Allison Kugel sits down with Dr. Drew Pinsky to discuss mental health and gun violence in America.
Dr. Drew Pinsky’s long running call-in show Loveline, with Adam Carolla, aired on MTV for 32 years and pioneered a pop culture adaptation of relationship and safe sex education. The show, featuring an assortment of celebrity guest hosts, served as a lifeline to multiple generations. Dr. Drew’s Teen Mom franchise, also an MTV staple, opened the eyes of television viewers to the trials of teen pregnancy and teen parenthood where previous methods had fallen short.
A true advocate who has spent decades bringing once-taboo health matters to the forefront of public discussion, he now hosts MTV’s Teen Mom OG, KABC’s Dr. Drew Midday Live and The Dr. Drew Podcast, the #1 health podcast on iTunes.
A health crisis that is gripping our nation is that of adolescent mental health and gun violence. This generation is dealing with a problem that goes far beyond typical teenage angst, as it deals with the frightening fallout from a broken healthcare system and gun control laws that have failed to address our societal landscape.
The most recent school shooting that took place on February 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has left an encouraging and unstoppable movement in its wake, reminiscent of the social and political mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s.
The courage, clarity, and strength the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas have demonstrated in the face of unspeakable tragedy, and their ability to mobilize a nation, inspired me to sit down with Dr. Drew Pinsky for a frank discussion about the state of adolescent mental health and its intersection with gun violence in America.
Allison Kugel: Why are school shootings a recent phenomenon over the last 19/20 years?
Dr. Drew Pinsky: There’s a multiplicity of factors and no simple answer. Obviously, it’s guns and the type of guns. But in addition, it’s the access that people have; people who have a proclivity towards self-harm or harming others (The Florida state Senate just passed a bill upping the legal age to purchase a fire arm from 18 to 21 and mandating a 3-day waiting period. It now falls on Florida state Congress to vote). We all know that adolescent males will complete suicide because of their use of fire arms. It’s not a far reach from feeling that your own life doesn’t have meaning to other people’s lives not having meaning. We’ve connected that bridge now.
Allison Kugel: What leads a young man to get to the point where they no longer value their own life?
Dr. Drew Pinsky: Within adolescent depression it becomes a special case when they have this sort of magical thinking that this will solve their problems, and they’ll be around to see the solution after they’re gone. But we’re seeing this in young adults, not just adolescents. I happen to believe, and this is one man’s opinion and it’s hard to substantiate the data, but we’ve been through an epidemic staring in the 1960s of adverse childhood experience. Our families are unhealthy. My work in media has been almost exclusively dealing with people with addiction issues and addiction medicine; people with issues of physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect in their childhood. These are profound injuries. Among those injured are people who don’t have the ability to regulate their emotions or really have any sense of empathy for others. We have a growing population of people who have difficulty with empathy and difficulty with emotional regulation… and a firearm. It’s a pretty potent combination. And we have drugs and alcohol; we have a massive problem with that. I’ve begun to think of it all as sort of this spiritual bankruptcy.
Allison Kugel: Do you think social media and being tied into this Matrix-like existence instead of being more community oriented like in generations past, do you feel it’s leading to a spiritual breakdown?
Dr. Drew Pinsky: I think it has accelerated the mob, and mob-like behavior. It gives people a sense of pseudo-intimacy, which is quasi-pathological. It’s not real. There is a sense of connection, with no real connection. It gratifies only the most basest of emotions – envy, aggression, arousal, and all of these addictive emotions. It doesn’t do anything for empathy, nurturing, service, making a difference. I don’t see it as the cause, but as an amplifier of these problems. When I wrote my book about narcissism years ago (The Mirror Effect/Harper Collins), I wanted to include a chapter on previous moments in history where narcissism had prevailed and where childhood trauma has been prevalent. Wherever I found those trends, I found mob action, guillotines and mob aggression. We’re seeing it now, and it just happens to be in social media.
Allison Kugel: What are your thoughts about how media chooses to cover these mass shootings and other large scale violent crimes?
Dr. Drew Pinsky: There’s contagion, not doubt about it. There’s contagion with things like suicide, all sorts of violent acts, and with pathological behaviors like cutting. All these things have contagion associated with them. I almost feel like it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, there’s contagion, but we also have to take a good hard look at the realities we face.
Allison Kugel: And when you say “contagion” you’re talking about the copy-cat effect, just to clarify for people. Personally, I feel that releasing the person’s picture and their name, and analyzing their motives is playing into their pathological desire to gain attention for their act.
Dr. Drew Pinsky: There’s no doubt that the thinking of the perpetrator includes things like that, but not saying their name also gives it a kind of energy that I think is weird. I’d like to see the evidence that holding back the name somehow reduces the contagion effect. I just don’t see it.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about you. When you were in high school and college, what coping skills did you cultivate to deal with things like anxiety, depression, stress and peer pressure?
Dr. Drew Pinsky: I had a problem with that. I had panic attacks. I’m still formally diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I was depressed when I was nineteen and there were no services for adolescents at that time. I think that’s what got me interested in helping that population with mental health, in general. I was so mishandled, it was egregious. I thought maybe I was having a seizure when I was having a panic attack; I wasn’t sure what it was. But I understood there was a mental health issue. I went for help and I was told that I needed to get my act together, and I should take long walks in the woods. I would have happily gotten my act together (laughs)! And I was socially awkward, I was living in New England in college and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. What got me out of that was finding purpose. Finding medicine and science, getting turned on by that and getting into it, and feeling good about what I was doing. That’s what helped me climb out. And I had therapy, though the therapy I had in college wasn’t very good
Allison Kugel: In the late seventies, wasn’t the field of mental health first really understanding what anxiety was, and first beginning to treat it?
Dr. Drew Pinsky: They knew what anxiety was. They didn’t really understand the developmental phenomenology and psychiatry of adolescents. That was poorly understood, and certainly what to do with it was even more poorly understood. My wife and I have triplets, and we’ve used mental health services all the way through in raising our family, every step of the way, and it’s yielded dividends. We used behavioral therapists when our kids were very young, and it’s always yielded results and been positive for us.
Allison Kugel: What kind of support system did you have around you in those early years?
Dr. Drew Pinsky: I had very limited support. I was connected, but not intimately connected, and I didn’t understand really what I was feeling, I didn’t have that insight. I remember reading a lot of material that really didn’t help. There was nowhere to turn at that time, and I’m angry about it to this day. But again, it’s what made me interested in mental health, and in adolescent mental health.
Allison Kugel: Is that why you’ve cultivated this public platform? As Dr. Drew, you are very much looked up to by young people as a valuable source of information.
Dr. Drew Pinsky: It was actually more of a fortunate accident in my life. I’d always been interested in public speaking, and in my fourth year of medical school somebody asked me to give some commentary on a radio show. When I went in there I had this very powerful instinct that this was important. No one was talking to people about AIDS and safe sex. The term “safe sex” hadn’t been invented yet. I couldn’t believe the lack of knowledge out there, and the lack of willingness to talk to adolescents. What I said at the time was that the whole sexual revolution had been perpetrated by adults without ever really thinking about what it was going to do to adolescents. I was twenty-four years old and I thought, “I know what seventeen and eighteen-year olds are up to, and they need to know about HIV and AIDS.” It wasn’t even HIV yet. They had just started calling it AIDS at the time. I was dealing with it in my [medical] training every day. People forget about that period of history. It motivated me to get out there and talk about it.
Allison Kugel: Like you, I live with anxiety and panic disorder. I’ve always had to be pro-active about my mental health, like the way other people go to the gym to stay in shape. My concern is that the importance of staying on top of your mental health needs to be communicated to young people, in mass.
Dr. Drew Pinsky: I certainly try. On HLN, almost every night I would chant, “Why do we treat medical conditions above the neck differently than medical conditions below the neck?” In other words, why are brain disorders special? Brain disorders are the same as pancreas disorders. It just happens to affect an organ that is associated with our concept of behavior. Just like you would treat your heart or your pancreas or your lungs, it’s medical matter. And treatment works. People need to stop associating it with stigma, or a moral failing, or as any different than any other medical issue. You and I also know it’s brushing past a larger issue, which we would call “spiritual.” It ties into mental health, and I feel that is a bigger social, psychological problem affecting our society. At its core, it’s about our relationships.
Allison Kugel: We’re seeing a disturbing trend of young males and gun violence. What are we missing when it comes to male adolescent mental health?
Dr. Drew Pinsky: Adolescent males, when they have spiritual and psychological problems, become aggressive. And when they don’t have some sort of outlet that they are engaged in, any time there’s social unrest, there’s young males. That’s just the way we’re wired. Males need to be challenged. This sort of co-dependent helicopter parenting over the last twenty years has been about preventing children from experiencing discomfort. I think there is a major deficiency right now. In addition to our spiritual emptiness, we have lost the ability to tolerate ordinary misery. Ordinary misery is good. And our children need to experience ordinary misery to learn how to regulate their emotions and overcome. Unless we are challenged we feel deficient. Because of our narcissism as parents we can’t tolerate seeing the child’s discomfort and disappointment, because it mobilizes our own internal misery, which we avoid. We use drugs and alcohol, and extreme sports, and all kinds of ways of avoiding. But when we include our children in making sure they don’t have those feelings as well, there’s a problem. I think that in some way, it is affecting the young male. It’s probably experienced differently from the young female.
Visit http://drdrew.com/get-help/ for assistance in finding mental health support services. For help with anxiety and depression, visit https://adaa.org/finding-help/treatment. Tune in to The Dr. Drew Podcast and Dr. Drew Midday Live.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame – A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.