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From the President
Adrift in the Pacific With a Bengal Tiger
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 5 page 3-3
Anchor for JumpAnchor for JumpThere are differing schools of thought about the origins of aggression. Some postulate that an infant comes into the world with a template of aggression that is tamed by a nurturing environment. Others see the infant’s psyche as a pure Petri dish. In their view, savage responses in human beings occur in reaction to negative life experience.

The allegorical novel Life of Pi by prize-winning novelist Yann Martel artfully describes an example of the latter hypothesis. The protagonist, Pi, through unusual circumstances, ends up adrift on the ocean sharing his lifeboat with several wild animals including a Bengal tiger. In time, as the others kill each other off, only he and the tiger, named Richard Parker, remain. Once shock and fatigue recede, Pi recognizes the imperative not only to feed himself, but also to get hold of food to train and keep Richard Parker at bay.

When swarms of flying fish swoop by, he easily catches one. Pi’s struggle begins as he tries to gather the emotional fortitude to kill the fish:

"Several times I started bringing the hatchet down, but I couldn’t complete the action. . . .I covered the fish’s head with the blanket. Again my hand wavered in the air. The idea of beating a soft, living head with a hammer was simply too much. . . .

"I egged myself on until I heard a cracking sound. . . . I pulled back the folds of the blanket. The flying fish was dead. . . .

"I wept heartily over this poor little deceased soul. . . .I was now a killer. I was now as guilty as Cain. I was 16 years old, a harmless boy, bookish and religious, and now I had blood on my hands. . . .

"After that it was easier. . . .

"Lord, to think that I’m a strict vegetarian. To think that when I was a child I always shuddered when I snapped open a banana because it sounded to me like the breaking of an animal’s neck. I had descended to a level of savagery I never imagined possible."

This episode describes with poignant eloquence Pi’s descent into what he calls "savagery."

During the time I was reading Life of Pi, Brad Stein, M.D., gave a presentation at USC Grand Rounds on "A Mental Health Intervention for Schoolchildren Exposed to Violence." Sixth-grade students at two large middle schools in Los Angeles were asked about their exposure to violence. Remarkably, more than 60 percent of the children had substantial exposure, defined as being the victim or witness to violence involving a knife or gun, or having a Life Events Scale summed score greater than 6, consistent with exposure to three or more violent events. Many in the audience, like myself, were startled to learn the percentage of children who by the age of 12 had been witness to or experienced violence. What does this presage for their own potential for violence if affirming life experiences do not intervene to counterbalance their traumatic histories?

We have a major challenge before us to reach out and provide "countering experiences" for young people. Instead, programs of outreach to children are being drastically cut at the state and federal levels. After-school opportunities to engage in creative learning and special events are being eliminated. Instead of expanding, programs for health and education are being pitted against each other as targeted areas for budget cuts.

At this writing President Bush’s proposed $2.4 trillion budget will not meet the needs of impoverished school children and won’t come close to the needs of local school districts, which must meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind initiatives. Other sources of school funds will be cut, including 38 programs, such as those focusing on dropout prevention, guidance counselors in elementary schools, and increased parental involvement in poor communities.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed saving $20 million by eradicating the Children’s System of Care Program, a successful operation that has touched the lives of countless poor and needy children. The program provides counties with dollars to develop and coordinate individualized services around those kids who are served by multiple agencies. In addition, parents of children with mental illness actively participate on the planning team to ensure that families are represented. The governor has also proposed to eliminate $5 million from the Early Mental Health Intervention program that targets children in kindergarten through third grade who have behavioral and emotional problems.

From psychiatric epidemiological research and empirical experience we know that violence, poverty, and disasters contribute to neuropsychiatric disorders. And we also know that violence perpetuates violence.

A society is judged by how it cares for its children. Tragically, America is failing this test. Outspoken advocacy is needed to protect our children and to vouchsafe the future of our nation. ▪

Anchor for JumpAnchor for JumpThere are differing schools of thought about the origins of aggression. Some postulate that an infant comes into the world with a template of aggression that is tamed by a nurturing environment. Others see the infant’s psyche as a pure Petri dish. In their view, savage responses in human beings occur in reaction to negative life experience.

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