Monthly Archives: December 1899

On the Surgeon General’s Quite Comforting Report on Mental Health

Only a few weeks ago, it would have been safe to assume that Jewel held a veritable lock on the Holiday Feelgood Prize for her latest collection of Christmas poems and profundities. But no one considered the dark-horse late entry from Washington—Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General—which comes as a soothing tonic to those who feared that, come Y2K, all the computers would be fine but all six billion world-wide humans would have a simultaneous nervous breakdown. Apparently the future is much more promising than that.

Dec. 13’s report marks the first time the Surgeon General has ever addressed the matter of mental health, in a 458-page document available online at www.surgeongeneral.gov or by calling, toll-free, 1-877-9-MHEALTH. Its calm, understanding tone makes it easy to picture its catalyst, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, wearing a cardigan sweater and smoking a pipe as he dictates it from a soft leather den chair, occasionally pausing to smile knowingly, pondering the wild world we live in. The reality may be that the report required two years, a massive staff, and an obsessive bibliography to complete—but after reading it, you feel like you’re going to get a clap on the shoulder, the keys to the sedan, and a warm “Everything’s going to be all right.”

The report’s eight chapters cover mental health’s scientific foundations and a history of how it has been handled. Children’s, adults’, and older adults’ differing requirements are addressed. There are sections on the increasing roles of HMOs in providing help and treatment, as well as a chapter devoted to the legal and ethical issue of confidentiality. It closes with “A Vision for the Future”—a formula requiring the elimination of stigma, continuing medical research, more universal coverage, and more specialized treatments.

A lot of it is stuff most of us secular humanists already knew: That mental illness isn’t just major psychosis, but a wide range of conditions that affect us all, directly and indirectly. The report lists Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as some common examples that weren’t considered treatable mental illness until relatively recently. The common ground is that whatever the cause, the result is “distress and/or impaired functioning”; the bottom line is that, in the vast majority of cases, treatment exists, just like with physical ailments.

The problem has always been that there’s always been a lot more stigma going to a psychiatrist than there is going to the orthopedist after you turned your ankle stepping on a tennis ball. For this, the report says, we can blame Descartes and his philosophical separation of mind and body. (It’s always the French’s fault.) Mental processes are, in fact, physical: Actual transfers of chemicals and electrical impulses can just as easily swing a leg as a mood. So now, after centuries of alienation and asylums, the government’s clearing the air by saying that “almost everyone has experienced mental health problems in which the distress one feels matches some of the signs and symptoms of mental disorders”; that at least one in five Americans is affected by mental illness; that major depression has as much of a Disease Burden (calculated by lost years of healthy life to disability or premature death) as blindness and paraplegia; and that “nearly two-thirds of all people with diagnosable mental disorders do not seek treatment.”

If those who haven’t sought treatment in the past were to do so now, it might result in a national medical revolution. By braving a few potentially askance looks from the folks in the next pew, those looking to bring about positive change in their mental health would spur new research and treatment. Effective treatment is the proven remedy to the social stigma connected with mental illness; people most fear what they deem irrational and incurable. At the turn of the last century, for instance, tertiary syphilis and pellagra were considered mental illnesses—until antibiotics and niacin supplements, respectively, were found to cure them. Then the diseases were moved to the “physical” end of the medical encyclopedias and suddenly were no longer perceived as raving madness. As time passed, however, the stubborn few illnesses whose causes and remedies remained nebulous came to be viewed with greater suspicion and fear. Now that most mental disorders “are responsive to specific treatments,” the report says, “much of the negative stereotyping may dissipate.

“With rare exceptions, few persons are destined to a life marked by unremitting, acute mental illness,” it goes on to say. “The most severe, persistent forms of mental illness tend to be amenable to treatment, even when recurrent and episodic.”

Needless to say, if all of us feel symptoms akin to mental illness at some point, and if we all shake the fear of seeing a professional about it, the current health management system may not be perfectly poised to handle the roughly 280-million-patient influx. But even in the past year, both public and private health coverage have made decisive moves into the mental health arena, recognizing that both physical health and work productivity depend on solid mental health.

“Parity calls for equality between mental health and other health coverage,” our Surgeon General says with a chuckle, taking a long pull from his pipe. “Now get out of here, Tiger, and paint the town red.”

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Bethel: Taking Aim at Target

Nestled directly behind quiet and neatly landscaped homes in the Stony Hill neighborhood of northern Bethel, the 17 acres belonging to Yankee Gas hadn’t drawn much attention since they were sold to the utility company (then Connecticut Light and Power) in 1962. There’s an office building on the property, and a garage with a driveway that faces Route 6. CL&P, and later Yankee Gas, parked trucks there. But any stranger looking at the front yards and Christmas lights in this community would be hard-pressed to say it’s not a residential neighborhood—and a nice, cozy one, at that.

Nonetheless, when Yankee Gas announced earlier this year that it was deep-sixing the roughly 35,000-square foot building and selling its attendant acreage, the redevelopment plans that poured in were hardly residential. Unless places like Home Depot, Ames, or Target Stores have added dwelling units—between dog houses and easy chairs, alphabetically—to their obsessively completist inventories and 150,000-square-foot castles.

There are certain American realities going on here. There’s the fact that open land is never open for long, especially when it’s of the endangered East Coast variety. There’s the fact that development is generally less of an option than a mandate. There’s the fact that utility companies sell their land all the time, and that nobody expects them to take anything less than top dollar. Witness similar goings-on in 28 other communities in Connecticut, including Waterbury, Easton, Weston, Fairfield, and Danbury.

But then, according to a group of area residents who’ve formed the Stony Hill Neighborhood Association to rally against the development, there’s the fact of a solemn promise. Is it only in pick-up truck commercials and John Cougar songs that an American’s word is seen as the defining bond?

Many members of the Stony Hill group have lived in the same houses since before CL&P showed up in ’62. All along, they’ve never worried that the land would be transformed into a commercial-industrial behemoth. They didn’t worry because of a written promise included in the sale’s original documentation. Originally, public utilities were only entitled to less than ten acres of undeveloped land. CL&P wanted 13.45, so the Bethel Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) had to grant a special exception. According to the P&Z papers filed by the Bethel town clerk’s office on May 22, 1962, “the special exception requested is hereby granted…subject to the condition that no building, present or future, be located anywhere except within the confines of the areas indicated for initial service building and garage.”

Which means that no new building could ever exist outside the current office’s 35,000-square-footprint. If the original text is to be taken at its word, the site’s latest two development proposals—163,000 and 130,000 square feet, respectively—equate to some seriously ugly step-sisters trying to wiggle into Cinderella’s slipper.

The first problem, according to Bethel town planner Joseph Potenza, is that a “special exception” doesn’t carry much weight. A deed restriction would be another story. The second problem is that, though the Stony Hill Association says that the Yankee Gas property was originally zoned for residential use, it was re-zoned to commercial/industrial (C/I) in the mid-1970s. The residents say they weren’t informed of the change: If they knew about it, they would have fought it. Others suggest they just weren’t paying attention.

“How could they not know what’s going on in their own home town?” asks Violet Mattone, executive director of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce. “It’s like a tower going in next door to you. All of a sudden you see the guys building the tower. Until then, you haven’t read the newspaper, or you haven’t paid attention. And I think that’s what’s happening out there.”

“Really, this has nothing to do with zoning,” says Brian Tobin, a member of the Stony Hill Association’s advisory committee. “Even if the world came to an end, they agreed at that point never to make it any bigger than it is. And that’s not the case.”

***

In October, with the 163,000-square-foot development proposal on the table, the Stony Hill Neighborhood Association formed, raised money, and hired a lawyer. They put up signs. They strategized in community meetings—using parliamentary procedure, opening with the pledge of allegiance—and showed up in force at the public hearings that would determine their neighborhood’s fate. They didn’t want a megastore. They didn’t want its 787 proposed parking spaces. They didn’t want the added traffic, the bright lights, the noise pollution, or the dreaded “sky glow.” They were concerned that the development’s significant topographical changes would affect their septic systems and their wells. They foresaw a drop in their property values and a negative impact on local business.

And they won. “The regulations are not only developed to allow building owners to use their property for whatever uses are permitted,” says the association’s lawyer, Chris Leonard. “They’re also designed to protect the prople that live around it.”

Round two: A 130,000-square-foot proposal for a Target store, proposed, like the first plan, by Stamford’s R.D. Hendon Realty company.

“They like to call it Targé,” Tobin says. “It’s pronounced ‘Target!’”

The next public P&Z hearing, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Jan. 18 at the Bethel Municipal Hall, will be all about the Target proposal. Though the association has been through a similar scenario, things might be a little bit different this time. All along, the association has inferred that town hall’s silence over the matter indicates a pro-development attitude: The property would obviously bring in no small sum of tax dollars. Now, while they’ve gathered allies from outside—State Senator David Cappiello, for instance, is on their side—it seems that support from within the town of Bethel is dwindling. The Chamber of Commerce and local businesses haven’t stepped up. P&Z may be an objective body, but they’re the ones who supposedly snuck in that change to C/I zoning. On top of that, the association’s president, Beth Cavagna, has resigned to fill a slot in the P&Z office, and members feel betrayed all over again.

“It was so awkward. It was horrible,” Cavagna says. “But it was OK with the group. I was expecting to get strung up and hung. They were upset, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I’m still doing good for the town, just now I’m getting paid for it.”

***

Gene Rubino has lived in Bethel since 1945. He owns the Stony Hill and Berkshire Inns on Route 6—the Berkshire Inn stands right next to the contested property, and would be the Target Store’s nearest non-residential neighbor. “I think the application fits the area,” he says. “It’d be a nice addition to the Route 6 business community. I have been in touch with every single one of our businesses on this street, and there’s not one person opposing it. Not one single business.”

What about the houses next door? Rubino brushes it off. “None of the neighbors are even going to get hurt,” he says. “[Target has] already told all the neighbors, ‘We will plant shrubbery in back of all your homes. As you wish.’ I’ve never seen a company so willing to help the neighborhood.”

Target PR spokeswoman Patty Morris, calling from the corporation’s Minneapolis office, points out that the company’s policy is to donate five percent of its pre-tax profits to the municipalities that host its stores, earmarking funds for education, the arts, and family violence protection. Five percent of $23 billion (1998 profits), even divided over 914 stores, isn’t peanuts. If the Yankee Gas property is going to become sprawl anyway, why not let it be sprawl that gives back a little? Besides, Target doesn’t claim to be the kind of store that wants to drive all the little guys out of business.

“We can’t even compete with the mom-and-pop stores,” Morris says modestly.

How’s that? According to all those ads on television, Target has everything.

“Well, we can’t compete with them,” Morris says, “in that we don’t look to them as competitors, is maybe how I should phrase it.”

“Target’s a wonderful store,” Rubino says. “And, incidentally, they have a nickname for it in Florida—they call it Targé .”

***

The Stony Hill Neighborhood Association would love a park on the property. But if that were an impossibility, they’d be open to a low-traffic building like the gas company’s—a health center, perhaps. They’re not even complete sticklers for the 35,000-square foot cap. They just don’t want something the size of an airport in their literal back yards. “Even if they came up with something that’s 50,000 square feet,” Tobin says, “I don’t think you’d have a lot of objection.”

Target, of course, promises to be a good neighbor. “Whenever we build a new store,” Morris says, “we try very hand to construct it in conjunction with neighboring residents and/or business, because we want to be a part of the community. And I can’t speak specifically to this case, but would certainly think that our developers and real estate managers are very interested in ensuring that they have the community on their side as they try to move forward with their projects.”

Tobin flips through his papers from the original CL&P settlement, landing on the minutes from a Jan. 30, 1962 P&Z public hearing. Richard F. Gretsch, manager of the Housatonic Division of the CL&P Company, stands to address the town. “Speaking for the company,” he says, “I am sure that our neighbors will find that we will do everything we possibly can to be good neighbors.”

If it turns out that the special exception—the solemn promise—is now null and void, Tobin says, there’s really no reason not to question those words as well.

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Drumming the Years Away

In the bright white common room of the Norwalk Senior Center in SoNo, all the dining tables pushed back against the walls, Stu Losen stood in front of a semi-circle of attentive seated seniors.

He also stood in front of a big conga drum. In between descriptions of the drum’s history—translated for the mostly Spanish-speaking audience by Senior Center coordinator Luz Escobar—Losen broke into thunderous rhythms. He explained that drums were originally used to communicate messages across long distances in Africa. “Mensajes, mensajes,” some seniors whispered to each other. He played two or three basic beats, from West African to calypso to salsa. At the word “salsa,” the ladies in the corner cried out “Puerto Rican! Salsa! Salsa! Merengue!” and one of them shook a tambourine she brought for the occasion.

Losen, a Westport-based psychologist and self-described “old ham,” has been drumming for sixty years. (“I just turned 70,” he says. “The older I get, the younger I feel.”) He studied with famous African drummer Baba Olatunji, the force behind the popular Olatunji! Drums of Passion CD, and leads drum circles throughout the region. This was his second trip to the South Norwalk satellite of the Norwalk Senior Center, back by popular demand. After the five-minute introduction, he handed out the percussion instruments he’d brought with him: Maracas, tambourines, wood blocks, cowbells, and a striated gourd that one gentleman, wearing his winter parka, volunteered to play with a plastic fork.

“Where’d you get that?” one woman asked Losen, looking at the gourd

“In Puerto Rico,” Losen said. “Either San Juan or Mayaguez.”

“¡Viva Puerto Rico!” someone shouted. Then Losen laid down a backbeat—and the room exploded with music.

Smiles flashed and people sang. At one point, after an extended jam and a version of “Guantanamera,” the seniors stepped forward with a song of their own: A traditional Puerto Rican style in which the group plays full-throttle, then suddenly stops while someone tells a joke. At the punchline, everyone laughs and hoots as the beat suddenly slams back in. For the last song, a group formed to dance in the center of the room, including Elsie Ramos, who said she’d had foot surgery that same morning.

“Getting them to dance was absolutely a delight,” Losen said afterward. “Drumming is an international language. Even if you can’t speak the local tongue, it’s getting people to communicate through rhythm.”

He played for exactly half an hour, then left. The seniors immediately moved to the bingo table. But for a little while, at least, there was no question that the deepest, most joyful jam in all of Norwalk was taking place between those four walls on West Ave. Should any devotees wish to follow Losen to his next gig, he will be participating in another drum circle on December 20 at the Weston Grange.

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