot by police in North Carolina and earlier this week a woman threatening to kill herself was shot here in Massachusetts. We are horrified and outraged and barely have time to hear the details before the next story grabs our attention.
We are not imagining it. One study found that “outrage discourse” was found in 100% of cable TV episodes, 98.8% of talk radio programs, and 82.8% of blog posts. On average, examples occurred once during every 90 to 100 seconds of political programming on TV and even more often on radio. Syndicated newspaper columnists used outrage discourse much less frequently than other media analyzed, but more frequently compared to columns from 1955 and 1975.
Only a few years ago, we talked about compassion fatigue. The mood was different. We saw abused animals in television ads. We heard about the victims of diseases such as Ebola. We saw the devastation caused by natural disasters and heard how it made people homeless and hungry and we were asked to take action and give. Lots of us did. For parents, the stories of children losing their homes and their families were particularly tough. Those heartrending stories came into our homes and social media often and while we felt sad, many of us also felt overwhelmed.
Then something shifted. I can’t quite put my finger on when that happened but today we are told to be outraged (and much of the time we probably should be), not saddened. We hear about the latest event, share the pictures, the stories and the comments. We even add our own to the mix. But the outrages come fast and furious and we barely have time to exclaim, post that emoji and comment before the next outrage appears.
Any parent of a child with mental health needs can tell you what is going to happen next. We are going to get exhausted and overwhelmed. We are on a constant cycle of reacting, figuring things out, moving on and starting over again. Voila! Outrage fatigue.
When you parent a child who has multiple meltdowns and whose moods and behaviors are like a roller coaster, you shift your idea of what to react to. You accommodate the slightly awful and save your energy for the truly terrible. When you bang your already aching head against the wall of failed approaches, balky systems and waits that defy imagination, you learn to ignore the slightly shocking and save your determination for the jaw-dropping, I-can’t-believe-this-is happening events.
Social media, live streaming and 24/7 news lets us stay connected in ways that were not possible before now. The good news is they can also be empowering, informing and entertaining. But when what you hear is the same awful news or outrageous remark over and over, it loses its punch and ability to galvanize you into action. We can’t maintain a state of intense moral outrage indefinitely. What’s worse is that our barometer, or outrage-meter, begins to malfunction and it doesn’t register the only-somewhat-awful. Just like ignoring that risky, over-the-top or unsafe behavior you’ve adjusted to managing at home.
Outrage should be a good thing and spur us into action. Stories about climate change, the election, police shootings and terrorist attacks are intended to inform us but also motivate us to take action. Sure we can give or donate, but the message encourages us to make a difference and act. It might be to vote, sign a petition, join a protest or volunteer. Outrage springs from a sense of basic decency and moral rightness and we know when that has been violated. Like many uncomfortable emotions, it’s actually healthy. We are engaged, fired up and we want to make a difference.
Children’s mental health advocacy relies on outrage. There are children and teens waiting in emergency departments for elusive hospital beds. One of the children who was waiting only a week or so ago was five. We should all be outraged at that. Waits for outpatient care can be weeks or even months and at the first appointment parents discover the clinicians are frequently new to the work. Parenting a child with mental health needs is more like quilting, piecing together services paid for by insurers, schools, state agencies and often, out of pocket. We have a system to try the patience of a saint, as if the child you are trying to help didn’t already stretch that patience thin.
But when we hear of 5, 10 or more outrageous things a day, it’s hard for the less outrageous to get traction. People think they’ve already heard about stuck kids, waiting kids, struggling kids. The quiet outrage families feel gets lost and doesn’t burn bright in others, the ones we hope will be the champions we need.
Outrage fatigue hurts us in several ways. We begin to think outrageous events are epidemic. They are everywhere and spreading rapidly. We learn to look for the new ones and pay less attention to the ones we already know. We can feel overwhelmed and tired and want to find a quiet space rather than jump in the fray to change things. Different events and tragedies compete with one another and we try to prioritize them even though we are comparing apples, asparagus and armadillos.
While I admit to a self diagnosis of outrage fatigue, I am not saying that we should abandon telling each other about kids waiting for services or the harm stigma can do or the immense burden that families still haul around as they identify, coordinate and (finally) access care for their children. We need those stories. We should feel appalled and want to change things. That’s good because this is something we can fix in big and small ways. Unlike a lot of other things in my inbox.
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Lisa Lambert is the executive director of Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) and a Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council member. Lisa Lambert became involved in children’s mental health as an advocate for her young son in 1989 through the CASSP family network in California. After moving back to Massachusetts, she began supporting families whose children and youth had behavioral health needs. Her areas of expertise include mental health policy, systems advocacy and family-driven research.