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     Volume 9 Issue 36| September 03, 2010 |


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Food for thought

It's a Mad World After All…

Farah Ghuznavi

There's no doubt about it, we live in weird times. For example, most would probably agree that the rising popularity of online dating services, particularly in the Western world, is nothing new. And given the hectic pace of life and consequently, the limited opportunities to meet potential partners in societies where 'aunties' are not playing their time-honoured matchmaking role, signing up to such a service may make sense for many people. But I was less impressed by the concept of “speed-dating”, where groups of men and women sign up to participate in rotating three-minute shifts of conversation with each other, with the aim of identifying somebody that they want to get to know better. And if that seemed a strange enough approach, I was truly taken aback by a recent article I came across describing the new practice in the US known as “speed-shrinking”.

No, I'm afraid it's not a miracle diet. It's a system whereby people gather at some location, such as a bookstore, in order to meet a group of psychiatrists who have made themselves available to provide three-minute sessions of free advice to anyone who's interested. In the piece that I read, ordinary bookstore customers were surprised to see the shrinks there, but some of them decided to take advantage of the free offer. It seems peculiar that psychiatrists should be comfortable with the idea of providing treatment in three minutes to patients whose history they are not familiar with! But apparently the accessibility of such sessions can be very useful to those whose therapists have gone on holiday. And according to one of the shrinks, these sessions are not dissimilar to the free consultation calls some psychiatrists provide on the telephone.

I will let you make up your own mind about the justifications provided, but perhaps the real explanation for the phenomenon lies in a combination of uniquely American factors: the desire for instant gratification (where else would you expect to solve a serious problem through quite such a short shortcut?!), the opportunity to “shop” for a suitable therapist by talking to several of those present and deciding which one you prefer, the possibility for psychiatrists to find new clients in a non-traditional way; and of course, a way for the psychiatrist and author of the new “speed shrinking” book that was on sale in the bookstore to promote sales of her book...

Of course, that is not to trivialise the needs of those who are genuinely in need of mental health services and support. I'm just questioning whether speed-shrinking is the answer! Having said that, I must admit that it did recently cross my mind that there are many who strictly speaking do not have mental health problems, but might nevertheless benefit from some form of counselling because they are dealing with a stressful situation such as a distant relative of mine who recently got divorced from his wife after three years of marriage, saying that they “no longer love each other” but plan to remain on amicable terms.

This story is perhaps not that unfamiliar to one of my generation, though it might seem a pity to give up so soon. But one of my parents' friends made it quite clear how absurd she finds the whole thing, saying of her 40 year (quite successful) marriage - “I don't know what's wrong with your generation, Farah, you are all friends but fall out of love. Well, we were never friends with our husbands, but maybe that's not so bad. At least most of us managed to stay married quite happily for longer than three years!”

Nor is modern-day marriage the only challenge, modern-day children are a whole different ball-game. My friend Tina, who is a workaholic human rights lawyer was, quite some time ago, trying to explain to her four-year-old daughter Joya why she had to go to an emergency meeting on the national women's policy on a Saturday. “It's so that little girls like you can grow up in a better world. So that when you grow up, you can be anything you want to be, and no-one can push you around” (please note: an abridged version of the explanation is provided here). Her daughter listened intelligently, and then took her breath away by saying, “Okay Ma, I understand why you want to make the world a better place for children like me, but do you have to go to a meeting for that? Can't you just do it from home?”!!

To make matters worse, it seems that alongside our kids, nowadays even computers are getting into the act of telling us what to do. Recently, we were amazed when my father's laptop gave him a warning just as he was about to send off an e-mail that the recipient of his message might find it offensive. It turned out that the machine was objecting to his use of the sentence: “Jimmy has got laid up with a bout of typhoid”! Then again, perhaps it is not so strange that computers think that they are qualified to give us advice, given the degree of our dependency on them.

Additionally, as much as the Internet has enriched our personal and professional lives, it has not come without a cost. Hidden dangers can lurk…A friend of mine who is very religious, and a genuinely sweet soul, recently found this out first-hand when she was doing some research on the condition known as "selective mutism" that sometimes affects children in difficult circumstances (she does a lot of work with special needs children within the mainstream school system in her country). To her horror, the search took her straight to a porn site, and even as she struggled to shut it down, she found herself assailed by a number of pop-up sites on similarly pornographic themes. I met her half an hour after this experience, and she was still a little shell-shocked. But she received little sympathy from her 15-year-old son, who upon hearing the story said, "You think that's bad? At least you were at home, by yourself - nobody saw you. I was doing an Internet search in my science class at school, and that ended up triggering a porn site! Boy, was that embarrassing!"

And of course, there are always those who take their technology needs way too seriously. I heard a story from an old friend of mine who recently attended the wedding of her cousin, to which her fairly global family had arrived from all corners of the earth. They had gathered at a small chalet in Germany for that purpose, and were sitting around in the living room when the door burst open and a brown stranger rushed in, demanding to know "Where is the Internet? Where is the Internet?"

It was primarily his skin colour that indicated to them that he was likely to be a guest rather than an unknown stranger preparing to inflict a random mass shooting attack - though of course, these are less common in Germany than in some of the countries from which the wedding guests had arrived. At any rate, it was not until it had been pointed out to the stranger - who turned out to be an old friend of the bridegroom, harking back to his schooldays in Bangladesh - that no one knew who he was, that he stopped demanding the Internet long enough to introduce himself.

Alas, by that time, the social damage was done; and his claim that he had arrived there directly from an assignment in Darfur in war-torn Sudan (presumably meant to explain his unseemly desperation to get online) was met with understandable scepticism...

Sources: Material taken from the internet, the New York Times and the UK Independent.


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