The Right to Mental Health and the Importance of Self-Care

An image of a brain embroidered on a piece of fabric in an embroidery hoop.
Brain Anatomy Hoop Art. Hand Embroidered in Pink and Blue. Source: Hey Paul Studios, Creative Commons

While it seems that most people today would agree that taking care of one’s mental health is important, it may come as a surprise that mental health is actually a human right.  According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family…”  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared that “that the right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights and or our understanding of a life in dignity.”  

Mental Health as a Human Right 

The United Nations Human Rights Council recognizes three principles regarding the right to health: 

The first is that it is an inclusive right.  This means that it extends “not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health.”  This includes things like access to clean water, safe working conditions, and important information about health.  These factors, while clearly relevant to physical health, are also important in maintaining one’s mental health. 

The second principle is that the right to health includes both freedoms and entitlements.  Freedoms would include things like “the right to control one’s health,” while entitlements would include things like “the right to a system of health protection that provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.”  This is significant because one needs to be able to access important information and resources related to mental health in order to have meaningful support for their mental health.   

The third principle is that the right to health is a broad concept that can be divided up into more specific rights.  For example, there are some aspects of health that are specific to people who are assigned female at birth, and those aspects are associated with specific rights.  The right to mental health (and the rights associated with it) is one of the many rights that make of the right to health.   

Mental Health Impacts Your Overall Future Health 

According to the World Health Organization’s Constitution, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  Based on this, taking care of your mental health is not simply making sure that you are not actively going through a crisis.  Being healthy is more than just surviving.  Taking care of your mental health involves taking daily steps to care for yourself that not only improve your health in the present, but also protect your health in the future. 

Having poor mental health puts you at a greater risk for physical health problems.  According to the American Psychological Association, having a mental health condition reduces men’s life expectancy by an estimated 20 years and reduces women’s life expectancy by about 15 years.  This is in part due to the fact that nearly two-thirds of people with mental health conditions do not seek any form of treatment. 

Mental Health is a Key Part of Accessing Many Other Rights 

In addition to being a right on its own, maintaining good mental health is also a key part of being able to meaningfully access many other human rights.  For example, even when given all the necessary tools that are directly related to education, struggling with mental health issues can impede a person’s ability to receive a truly meaningful education.  This is reflected by the long-term effects of depression.  In one study, scientists found that individuals who faced depression during mid-adolescence and continue to deal with it as young adults are at an increased risk of educational underachievement and unemployment.  One’s mental health can also impact their access to other rights such as the right to participate in the cultural life of their community, the right to rest and leisure, and the right to work. 

Scrabble pieces spell out the words "mental health."
Mental Health. Source: Kevin Simmons, Creative Commons

You Have to Help Yourself Before You Can Help Others  

You’re probably familiar with the concept of putting your oxygen mask on before assisting others on a plane.  If you are struggling to breathe yourself, not only is your ability to help others inhibited, but you’re putting your own health and well-being at risk of harm.  This can be applied to mental health as well.  If you are facing serious struggles with your own mental health, it is important to focus on helping and support yourself before taking on responsibilities related to other people’s mental health. 

For this reason, the maintenance of good mental health is especially important for people who work in fields such as human rights advocacy.  The world of human rights is full of issues and topics that can be emotionally draining, so one can easily become overwhelmed by it all.  It is vital that advocates make their mental (and physical) health a priority, even if their main concern is helping others.  Self-care needs to be a part of any human rights advocate’s tool kit. 

The Basics of Self-Care 

Self-care can be defined as “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”  

Raphailia Michael, a licensed counseling psychologist, suggests that there are three golden rules to starting self-care: 

  1. “Stick to the basics.”  This makes it easier to include self-care into your schedule, make it a part of your regular routine, and figure out what works best for you.
  2. “Self-care needs to be something you actively plan, rather than something that just happens.”
  3. “Keeping a conscious mind is what counts…if you don’t see something as self-care or don’t do something in order to take care of yourself, it won’t work as such.”  

Michael also gives a basic checklist of self-care tasks that can apply to pretty much anyone.  This list includes things such as eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, following up with medical care, and looking for opportunities to laugh every day. 

It is so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and forget to take care of oneself.  We all do it sometimes.  It is important that we set aside time to properly take care of ourselves and pay attention to our own needs.  Mental health matters just as much as everything else that is going on, and that’s something we need to remember. 

 

Artificial Intelligence and Its Impact on Human Rights

Mathais Risse and Sushma Raman introducing themselves to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On October 25, 2019, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Mathias Risse, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and Sushma Raman, the executive director of the Carr Center.  During the lecture and discussion, Risse asked the audience to consider the present and future moral and philosophical implications of ever-growing developments in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.   

One of the most well-known ethical dilemmas that Risse addressed is the Trolley Problem thought experiment which, seemed to be irrelevant in real life at the time of its conception, has massive implications in today’s world.  Imagine that you are standing by as a runaway trolley is headed toward five people who are tied to the tracks.  You can either refuse to intervene and allow those five people to die, or you can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack where a single person is tied. Which option is more ethical?  As AI technology is developed and products such as self-driving cars become more common, we cannot ignore the ethical concerns that will emerge and their attendant consequences. 

Risse also discussed rising concerns about the relationship between social inequalities and AI technology.  One concern is that, as technology develops, “unskilled” labor will be outsourced to AI, leaving low-income communities that typically work those jobs behind.  Not only does that leave people struggling to find work to support themselves and their families, but it also takes away their voice and political power because it pushes them out of the job market and economic system.  There is also a concern that technology will become less accessible to low-income communities as it develops, and that under-privileged groups will be left behind.  This has led many to worry that AI will “drive a widening technological wedge into society.” 

After the lecture, Risse and Raman answered some of the audience’s questions.  One person asked which of the problems regarding AI and human rights is the most concerning.  In response, Risse pointed out that it depends on who you ask.  From policymakers to tech developers to “unskilled” laborers, each group would have a different perspective on which part of the issue is the most urgent because each party has a unique relationship with technology.  

In closing his lecture, Risse noted that he wished he could end on a more cheerful note, but he found it to be nearly impossible due to the long list of concerns that the philosophical community has regarding the future of humanity and artificial intelligence.  Throughout his lecture and the Q & A session, Risse emphasized the point that there needs to be a serious increase in the interaction that occurs between the AI community and the human rights community.  While technological advancements can be wonderful and even lifesaving, it is vital that we evaluate the potential risks that come with them.  Just because something is possible does not mean it should be done, and multiple perspectives are necessary to effectively evaluate any given possibility.

Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust 

Alexandra Zapruder answering questions from the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On November 7, the Institute for Human Rights hosted Alexandra Zapruder, author and member of the founding staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.  She discussed her first book, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, and answered questions about her work.  Throughout her lecture, Zapruder highlighted the variety of insights we can gain from the diaries of teenagers/young adults who experienced the Holocaust.   

While Anne Frank is certainly the most well-known authors of such a diary, there is much to be learned from the other young authors whose diaries have been found in the last few decades.  Zapruder described these diaries as being both historical and literary fragments, giving us a window into the past and helping us better understand human experiences from different perspectives of the time.  

Zapruder described having to grapple with the legacy of Anne Frank’s diary and how it shapes the reception of the other diaries that are found.  For example, people often associated Frank’s writing with a hopeful view of humanity.  It is often discussed with language that relates to redemption and optimism that is rarely used when discussing the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust on their own.  This does not, however, reflect every young writer’s writing during this time.  Zapruder noted that, no matter how great a writer is, it does not make sense to expect their writing to represent all perspectives in a common experience when people are so different.  Reading other diaries from the Holocaust requires setting aside the preconceived notions we have from learning about Anne Frank’s diary in the past. 

One young writer that Zapruder spoke about during her lecture was Klaus Langer, a child of a fairly well-to-do family in Essen, Germany.  She read an entry from his diary that was written on November 11, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht.  His diary entries were generally records of what happened in his day-to-day life as he and his family made efforts to leave Nazi Germany, and this entry was no different.  Langer described walking down the street through the wreckage after everything that happened, walking on glass splinters.  Though that day in history had not been named “Kristallnacht” yet, the significance of the shatter glass is clear in his writing.  When reading this entry, Zapruder recognized that, when you are writing in a diary about the day-to-day, you capture nuances you might miss later, things that would be easy to forget in future recollections. 

Another writer that Zapruder discussed was Elsa Binder, a 21-year-old girl who lived with her parents in Poland.  Zapruder described Binder as someone who could be sarcastic and had an edge.  In Binder’s diary, Zapruder found a strong example of an unexpected common theme among the diaries: the passage of time.  There were certainly themes that had been expected, such as desperation, hope, hunger, and displacement, but the passage of time was addressed to a surprising degree in nearly all of the diaries.  Zapruder found many entries detailing life before the war, the traumatic break from normal life, and waiting liberation as time passed.  Birthdays and holidays were noted regularly, even when the world was in chaos. 

Perhaps the most striking thing that Zapruder addressed during her lecture was the way that these works resonate with young people.  Though the experiences of most American teenagers are far different from those who lived during the Holocaust, many of the things that young people experience today connect to the themes found in the diary, from hope for the future to fear to desperation.  Children face many human rights issues, such as school shootings, gun violence, and violence against people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.  Like many of the young writers that Zapruder discussed during her lecture, many of the children of today are desperate for a better future.  It is vital that adults step up and become better advocates for that future and for the human rights of children and adolescents.   

If you want to learn more about children’s rights and related issues in the United States you can checkout Children’s RightsThe Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Human Rights Campaign. 

Misleading Media: Disabilities in Film and Television

 

Rows of seats in a movie theater.
Movie Theater Seats. Source: I G, Creative Commons

While one in four people in the United States live with a disability, it is unlikely that a person would give that estimate based on representation in popular media.   

Is this because of an overall misunderstanding about the parameters of disabilities among the general public?  Or do the producers of film and television realize they are failing to accurately represent society and just not caring? 

Even the media that currently feature characters with disabilities are often misleading and lean heavily into pre-existing, incorrect stereotypes.  Manifestation of this issue draws parallels with insensitive stereotypes about race, gender, and sexuality to the use of common (over-used) archetypes.   

Character Archetypes 

One way in which film and television often generalize people with disabilities is using character archetypes.  It worth noting that archetypes are not inherently bad, rather they become a problem when they are focused around a specific group of people. As a result, this creates/reaffirms the assumptions that people make about others.  When it comes to characters with disabilities, it is especially problematic, as these characters are rarely depicted outside of their archetypes while non-disabled groups may be more likely to have a nuanced portrayal.  

There are three main archetypes used in the creation of characters with disabilities: the helpless victim, the evil villain, and the inspirational hero. 

The Helpless Victim 

The helpless victim character is severely limited by their disability and is depicted as having little chance of happiness or normalcy in life unless their disability is removed.  This character is depicted as needing to be “saved” from their condition and are designed to evoke pity and sympathy from the audience rather than be viewed as a regular person.  These characters are often rescued from their disabilities through “miraculous” events whether it be an “unexplainable change” or directly stated as part of an intervention by a higher power.  Not only does this lead people to look at people with disabilities with the same pity they give fictional characters, but it also fosters an inaccurate depiction of many people’s experiences with their own disabilities.  Contrary to these depictions, people can have disabilities and live happy lives at the same time.  The helpless victim archetype is also sometimes used for comedic purposes. For example, a person with a disability does or experiences something related to their disability that mildly harms them or is considered inappropriate by societal norms.  This is shown in how Forest Gump is depicted in relation to his intellectual disability.  This allows people who do not have disabilities to feel comfortable with not taking people with disabilities seriously or giving them the same respect they give people who do not have disabilities.   

The Evil Villain 

The second main archetype is the evil villain, often designed as a dangerous and uncontrollable monster.  This character is often seen in horror films, such as the Unbreakable trilogy, Gerald’s Game, and many more.  The horror genre is notorious for using both physical and mental disabilities (often those that the general public is not well-educated on) to frighten audiences.  Since many of the disabilities that are targeted by this archetype are unfamiliar to most people, many audiences walk away having absorbed a great deal of misinformation and a fear of people with these disabilities.  These representations have led many people to believe that people with disabilities, particularly any mental disorders that are unfamiliar, are dangerous and should be avoided.  In reality, people have a tendency to largely overestimate the likelihood that a person with a mental health disorder will become violent.  Additionally, when people with these kinds of disabilities do become violent, is largely linked to other factors, such as substance abuse and family history. 

An example of the evil villain character is the Beast from M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy.  The Beast is an alter in a system with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) that is depicted as having super-human abilities and a desire to get rid of all impure people in the world.  Throughout the series, he is depicted clearly as a violent monster.  For many people, these movies were their first exposure to DID, and, though it did not necessarily convince people that DID gives people supernatural capabilities, this has led to many people having a serious misunderstanding of DID and a fear of people who experience the disorder.  Even the “nice” alters in the system were depicted in a negative light, as they helped the Beast carry out his evil plans.  This representation of DID is also problematic because there are so many misleading or definitively incorrect ideas about DID propagated in these films.   

Shyamalan himself stated, “I wanted to take something scientific and psychologically proven and keep going with it.  The first two, three steps have been proven, then the next one was not proven, but it’s a question. Do you believe it, what I’m suggesting?  It is important to remember that real people have disorders like DID, not just fictional characters.  When you willingly spread misleading ideas about them, you are potentially causing serious harm to their present and future wellbeing which you can read more about in this blog. 

A parking spot reserved for people with disabilities.
Parking bay. Source: David Morris, Creative Commons

The Inspirational Hero 

The third main archetype is the hero/inspirational character with a disability is held up as an example of someone “overcoming the odds”.  These are the characters that lead people to say, “well if they can do that, then I can do anything!”  While it is considered a positive stereotype, it is nonetheless problematic for several reasons.  First, it suggests that the only way a person can be happy is if they are “cured” or if they overcome their disability.  It specifically frames disabilities as enemies to defeat rather than a part of daily life.  It can also lead people who do not have disabilities to believe that people who do have them will be fine if they only try hard enough.  As a result, this may make them believe they do not have to do anything to accommodate people with disabilities.  Depicting people with disabilities this way can also lead to people without disabilities looking to them for sources of inspiration and examples of courage rather than as regular people. 

Paul Hunt’s List of Stereotypes 

A 1991 study by disabled writer and activist Paul Hunt established a list of ten common stereotypes of people with disabilities.  This list includes depicting people with disabilities as: “pitiable/pathetic”, an “object of curiosity or violence”, sinister or evil, the “super cripple” (as if having a disability anoints them some sort of superpower), a way to establish atmosphere, laughable, their own worst enemy, a burden, “non-sexual”, or being unable to participate in daily life.    

The Connection to Human Rights 

Many people develop their understanding of different disabilities through the representations they see in film and television which impacts the way people are viewed by their local communities and, therefore, their ability to access their human rights.  The way students are treated by their classmates impacts how they benefit from their educational experience (Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  The way people are treated by their employers (or potential employers) and co-workers impacts their access to a favorable work environment without discrimination (Article 23).  The way people are treated holistically by their community impacts their ability to actively participate in their communities (Article 27).  A community’s view of people with disabilities can also impact their willingness to make accommodations for them which further affects their ability to access the aforementioned rights.  

How Do We Identify Good Representation? 

One aspect of good disability representation is that a character’s purpose is not solely based on their disability.  If the character were replaced with a non-disabled character, without changing any other aspects of the story, would they have “a story, goals, relationships, and interests”?  In a good piece of representation, the answer would be “yes”.  While a disability might be a significant part of a person, it is not the only characteristic that shapes their experiences.   

The Entropy System, a system with DID who makes educational YouTube videos about DID, has come up with a list of four criteria to identify good representations of DID in media, three of which could be applied to other disabilities as well: 

  1. Does it “communicate proper diagnosis and treatment”? 
  2. Does it address the cause of the disability? 
  3. Is the character relatable?  Are they well-rounded and realistic? 

An Example of Good Representation: A Quiet Place 

John Krasinski’s film, A Quiet Place, is a wonderful example of quality representation.  In the film, the Abbot family is fighting to survive in a world where making a sound could be a death sentence.  Reagan, the daughter in the family, is deaf, which has led to the entire family’s ability to communicate silently through American Sign Language (ASL).  Reagan’s disability is not treated as a burden or as a superpower.  While their knowledge of ASL is a key tool in the family’s path towards survival, it does not change the way Reagan is treated as a character.  She is a normal kid.  She is a multi-dimensional character who has strong relationships with her family and faces personal struggles that are unrelated to her disability.  The character is also played by a deaf actress, which is an important part of good representation and surprisingly rare on television and in film. 

The existence of quality representation for people with disabilities is increasing in television and in films like A Quiet Place, but we still have a lot of work to do.  It will take time, but we can hopefully look forward to a day where people with disabilities are well represented in popular media. 

Young Activists and the Burden of Change

Two girls smiling and holding up peace signs.
Children. Source: Shazron, Creative Commons

What would you do if you felt like the whole world was on your shoulders before you were even old enough to vote?  Many children have faced this exact question, some of which have been acknowledged for their extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place.  Malala Yousafzai.  Greta Thunberg.  Emma González and David Hogg.  These are only few from a long list of young activists who have made great sacrifices in hopes of creating a better future for themselves and future generations. 

For many, seeing children give up so much for something they are passionate about is greatly motivating.  Children’s willingness to put themselves at risk for the greater good often make adults feel like they should be doing more to make a difference or that they have been underestimating the problem the entire time. 

That being said, why should children have to make sacrifices in order to convince adults to change?  Should the burden of change ever be placed on a child’s shoulders? 

Why do they feel the need to get involved? 

When discussing this issue, it is important that we consider what is causing so many young people to feel the need to take on the serious responsibilities that come with activism.  It may speak to the severity of an issue when the members of society with the least responsibilities for the problems we face are the ones leading the charge for progress or, possibly, because they are the ones dealing the brunt of the impact of change. 

Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old environmental activist, skips school on Fridays in order to protest outside Swedish parliament buildings, pressuring the government to pass legislation that would reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. These efforts interfere with her right to an education which is recognized in Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child).  When asked about her message for world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit, said, “You are failing us.  But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.  The eyes of all future generations are upon you.  And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.  We will not let you get away with this.  Right here, right now is where we draw the line.  The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not. 

Personal Connections to the Issue 

For many child activists, their membership in a community that is particularly or uniquely impacted by an issue contributes to their involvement whether it is by participation or choice.  Consider the activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Their activism began as a response to their experiences as survivors of a school shooting.  Many of the activists have attributed much of their drive for promoting gun-reform to their feeling that adults are not doing enough (or are even making the problem worse).  Cameron Kasky, an 11th grader at the school, said, “The adults know that we are cleaning up their mess.”  Emma González added onto this, stating, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m sorry I made this mess,’ while continuing to spill soda on the floor.” 

In other cases, children carrying the burden of change are from marginalized groups who are disproportionately impacted by a given issue.  Malala Yousafzai grew up in Pakistan, where her father was a teacher who ran a school for girls.  In 2008, the Taliban overtook the town she lived in and put many harsh restrictions in place, one of which was declaring that girls could no longer attend school. Yousafzai spoke out against this and in support of girls’ right to an education (which is recognized as a right in Article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).  In 2012, at the age of 16, Malala was shot in the head by a masked gunman in response to her activism.  She knew that speaking out was dangerous but took the risk, because she knew, firsthand, how girls are affected when refused their right to an education. 

Children should not have to lead the fights for their own rights and well-being, especially when it involves risking their lives. 

Greta Thunberg sitting in a chair and being interviewed.
Greta Thunberg at the Parliament. Source: European Parliament, Creative Commons

Harmful Responses 

One way in which heavy involvement in efforts for change has been harmful for children is the way people who disagree often begin to treat them.  While Ruby Bridges was not an activist at the time, she still faced serious backlash when she became the first African American to attend a school that had previously only enrolled white students.  Throughout her first year at her new school, there were mobs of people in front of the building every day protesting her attendance.  People were angrily pointing and shouting at her as she was escorted into school every day.  In an interview for NPR, she shared that some people would bring a baby-sized coffin with a black doll inside, and she would have to walk by it every day.  This frightened her so much it gave her nightmares.  She was simply a little girl going to school, but it was as if people stopped seeing her that way. 

With the rise of social media in recent years, children who are part of social change or activism are more aware of people’s responses to them than ever before.  Some adults, angered by the actions of these children for one reason or another, flock to websites like Twitter to air their grievances, seemingly without any consideration for how their words might impact the children involved.  As her work has become more well-known, Greta Thunberg has faced much cruelty from adults.  In August, Thunberg was traveling across the Atlantic Ocean on a high-tech racing yacht (to decrease her contributions to greenhouse emissions) to spread awareness of climate change.  Arron Banks, multimillionaire and co-founder of Leave.EU, tweeted her picture with the caption, “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August…”.  Others have mocked her for having Asperger’s syndrome or for displaying its symptoms.   

The long-term negative impact that internalizing these kinds of harsh words and actions can have pose a threat to a child’s mental health.  Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all people have the right to live in an environment that supports their health and well-being. 

What Do We Do? 

How do we deal with this issue?  It is not so simple as to say that kids should be kept out of political conversations altogether.  Many children live with certain aspects of their lives that require political conversations.  If a child’s parents are a same-sex couple, the parents need to be able to talk to their child about the way some people treat the LGBTQ+ community.  This conversation cannot be had without at least some political themes.  People of color need to be able to talk to their children about certain topics which are considered political in order help keep them safe. 

These conversations should not be limited to parents and children who are directly impacted by political issues.  Children with privilege should not be kept ignorant of these serious issues, as gaining knowledge about marginalized groups can help them develop empathy.  Additionally, children who are impacted by political issues should not be alone when having to face the difficulties of learning about these issues. 

It is also important to recognize that exposure to conversations about political issues at an early age can lead to increased political engagement as an adult.  Hearing their parents/guardians talk about different topics communicates to children (whether directly or indirectly) that these issues matter and have value.  Political discourse that highlights the importance of such issues can, therefore, teach children to value political engagement. 

One thing that we can do is spread awareness about how heavy participation in political activism can impact children, particularly their mental health.  We can hold ourselves and our peers accountable for the things we say online (or in-person), hopefully decreasing the amount of mocking and bullying that children experience through the actions of adults.  We can also respond to their cries for action by working toward progressive social change so that they do not have to do our job for us. 

The Rainforest is Burning: Fires in the Amazon

Trees in a swamp in the Amazon rain forest.
Swamp in Amazon rainforest. Source: Ivan Mlinaric, Creative Commons

On August 19, 2019, the sky of São Paulo, Brazil was turned black from smoke, bringing an abrupt awareness to a serious problem in the Amazon: it’s burning.  During the first eight months of this year, upwards of 74,000 fires were found burning in Brazil, most of which were in the Amazon and/or on agricultural land.  This was an 84% increase in the number of fires found during the same period in 2018, and the highest number found at one time in Brazil since 2010.  In August, the G7 (Group of Seven) held a summit to discuss issue related to climate change, biodiversity, and the oceans, where the countries involved agreed to give support and $20 million in response to the devastation in the Amazon.  Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, refused this offer, claiming that the country’s sovereignty was being the threatened. 

Why is this happening? 

There are a few different factors that have been attributed to causing the fires.  One is that some number of fires is normal, especially during this time of year, as it is a dry season.  Most of the fires are not naturally occurring, though.  Brazilian journalist Silio Boccanera says that many of the local people feel comfortable setting fires as they wish, as the government has not made efforts to prevent it. 

President Bolsonaro supports the deforestation of the Amazon because he sees it as place for development.  Because of this, his administration has not framed the preservation of the rainforest as being particularly important, making groups who want to clear land for farming do exactly that.  Boccanera believes that this, in combination with the expected fires of the dry season, has been the main cause.    

According to Mikaela Weisse from the World Resources Institute, cattle grazers and soybean growers are the main two groups who are clearing the rainforest due to economic interests.  Mining, timber, and development firms are also growing in the area as a result of Bolsonaro’s position on the rainforest.  Confirmation of the fact that humans have caused most of the fires comes from satellite photos showing “special pattern where we see a lot of fire hot-spots clustered around roads, agriculture and pasture areas that have already been cleared.” 

The Impact of the Fires on the Environment  

The increase of fires has had (and will continue to have) a serious impact on the natural world.  So far, 228 megatons of carbon dioxide have been released due to the fireswhich absorbs heat and contributes to climate change. 

There is also great reason to be concerned for the long-term well-being of the Amazon itself.  As a tropical rainforest, it has high levels of humidity and is not fire-adapted, meaning its vegetation does not have the special traits that the plants of drier climates have developed in order to survive or even thrive when fire is present.  According to Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford, it takes around 20 to 40 years to regenerate after a fire (assuming it has the chance to regenerate before a new fire begins).  However, any fires that do occur leave the surviving trees more vulnerable to drought and new fires than they were before.  Multiple fires every few years mean more long-term, permanent damage, potentially shifting large parts of the Amazon to a “degraded shrubby state.” 

As of August, 80% of the Amazon remained intact, but Malhi is concerned about how the combination of deforestation and climate change will impact the situation.  Due to the reduced rainfall leading to a drier climate, fires would be more likely to spread.  As Malhi points out: “If 30-40% of the Amazon was cleared, then there would be a danger of changing the forest’s entire climate,” which is hard to think about.  He does, however, also say that we are at an early stage in the situation, and that there is still enough to work to save the rainforest. 

Clearing Up Some Misinformation 

One claim that has been seen numerous social media sites is that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of Earth’s oxygen.  According the BBC’s Reality Check, academics believe that the number is actually less than 10%.  Professor Malhi points out that a large part percentage of oxygen is produced by plankton and that, of the oxygen that is produced by plants on land, only 16% is produced by the Amazon.   

Even if the Amazon produced a full 20% of oxygen, this is still a misleading claim, because the Amazon absorbs close to the same amount of oxygen as it produces, “effectively making the total produced net-zero.”  The plants of the rainforest must reabsorb about half of the oxygen they produce to perform respiration and grow, and the soil, animals, and microbes also use some of it. 

This is not to suggest that saving the Amazon rainforest is not an important issue (because it certainly is)rather, it is to clear up some misinformation.  People have been known to point to misinformation as an argument against the importance of an issue, so it is important to address it when it is being spread.   

An area of the Amazon rain forest where trees have been cut down and burned.
Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. Source: Matt Zimmerman, Creative Commons

The Impact of Fires and Deforestation on Indigenous Peoples 

The deforestation of the Amazon has a severe negative impact on the indigenous people of Brazil.  Indigenous tribes rely on the rainforest in nearly every part of their lives, from food to clothes to medicine.  It is also an important part of their identity as a people.  Jonathan Mozower from Survival International says, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of these forests for indigenous peoples.”  The fires that are burning in the Amazon are eating away at the resources that are the foundation of their livelihoods.   

According to Mozower, this is “the worst moment for the indigenous people of the Amazon” since the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s.  In just a single week in August, there were 68 fires found and registered in indigenous territories and conservation areas. 

The indigenous people of the area are also being harmed by the fires’ impact on the rainforest’s biodiversity.  The Amazon rainforest contains the most diverse range of living things in the world.  For example, it is home to over 3,000 species of fish, and there are hundreds more that have not yet been discovered.  The diversity of the forest is what allows the life there to thrive, with different species depending on one another, such as fish helping to spread the seeds of trees.  The loss of some species leads to the loss of others, causing the rate of biodiversity loss to increase over time. 

As the Amazon loses more and more biodiversity, the indigenous people who live there lose more of their resources. 

This Is a Human Rights Issue 

According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ (UN) Universal Declaration for Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.  This is also affirmed by Article 7 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) states that “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.”  

DRIP also addresses many aspects of the land and resources that indigenous peoples depend on (like in the Amazon rainforest).  Article 8 states that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for actions that deprive them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of cultural values or ethnic identities and any action that tries or succeeds at taking away their land or resources.  Article 26 identifies indigenous peoples’ rights to the lands and resources they have traditionally possessed, to own, use, develop, and control these lands and resources, and to have “legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources” by the states they live in.  Article 29 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.  Articles 30 says that governments should consult the indigenous people who live in the area before using their territories. 

The impacts of the fires and deforestation of the Amazon impede indigenous people’s access to these rights and must be dealt with. 

What Can We Do? 

When faced with the facts of the situation in Amazon, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future.  Here are some things that you can personally do to help. 

Donations 

One option is to donate to organizations aimed at fighting the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and supporting the people who are impacted by it.  Survival International takes donations in order to fund their efforts to pressure the Brazilian government to keep loggers out of the rainforest in support of the Awá people.  The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs aims specifically to help makes sure that the voices of indigenous people are heard. 

Rainforest Safe Products 

You can also try to only by products that are deemed “rainforest safe”.  Products that are “Rainforest Alliance Certified” come from “farms that passed audits and met standards for sustainability”.  Some goods that might have the seal for this certification include coffee, bananas, and chocolate.  Products that are made with wood can be “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)” certified, meaning the wood used did not come from illegal logging and deforestation. 

Sustainable Living 

Another great option is to try to live a more sustainable life overall.  One of the best things that you can do is adopt a plant-based (vegan) diet or at least cut down on your consumption of animal products.  As it was previously mentioned, one of the biggest reasons for the clearing of the Amazon is cattle grazing and the farming of soybeans (which are mostly used to feed livestock).  According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Brazil is world’s largest beef exporter, “providing close to 20 percent of total global beef exports.  In 2017, the United States was the sixth largest importer of Brazilian beef, buying $295 million dollars’ worth According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the United States imported 140.9 million pounds Brazilian beef in 2019.   

Cutting down on the consumption of animal products is also a great way to live more sustainably, as 42% of the United States’ agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture and “livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions” worldwide. 

It main seem difficult, but it is possible for to make a difference as ordinary people. 

Monstrous Misrepresentation: Disabilities in the Horror Genre

Empty seats in a movie theater.
Movie Theater. Source: Matthew Berggren, Creative Commons

Far too often popular media, particularly horror movies, paint people with disabilities as monsters.  Scary movies are notorious for taking completely real health conditions and distorting them into what appears inevitably dangerous.  In some cases, they create villainous characters with physical appearances that are seen as abnormal based on real conditions that have physically visible symptoms, like acromegaly.  In others, they create characters based on real mental health conditions, like dissociative identity disorder, and depict them as if they have the powers and the thirst for evil of a comic book super-villain.  These dangerously inaccurate depictions of disabilities dehumanize entire groups of people in one fell swoop, often without any clear recognition from the creators of the damage they have done.  

Acromegaly in Gerald’s Game 

In Stephen King’s novel and film Gerald’s Game, Raymond Andrew Joubert is a grave robber, necrophiliac, and serial killer.  He is also a character with acromegaly, a disorder that occurs when too much growth hormone is produced due to benign tumors (adenomas) on the pituitary gland.  Acromegaly is associated with many serious health problems, such as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and, if not treated, even death.  The most visible and easily recognized symptoms of the condition are unusual growth of hands and feet, a protruding brow bone and lower jaw, an enlarged nose, and teeth that have spaced out.  The condition does not make a person any more dangerous than any other.  It seems that King only chose to create this character with this condition because of the physical appearance that is associated with it.  This is a problem, because it perpetuates the common, preexisting belief that people who look different from what is deemed “normal” are dangerous and should be feared.   

With the right lighting and camera angles, anyone could look terrifying.  There is no reason to use people with real health conditions in a way that only makes life and society’s understanding of them more difficult. 

Dissociative Identity Disorder 

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is one of many mental health conditions that has experienced significant harm due to failed representation in the media.  It is far too common to find that fictional media depictions of DID lack any presentation of the true facts of the disorder.  The Entropy System is a DID system who posts educational videos about DID on YouTube.  Their series on DID in the Media does a thorough job at analyzing the quality of different examples of representation of DID in films.  They use four main criteria in assessing each work.   

First, does it “communicate proper diagnosis and treatment”?  Many attempted depictions of DID fail to even name the disorder accurately and call it “Multiple Personality Disorder”, its name prior to 1994.  These works also often suggest that all systems (the collective term for one’s alters/identities) with DID are working towards the same goal with their treatment: to integrate all the identities into one.  Some systems are not interested in integrating.  The Entropy System points out in many of their videos that an important part of treatment, regardless of the system’s level of interest in integration, is establishing strong communication between the different alters. 

Second, does the work address the cause of DID?  The disorder is a result of repetitive, severe trauma that occurs during childhood. According to the theory of Structural Dissociation, no person is born with a fully integrated personality.  This means that, when we are children, we are made up of multiple individual personalities or “ego-states,” which integrate and become a single personality between the ages of six and nine.  Each of these ego-states is responsible for performing a different role.  DID occurs when trauma prevents these ego-states from integrating.  The ego-states develop into individual identities known as alters. 

Third, are the alters shown as part of a unit, or as extra bits for a central/main identity?  It is important to recognize that no single alter is more real or significant that any of the others.  They are all parts of the same whole. 

Fourth, is the character relatable?  Are all the alters well-rounded and realistic? 

DID in the Media 

One of the most common and most serious misconceptions that the horror genre frequently perpetuates about DID is the idea that there is such a thing as a “bad alter.”  Within a DID system, each alter has a role that it performs to help protect the person with DID.  One alter is responsible for day-to-day living, while another might be responsible for holding on to certain trauma memories that would make day to day living extremely difficult.  One alter, called a persecutor, may mimic abusers or other people who have caused trauma to the system in an attempt to keep the system from re-experiencing the abuse.  When horror movies depict a person with DID as being dangerous to others, they typically do so with a severe misrepresentation of what persecutor-alters are and what they do.  The vast-majority of the time, if persecutors cause harm, it is towards the person with DID themselves and not other people.  DissociaDID, another system that posts education videos about DID on YouTube, has a video that is helpful in understanding alter roles, persecutors, and how they function within a DID system. 

Films like Split and Glass are extremely harmful to the DID community, because they glamorize the idea of a “bad alter” and depict people with DID as being villains or monsters, which is far from the truth.  These two movies involve a character with DID named Kevin Wendell Crumb, who has a bad alter named “The Beast” that has super-human abilities and wants to get rid of the “impure” people of the world.  In Split, the other alters in the system kidnap girls and watch over them until The Beast comes out.  To say that DID is depicted in an unrealistic way is quite an understatement. 

For many people in the general population, their only exposure to disorders such as DID is through the media.  When so much of the representation is riddled with harmful, fear-inducing inaccuracies, people who see that representation start to view people with those disorders in real life as being inherently dangerous or violent.  This is why quality and accurate representation is so important. 

The symbol for handicap parking in yellow paint on black pavement.
handicapped zone parking spot symbol on asphalt New Zealand. Source: Mr. Thinktank, Creative Commons

The Connection to Human Rights 

As we continue to push for more representation in popular media for marginalized communities, we must also make sure that that representation is accurate and not harmful to those communities.  When horror movies use people with disabilities in their attempts to scare their audience, they create/reinforce a belief that people with these disabilities in the real world are dangerous and scary.  This is a human rights issue, because prejudice, discrimination, and violence are fueled by fear.  Fear impacts who parents will let their children play with, and how children treat their classmates. This can interfere with one’s access to their right to an education, which is established in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Fear affects how we interact with people we pass by on the street and people’s willingness to help find ways to improve people’s life experiences.  This can impede one’s access to their right to be an active part of their community (Article 27) and their right to seek employment and have favorable working conditions (Article 23). 

Non-disabled people need to use the privilege they have to advocate for those without it, and a person is less likely to want to advocate for someone who they are afraid of.  In order to have the basic human rights of all people fulfilled, we need to all be able to look at each other as members of humanity, and fear, especially unjustified fear, inhibits that. 

Conclusion 

I’m not going to lie or try to pretend that I have never let these kinds of portrayals of people with disabilities change the way I look at them.  Thankfully, I know better now, but there are still moments where I catch myself briefly slipping back into old ways of thinking.  It is important that we as consumers of media recognize the harm that these failed representations of an already marginalized group have caused and that we do our best to avoid supporting them monetarily.  We need to increase awareness of this harm, in hopes that, one day, the horror genre will no longer be made up of so many destructive stereotypes.   

Rather than the same stereotypically use of people with disabilities as the antagonists in film, why not increase their representations as protagonists?  Imagine, a horror movie where the protagonist is a person with DID, whose alters all work together to survive while also dealing with the memory loss that often comes with the switching of identities.  The film A Quiet Place is a brilliant example of positive and constructive disability representation.  One of the main characters is a young deaf girl, and her disability ends up saving her family.  In a world where making noise is a deadly act, their knowledge of sign language allowed them to communicate without risking their lives.  This is in complete opposition of the stereotypical idea that people with disabilities are burdensome for their loved one.  The makers of the film clearly did their research and were able to help spark important conversations about disability representation. 

Incarceration and Menstrual Hygiene

Menstrual Hygiene products displayed on a flat surface.
Zubehör für weibliche Hygiene wie Slipenlagen und Tampons auf rosarotem Hintergrund. Source: Marco Verch, Creative Commons

Menstruation is one of many topics that can be difficult and uncomfortable to talk about but is absolutely necessary, as many people do not have the resources they need to manage menstruation within reach.  The WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System defines menstrual hygiene management as being when people who experience periods “are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.”  The struggle for accessible menstrual hygiene management can be found in all parts of the world and is even true of some places you would not necessarily expect.  One such place is in prisons, where women often have severely insufficient access to products like sanitary pads and tampons.  This problem needs to be addressed, as menstrual hygiene products are a necessity.  They are not merely items of luxury and should never be treated as a privilege. 

However, things are slowly but surely improving.  The First Step Act that was enacted in December of 2018 requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide pads and tampons at no cost to the prisoners.  While this is a good step forward, it only applies to federal facilities and does not help in state or local ones.  Further change continues to be imperative. 

Examples of the Problem 

Betty Ann Whaley, who was released from the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island in June of 2016, told the New York Times that pads were available “seven out of ten times,” and tampons were even less accessible.  It is important to remember that even a nine out of ten times availability would be a serious problem, given the impact it can have on one’s health when menstruating without the means to deal with it.  

Even when pads are available, they are often very thin, requiring them to be changed frequently.  This leads menstruation to still be difficult to manage, as women in prison often only have access to a small number of pads each month.  Chandra Bozelkowho spent some time at York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Connecticut, wrote about her experience with menstrual hygiene management for the Guardian in 2015.  Each two-person cell was given five pads each week, giving each woman about ten pads per month.  If a woman’s period lasts for five days, she would only have two pads for each of those days.  This would not be enough, even if the pads were of high quality. 

Topeka K. Sam developed blood clots while she was in prison, meaning she needed sanitary pads that were more absorbent than those available in the commissary.  In order to get the menstrual hygiene materials that she needed, she was forced to prove that they were a necessity. She put one of her used pads into a bag and a male staff member determined that she truly needed different pads.  Five months had passed by the time she had access to resource she needed. 

In some cases, there are even monetary barriers that prevent women from being able to properly manage their menstrual hygiene.  Prior to the establishment of the First Step Act, federal prison commissaries charged $5.55 for two tampons and $1.35 for two panty-liners.  This is a far greater amount of money than either of these products are worth.  For example, you can buy an 18-count box of tampons for $9.19 at Walmart.   

Menstrual Hygiene Management in Prisons Is an International Concern 

Menstrual hygiene materials are also often difficult to access outside of the United States.  In the Bom Pastor women’s prison in Recife, Brazil, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found a few different factors that make proper menstrual hygiene and healthcare difficult.  As of March of 2017, tampons had not been distributed to the women since 2015.  Water was only available three times each day, which is a barrier to strong menstrual health.  There is a risk of infection if there is a lack in adequate soap and water for keeping clean.  The prison system of Brazil also only employed 37 gynecologists in 2017, which means there is less than one for every 900 women in the system.  HRW also found that 630 women had been placed in a cell that was only built to hold 270.  This absence in any privacy and presence of practically no space makes even the act of replacing sanitary products difficult. 

According to one study, prisons in Zambia leave inmates responsible for many of their basic- necessities such as menstrual hygiene products and soap.  One woman living in a Zambian prison stated, “If others don’t bring them for us, we have nothing.  There are lots of people with no relatives here.  They have nothing.”  The water that is available is often unclean, so they have inadequate ability to keep clean as well.  These prisons also have the same overcrowding problem as the Bom Pastor prison, being more than 300% over capacity. 

A slightly open jail cell door.
Untitled. Source: Neil Conway, Creative Commons

Impacting Health 

Ignoring menstruation is not an option.  Not only would that be extremely uncomfortable, but it is also a health and safety issue.  Lacking access to necessary menstrual hygiene management materials can have an impact on both the mental and physical health of women living in prisons.  In terms of physical health, women who are trying to deal with menstruation while incarcerated might develop health problems such as bacterial infections from trying to use other materials in place of regular menstrual hygiene products.   

In terms of mental health, being denied the things one needs to deal with menstruation is a dehumanizing experience.  At this point in time, talking about menstrual hygiene feels awkward and uncomfortable for many people.  This fact does not change among incarcerated populations.  When you add experiences like that of Topeka K. Sam, having to prove that she needed the resources she was asking for, the situation becomes even more difficult. 

Why Does It Matter? 

Truly accessible menstrual hygiene management resources are undoubtedly a human rights issue.  According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), all people have the right to a standard of living that sufficiently supports their well-being and health.  The harm that can be done to one’s physical and mental health when they lack the menstrual hygiene products they need gets in the way of this right. 

Potential Solutions 

How do we improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons?   

The people who are most aware and likely care the most about this issue are people who have been disenfranchised, as only two states allow people convicted of felonies to keep their voting rights, and only 15 states automatically restore their voting rights after they have served their sentence.  Additionally, many people would not have the resources they would need to advocate for change, no matter how strong their drive or greatness of their ideas.  It would be helpful in trying to solve the problem if we could figure out a way to empower people who have direct experiences with it. 

Prisons could potentially switch from providing disposable menstrual hygiene products to reusable ones, like Thinx or Lunapads.  While the initial change would be relatively expensive, it would save them more money in the long run, as they would not have to constantly buy more sanitary pads and tampons.  This option could significantly improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons, and, as bonus, it would also be much better for the environment. 

Improving this issue is an important step in ensuring that people who have been incarcerated are still treated with dignity and respect as human beings.  People are people, no matter what they have done in the past.  There is no reason to treat anyone as less than human or prevent them from having access to their fundamental human rights. 

If you have an interest in learning more about the need for improved access to hygiene management, check out this post on MHM! 

 

 

 

Mindful Learning: Adding Meditation to Education

A girl sitting outside and meditating.
Girl Meditation. Source: Best Picko, Creative Commons

If you have ever struggled to fall asleep or dealt with significant anxiety or stress, you may have tried to calm down and relax yourself by listening to a guided meditation or yoga practice.  Data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that 14.2 percent of American adult and 54. Child participants had practiced meditation in the previous 12 months.  The survey also found that 14.3 percent of adults and 8.4% of children had practiced yoga in the past year. Some schools have now seen the positive impact that meditation and yoga can have on children’s behavior and mental health and have decided to integrate these practices into their procedural structures.  Instead of sending children to detention or the principal’s office for traditional disciplinary methods, these schools have rooms designated for mindfulness and meditation.  This results in a complete shift in how both educators and students cope with behavioral issues and emotional struggles in the classroom. 

What Is Meditation? What Are the Benefits? 

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), meditation is, “Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.”  While there is no single method or rigid guideline for how to meditate, there are four main elements that most meditation methods include: an environment with minimal distractions, a comfortable posture (such as sitting or lying down), a focus of attention, and an “open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).”  In this context, yoga combines meditation with specific physical postures and breathing techniques. 

While there is still much research to be done on meditation and its impact on people, studies thus far suggest that it can help reduce blood pressure, aid in coping with anxiety and depression, improve sleep, reduce pain, improve ability to focus, and much more.  There is also research that suggests practicing meditation could lead to physical changes in the brain which support numerous aspects of mental and physical health.  For example, one study that was performed in 2012 compared brain images of 50 adults that did not regularly meditate and 50 adults who had been doing so for years.  The results suggest that the brains of those who had been practicing meditation had undergone gyrification, which means the outer layer of their brains had more folds, potentially increasing their ability to process information.  Another study from 2013 suggests that regularly practicing meditation may slow, stall, or reverse certain changes in the brain that typically result from aging.   

It should be noted that every individual’s relationship with and response to meditation can differ.  One person may work well with a certain meditation strategy, while another person might find that strategy extremely difficult or uncomfortable.  Some people who suffer from mental health issues, such as anxiety, may find that certain forms of meditation make them more anxious.  Some people may have physical limitations that prevent from sitting on the floor, which is a common posture for many meditative practices.  It is a very personal experience and should not be treated as one-size-fits-all. 

Children learning yoga outside.
Learning Yoga. Source: Amanda Hirsch, Creative Commons

How is Meditation Being Implemented in Schools? 

In 2013, Robert W. Coleman Elementary School of West Baltimore created the “Mindful Moment Room,” a space used for meditation and yoga.  This is where students are sent when they are being disruptive in class or aggressive with their classmates.  The space is warm and inviting, smelling of essential oils and decorated with pillows and yoga mats.  Here, students who are feeling angry or frustrated can have an opportunity to breathe and do activities like yoga and meditation to calm down.  The Holistic Life Foundation is the nonprofit that helped the school to establish and run the Mindful Moment Room.  The staff helps students talk about why they had to leave class and guides them through mindfulness exercises.  Mindfulness in not limited to being encouraged when students are misbehaving.  Students listen to a 15-minute guided meditation over the intercom at the beginning and end of every school day and can practice yoga both during and after school. 

Not only is this beneficial in helping kids work through problems at school, but it also helps them build skills that can help them to cope with strong negative emotions in the future.  The students themselves have been able to recognize the benefits they have experienced from practicing mindfulness.  Dacari Crawford, a third-grader at Robert W. Coleman, said, “When I get mad at something or somebody, I just take some deep breaths, keep doing my work and tune everyone out.  It gives you good confidence when you need to do something important.”  Inspired by the impact mindfulness practices have made on the elementary school, Patterson High School has started its own Mindful Moments Room. 

A Mother’s Testimony 

Dana Santas, a yoga trainer to many professional sports teams, was invited write an article for CNN discussing her experience of guiding her three children (the youngest of which being on the autism spectrum) through yoga.  In her experience she has found three main reasons why mindfulness-practices like yoga and meditation should be taught in school:   

The first is “teaching breathing as fundamental to well-being.”  She points out that the impact that breathing has on us is not as simple as the fact the we cannot live without breathing.  Our breathing patterns, our postures while breathing, and the way we breathe in general impacts both our mental and physical health in ways that are hard to notice if we do not know to look for them.  This be related to things like the basic mechanisms of breathing or using breathing to calm down when one is overwhelmed.  Santas developed a breathing exercise called “peace palm exhaling” to help her son with Asperger’s syndrome when he becomes overwhelmed.   

The second reason is that yoga can help children “move with control and confidence” because it can help them gain self-control and respect for their own bodies and improve their balance and movement abilities. 

The final reason she discusses is that yoga can promote the power of mindfulness, helping children to learn skills that they can use to cope with anxiety and stress. 

How Does Mindfulness Impact Human Rights? 

One significant impact that the use of meditation and mindfulness in schools has on human rights is that it helps to improves students’ ability to access and fully utilize their right to an education.  The right to an education is recognized in Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Article 26 of the UDHR also recognizes the right of every person to an education that works towards the full development of their personality, and that right is also supported by meditative practices.  With fewer class disruptions, an improved ability to focus, and a calmer school-environment, students can spend more quality time learning and gaining knowledge that they can use in the future.  Practicing mindfulness also helps to create an environment that supports one’s health and well-being, which is recognized as a right in Article 25 of the UDHR and Article 24 of the CRC.  The impact that meditation and mindfulness can have on education and personal development can help a person better prepare for future experiences, helping them have better access not only to these rights, but also to their other rights as well. 

The First Step Act: A Step Towards Criminal Justice Reform

A slightly open jail cell door.
Untitled. Source: Neil Conway, Creative Commons

On December 21 of 2018, Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law.  This piece of legislation has been marked by some as a massive breakthrough in criminal justice reform.  The bill is intended to “ensure people are prepared to come home from prison job-ready and have major incentives to pursue the life-changing classes that will help them succeed on the outside and includes changes that will potentially lower the cost of upkeep for correctional facilities. 

Improving Experiences of Time in Prison and Their Outcomes 

Many of the aspects of the First Step Act are geared towards decreasing recidivism (people returning to criminal behavior after being released from prison) through opportunities and resources that help prepare people for their lives after incarceration.  For example, the bill creates strong incentives to encourage prisoners to participate in preparative programs that are available to them.  For every 30 days of “successful participation,” individuals can receive 10 days of prerelease custody, where they are transferred to halfway houses or home confinement.  Incentives can also include increased phone and visitation privileges, access to email, increased commissary spending, and other requested incentives. 

The bill also designates $250 million to be used over five years by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to expand and develop skill-building classes and vocational training opportunities.  It also allows the BOP to work with outside organizations that can provide such classes.  According to the First Step Act, prisoners who are at a medium or high risk of recidivism are to be prioritized for receiving these opportunities, as well as counseling and treatment.  Before leaving federal prison, all are to receive their ID, allowing people to re-enter society more quickly and avoid “collateral consequences of incarceration.” 

In order to make it less difficult for families to visit, the bill states that people should not be placed in prisons that are more than “500 driving miles” away from their families.  This improves their ability to maintain ties with their relatives, which can improve their quality of life while incarcerated and make the process of reintegration into society easier afterwards. With the help of a strong support system and the tools needed to find work, released prisoners have a better chance of finding their place in their communities and not being reincarcerated later. 

Decreasing the Population Actually in Prison 

There are some aspects of the First Step Act that help to decrease the population of people in prison.  Increases the number of days of good time credit, which is earned through good behavior, from 47 to 54 days per year.  This change also applies to everyone in federal prisons who has already earned good time credit.  It is estimated that this change will save $40 million in the first year.  Additionally, the bill required the BOP to transfer prisoners that are considered low/minimum risk to prerelease custody and expanded compassion release.  Eligibility for the elderly offender program of compassion release now starts at age 60 instead of 65, the minimum portion of one’s sentence that must be served has been decreased from 75% to 66.7%, and the program is now available in all prisons. 

Views of the Purpose of Prison 

One’s understanding of the importance of legislation like the First Step Act can be significantly impacted by their perspective on the purposes of prisons.  Some people believe that prisons should be used to achieve retributive justice, where the main purpose is to punish criminals for their wrong-doings and to have them suffer for their action.  For someone who believes in retributive justice, the changes made by the First Step Act may not seem so important.   

Alternatively, other people believe that the incarceration system should be used to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them to re-enter society as individuals who can make more positive contributions to their community and avoid taking actions that would lead them back to imprisonment.  When you look at the First Step Act from this point of view, it is easy to see why the bill’s intended impacts are so significant.  It gives people a chance to learn from their mistakes and helps them become more productive members of society. 

Three prison windows.
p1000578.jpg. Source: David Johnson, Creative Commons

Why It Matters 

As of 2016, there were 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States.  That year, $57.7 billion were spent in state expenses for the upkeep of correctional facilities.   

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Chronic illnesses go untreated, emergencies are ignored, and patients with serious mental illness fail to receive necessary care,” which, in some cases, has led to the deaths of incarcerated individuals.  This violates Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has the right to a living standard that is sufficient to support their health and well-being and specifically includes things like medical care and vital social services.  Prison authorities are legally responsible for providing prisoners with their medical needs, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Estelle v. Gamble.  The ruling recognizes the potential of ignoring these needs to “amount to cruel and unusual punishment” due to the pain and suffering they can cause.  However, overcrowding in prisons and a lack in resources makes giving prisoners the care they need a challenge. 

The intended outcomes of the First Step Act can improve the access to human rights of people who have been incarcerated.  As it is said in the UN’s Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, prisoners are entitled to all the rights that are declared in the UDHR and other human rights documents and should have access to resources that can aid their ability to successfully rejoin society.  Decreasing rates of recidivism, as the actions of the First Step Act hopefully will, helps to lower the number of people in prison overall.  This allows for a change in the allocation of funds to take better care of people living in prisons, giving them greater access to their human rights.  People living in prisons are human beings just like everyone else and should not be treated as anything less.