01Jul/15

What is this black Spider-Man?

Four years ago this summer, a new Spider-Man appeared in Marvel Comics. His name is Miles Morales and he is a half-black, half-Puerto Rican 13-year old from Brooklyn. This new Spider-Man was immediately met with vitriol from reactionary idealogues (here’s a clip from Glenn Beck’s radio show), and more than a few complained about Marvel’s left-wing turn. A lot of irritated fans complained on message boards that this was a publicity stunt or just another way for Marvel to go politically correct. The publicity stunt charges are fair – comics all too often announce big changes in classic characters and then reverse them a  year or two later after the surge in sales dries up. Unlike the momentary changes to the status quo from the temporary deaths of other superheroes or their short-term replacements, this new Spider-Man has remained, and now he is going completely mainstream.

A little background first…(if you don’t have it in you to read 3 paragraphs on the history of comics and Spider-Man, then just skip to the last paragraph)

Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for Marvel Comics in 1962. He’s the most recognizable of all the Marvel characters, and his alter-ego Peter Parker is one of the most developed in all of comics. By the time I picked up comics in the mid-80′s, Marvel’s heroes had been around for over 20 years. In order to deeply follow the stories, I had to read and learn the histories of all of them. The stories build on each other, year after year, decade after decade. This is called “continuity” by the devout (on the flipside, critics have stated that continuity makes it difficult for the new or casual reader to pick up comics). DC Comics handles the problem of continuity by blowing up its universe every 25 years and rebooting (1986 was the biggest one). Marvel has remained adamant that everything that has been published since 1962 is (more or less) canon.

In 2000, amidst sagging sales and claims that comics were a dying form of entertainment, Marvel hired Rutgers alumnus (and history major) Bill Jemas as its new president. He argued that the medium was fine and that the stories were either bad or hard to follow (a great exchange from the history of Marvel: “I have a law degree from Harvard. If I can’t follow a story, it’s not my problem”). He hired a bunch of new writers who had made their bones in independent comics and he helped usher in the Ultimate Universe, where the biggest Marvel icons were rebooted with their origins taking place in the year 2000: X-Men, Fantastic Four, Avengers and Spider-Man. Brian Michael Bendis was tasked with writing Ultimate Spider-Man.

Mr. Bendis has written Ultimate Spider-Man for 15 years (if you want to get a smart young person into comics, go with the first volume of this series). In 2011, he wrote the gut-wrenching death of Peter Parker. A few months later, Miles Morales arrived. He became Spider-Man after being bit by a radioactive spider that escaped from a reverse-engineering experiment in Norman Osborn’s lab. Miles, like Peter before him, is a great kid. He wants to do the right thing. He’s confused, and only has a few people that he can talk to and rely on. His father hates superheroes, his mother just wants him to make it, and his best friend is a Ganke, chubby Asian kid (who, at the age of 13, still plays with legos). Ganke is a friend worthy of Horatio.

Miles is a wonderful human-being and a fabulous character. We get to watch him struggle and grow. I don’t think of him as a bi-racial superhero, but rather a superhero who happens to be bi-racial. More significantly, all of those aforementioned critics and fans were wrong about the motivations behind the creation of Miles Morales. This recent interview on NPR with Brian Michale Bendis sums it up:

Bendis tells NPR’s Arun Rath that being a part of this shift in the comics universe has been a personal journey as well; two of his four children are adopted, one African and one African-American.

“You realize from a first seat that your kids do not have the same representation and things available to them as I did,” Bendis says. “It’s not like I stood up and said ‘I’m going to be more diverse in my writing,’ you just become more diverse because you realize things are needed.”

Adhering to a famed Spider-Man adage — “With great power comes great responsibility” — Bendis says that with the stage he has at Marvel, it’s partly his responsibility to create work that represents what he thinks the world should look like.

23Jun/15

The Legislative History of the Nasty Fight to Get Insurance Companies to Pay for Mental Health and Addiction Treatment

 

There is an interesting bill before Congress right now that attempts to address a number of issues regarding addiction and recovery that I believe make a great deal of sense. It is both forward thinking and comprehensive, but it does not address what I view to be the biggest issue facing addiction treatment and recovery support in this country – the reluctance of insurance companies to pay for addiction treatment. This is not the fault of the lawmakers and policy wonks who wrote this bill, but rather the failure to implement and enforce the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 and the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Each act attempted to address the fact that insurance companies either  (a) do not pay for mental health and/or addiction treatment or  (b) pay for treatment but to a much lesser extent than other illnesses.

Since I chaired the Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiates in 2012, I have heard from at least one parent a week of a young person who died – all of the stories are heart wrenching and a number of the deaths were because the patient was either discharged from treatment too early when insurance ran out or they never could get treatment paid for by their insurance companies in the first place. I spent the last four years working on a Masters in Public Policy in my spare time, and all my work for one class was devoted to the history and implementation of the aforementioned bills.

Both papers are well over 20 pages long. If you are interested in this kind of minutia, you can find both the history and the implementation paper on the policy section of my site (click here). For those of you that want an executive summary, read on.

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Third-party payers (including insurance companies) began to pay for mental health treatment after World War II . At that time, people either (a) were treated at in-patient mental health hospitals that were run for and paid for by the state or (b) rarely got treatment. The late 1950’s through the mid-1970’s brought a period of deinstitutionalization, which involved the closing of in-patient mental health hospitals and sending patients to community mental health centers. Deinstitutionalization caused a rise in third-party payments for treatment and a resultant restriction on services. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy forced the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) to cover mental health treatment with the same level that physical medical care was covered. Federal employees enjoyed this unique benefit until 1975, when it was severely cut back.
The first major national law that set aside funds for addiction treatment was the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. It was championed by Senator Harold Hughes, passed by the 91st Congress and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. Senator Hughes was an Army veteran and a trucker who had a drinking problem and almost committed suicide in 1952. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and eventually went into politics. He created a treatment program for people with alcohol dependence while he has Governor of Iowa during the 1960’s. His willingness to talk about his own experiences and his work helping others moved other members of Congress and President Nixon into passing the CDAPCA . This would be the last major national legislation that addressed substance abuse treatment for a few decades.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s and early 1990’s, a number of state legislatures made attempts to address parity by creating minimum benefits for mental health (17 states), drug treatment (24 states) and alcoholism (37 states). In 1992, Senator John Danforth (R-MO) and Senator Domenici introduced the first bill that proposed mental health parity. It did not go anywhere, but their ideas were co-opted by President William J. Clinton into his health care plan in 1993-94 . President Clinton’s health care policy would eventually fail to pass as well. In 1995 Senator Domenici partnered with Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MIN) to craft a wide-ranging parity bill and attach it to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The Congressional Budget Office reported that the bill would add costs of 4% to private health plans. The bill died.

The Mental Health Parity Act (MPA) of 1996 was introduced and championed by Senators Domenici and Wellstone. It was both a political and a personal issue for them, as Senator Domenici’s daughter lived with schizophrenia and Senator Wellstone’s brother had been hospitalized for depression for two years in college. After much debate and negotiation, a very limited bill was passed that did not mandate mental health coverage (and did not address substance abuse coverage at all). A disappointed but resolute Senator Wellstone acknowledged that it was just a “first step” toward full parity.

Over the next twelve years, the battle for parity was taken up by grass roots organizations such as the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill (NAMI), governmental research organizations like the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), professional organizations including the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) , as well as a new generation of politicians including Representatives Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and Jim Ramstad (R-MN), both of whom were public about being recovering alcoholics .

A common refrain argued by those that opposed parity was that it would drive up costs. Those opponents included insurance companies and employer groups, and they were able to defeat a couple of lesser attempts at expanding parity with the rejection of the Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act (MHETA) of 2001 and again in 2002. Undaunted, parity advocates pushed for more and better research and eventually the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a report that took into account the effects of managed care and showed that parity did not lead to an increase in health care costs.

This (and other) research combined with the public testimony of the personal experiences of Senator Domenici, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Representatives Kennedy and Ramstad, and a collapsing economy in the fall of 2008 were able to get the Mental Health and Addiction Parity Act (MHPAEA) passed by the 110th Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush as a rider on the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. “The MHPAEA prohibited differences in treatment limits, cost sharing, and in- and out- of network coverage. It also applied to the treatment of substance disorders, which the MHPA did not address.”

It was hailed as a major victory by parity advocates. And then it got bogged down in the rule-making process. Despite leaving public office at the end of 2010, Patrick Kennedy has continued to advocate for parity. In October of 2013, he announced a new collaboration of stakeholders, political figures and experts called the Kennedy Forum. In a speech before the Senate on November 7, 2013, he lamented the delays of the previous five years:

Five years ago, when my father and I sponsored the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) and shepherded it through the House and Senate, we thought its signing by President Bush was the end of a process. In fact, it was barely the beginning… Just to recap, MHPAEA was passed and signed into law on October 3, 2008, and its provisions became effective exactly one year later. Many insurance plans follow the calendar year; the effective date for them was January 1, 2010. The Interim Final Rule for MHPAEA was issued on February 2, 2010, effective April 5, 2010, and applicable to plans beginning on or after July 1, 2010. We have been waiting for the Final Rule ever since then – over three years.

It has been 6 ½ years since the MHPAEA was signed into law by President Bush, 5 ½ years since it became an active law, 5 years since the Interim Final Rules were released and 1 ½ since the Final Rules were published. The lag between the signing of the law and the release of the final rules led to a prolonged period of murkiness. Additionally, the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the antipathy of the post-2010-election Republican dominated House of Representatives towards the ACA, and the two year wait until the Supreme Court issued its decision upholding the ACA added to the confusion regarding parity. Employer groups and insurance companies sometimes used these lags, legislative turmoil and legal battles to delay implementation of parity. That said, some of them have offered assistance to the public. In order to help providers and consumers understand this complex law and its constant updates, insurance companies like Aetna and advocacy organizations such as NAMI have posted instructions and frequently asked question pages.

The future of parity can probably be best summed up by an exchange that took place at a panel discussion at the 2014 annual conference of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA). The panel was on the Governor’s Task Force on Heroin and Opiate’s report, but a number of questions were asked about parity. The following conversation took place between an Executive Director of a hospital based in-patient mental health program and Dr. Louis Baxter, the past-president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM – he is also my friend):
ED: Will the Affordable Care Act actually ensure that insurance companies pay for the treatment of my patients?
Dr. Baxter: Yes.
ED: Multiple insurance companies are continuing to deny coverage, despite the fact that I have a number of well-regarded licensed professionals that have fully documented why our patients need treatment.
Dr. Baxter: I know. It is unfortunate. The delays and lack of instruction from the feds encouraged the insurance companies to drag their feet. But the law is there and they must obey.
ED: They are not…
Dr. Baxter: (interrupting) I know. I know what you are going to say. They are still not paying. They are denying claims. They are clearly violating the Parity Act and the Affordable Care Act. The answer is a combination of litigation and enforcement. A number of consumers and providers will have to sue insurance companies in order to get them to follow the laws.
ED: (interrupting) That could take years.
Dr. Baxter: Yes, probably five or so. But the insurance companies will lose and the government will do a better job of enforcing it. It’s a process. A long one. I know that this is discouraging folks, but parity will happen. It will just require the great American tradition of litigation.

As in the cases of other rule making, implementation will depend upon litigation (that happens to be the case with most rule-making; it’s true of stream pollution and other environmental and ecological violations, although in many of those cases the suit is brought by state and federal agencies). In the matter of health care it’s the individual who has been slighted that is going to have to sue. That places an unfair burden on the individual, but that has been the case before, during and after the parity law movement.

 

18Jun/15

What is Synthetic Weed? What is Synthetic Marijuana? What is K2? What is Spice?

Synthetic marijuana is in the news again, as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report that calls to US poison control centers regarding negative reactions to the drug increased by 229% from the first half of 2014 to the first half of 2015. Newsweek also reported that 15 people have died in 2015 as a direct result of using synthetic marijuana, which is triple the number from the previous year.

Since 2007, I have been asked “what is synthetic marijuana?” and “what is K2?” and “what is spice?” They are different names for the same chemical group, which acts like marijuana but is sprayed on flora to make this new drug. Just like marijuana, it is smoked. It has some similar effects, including the much desired psycho-tropic euphoria. According to the CDC, the most commonly reported negative side effects are: agitation, tachycardia (rapid heartbeats, which people sometimes freak out over and then they go clog up the emergency room), drowsiness or lethargy, vomiting, and confusion.  I began training people on this in 2009, and in addition to the aforementioned names, I have discovered that it also goes by: Pep Spice, Spice Gold, Spice Silver, Sence, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Orange Dragon Smoke, Black Mamba, RedX Dawn, Zohai, Mr. Nice Guy, Bayou Blaster, Euphoria, Home Spice, Ultra Cloud Ten, and Genie.

The original chemical formula was created by John W. Huffman, a chemist from Clemson University. He was doing research on marijuana that was funded by NIDA and when he created the new compound, he named it after himself: JWH-018. It was introduced in America in the early 2000′s, and was sold in bodegas, gas stations and head shops. It became particularly popular with people who were regularly drug tested (people on probation, some athletes), as it took a few years before a urine screen was developed to detect it. For several years, it was sold in packages as incense with a message on it that read “not for human consumption.” This allowed the burgeoning industry to evade FDA detection for a little bit and shrug their shoulders and say they were shocked when people were ingesting it (no company has openly manufactured it, so I think the “shocked” clip works well when juxtaposed with “not for human consumption,” because it is absolutely made for human consumption).

Because it was legal and easily accessible, use in the late 2000′s and early 2010′s skyrocketed. The FDA acted swiftly and put a temporary ban in place on the 5 most common synthetic marijuana compounds on March 1, 2011. One year later, a full federal ban was enacted and it was made a schedule I drug (highly addictive, no medical value, completely illegal) in July of 2012.

Early on, a number of other countries banned it, including (but not limited to) the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Chile, New Zealand, Japan, and Romania. Surprisingly, synthetic marijuana has not been outlawed in Canada. It has been pushed out of the head shops, but it can easily be found on the internet. A harrowing tale of a professional couple’s addiction to the drug made headlines this past March in Edmonton.

A 2012 Federal Survey reported that 1 in 9 high school seniors had tried it, making it the fourth most familiar substance in high school after tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. Use went down significantly after the federal ban, but over the last two years it has been making a comeback. It was very much in the news in NJ in March of 2013, as a car with 16 pounds of synthetic marijuana was pulled over in Hunterdon County, a 17 year-old from New Providence was hospitalized after using it, and Governor Christie signed a bill into law that gave harsh penalties to those that manufacture or sell it.

I have provided a few images below.

Synthetic marijuana is packaged in a way to appeal to a younger crowd.

 

http://wkrg.images.worldnow.com/images/7553983_G.jpg

Clearly, this image appeals to both young people and the stoner crowd.

It’s basically flora that is sprayed with a chemical. Synthetic marijuana can be composed of almost any vegetation, as long as it has the chemical spray on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18Jun/15

Yale University Fixes a 53-Year Old Mistake and Returns to Alcohol Research & Policy

Yale Medical School issued a press release yesterday about the opening of a new addiction research and policy center:

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia), a leading national organization whose mission is to educate the public and improve the prevention and treatment of addiction, has partnered with Yale School of Medicine and Yale School of Public Health to form a new addiction research and policy center based in New Haven. The Yale–CASA center-of-excellence will expand critically important work to shape public policy, disseminate evidence-based practices, and educate families, providers, and policymakers.

It’s good news, and it was very smart of them to partner with Columbia, which has been one of the universities at the forefront on these issues. The ironic aspect of this is that they once had the premier alcohol research center in the country. This history is provided from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies history page:

The Center of Alcohol Studies is the first interdisciplinary research center devoted to alcohol use and alcohol-related problems and treatment. Evolving in the late 1930s and 1940s at the Yale University Laboratory of Applied Physiology and Biodynamics, which was directed by Yale physician Howard W. Haggard, the Section on Alcohol Studies, headed by E.M. Jellinek, pursued studies of the effects of alcohol on the body, which broadened into a wide perspective of alcohol-related problems. The increasing demand for information about alcoholism led the Center to found the Summer School of Alcohol Studies in 1943. In 1944, the Center also began the Yale Plan Clinics, the first ever outpatient facilities for the treatment of alcoholism. The Yale Plan for Business and Industry, forerunner of current-day employee assistance programs, also began in the mid-1940s, in response to requests from business and industry having to cope with employment shortages during World War II. Another of Dr. Haggard’s contributions to the field was the founding of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol in 1940. Today the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs remains a foremost journal in the field and is one of the top ten most cited substance-abuse journals.

The Center of Alcohol Studies was the leader of the movement to recognize alcoholism as a major public health problem and to have the American Medical Association accept alcoholism as a treatable illness, a policy it formally adopted in the 1950s.

And then in 1962 the Center of Alcohol Studies left Yale and moved to Rutgers. Over the last 17 years, multiple sources have told me that by the early 1960′s Yale had decided that it was beneath them to be in Alcohol Studies. Fortunately, my alma mater was willing to adopt it (full disclosure: I took courses at the Summer School of Alcohol Studies from 1998 through 2007 and I began working there as an instructor in 2008. This summer, I will teach two courses there).

I am glad that Yale made such an egregious error all of those years ago, because the Center of Alcohol Studies (CAS) helped shape the course of my career. Back in 1998, Gail Milgrim (who was in the middle of a 30-year run as the Director of the Education and Training Program), gave me a scholarship to attend the summer school and said, “I think you’d be good in this field.” It hasn’t only helped me though – thousands upon thousands of professionals have been trained by their faculty and CAS is the acknowledged leader in the alcohol research field.

Yale has finally seen the error of their ways. Kudos.

11Jun/15

Alcoholics Anonymous Turns 80…But Not Today

AOL (they still exist…I have an email account to prove it) congratulated AA for turning 80 today. In fact, the day that is celebrated as Founder’s Day (June 10) each year by grateful alcoholics is not actually the day AA was created. Bill Wilson (a New York stockbroker) and Dr. Bob Smith (an Akron doctor) met on May 12, 1935 and they discussed their drinking problems with each other. Both left that meeting feeling connected to someone else and hopeful that they could remain abstinent from booze. I view that as the first AA meeting and that date as the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Most people, including Alcohol Anonymous World Services, go with June 10, 1935, which is the last day that Dr. Bob drank. From their website:

Dr. Bob lapses into drinking again but quickly recovers. The day widely known as the date of Dr. Bob’s last drink, June 10, 1935, is celebrated as the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dr. Bob and Bill spend hours working out the best approach to alcoholics, a group known to be averse to taking directions. Realizing that thinking of sobriety for a day at a time makes it seem more achievable than facing a lifetime of struggle, they hit on the twenty-four hour concept.

But it turns out that his last drink wasn’t June 10 but rather one week later on June 17. After his initial meeting with Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob was able to put a few weeks of continuous sobriety together. He felt so good that he decided to attend the AMA (American Medical Association) Conference in Atlantic City that June. His wife was concerned, but he assured her he would be fine (early recovery people are so similar). This site provides the rest of the story:

That is, until he boarded the train to Atlantic City. Once on the train Dr. Bob began to drink in earnest. He drank all the way to Atlantic City, purchased more bottles prior to checking in to the hotel. That was on a Sunday evening. Dr. Bob stayed sober on Monday until after dinner. He then resumed his drinking. Upon awakening Tuesday morning his drinking continued until noon. He then realized that he was about to disgrace himself by showing up at the convention drunk. He decided to check out of the hotel and return home. He purchased more alcohol on the way to the train depot. He waited for the train for a long time and continued to drink. That was all he remembered until waking up in the home of his office nurse and her husband back in Ohio.

Dr. Bob’s blackout lasted over 24 hours. There was a five-day period from when Dr. Bob left for the convention to when the nurse called Anne and Bill. They took Dr. Bob home and put him to bed. The detoxification process began once again. That process usually lasted three days according to Bill. They tapered Dr. Bob off of alcohol and fed him a diet of sauerkraut, tomato juice and Karo Syrup.

Bill had remembered that in three days, Dr. Bob was scheduled to perform surgery. On the day of the surgery, Dr. Bob had recovered sufficiently to go to work. In order to insure the steadiness of Dr. Bob’s hands during the operation Bill gave him a bottle of beer. That was to be Dr. Bob’s last drink and the “official” Founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous. The operation was a success and Dr. Bob did not return home right after it. Both Bill and Anne were concerned to say the least. They later found out, after Dr. Bob had returned, that he was out making amends. Not drunk as they may have surmised, but happy and sober. That date according to the AA literature was June 10, 1935.

The Archives of the American Medical Association reportedly show that their convention in Atlantic City, in the year 1935 did not start until June 10th. How could Dr. Bob have gone to the convention, by train – check into a hotel – attend the convention on Monday – check out on Tuesday – be in a blackout for 24 hours – go through a three -day detoxification – perform surgery on the day of his last drink – June 10, 1935? Five days had passed since Dr. Bob left for the convention and returned to Akron. There was the three-day detoxification process and then there was the day of the surgery. Approximately nine days had passed from when he left and the date of his last drink. If the records of the American Medical Association are in error as to the date of their convention it is possible that June 10, 1935 was the date of Dr. Bob’s last drink. If the records are in error, the 1935 convention would have been the only one in the history of the American Medical Association that was listed with the wrong date.

I quit the debating society over a decade ago, but I am a history buff and I think it is important that facts be correct. From my viewpoint, AA started on May 12, 1935. If you and yours think that AA started on Dr. Bob’s last drink, then it is June 17, 1935. Regardless of your belief, it is not June 10, 1935.

07Jun/15

Female Leads in Comic Books Might Help to Change Our Culture

I’ve been reading comics since the early 1980′s (and I haven’t stopped, except for a brief pause during some lost years in the 1990′s). Growing up, the female characters in comics were all pretty sexy with wonderful come-hither looks (you really should click on this). Even Batman’s female villains were all pretty buxom (enjoy). The few girls in my school that were interested in superheroes all worshiped Wonder Woman, who pretty much just looks like a stripper in Captain America panties (I prefer Woman Woman to be heavily armored and quite violent). I know, she’s iconic. I’m not looking to get into a flame war.

Clearly, art has reflected our culture.

Research reports teachers (despite being overwhelmingly female) tend to call on and interact with boys more than girls. By the time they are teenagers, girls (either consciously or unconsciously) begin to play down their intelligence. This leads to the unfortunate belief by many people that girls are not as smart as boys. In college, despite making up a majority of the student body, women make up less than 40% of student government. Don’t even get me started on Halloween costumes.

In the internet era, the vitriol directed at women who assert themselves can be vicious and disgusting. Women who work full-time earn 70, or 77, or 85 cents for every dollar that men who work full-time make (there is a fight over those statistics, but people generally agree that there is a gender pay gap). Only 24 women head a Fortune 500 company (4.8%). All of these statistics are worse for women of color. The secondization of women is also reflected in our films. In the top 100 grossing movies of 2014, only 12% of the protagonists were females (it was 15% in 2013).

But while these statistics are disheartening, no one can deny that circumstances are better for women now than they’ve ever been before in human history. We are seeing an upward trajectory. This has also been reflected in comics since 2000. We are living in a golden age of strong female protagonists. These are characters that are so well-rounded and interesting that they not only appeal to women, but they appeal to men (they’re still pretty good looking, but at least they have a lot more to offer now).

In 2000, Maryjane Satrapi’s Persepolis was released. Written and illustrated by Ms. Satrapi, it is an absolute literary classic that details the author’s childhood in Tehran and her education in France. Her family were well educated, semi-secular Muslims living under a fairly oppressive regime in Iran. It’s a coming of age story that is easily one of my 10 favorite comics.

Also in 2000, Brian Michael Bendis introduced us to Deena Pilgrim, a smart, young detective who investigates super-powered related crimes (she has a dirty mouth…not sexually dirty, just nasty). While Ms. Pilgrim is not really a role model, she doesn’t have to be. But she’s interesting, and that was a welcome change. Other characters followed. In 2002, Bill Willingham began a multi-award winning series called Fables. One of the main characters is Snow White. She is smart, hardworking and fierce and I will miss her character when the series ends this summer.

In 2007, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was released (it was made into a Broadway play this year). It’s an autobiographical story about Ms. Bechdel’s childhood, education, family and especially her relationship with her father, a closeted gay English teacher from central Pennsylvania. It was a finalist for the National Circle Book Critics Award and in 2010 the LA Times named it as one of the 20 classics of gay literature.

Marvel made headlines over two years ago with the introduction of Ms. Marvel, a teenage girl of Pakistani decent who lives in Jersey City. It is written by G Willow Wilson, and while it is not a book that I read (I read the first story arc), I am very happy that it exists. It is in the news again because of a controversy, but that should help add a few readers and drive sales for a bit.

The last few years has seen an introduction of a number of glorious characters. They include Velvet, Lazarus, Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman, Scott Snyder’s Pearl Jones, and Saga’s Alana. These aren’t forced attempts at being PC or grabbing new market shares, but instead quality characters in good stories.

This is progress. It is a signal that our culture has changed and is changing. I believe these characters will influence men and women to look at females more progressively, and that our culture will reflect our art.

Alana from Saga, illustrated by Fiona Staples

 

 

05Jun/15

Gov. Christie Does Some Good

I’ve been introduced in a few articles over the last 18 months as a “frequent critic of Governor Christie” and I have not pulled any punches when he over-trumps a tiny success or refuses to fund programs that he claims to support.

Today his administration did something really good though.

“Gov. Chris Christie announced a deal on Thursday for law enforcement and other public agencies to get nearly 20 percent off the price of naloxone from California-based Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, Inc.”

Naloxone is an anti-overdose drug. Last fall, Amphastar doubled the price of it just as it was starting to be used on a widespread basis. Public health advocates were outraged and claimed it was a blatant money grab. NJ is the third state to negotiate a reduced rate for it. The Governor did not lead the way here, but he did do a good thing. Good work, Mr. Christie.

The full story can be read in this Associated Press report.

29May/15

The Unbridled Joy of Being a Mentor

When I was a kid, I liked being the center of attention and the star on the stage. As I approach middle age, I still enjoy my star turns, but I have found that I greatly enjoy seeing others learn, grow, achieve and thrive. On May 18th, I watched a pair of young men graduate from Rutgers Newark. I was at least, if not more, proud of them completing their degrees as I was of my own graduation from the school of public policy a few days earlier.

My mother taught English at Elizabeth High School from 1987 thru 1999. She would drive an hour each way to work. She loved teaching there and would tell me about her students. She brought me to the school several times during those years. As a teenager, I remember thinking it was very large, a bit run down and full of people that I almost never saw in Hunterdon County. At 5200+ kids, it was the largest high school in America. Forty-six (46!) languages are spoken by students there. It serves a poor, high-minority and largely immigrant population. In the fall of 2006, I began working there as an English teacher (after I finished my MSW in the spring of 2006, there were only two districts that I was interested to teach in – Elizabeth and New Brunswick).

That fall, I had two freshmen classes and one junior class. I taught the freshmen classes for 100 minutes each day. I began each class by playing music for them (Dylan, the Beatles, Beethoven, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Public Enemy) and having them write in their journals. I taught them poetry and had each class read about 10 books (I gave constant quizzes to ensure that they were reading). I also taught them about history (I’m a certified high school social studies teacher too). During that fall, I told my students that Scott Joplin died of syphilis. They asked me what that was. I was incredulous and inquired about their STI education. All three classes told me they had not received any – so, I spent a day on STI’s (and then included questions on them in a quiz). I also told my students about how I got into trouble as a kid, joined the Army, went to college, traveled the world, taught in Japan and how my friend died from addiction. I told them about my love of hiking and baseball. They teased me when the Vikings lost and would introduce me to new music. Every day was different and almost all of them were extremely rewarding.

2006-07 Freshmen AM English Class in Dwyer 212

2006-07 Freshmen AM English Class in Dwyer 212. Marvin and Waldys are 4th and 3rd from the right.

Marvin Pineda and Waldys Batista were two students in my freshmen morning class. They showed up early and stayed late. They did all of the assigned work, loads of extra credit and earned straight A+’s throughout the entire year. I taught them (and a few others) how to play croquet after school and on a few Saturdays (they really enjoyed sending me). Waldys would talk to me about his little brother, ask questions about the Yankees and generally served as an ideal role model for other students. He was perpetually calm and laughed at the silliness and zaniness that life threw at him. Marvin was equally bright but a bit more hot headed – he would get frustrated when he his peers weren’t as serious and he didn’t relish when I would correct him on attitude issues or on behaviors that he exhibited in other classes. Marvin was an absolute sponge – he wrote down everything I put down on the chalkboard and many of the things I said. He would spend his lunch period in my room – sometimes he did school work (if I was busy) or he would pepper me with questions about music, sports, English, history or my life. They were the kind of students a teacher dreams about having one time in their career, and I had two of them my very first year of teaching.

Originally, I had only planned on teaching at Elizabeth for one year. I worked as a drug counselor a few nights a week at Hunterdon Drug Awareness after school, but I knew I had to eventually find a full time counseling job in order to get my advanced counseling license (LCSW). Those plans changed when I found out that I would get to teach my two freshmen classes again as sophomores (again, for 100 minutes every day). I had the same 50+ students for a 2nd year, and that 2007-08 year was even more enjoyable than my first year. Waldys and Marvin continued to excel in my classroom, knock off A+’s and grow as writers and human beings. I hung my graduation gown from Rutgers in the front of the room and talked to all of my students about the importance of higher education. After his sophomore year, Waldys transferred to the Upper Academy of Elizabeth High School (basically the honors building) in order to better prepare for college. Marvin decided to stay at Dwyer House for a 3rd year (which would be my final one at EHS) and he took Journalism with me as an elective. Marvin told me about his family – how both of his parents worked two jobs and also served as the superintendents of the building they lived in. It was a grueling schedule that they did (and continue to do) for years in order to give their four children a shot at the American dream. When people ask me how I can work so many jobs or such long hours, I tell them that my schedule is easy compared to the parents of some of my former students (and I think of specifically of Marvin’s parents when I say it).

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Marvin, Waldys, Junot Diaz, myself and Jeremy Alba in the winter of 2008.

In the winter of 2008, Junot Diaz visited Rutgers. I had fallen in love with his writing after he won the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I taught all of my students about him and had them read a few short stories from Drown. Waldys, Marvin and a few other students met me at Rutgers Newark the night Mr. Diaz spoke. We hung around afterwards and got to meet with him for about a half hour and took a number of photos. He was extremely gracious and my students were star struck. I was thrilled that they were so excited to meet a writer.

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On the MET steps in June, 2009.

In the spring of 2009, I accepted a job at Rutgers as the new Recovery Counselor. They agreed to hire me part-time at first in order for me to finish the school year at Elizabeth (I will always be grateful to them for that). My last day at Elizabeth was in late June. I cried when I drove away from the school. The next day, I took Marvin, Waldys and Jeremy Alba to NYC to see the Public Library, Grand Central Station, Strawberry Fields and the Natural Museum of History. It was teaching, learning, mentoring and guiding in action. We laughed and joked and I answered the questions that I could. It was a wonderful day.

 

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2010 EHS Graduation

At Rutgers, I organized and attended about 150+ activities a year with students and alumni in recovery. Marvin and Waldys came along to a number of those activities, including hikes, plays, sporting events, speaking engagements and meals. Marvin transferred to the honors building for his senior year, and both he and Waldys did very well there. In June of 2010, I had the pleasure of attending their (and all of my other students’) high school graduation. A 2009 New York Times article reported that 53% of students in the largest 50 cities in America graduate high school in 4 years while that number jumps to 71% in the suburbs. My students not only graduated from high school, but they had done so against considerable odds.

My job at Rutgers required me to work 3 days in New Brunswick and 2 in Newark. Marvin and Waldys delighted me by enrolling at Rutgers Newark in the fall of 2010. I saw them several times a month and continued to involve them in activities with my other students. We still talked about the things we always talked about, but we also spoke more about girls, their friends’ substance use, their families, money and jobs. Both took a little while to adjust to the rigors of college coursework, but eventually they started doing well at Rutgers. There were hiccups: Marvin’s car was stolen, Waldys’ parents divorced, Marvin almost got married (ugh…that was brutal)…the list goes on. We spent time together and talked about these problems, and one way or another, things worked out. Sometimes they were embarrassed to tell me something, so they would wait a little bit or the other one would tell me what was going on. I introduced them to my friends and family, and many of them knew Marvin and Waldys by name. A few of my friends were particularly helpful with them, and for that I am also grateful.

IMG_7378On May 18, 2015, 9 years after I met them, I had the unbridled pleasure, pride and joy in watching Waldys Batista and Marvin Pineda graduate from college. Waldys graduated with a BS in Criminal Justice and Marvin with a BA in film. Waldys has been applying for jobs as a police officer both in and out of NJ. He’s a dream candidate – he’s smart, hardworking, even tempered, humble, bi-lingual and cares about people. Marvin has been working and interning in film and will continue to do so (all of the videos on my site were shot by him). His goal is do to well enough making educational documentaries so that he can help build schools in poor countries. Sigh. These kids…these young men. I am so proud of them.

Go mentor someone. It will do as much for you as it does for them.

 

 

18May/15

Why I Got A Degree in Public Policy

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Yesterday, I graduated from the Edward J. Bloustein* School at Rutgers with a Masters in Public Affairs and Politics (it’s an advanced one-year public policy degree).  It is my third degree from Rutgers (I earned my BA in history and English in 2001 and my MSW in 2006). Each class was enormously time consuming and it took me four years to complete it.  Now that the degree is finished, I am going to get back to writing for this site more regularly. But first, I will elucidate the process which led me to pursue this degree.

In late 2003, I returned to America after teaching in Tokyo for a year. I took a job at Integrity House (a long term substance abuse treatment facility in both Secaucus and Newark) as a front line counselor. I had been there less than a month when I made the decision to pursue a MSW full-time while working full-time. When I was at Integrity, it was impossible to ignore the problems that my clients faced in addition to addiction: inadequate education, a lack of job skills, poor health care, a bloated criminal justice system that regurgitated prisoners, stressed out families, and a vicious cycle of poverty. After stabilizing my clients in recovery, we would focus on education and job skills. There were very few resources, and many of our clients just returned to the same blighted street corners with no hope of anything but a minimum wage, 25-hour a week job.

In 2005, halfway through my MSW, I began working at Hunterdon Drug Awareness (HDAP) in Flemington, NJ. Drug addiction caused the same problems in Hunterdon that it did in the inner-cities of NJ, but the people of that county had more resources to repair their lives. They had an easier time going back to school or developing skills that lead to meaningful and better paying jobs. This crystallized my thinking that I had to work on more than just drug treatment with people, but it would require additional skills and a different type of work if I wanted to affect macro level change. I also started working with clients that were addicted to prescription drugs like Xanax, Adderall, Valium, Vicodin, and Oxycotin. A lot of the people that came into treatment didn’t view prescription drugs as a problem because they were “safe, legal and pure.”

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Spring 2007. This was one of two Freshmen classes that I taught. They had quizzes every week and journal writing every day.

After graduating with my MSW in 2006, I took a job as an English teacher at Elizabeth High School,** which was the largest HS in America at the time (5500+ kids). My students were 65% Hispanic, 15% black, 15% Haitian and 5% other races. Many of them were the children of undocumented workers (who often worked 2+ jobs in order to scratch out an existence). The quality of the building, books, desks, supplies and instruction were all deficient. In 2007, due to a lack of space, the library of Dwyer House (where I taught)  was cleared out in order to make more class room space. The books were thrown in dumpsters. I took photos of this, rescued books from the trash, and wrote an impassioned essay about it on Myspace (it was 2007).

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The condition of the library was disastrous. The books had already started to be thrown out here. In my 2007 Myspace essay I wrote, “This never would have happened at a white, suburban school.”

Much like my time at Integrity House and HDAP, I poured myself into the work, bonded with those that I served and generally had a great time every single day. But the problems that my students and their families faced would not be solved by a high score on a vocabulary quiz or being able to articulate the political reasons behind the fighting in Julius Caesar. At the end of the 2009 school year, I was offered and turned down tenure. I had decided to take a job at Rutgers running the Recovery House and working at both the Newark and New Brunswick counseling centers.

In the spring of 2009, there was one student in the Recovery House who was in Recovery House for opiates. By the fall, that number had jumped to 6 (25%). In 2011, about half of the students were in recovery from opiates. I was also seeing more and more students come into the counseling centers that had problems with prescription drugs. It was even more pronounced than what I had seen a few years earlier at HDAP. I was also exposed to the devastating relationship between alcohol intoxication and sexual assaults (I’ve written about how males weaponize alcohol to incapacitate their prey). I collected data on what we accomplished and wrote about how a community could foster recovery and inspire students to academic excellence.

In 2010, I was asked to be a Trustee of the New Day Recovery Charter High School in Newark. While there were over 30 recovery high schools around the country, neither NJ nor NYC had one. From 2010 to 2012, I would leave work at Rutgers Newark at 6 pm every other Monday and head over to the New Hope Baptist Church for school board meetings that would sometimes last until 9 pm. We talked about educational policy, the recovery process, fundraising and how to get community support. We were all hardworking, excited and dedicated to this cause.

Alas, we didn’t understand the politics of the Newark School System nor were we prepared for the lack of faith and support of both the Department of Education and whatever niche covers charter schools. We were denied the charter in 2011 and then again in June of 2012. At that point, we decided to disband.

In the summer of 2011, my friend Eric Arauz recommended me for the Governor’s Council on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism (GCADA). I was mulling over issues on the school board and what I’d like to accomplish on the GCADA while flying on a plane to attend a close friend’s wedding in Sienna, Italy. I had also been reading a number of political profiles in the New Yorker (I catch up on that magazine when I travel) when I came across the story of a cabinet official who decided to get a policy degree when he was getting more involved in that kind of work. A light went off. By the time I returned to NJ ten days later, I had made an appointment to meet with Stuart Shapiro and was prepared to do whatever I needed to do to start taking classes at Bloustein that fall. During my interview, I told Dr. Shapiro that I wanted to hone my analytical skills and knowledge base in order to be more effective in the work that I was already doing.

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3 Task Force Members: Myself, Dr. Louis Baxter and Governor Jim McGreevey

In 2012, the GCADA created the NJ Heroin and Other Opiate Task Force. We held hearings, were on the radio, made the news and eventually (after a lot of listening, reading, data gathering and discussions, some backstabbing, and several political delays) released a report on March 17, 2014. Our report addressed mezzo and macro level issues, including, but not limited to: (1) creating a recovery high school in NJ; (2) creating more recovery college programs; (3) creating a warm-line so that people could get better and more timely access to opiate treatment information; (4) mandating the prescription drug monitoring program; (5) improving treatment in county jails; (6) revising the health curriculum in public schools in order to cover the dangers of prescription drugs; (7) better training of professionals that prescribe and dispense prescription drugs and (8) the enforcement of the Mental Health and Addiction Parity Act (2008) and the Affordable Care Act (2010), which mandates that treatment for addiction must be treated the same was as treatment for cancer or diabetes. My contributions to that report represent the changes in my thinking and approach that were influenced by the Bloustein school.

I took courses on policy formation, research, economics, energy, the environment, education, health care, and the state and federal budget. The professors were learned, patient and encouraging. I have found that this course-work has pushed me towards the middle of a number of policy issues, and I try to avoid hyperbolic language and taking rigid positions. This is particularly true of issues that I think I can influence. Supporters of these issues might grow frustrated at my deliberate pace, but I have adopted the wisdom of Ben Franklin: “Half a loaf is better than no loaf.” A small policy victory today can leave the door open for bigger victories later.

It is with great pride that I can now say that I am an alumnus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

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Governor Florio, Dean Hughes, myself and Assemblyman Benson.

* The school is named for the 17th President of Rutgers. Edward J. Bloustein served from 1971 to 1989. He oversaw Rutgers College becoming co-ed, attracted top faculty, created the Employee Assistance Program, created one of the first Alcohol Policy Committees in higher education and generally raised the reputation of the university. All of the long-time and retired faculty that I know speak of him fondly.

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This was taken at the end of the 2007-08 school year. I had taught these kids for 2 years and now it was time for us to part. Many of us cried before, during and after the photo.

** I worked as a full-time teacher at Elizabeth and worked 2 to 4 nights a week as a substance abuse counselor at HDAP in Flemington. I did this for three years. I usually logged 700 miles a week.

05Apr/15

A Starting Plan to Address Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Last month, I wrote an article about the Hidden Wounds of Sexual Assault (I described how the survivors of sexual assaults are often: afraid of the dark; jump when touched; get alarmed at loud or sudden noises; have difficulty being intimate with someone; have problems in relationships; were not believed by friends, boyfriends, family members or the authorities; ….as a result, trust people less).

There is a new documentary out titled The Hunting Ground – it covers a number of sexual assaults on college campuses, that some frats (SAE) are fortresses of rape, and how many universities have failed to protect their students and/or prosecute the attackers/predators.

I’ve posted information about the movie on our Facebook site. I use that site to also put out links to numerous articles that I find informative and topical, and over the last half year I’ve suggested that people read about the failures of how the military addresses sexual assaults, methods that sororities are trying to shield their members against rape, and the horrific story of two football player-rapists’ attack on a young woman at Vanderbilt.

In today’s New York Times, Professor Jenny Wilkinson of the University of Vermont wrote an account about how she was sexually assaulted when she was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Despite being found responsible by the University, her attacker received a minimal reprimand with no real consequences. It’s a story that I urge people to read. Dr. Wilkinson concluded her piece with some basic suggestions to improve the way sexual assaults are handled on campuses:

At a minimum, though, we need victim-friendly proceedings, including administrators who encourage students to file reports; trained legal representatives, investigators and panel members; and rules that allow students to bring in outside support. Victim-sensitive punishments, explicitly expulsion, would allow survivors to walk around campus without fear of running into their attackers. With these changes, university proceedings could actually make a difference by getting predators off campus and into the hands of family members and friends who can find them the help they need.