From bioethics to medical anthropology to humanities and back: A year in review

I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on the past year, where I will be in the future, and how the student fellowship has impacted me. I still hope to contribute to the Bill of Health blog going forward, but as my last official post as a Petrie-Flom Student Fellow, I would be remiss if I did not express my sincere gratitude to everyone at the Petrie-Flom Center, the faculty and staff, the other student fellows, and especially my mentors: Professors I. Glenn Cohen, Carmel Shachar, and Intisar A. Rabb.

My own project took a few different turns this year. My original proposal was to explore the ways in which bioethics and biomedical issues will play a significant role in reviving the dialectic between secular scholars and religious authority. Ayman Shabana rightly argues that respect for Islamic religious norms is essential for the legitimacy of bioethical standards in the Muslim context, wherein he attributes the legitimating power of these norms—as well as their religious and spiritual underpinnings—to their moral, legal, and communal dimensions. Building off of Shabana’s work, my initial argument held that the relationship between the secular and religious worlds is important because the discourse between the two, although often presumed to be dichotomous, is not necessarily antithetical nor is it impassable. This led me back to the arguments of the venerable philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor whereby, in critiquing the concept of secularism itself along with its historical contexts, furthered my argument and helped me to clarify the significant role that religion plays vis-à-vis categorical issues such as fundamental beliefs and metaphysics. I still maintain this, and it is something I continue to work on, although I decided to take my project in another direction.

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Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

By Yusuf Lenfest

Professor Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, rightly identifies depression as a particularly crippling disease insofar as it affects one’s very response mechanisms and modes of coping, namely, experiences of gratitude, joy, pleasure—at bottom, some of the key emotions of resistance and healing. In discussing depression, he provides an overview of the biological and chemical elements, touching on the role of neurotransmitters (epinephrine, dopamine, serotonin) in depression, and a summary of the psychological elements (and their relation to the biological); as such, his description focuses primarily on physical and biological explanations. However, to examine depression or any psychological illness in purely physical and biological terms misses a crucial element, namely: human culture, lived experience, and the different modes or methods of social thought. Culture plays a primary role in defining many mental disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis, and even the symptoms, intensities, or typologies of depression, according to Arthur Kleinman in his seminal Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine.

Despite these findings, Western biomedicine by and large continues to analyze mental health in clinical and biological terms. This is not insignificant given the statistics:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.- 43.8 million or 18.5% – experiences mental illness in a given year.
  •  Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.
  • Only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Among adults with a serious mental illness, 62.9% received mental health services in the past year.
  • Just over half (50.6%) of children aged 8-15 received mental health services in the previous year. (National Alliance on Mental Health)

Current trends in medicine suggest that the medical community broadly speaking is ill-equipped to adequately tackle this rising trend, especially with regard to the treatment of diverse patients from various cultures, religions, and social circumstances. To best address the problem, the medical community – both on the level of policy and practice -ought to take steps to understand and treat mental illness more holistically.

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Simulated Side Effects: FDA Uses Novel Computer Model to Guide Kratom Policy

By Mason Marks

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement on Tuesday about the controversial plant Mitragyna speciosa, which is also known as kratom. According to Gottlieb, kratom poses deadly health risks. His conclusion is partly based on a computer model that was announced in his recent statement. The use of simulations to inform drug policy is a new development with implications that extend beyond the regulation of kratom. We currently live in the Digital Age, a period in which most information is in digital form. However, the Digital Age is rapidly evolving into an Age of Algorithms in which computer software increasingly assumes the roles of human decision makers. The FDA’s use of computer simulations to evaluate drugs is a bold first step into this new era. This essay discusses the potential risks of basing federal drug policies on computer models that have not been thoroughly explained or validated (using the kratom debate as a case study).

Kratom grows naturally in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia where it has been used for centuries as a stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years, the plant has gained popularity in the United States as an alternative to illicit and prescription narcotics. Kratom advocates claim it is harmless and useful for treating pain and easing symptoms of opioid withdrawal. However, the FDA contends it has no medical use and causes serious or fatal complications. As a result, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) may categorize kratom in Schedule I, its most heavily restricted category.

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Dementia And The Law: P/Review 2017–18

This new post by Francis X. Shen appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.

Another year, another failed Alzheimer’s drug trial. In what is becoming routine news, in 2017, another Alzheimer’s drug failed in clinical trial, leading to the apt headline: “The List of Failed Alzheimer’s Drug Treatments Keeps Growing.” Moreover, there seem to be few evidence-based options even to limit cognitive decline. Research continues of course, and there remain multiple—and potentially promising—pharmacological interventions in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pipeline.

One of the reasons that successful drugs have been elusive is scientists are still trying to figure out the exact underlying neurobiology of Alzheimer’s. The past year saw the publication of a major scientific study showing that in mice, the gene variant ApoE4 (which is linked to a much higher risk for Alzheimer’s) affects both β-amyloid and tau buildup in the brain. The study’s implication of tau was important because the scientific community has been debating the “amyloid hypothesis,” whether the field’s sometimes singular focus on β-amyloid buildup was misguided. This debate is so intense that in 2017 it even made its way to the pages of The Atlantic. […]

Read the full post here!

Solitary Confinement: Torture, Pure and Simple

Cross-posted from the Psychology Today blog, where it originally appeared on January 15, 2018. 

By Gali Katznelson and J. Wesley Boyd

Let’s call it for what it is: Placing prisoners in solitary confinement is tantamount to torture and it needs to stop.

The practice of placing incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement dates back to the 1820s in America when it was thought that isolating individuals in prison would help with their rehabilitation. Yet, over the past two centuries, it has become clear that locking people away for 22 to 24 hours a day is anything but rehabilitative. Solitary confinement is so egregious a punishment that in 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment condemned its use, except in exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, and banned the practice completely for people with mental illnesses and for juveniles.

Despite its barbarity, the United States continues to place thousands of people, including individuals with mental illnesses and children, in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. Thirty years ago, Dr. Stuart Grassian, who recently spoke at Harvard Medical School’s “Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons” conference, evaluated 14 individuals placed in solitary confinement and found the same symptoms in many of them: hypersensitivity to external stimuli; perceptual disturbances, hallucinations, and derealisation experiences; affective disturbances, such as anxiety and panic attacks; difficulties with thinking, memory and concentration; the emergence of fantasies such as of revenge and torture of the guards; paranoia; problems with impulse control; and a rapid decrease in symptoms immediately following release from isolation. Taken together, Dr. Grassian proposed that these symptoms amount to a pathopsychological syndrome.

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The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part III: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Dismissed Harm Reduction Strategies

By Mason Marks

Drug overdose is a leading cause of death in Americans under 50. Opioids are responsible for most drug-related deaths killing an estimated 91 people each day. In Part I of this three-part series, I discuss how the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis misinterpreted scientific studies and used data to support unfounded conclusions. In Part II I explore how the Commission dismissed medical interventions used successfully in the U.S. and abroad such as kratom and ibogaine. In this third part of the series, I explain how the Commission ignored increasingly proven harm reduction strategies such as drug checking and safe injection facilities (SIFs).

In its final report released November 1, 2017, the President’s Commission acknowledged that “synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl analogs, are by far the most problematic substances because they are emerging as a leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in the United States.” While speaking before the House Oversight Committee last month, the Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan stated that of the 1180 overdose deaths in his state this year, 850 (72%) were due to synthetic opioids. Street drugs are often contaminated with fentanyl and other synthetics. Dealers add them to heroin, and buyers may not be aware that they are consuming adulterated drugs. As a result, they can be caught off guard by their potency, which contributes to respiratory depression and death. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are responsible for the sharpest rise in opioid-related mortality (see blue line in Fig. 1 below). Continue reading

Civil Commitment and the Opioid Epidemic: A Call for Research

By Scott Burris, JD

There is a lot of interest in civil commitment these days, as a possible tool to fight two big health problems. As we continue to watch the rates of opioid-related deaths climb, and in the wake of an unfunded emergency declaration by President Trump, some policymakers are looking to involuntarily commit overdose survivors for drug treatment. On the gun violence side, experts like Jeffrey Swanson have argued for applying gun-access restrictions that now cover people subject to long-term civil commitment to those subjected to short-term civil commitment.

With those kinds of ideas in the air, it is important to recognize how little modern data we have on commitment and its effects. In a recent article in the Washington Post discussing commitment for opioid treatment, Michael Stein and Paul Christopher emphasize how little we know. I entirely agree on the need for more research, and offer a couple of things to help.

The first is the Policy Surveillance Program’s LawAtlas dataset that maps civil commitment laws across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. If we’re going to examine these laws and their impact, this is the place to start. We also put out the call to anyone interested in studying this to work with us not only to update this data through 2017, but also to make sure we’re mining these laws and their characteristics for the right information in these circumstances — Are we asking the right questions? Continue reading

The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part II: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Ignored Promising Medical Treatments

By Mason Marks

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids kill an estimated 91 Americans each day and are responsible for most drug-related deaths in the US. This public health crisis requires solutions that are supported by science and reason instead of emotion and political ideology. In Part I of this three-part series, I discuss how the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis misinterpreted scientific studies and used data to support unfounded conclusions. In this second part of the series, I explore how the Opioid Commission ignored medical interventions that are used successfully in the U.S. and abroad. In Part III, I will discuss non-medical interventions such as drug checking and safe injection sites. The Commission’s failure to consider these options is likely driven by emotions such as fear and disgust rather than a careful review of scientific evidence.

Medical marijuana is currently accepted in 29 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. It is also permitted in at least 10 countries. However, the Opioid Commission outright rejected calls to consider the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for managing pain. Prior to the Commission’s first meeting, it solicited input from industry and members of the public on how to address the opioid crisis. In response, it received over 8,000 public comments. According to VICE News, which obtained the documents by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, most comments were submitted by individuals urging the Commission to “consider medical marijuana as a solution to the opioid epidemic.” A spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a body of the Executive Branch that provides administrative support to the Opioid Commission, reports receiving “more than 7,800 public comments relating to marijuana.” Despite these comments, in its final report, the Commission dismissed the notion that marijuana should play a role in treating chronic pain and opioid addiction. Its report cited a recent study from the American Journal of Psychiatry, which concluded that marijuana use was associated with an increased risk of opioid abuse. However, this study relied on data that was collected over twelve years ago. One of its authors, Columbia Medical School Professor Mark Olfson, told CNN that if the data were collected today, they could yield different results.

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The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part I: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Misinterpreted Scientific Studies

By Mason Marks

The opioid crisis kills at least 91 Americans each day and has far-reaching social and economic consequences for us all. As lawmakers explore solutions to the problem, they should ensure that new regulations are based on scientific evidence and reason rather than emotion or political ideology. Though emotions should motivate the creation of policies and legislation, solutions to the opioid epidemic should be grounded in empirical observation rather than feelings of anger, fear, or disgust. Legislators must be unafraid to explore bold solutions to the crisis, and some measured risks should be taken. In this three-part series on evidence-backed solutions to the opioid crisis, I discuss proposals under consideration by the Trump Administration including recent recommendations of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Though the Commission made some justifiable proposals, it misinterpreted the conclusions of scientific studies and failed to consider evidence-based solutions used in other countries. This first part of the series focuses on the misinterpretation of scientific data.

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids are responsible for most of these deaths. By comparison, the National Safety Council estimates about 40,000 Americans died in auto crashes last year, and the Centers for Disease Control reports that 38,000 people were killed by firearms. Unlike deaths due to cars and firearms, which have remained relatively stable over the past few years, opioid deaths have spiked abruptly. Between 2002 and 2015, U.S. opioid-related deaths nearly tripled (from about 12,000 deaths in 2002 to over 33,000 in 2015). Last year, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl contributed to over 20,000 deaths and accounted for the sharpest increase in opioid fatalities (See blue line in Fig. 1 below). Continue reading

Reflecting on Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians

By Gali Katznelson

This month, the Petrie-Flom Center collaborated with the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior  to host a panel entitled Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians.” The panelists, Bruce Price, MD, Francis X. Shen, JD, PhD, and Rebecca Brendel, JD, MD, elucidated the problems, as well as potential solutions, to the challenges of America’s judiciary and elected politicians getting older. Reconciling dementia with democracy is a pressing matter. As Dr. Price explained, age is the single largest risk factor for dementia, a risk that doubles every five years after the age of 65, and America is a country with five of the nine Supreme Court Justices over the age of 67, a 71-year-old president, a 75-year-old Senate Majority Leader, and a 77-year-old House Minority Leader.

In his talk “Dementia in Judges and Elected Officials: Challenges and Solutions,” Dr. Shen defined the complex problem. While most other jobs are not retaining workers into old age, many judges and elected officials continue to serve well into their 80s. To complicate matters further, without widespread regulations or metrics to identify how dementia impedes one’s work, the media assumes the position of speculating the cognitive statuses and fates of judges and elected officials. Dr. Shen’s key point was, “Surely we can do better than speculation.”

Dr. Shen proposed several solutions to address dementia in elected officials and judges. Currently, we leave the open market and colleagues to regulate individuals, which remains a valid approach as we consider other options. Another default position is to diagnose based on publicly available data, a solution that introduces the specific ethical concerns that Dr. Brendel addressed in her talk (discussed below). There are, however, novel solutions. We could consider requiring cognitive testing and disclosure (which could be overseen by an internal review board), or we could simply impose an age limit for service. For judges, if such an age limit were imposed, we could create a rebuttable presumption in which a judge can continue to serve by completing an evaluation. Alternatively, perhaps judges can be limited to adjudicating specific cases based on their cognitive status.

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Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians

Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians
November 15, 2017 12:00 PM
Pound Hall, Room 102
Harvard Law School, 1563 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Our judiciary and our elected officials are getting old. Five of the nine Supreme Court Justices are 67 or older, with two over age 80. The President is 71, the Senate Majority Leader is 75, and the House Minority Leader is 77. Does the public have a right to know whether these officials have been screened for dementia? If the individuals don’t self-report their dementia status, should experts continue to adhere to the “Goldwater Rule” and refrain from offering an armchair diagnosis? As the nation reflects on its midterm elections, and prepares for the 2020 election cycle, these questions are timely and challenging.

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Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians

Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians
November 15, 2017 12:00 PM
Pound Hall, Room 102
Harvard Law School, 1563 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Our judiciary and our elected officials are getting old. Five of the nine Supreme Court Justices are 67 or older, with two over age 80. The President is 71, the Senate Majority Leader is 75, and the House Minority Leader is 77. Does the public have a right to know whether these officials have been screened for dementia? If the individuals don’t self-report their dementia status, should experts continue to adhere to the “Goldwater Rule” and refrain from offering an armchair diagnosis? As the nation reflects on its midterm elections, and prepares for the 2020 election cycle, these questions are timely and challenging.

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Instagram and the Regulation of Eating Disorder Communities

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

I’m sure not how much time the average health law enthusiast spends on Instagram, but as a rare opportunity to see health regulation in real-time, I’d encourage logging onto the site, which curates content based on user profiles and by tags, and searching for the following tags; #thinspo, #thighgap, and #eatingdisorder. The site will either return no results, or will present the searcher with a warning message that “Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death” and encouraging the user to reach out for help, though the flagged content is still accessible if the user clicks-through. #thinspo (short for another neologism, ‘thinspiration’) is exactly what it sounds like – images designed to inspire an individual to restrict their diet, and exercise to attain what will generally be an underweight physique. Many social media sites have enacted similar bans on content as a reaction to the role that online communities can play in promoting eating disorders.

As a suite of illnesses, eating disorders have severe, and sometimes life-threatening medical complications. Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of all psychiatric illnesses; bulimia carries severe medical complications associated with starvation and purging including bone disease, heart complications, digestive tract distress, and even infertility, and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) while carrying subclinical status in DMS-IV, carries similar levels of eating pathology and general psychopathology to anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder, and a similar degree of danger to physical health to anorexia. Instagram had been criticised for its inaction in the face of an explosion of pro-eating disorder community activity on its site after Tumblr and Pinterest enacted bans on ‘thinspiration’ content, at which point many users migrated to Instagram’s platform. Five years on from the initial ban, some terms, like #starve and #purge will display the above warning message; other obvious tags for the pro-eating disorder community, like #skinnyinspiration and #thinspire attract no warning message and display images of emaciated women, romanticizations of eating disorders, images of individuals destroying food, and in line with clinical understandings of how eating disorders manifest themselves, images of self harm.

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“Siri, Should Robots Give Care?”

By Gali Katznelson

Having finally watched the movie Her, I may very well be committing the “Hollywood Scenarios” deadly sin by embarking on this post. This is one of the seven deadly sins of people who sensationalize artificial intelligence (AI), proposed by Rodney Brooks, former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. Alas, without spoiling the movie Her (you should watch it), it’s easy for me to conceptualize a world in which machines can be trained to mimic a caring relationship and provide emotional support. This is because, in some ways, it’s already happening.

There are the familiar voice assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, to which people may be turning for health support. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016 found that that the responses of smartphone assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Samsung’s S Voice to mental and physical health concerns were often inadequate. Telling Siri about sexual abuse elicited the response, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘I was raped.’” Telling Samsung’s S Voice you wanted to commit suicide led to the perhaps not-so-sensitive response, “Don’t you dare hurt yourself.” This technology proved far from perfect in providing salient guidance. However, since this study came out over a year ago, programmers behind Siri and S Voice have remedied these issues by providing more appropriate responses, such as counseling hotline information.

An AI specifically trained to provide helpful responses to mental health issues is Tess, “a psychological AI that administers highly personalized psychotherapy, psycho-education, and health-related reminders, on-demand, when and where the mental health professional isn’t.” X2AI, the company behind Tess, is in the process of finalizing an official Board of Ethics, and for good reason. The ethical considerations of an artificially intelligent therapist are rampant, from privacy and security issues to the potential for delivering misguided information that could cost lives. Continue reading

The State of Care in Mental Health Services in England 2014-2017

By John Tingle

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) is the independent regulator of health and adult social care in England. They have recently published a report of inspections on specialist mental health services. The  report is very thorough and detailed and reveals both good and bad practices. When reading the report however the poor practices identified eclipse the good ones.

Patient safety concerns

Concerns about patient safety are a constant and overarching theme in the report. The CQC biggest concern in this care area is patient safety:

“For both NHS and independent mental health services overall, and for eight of the 11 core services, safe was the key question that we most often rated as requires improvement or inadequate. At 31 May 2017, 36% of NHS core services and 34% of independent core services were rated as requires improvement for safe; a further 4% of NHS core services and 5% of independent core services were rated as inadequate for safe “(29).

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Vicarious Traumatization in the Wake of Community Violence: Healing the Helpers

This post is part of a series “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond,” based on an event of the same name hosted at Harvard Law School in April 2017. Background on the series and links to other blog posts are here.

By Michelle Bosquet Enlow, PhD

depression_slideWhen a horrific violent event occurs, the community’s thoughts and efforts to help naturally extend out to the injured and traumatized survivors and the loved ones of those killed. However, the effects of such traumatic events ripple out beyond those so directly impacted. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), the definition of trauma includes not only direct exposure to actual or threatened death or serious injury, but also witnessing such an event or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of such an event. Under this more comprehensive definition, the circle of affected individuals in the wake of community violence widens to include professionals and community leaders who are tasked with tending to the safety, medical, emotional, instrumental, and spiritual needs of those wounded. These “helpers” include first responders (e.g., police officers, emergency medical technicians), medical and mental health professionals, case workers, and religious leaders. Continue reading

Newtown: A Public Health Law Perspective

This post is part of a series “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond,” based on an event of the same name hosted at Harvard Law School in April 2017. Background on the series and links to other blog posts are here.

By Wendy E. Parmet

No man is an island

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main

—John Donne, 1624

Like John Donne’s famous Meditation XVII, Newtown, Kim Snyder’s documentary about the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, forces us to reflect on the inter-connectedness of human life. As Newtown shows with power and poignancy, the victims of that awful massacre were not islands. They were a part of a continent comprised of their families, friends, community, and indeed, all who recall the awful day they were killed.

parmet-chartThis inescapable reality, that our lives and deaths can affect and even traumatize others, is perhaps sufficient to proclaim that gun violence is a public health problem. None of the over 30,000 Americans who die each year from gun violence (most by suicide), are islands. Nor are any of the over 78,000 Americans who are injured by firearms. All are part of the continent. Gun violence affects us all.

But gun violence is a public health problem for another, equally important reason. As with other public health problems, from obesity to HIV/AIDS, the risk that individuals face with respect to firearms is influenced significantly by factors that lie outside their own control. This is not simply because the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre did nothing, and could do nothing, to cause their own death. It is also because different populations face different levels of risk. Race, age, income, gender, geography and a host of other variables determine one’s risk of dying or being injured by firearms.  Continue reading

Newtown: A Story of Collective Grief and Trauma

This post is part of a series “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond,” based on an event of the same name hosted at Harvard Law School in April 2017. Background on the series and links to other blog posts are here

By Kim Snyder, Director and Producer of Newtown

We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another. – Mario M. Cuomo

newtown_sign_flags_webWhen I first landed in Newtown over four years ago following the horrific tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was drawn first and foremost to a story of collective grief and trauma. Seeing the story in the larger context of commentary on America’s problem with gun violence came later. My producing partner, Maria Cuomo Cole, and I both felt we hadn’t seen a documentary that chronicled the long tail of collective trauma for years out, after the cameras had left. We also hadn’t seen this story told from the perspective of an entire town. It is important to note that Newtown is a community of 28,000 people, and the vision of the film sought to represent a sample of voices from various sub-communities. Over the course of the next three to four years, we built trust with members of the Newtown community and explored the trajectory of collective trauma and resilience as it reverberated throughout Newtown and beyond. Not surprisingly, survival guilt was a pervasive theme that emerged. Through the perspectives of multiple sub-communities of the town—the educators, first responders, medical providers, clergy, neighbors, and youth—we came to observe a journey of fracture, isolation, and repair as this courageous community struggled to survive in the aftermath of the unthinkable.  Continue reading

Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond

This post is part of a series “Healing in the Wake of Community Violence: Lessons from Newtown and Beyond,” based on an event of the same name hosted at Harvard Law School in April 2017. Background on the series and links to other blog posts are here.

By Cristine Hutchison-Jones, PhD

Community members gather at a memorial service after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Still from the documentary Newtown.

Community members gather at a memorial service after the Sandy Hook school shooting. Still from the documentary Newtown.

On June 12, 2016, an armed man walked into the Pulse night club—a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, packed with patrons enjoying Latin night—and opened fire. By the time the police shot the gunman three hours later, he had killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others in the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in American history.

As we mark today’s anniversary, the news is awash with stories of the way the shooting continues to impact people a year later. Much of the coverage—then and now—has rightfully focused on those most directly affected: the victims and their loved ones, and the LGBTQ and Latinx communities who were targeted and disproportionately impacted by the attack. But amidst the coverage of survivors and their loved ones, some stories are taking a step back to look at the broader impact. This is in keeping with a recent trend to discuss the lasting effects of incidents of mass violence on the wider community. Today’s coverage of the Pulse night club shooting includes stories that focus on the EMTs, police officers, and health care workers who were first on the scene and treated victims in the immediate aftermath of the attack, and on the impact of secondary trauma in their lives. Continue reading

Negligent Failure to Prevent Suicide in the Age of Facebook Live

By Shailin Thomas

In 2016, Facebook unveiled a new tool that allows users to post live streams of video directly from their phones to the social media platform. This feature — known as “Facebook Live” — allows friends and followers to watch a user’s videos  as she films them. Originally conceptualized as a means of sharing experiences like concerts or vacations in real time, the platform was quickly adopted for uses Facebook likely didn’t see coming. In 2016, Lavish Reynolds used Facebook Live to document the killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by the Minneapolis police, sparking a national debate surrounding police brutality and racial disparities in law enforcement. Recently, another use for Facebook Live has arisen — one that Facebook neither foresaw nor wants: people have been using Facebook Live as a means of broadcasting their suicides.

This tragic adaptation of the Facebook Live feature has put Facebook in a tough spot. It wants to prevent the suicides its platform is being used to document — and just a few weeks ago it rolled out real-time tools viewers of Live videos can use to identify and reach out to possible suicide victims while they’re filming — but it’s often too late by the time the video feed is live. Accordingly, Facebook is focusing its efforts at identifying those at risk of suicide before the situation becomes emergent. It currently has teams designing artificial intelligence algorithms for identifying users who may be at risk for suicide. These tools would scan Facebook users’ content, flagging individuals that have warning signs of self-harm or suicide in their posts.

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