The other brother: Experiencing life as a “well-sibling”

“Come on guys, we’re going to be late for our reservations,” Nancy Erdlen yelled to her four boys as she searched frantically for her purse.

Shoving each other, Tim, Matt, Mike and John, ages 7, 8, 9 and 10, came running down the stairs and into the living room.

Nancy stared at Matt impatiently.

“Why don’t you have on your socks and shoes Matty,” she asked. “We’re going to be late.”

Matt reluctantly hurried over to the front door where his socks and shoes were and took a seat on the stairs. He peered down at the socks for a moment and then at his feet. He paused and as he took a deep inhale, he slid the left sock on—a success. Now it was time for the hard part. As the top of the right sock reached around his ankle, he collapsed to the ground and began to scream.

“Are you kidding me?” bellowed John as he stomped up the stairs. “Can we have one normal, peaceful day in this house? All I want to do is eat.”

Mike followed him, attempting to calm him down so he would not further upset Matt, but was unsuccessful.

John slammed the door to his bedroom. Everyone in the house could still hear him cussing and screaming. And then suddenly there was a loud bang—the sound of him putting yet another hole through his wall.

Nancy, with a look of exhaustion and disappointment in her eyes, rushed to comfort Matt. She wrapped him in her arms and held him there for almost two hours before he began to calm down. This would be the second time they would have to cancel dinner reservations that week.

For the Erdlen household in Windham, New Hampshire, a night like this was a pretty regular occurrence. This is because John and Matt both suffer from a SMI, or serious mental illness. They, along with six percent of the U.S. population, fall under this classification that includes major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Both diagnosed at an early age, John struggles with bipolar disorder, an illness characterized by debilitating highs and lows, while Matt suffers from a combination of bipolar disorder and sensory integration dysfunction, a condition where the brain has trouble interpreting and responding to information that it receives through the senses, causing essentially a sensory overload.

While the effects of mental illness have been well researched and documented, little has been said about the siblings of the mentally ill. The sad reality for many of those who have a sibling that suffers from a mental illness is that they are left feeling a pressure to be normal—a phenomena called the well-sibling syndrome.

Mike Erdlen, who is now 24, is no exception.

“I am not a very openly emotional person and never have been,” he explained sternly. “I’m close to the opposite of how they are. I am extremely closed-off because they were open faucets all the time. I never wanted to deal with it and didn’t want to add to the stress so I just found it easier to internalize how I felt.”

From as early as Mike can remember, John and Matt have struggled with their illnesses—Matt’s episodes happening almost daily.

“We would go out and literally buy socks without seams so we could go out and do the thing we had planned for later that day,” he explained, chuckling at how extreme it must of sounded. “Typically, that still wouldn’t work. He would just fall to the floor and lay there for hours. If he put anything with a seam on, it could happen and it did almost daily.”

As Mike made his way to the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge, he recalled the most recent episode he experienced with John when they were living together at the University of New Hampshire five years ago.

“We had just gotten off a double from work and we were arguing over rent, bills, the house being dirty—just typical daily things,” he said as he took a long sip of his beer. “We were just sitting there talking and he was standing across from me and all of a sudden his eyes just lit up with flames and he punched me right in the face.”

Growing up in this environment often made it difficult for Mike to express his own problems to his parents. With the nearly constant heightened tension in the air and the looming fear of setting one of his brother’s temper’s off, he typically kept to himself.

“I always felt like I had to walk on eggshells,” he said while glancing down at his fingers. “It would be a lie to say that I never felt like my problems were less important in comparison to theirs, but my parents did the best they could. Their needs definitely came first though.”

This feeling is not unique to Mike as psychologist Diane Marsh explains in her book, Troubled Journey.

“As hard as parents may try, and they do, to meet the needs of their well siblings, time and energy are simply finite,” Marsh told NPR. “And so siblings often feel like the forgotten family members. Everyone else’s problems are more important than theirs.”

Although Mike felt that his life was trivialized at times because of his brother’s ailments, he always tried to be as supportive as possible. With the pressure of four boys alone combined with the challenge of two mentally ill children, in Mike’s eyes, his parents did all that they could do.   

“It definitely became unbearable at times,” he explained somberly. “There were some points where it would either be the fifth or sixth hour in a row, or the fifth day in a row where we couldn’t leave the house and I was over it. But it was always understandable. There was never a time I really felt neglected on purpose.”

As understanding as he may be, Mike acknowledges the fact that who he has become as a person has been heavily shaped by his experiences growing up with Matt and John, using adjectives like introverted, weird and passive to describe himself.

“I think with how over the top both of them were, I just don’t experience extreme emotions,” he said as the ends of his mouth curled into a slight frown. “I don’t think I have ever experienced anxiety. I rarely, if ever panic. It’s definitely taken a tole on my capacity for emotions and being able to talk openly about it.”

Unfortunately for well-siblings like Mike, this kind of desensitization is very common. Marsh’s co-author Rex Dickens, who himself is the brother of three mentally-ill siblings, explained that brothers and sisters of the mentally ill often become “frozen souls” over time.

“You sort of shut down, emotionally, in part of your life, and that carries over to other areas,” Dickens told NPR.

To the outsider, Mike’s experience growing up may seem like a burden, but to him and his family it has created an opportunity over time to become closer—and based on research he’s right. According to Marsh, there is evidence of stronger family bonds and commitment within families that have one or more mentally ill children.

“I think going through all of that together made us able to be completely comfortable around each other because we’ve seen the true colors. I would argue that we have one of the closest families that I know, even though half of us are crazy. Well maybe all of us,” he laughed to himself.

‘Global Gag Rule’ counterproductive to its purpose

As one of his first acts as president, Trump reinstated a Reagan-era policy that prohibits United States funding for global health providers who perform or discuss abortion as a family-planning option.

The global gag rule, formally known as the Mexico City Policy, was first enforced under the Reagan administration in 1984 and has since been reinstated by every Republican president.

This time, however, the policy extends to “to global health assistance furnished by all departments or agencies,” as stated in a Presidential Memorandum released on Jan. 23.

Activists fear that this far-reaching policy could affect various nongovernment organizations (NGO) that provide lifesaving treatments outside of family planning, such as those that distribute bed nets for malaria, provide childhood vaccines, combat ebola and Zika, etc.

According to analysis from PAI, a global health NGO, the gag rule impacts over $9 billion of U.S. funds, compared to $575 million when George W. Bush reinstated the policy in 2001.

The U.S. funding of abortions in foreign countries as a method of family planning has been outlawed since 1973 by the Helms Amendment.

This means that, in reality, the global gag rule prevents women from accessing basic sexual and reproductive services, like gynecological exams, H.I.V. prevention and contraception. Instead of curtailing the rate of abortion, research has shown that when the policy is in place the rate for unsafe abortions actually increases, especially in rural areas.

After Bush reinstated the policy in 2001, a study conducted by Stanford University found that there was a surge in abortion rates in 20 sub-Saharan African countries. In developed countries, the rate remained relatively unchanged.

The study stated that, “If women consider abortion as a way to prevent unwanted births, then policies curtailing the activities of organizations that provide modern contraceptives may inadvertently lead to an increase in the abortion rate.”

With the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating yearly that 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion and 47,000 die from related complications across the globe, it is evidenced by research that the rates will only increase due to the reinstatement of the gag rule.

Director of Women’s and Gender Studies Dr. Ina Seethaler expressed her discontentment about the policy’s repercussions.

“…The global gag rule is clearly attempting to prohibit women to become informed about all their reproductive choices,” said Seethaler. “As the numbers of deaths that will likely result from this policy show, this decision was not made with women’s and children’s health in mind but to take away women’s bodily autonomy. It’s a political and ideological decision that condones putting women’s lives at risk.”

Because the U.S. is the world’s largest bilateral family planning donor, when the rule is instated organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International (MSI) suffer greatly.

In a statement released by MSI, the director Marjorie Newman-Williams explained that the gag rule is counteractive.

“Attempts to stop abortion through restrictive laws—or by withholding family planning aid—will never work, because they do not eliminate women’s need for abortion,” said Williams. “This policy only exacerbates the already significant challenge of ensuring that people in the developing world who want to time and space their children can obtain the contraception they need to do so.”

Seethaler echoed this statement, stating that “the only way to prevent unsafe, ‘back-alley’ abortions is to legalize abortion.”

“Legal abortion, provided in a medical environment like at a Planned Parenthood, is safe, in fact, in many cases safer than carrying a pregnancy to term, especially in countries with high maternal mortality rates,” said Seethaler.

MSI also estimated that there will be “2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths under Trump’s first term that could have been preventable.”

MSI typically receives $30 million per year in U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding, which provides 1.5 million women in over 12 countries with family planning services.

But if they are unable to find donors, the organization will be forced to cut these programs.

“Abortion is a fundamental right for women and also very necessary public health intervention,” Maaike van Min, MSI’s London-based strategy director, told Reuters. “Aid is under pressure everywhere in the world and so finding donors who have the ability to fund this gap is going to be challenging.”

A decline in family planning programs can also lead to an increase in the risk of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

According to a policy review conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, in 2001, the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association went from receiving 426,000 condoms to becoming ineligible for shipments, even though the organization does not provide abortion counseling. At the time, one in four women in the country were H.I.V. positive.

Recently, the Executive Director of the association Lerotholi Pheko told The New York Times that he was fearful of “a hit to his operating budget.”

“If we are not able to increase the income we get locally, it would mean that we would have to downsize,” said Pheko.

Another program that could face serious losses is The Family Life Association in Swaziland, an area that has one of the world’s highest H.I.V. infection rates.

The association, which receives a quarter of its funding from the U.S., provides abortion information to women infected with H.I.V. when necessary, even though the land-locked country only allows abortion in cases of rape and incest. If and when this occurs, patients are typically referred to adjoining South Africa, where abortion is legal.

Executive Director of the Family Life Association Zelda Nhlabatsi also expressed her concern to The New York Times about the possible negative outcomes that could arise from the newly reinstated policy.

“Our organization could definitely be affected, including our H.I.V. services, and you can imagine how detrimental that could be for a small country like Swaziland that’s been heavily affected by H.I.V.,” said Nhlabatsi.

Although the policy is in effect, Seethaler explained that there are various ways that any concerned citizen can aid in supporting the cause.

“If you want to support reproductive justice globally, including in the U.S., you can call your political representatives and voice your concerns,” said Seethaler. “You might also consider volunteering at organizations in the U.S., like Planned Parenthood, who are collaborating with other organizations overseas. Keep educating yourself about this topic. Women’s and Gender Studies courses are great ways to learn more about reproductive justice, why it is so important, and what we can do to support human rights.”

If interested in donating, visit the DKT International Family Planning and HIV Prevention at http://www.dkinternational.org/ and/or Planned Parenthood Global at https://www.plannedparenthood.org/.

Fighting the fake-news phenomenon

Economists Matthew Gentzkow and Hunt Allcott define fake news as stories “that have no factual basis but are presented as facts.”

During the 2016 Presidential Election, Facebook and Twitter were plagued with a plethora of these fake stories, mostly containing pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton rhetoric.

“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.” “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS…Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL! Breaking News.” “IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked & It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined.”

These sensationalized headlines, likely created by teenagers in Velles, Macedonia, were meant to act as clickbait, drawing readers to the fake-news websites.

By selling ads, these teens were able to bring in thousands of euros a day while living in a city where the average salary is 350 euros per month. By deceiving the American public, they successfully brought a “Digital Gold Rush” to the small city.

Some even argue that they had a large hand in swaying the presidential election in Trump’s favor, like Assistant Professor of Communication, Media and Culture Dr. Wendy Weinhold.

“I don’t know how a huge amount of fake news distributed with the intent to inform people with falsehood couldn’t have an influence,” said Weinhold. “If all it did was give people, whose minds were already made up, information that they could use to influence other people…and put just a seed of doubt in other people’s minds, then I don’t know how it couldn’t of had an influence.”

A Buzzfeed analysis concluded that in the 3 months leading up to the election, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”

The analysis found that the top 20 fake stories generated 8,711,000 engagements while the 20 top true election stories generated 7,367,000 engagements. From the numbers, one could easily conclude that fake news was, at least, a serious problem throughout the election.

President Obama thought fake news to be a serious enough issue to mention in his farewell speech, calling fake news a threat to democracy.

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there,” said Obama.

Customizable news has been a prevalent issue since Google News began allowing the ability for users to select preferences and is even more serious now with social media.

On Facebook and Twitter, users are able to, literally, pick and choose what they want to see. By giving the user the ability to add specific friends or to follow certain people or organizations, these social media sites are making it increasingly easier for the public to personalize their news.

“We had our local newspaper that arrived at our doorstep and we would have a conversation about it,” said Weinhold. “The really important thing was, these people…didn’t always agree with you…But today, particularly via fake news, we have the opportunity to surround ourselves with a bunch of people who agree with us and aren’t necessarily the best informed…There are huge consequences and huge costs to that kind of shifting of information and newly formed coffee shop online.”

Although fake news is extremely concerning, especially to those in the world of journalism, a recent study conducted by Gentzkow of Stanford University and Allcott of New York University found that, although the fake news stories favoring Trump far outnumbered those favoring Clinton, they did not have a “significant impact on the presidential election.”

The paper entitled, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” combined a 1200 person post-election survey, new web browsing data and a database the researchers created, that contained election stories that were declared fake by prominent fact-checking websites during the three months prior to the election.

Overall, the research found that television was the primary source for receiving political news and that the political impact of social media is overstated. According to the study, only 14 percent of Americans reported utilizing social media as a primary tool for gathering campaign news.

“In summary, our data suggest that social media were not the most important source of election news, and even the most widely circulated fake news stories were seen by only a small fraction of Americans,” the research states. “For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake news story would need to have convinced about 0.7 percent of Clinton voters and non-voters who saw it to shift their votes to Trump, a persuasion rate equivalent to seeing 36 television campaign ads.”

Regardless of if the circulation of fake news influenced the 2016 Presidential Election or not, the issue is a serious one and should be viewed as such.

Fortunately, Facebook and Google removed the ability for ad-revenue in November of 2016, leaving many of those who once created the fake news without an incentive. Facebook has also planned for new policies and algorithms that will help to filter out the obviously misleading stories.

Hopefully, we, the American people, were able to learn from this election cycle and will know to be more skeptical next time around.

In the mean time, Dr. Weinhold explained that it is in the citizen’s hands to aid in debunking falsities.

If you’re going to be a good citizen, if you are going to be well informed, you have to do some work too,” said Weinhold. “It’s not just the journalist that has to do the work of informing, investigating, but you as the audience member, you as the citizen of the democratic nation that you are lucky to call home, also has a responsibility to be sure that you know who is informing you. The internet makes information extremely readily available but it also puts a lot of responsibility on each of us to do our homework as well.”

Believing is more than seeing

It seems like every time I turn on the television, log-on to social media or check a news application on my phone, there is another breaking news story about something violent that has happened at home or overseas.

As someone who plans to have a career in journalism, I am well versed with the practice of, “if it bleeds, it leads,” used by news media.

But, to the average American, these images of violence create a skewed picture of the world that is reinforced every time a news outlet runs a story containing violent-content.

Because of this, many feel that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.

A Gallup poll published in 2015, showed that 70 percent of Americans believe that the crime rate is higher than it was the year before. This has been the trend since the company started giving the violence perception poll in 1989.

wzvtbhtlxkgekbwdjg_fwwThe poll showed that 60 percent of Americans also reported believing that violent crime is a “very serious” problem; while at the same time, only 25 percent reported that they or someone in their household fell victim to a crime, six percent or less, being violent.

Data from The Pew Research Center also indicated that, since the early 2000s, American’s have reported that every year, they feel the crime rate has increased since the year prior.

These, along with various other sets of data, show that the reality is that, even though a majority of Americans feel as though the crime rates are increasing, government data shows that the rates have been on a—nearly—constant decline since the early 90.

Having the ability to separate oneself from the “current events” and see the bigger picture, is key to not falling subject to, what the late Media Effect researcher, George Gerbner, called the “Mean World Syndrome.”

Gerbner used this term to describe how violent content in mass media leads viewers to believe that society is much more dangerous than it actually is.  He also concluded that because of this constant exposure, people are primed to think violence is a regular part of life.

Making the effort to use statistics, rather than a heuristic—a shortcut for thinking—to develop one’s world-view is also essential, according to psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

Tversky and Kahneman explained the reason behind the gap between the public’s perceptions of violent crime and reality, to be due to something they coined an “availability heuristic.”

Similar to Gerbner, Tversky and Kahneman stated that if someone regularly engages in media that displays violent content, they are likely to assume that the world parallels this.

With the news being easily accessible through multiple mediums, and in light of the recent terrorist attacks and shootings, it is easy to see why many American’s are living in fear.

Although the media portrays society to be increasingly violent, it is important to recognize that various data, like that from ourworldindata.org, shows that the reality is just the opposite.

It is actually the safest time to be alive in human history.