The global pandemic shines a spotlight on the Great Digital Divide.
While many of us wax poetic about the wonders of Zoom, Google Hangout, Face Time and social media to keep us connected with co-workers, family and friends, there is a whole cohort of our society who experiences the uber-marginalization of technology access. For example, 50 million children in America were locked-down to be “home schooled” but millions, do not have access to technology or WiFi.
But for those with severe mental illness in our society, living in quasi-institutions or incarcerated, the gap is stunning. Studies have shown the tendency toward digital exclusion among this population, and our friends at The Painted Brain make a good argument that “digital access and literacy should be considered one of the social determinants of health.”
Here are two radical ideas to float until and unless someone makes an argument as to why either one or both of these is impractical or impossible.
1 Equip every board & care home, IMD, and any type of residential congregate living facility with WiFi and iPads, screens or smart phones for residents, along with training, to facilitate access to the internet and to communicate with friends and loved ones.
2 Eliminate the exorbitant phone charges into and out of jails where people with mental illness are completely isolated from friends and family.
Again, I do not have a family member struggling in this system, so I am not as close to this frustration as many who follow this blog. But here is what I am observing in my very limited world view:
My one friend that lives in a board & care home in Pico Rivera does not have access to a smart phone. He calls me on the wall phone. With the stay at home order in place, he cannot go to the library to check his email or access the internet. His adult school, where he has been working on his GED for the last 15 months, has shut down because of coronavirus. He used to attend a local church, which would send a van to pick up a group of their residents on Sunday morning. That has now been suspended, and there is no opportunity to access a virtual church service given no connectivity where he lives. To protect the residents (and I do not fault at all the hard working staff who are doing their best to keep people safe), the congregate dining room is off limits and residents are asked to eat their meals in their rooms
Be honest: if you had to eat alone in your room every day, would you be scrolling through your social media page or texting to friends? I would.
At another local board & care off Sunset Blvd, my Hollywood church had initiated a project earlier this year, called “Kinship Afternoons” to forge a social connection between community members and the residents. We had committed to hanging out with residents every other week, and our last Kinship Afternoon was on March 8, when we hosted a “MOTH-like” open mike storytelling session. When the lock-down occurred, less than 10 days later, all our communications ceased. It is just heartbreaking because we were beginning to create connections with the residents. There is no opportunity to create a “Zoom” experience to connect because they do not have WiFi or a smart television where folks could gather (at a safe distance). They are completely isolated.
Be honest: wouldn’t it be fun to do MOTH story telling via Zoom with friends?
I’m following, “Broken,” the real time narrative shared by a mother of an adult son with treatment-resistant schizophrenia and substance abuse on Facebook. I would encourage you to “like” this page and follow along as it will give you an intimate glimpse into the way in which families are marginalized from our system. In her words, “its not an easy read, but important.”
Her son is currently living in a residential program, but because of covid, she is not allowed to visit him and he is not allowed to have a smart phone. Imagine, no Face Time with her son. The rationale, as I read these accounts, is that a patient might take a photo of someone and that would be an invasion of their privacy. Here is a question: if I have a baby, and am in the maternity ward of the hospital, am I allowed to have my smartphone with me? Why should this be different? Why are we more afraid of a photo being taken within a psychiatric residential facility as compared to a medical facility? What is the worst thing that could happen and how does that outweigh the therapeutic benefit of staying connected to the outside world?
Be honest: if you had to live somewhere for months and months without being visited, and you didn’t have a smart phone to play Words with Friends or Face Time your mother, where would you be emotionally?
In February, I had the opportunity to meet two amazing men who are mental health assistants in the Forensic Inpatient Program (FIP) in the mental health tower at LA County Twin Towers. I was in the jail shadowing a chaplain, in preparation for my application to volunteer for the chaplain’s team. These two assistants, who are inmates themselves, serve as inspiration to inmates in the FIP step down program to help prepare them for re-entry on the outside. I have been astonished at how utterly impossible it is to maintain meaningful communications with these two inmates. In the past month:
- I have signed up for a $45 Global Tel service which should allow them to call me collect, but I have yet to figure out how they can access it. This service charges $.20/minute.
- I somehow got duped into signing up for another service, which is GTL (same service different name?) and put $20 on that account only to have $3 immediately deducted for admin charges. This service charges $.25 per minute. When that got used up almost immediately, it seemed, I added another $35. I am completely befuddled as to why I have two accounts right now and there is no easy way to seek clarification on this.**
- I signed up for a postcard service through Global Tel, and that postcard was returned to my home. It appeared that I did not put the inmate number on the card, but there was no box on the form which requested the inmate number.
- When we do communicate, it is largely because they purchase five minute allotments of time to call me from their own limited funds.
- In the past two weeks, it appears that they have been offered limited access to five-minute free calls because of the coronavirus (because visitation is suspended right now). It is very hard to have a meaningful conversation in five minutes.
Be honest: do you think you could truly find some emotional stability and confidence about returning to the world if you only had five minutes to talk to a loved one?
Social isolation is debilitating. We are all experiencing this now first hand, some more than others, but I believe this collective pandemic experience is opening our hearts to the anxiety and frustration and depression that can set in when you cannot communicate with those you love.
Be honest: It’s time to build the bridges that will eliminate the digital divide in our society.
**As I was researching this blog, I stumbled upon article from this month about the “insidious games of the prison phone companies, masked by their generosity during the pandemic.” The prison phone call system is a $1.2B/year industry, according to an article in the New York Times. A worthy read; it puts everything I’ve experienced into perspective. My heart breaks for families trying to stay connected with their loves ones in prisons and jails.