Testimony of Jerry Halberstadt on S791—task force on safety & welfare

Testimony on S791—task force on safety & welfare

To the Joint Committee on Housing

I am Jerry Halberstadt, the Coordinator of the Stop Bullying Coalition. I served as one of the members of the Commission on Bullying and on the board of the Center for Independent Living of the North Shore and Cape Ann.

We strongly support the creation of a joint task force on the safety and welfare of elderly and disabled persons residing in public housing as proposed in S791 by Senator Diana DiZoglio.

This task force will bring together experts in mental health and the administration of public housing to develop best practices to ensure the safety and welfare of elderly and disabled persons residing in public housing, including investigating efforts to maximize overall facility and individual apartment safety and security.

We recommend that the scope be broadened to cover subsidized housing; the problems are similar. This task force will complement the findings of the Commission on Bullying and can lead to legislative and administrative changes that can complement the goals of the bills on bullying now before the committee.

The intersection of mental health and bullying can create significant pain and injustice. Bullying labels and targets people for unfair treatment to benefit the perpetrator. The label is often chosen to justify harming, excluding, or winning against the target, or it may be based on a prejudice against a category of person. Given the cultural attitudes towards mental illness, a real or imagined mental health condition can be used to target.

My own work has focused on the dynamics of bullying and mobbing in the social context. Finding ways to deal with bullying is an important factor to assure the safety of all residents in the community setting. At the same time, expertise in individual and group mental health is a necessary part of the solution.

I see bullying in a public health or infectious disease framework: in any group there is bound to be one or more persons who seek personal gain at the expense of others. When one bully succeeds and is not sanctioned, the behavior will spread.

Both public and subsidized housing for the elderly have residents who are living with disability, including a wide range of physical, behavioral health, and developmental challenges. Residents come from a diversity of backgrounds, many lack experience of life in a multifamily setting, and tend to have a wide range of ideas about how people should behave.

Bullying can take place in any group. Mobbing arises when there is a lack of a commonly accepted set of rules and understandings for daily life, there is no fair enforcement of rules, and when the landlord and management do not prevent bullying.

Bullying has severe impacts on the social and emotional life of the residential community. Bullying can create stress, emotional and physical illness in the target, and can exacerbate existing conditions. Group bullying, mobbing, and the lack of appropriate enforcment of limits quickly create a toxic situation and hostile environment from which there is no escape. Janice Harper, Ph.D., presents a penetrating analysis of the dynamics of mobbing. Harper, Janice, Bullying and Mobbing in Group Settings, Statement presented to the Massachusetts Commission on Bullying, August 7, 2017.

The impact of bullying, especially on the targets of bullying, is to create significant stress in the social setting. Sometimes the target tries to escape by avoiding social contact, staying in their room. Stress and social isolation are terribly punishing and can lead to depression.

June Fleischmann is an outreach worker with 25 years’ experience in the field of community mental health. Her work includes advocacy, education, outreach, and other supports to connect people to community service providers. She writes:

“Perhaps we have become accustomed to working with a broken compass, constantly adjusting for ‘normal’ hostility, something to be expected, when people must live next to ‘strangers.’ Managers, administrators, advocates, safety personnel, and others may care, but are unclear about how to resolve and protect ‘targets.’ They get stuck on ‘who provoked whom,’ and meet with advisors and mediators, who also do not know how to address the problem and wish the victim would just avoid the bully, because the matter is complicated and, after all, they fear they ‘can only do so much.’”

“The bully, however, feels justified, has support from friends, and fears nothing. The victim fears for his very existence, fears leaving his apartment, and waits, yearning for freedom.”

In the case of a person already challenged by a mental health condition, the stress and isolation from bullying can worsen the target’s health. When the target reacts to the provocations, the perpetrator claims to be the victim. Under conditions of mobbing, no one dares to speak for the victim, and there are many who will claim that the victim is a bad person who “does not belong here.” When the victim is accused in court of harassing, the court rules against the victim because “Everyone testified against you.”

Managers and service coordinators may not have the training and experience to relate to people of different backgrounds and cultures, let alone people who have significant health challenges.

Ideally, they would know how to work with residents to develop and maintain an accepting, compassionate, and supportive environment. Too often, the reaction to the conflicts and mobbing is to go against the victim. But when managers or victims turn to agencies that ought to help, those agencies may be unwilling to challenge the landlord, or may not have the staff and resources.

I have observed too many cases where the target of mobbing is unfairly evicted, forced to become homeless, or pushed into a breakdown and hospitalization. The effect of mobbing and the fear of challenging authority leads to injustice.

Bullying is an equal opportunity curse, many labels can be chosen to justify the cruelty, but our society tends to fail in understanding and compassion for mental health. So anyone who is different, has a mental health condition, or is seen to be and labeled as “crazy” can be harassed. Mobbing becomes like a witch hunt, the accused has no defense and will be punished.

As a tenant leader in Bleak House, a subsidized apartment community, we tried to stop bullying by two groups of people using mobbing tactics that were supported and condoned by management. Anyone who affiliated with our tenant association was pressured. At one point, a resident whose behavior as a perpetrator had irritated many then came under attack by nearly every tenant, and in an example of community mobbing, the landlord, the manager, and the service coordinator, a licensed social worker, refused to intervene. I finally called elder abuse because the victim was being assaulted and treated in the hospital and I feared for his life. For several months thereafter, I was universally shunned for being a “rat.”

Lynn Costello, a resident of Lowell Public Housing, experienced an exacerbation of her own condition when other residents engaged in bullying and aggression. Lynn advocates for the posting of mental health and other professionals with the skills to deal with social, emotional, and mental health issues right at the housing complex. She writes,

“You know I really want to support anti-bullying legislation, but I don't want to hurt mentally ill people either if it is put in place without addressing the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental illness, either.”

“A lot of times there are a set of double standards for those who have mental illness and those who don’t—something I’m writing about in my memoir.  When you have mental illness and you act angry, people treat you differently than so-called ‘normal’ people who seem to have the right to express their emotions. 

What happens when mentally ill people are involved in bullying situations—people might blame their behavior for starting the whole thing when, really, they are reacting to people who might or might not have mental illness—and then it is those people who have a free pass and the mentally ill person is then forced into treatment they don’t want (especially taking medications).  

I feel that sometimes too much emphasis is put on mentally ill people who might be violent and provocative when the truth is they don’t represent the majority of mentally ill people who are more often the ones who are targeted and bullied. It’s more often the mentally ill person is misunderstood because of the stigma and ignorance around mental health in our society.”

Michael Groat, PhD, How should people with mental illness be treated?, Say No to Stigma, the blog of the Menninger Clinic, http://saynotostigma.com/2010/03/how-should-people-with-mental-illness-… March 16, 2010
Monica A. Frank, Ph.D., 5 Common Microaggressions Against Those With Mental Illness, https://excelatlife.com/articles/microaggressions.htm

Pamela Goodwin tried to improve the conditions for elderly and disabled neighbors where she lived, in Upton Public Housing. She was labeled as mentally ill, mobbed, and harassed, including by management. To escape the danger, she moved out to live in a tent and became homeless.

“Margaret,” a woman living with disability including mental health as well as severe mobility challenges, spoke up on behalf of the rights of other disabled residents. A group of tenants did not want to have any disabled people living in the building. Margaret was unfairly evicted and made homeless, and nearly died.

There are challenges in managing a residential situation that has people living with disability. What consideration and accommodations does a tenant require? When a person with disability breaks the rules and infringes on the rights of others, are they given a pass or are they held accountable? If a person is acting like a bully, are they actually suffering from dementia or an exacerbation of the mental health issue, or are they on the wrong type or dose of medication? Too often, the outcome is mobbing: tenants decide to ‘get rid of the target’ and the management hears all the complaints and moves to evict.

Dr Marsha Frankl and her colleagues at the (Boston) Jewish Community for Housing for the Elderly and the (Boston) Jewish Family and Childrens’ Services are on the forefront of dealing with the problem of bullying and mental health.
Frankl, M. Webinar: Combatting Social Bullying Among Older Adults Posted March 7, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ax_oDzW8jo;
Frankl M., Freed G., Isenberg L., Silverlieb C. and Burns K., "Tips and Techniques for Supporting Residents with Mental Illness: A Guide for Staff in Housing for Older Adults." 2012: JCHE & JCFS http://www.jfcsboston.org/Our-Services/Older-Adults/Mental-Health-Guide

They assert that when, dealing with a bullying incident, it is important to act quickly, sensitively, and appropriately. It’s important to understand that there are many reasons senior citizens bully—and sometimes it’s a symptom of an untreated, or not adequately treated, medical or psychological problem. A one-size-fits-all solution, such as a Zero Tolerance policy, is not appropriate. Interventions need to be tailored to the needs of those involved. They also realize that there are circumstances, when interventions have failed, that evicting the perpetrator is appropriate.

Some managers take their responsibilities for peaceful enjoyment seriously and seek constructive solutions, and are able to assemble the needed professional resources. Brian Costello, the Executive Director of the Watertown Housing Authority and President of MassNAHRO, oversees 326 units of elderly, senior citizen and disabled housing. He said,

“The landlord should be accountable for their primary purpose, which is quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the building. That can't be overstated, it really is what I do, and what my staff is responsible for. And I have a five-member board of directors and one of them is a resident and they will hold us accountable. That's how it happens in Watertown. If residents feel their needs are not being met, then they should be able to reach out to a third party.”

Costello asserted the importance of having the funding and resources to bring mental health and other expertise to the residential setting. "It requires a supportive service budget. There are some acute care needs. There is an issue a day when a resident feels uncomfortable in their home."

I applaud the initiative of Senator DiZoglio. I urge the legislature to advance this bill and to also consider the other factors that must be brought to bear to create a peaceful and safe community life.