Bullying, Privacy, Decency: Where do we stand?

This morning I saw a friend’s Facebook link to Kathleen Parker’s Washington Post column, With Tyler Clementi’s Death, Let’s Try Friending Decency. On Friday, I had seen an email from the Unitarian Universalist Association, Church of the Larger Fellowship, pointing me to a blog post by the senior minister, Rev. Meg Riley entitled How Can We Create a World Where All Young People Feel Safe? Each of these authors focuses on a different aspect of the tragic death by suicide of an 18-year-old. Parker focuses on the obscene invasion of privacy of this gay young man; Riley focuses on bullying of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) young people and on others seen as ‘different’.

If you are unfamiliar with the events, this CBS News report will give you a four-minute overview. To make it short . . . Roommate 1 and his friend decide to publicly out his gay Roommate 2. Roommate 1 sets up webcam in their shared dormitory room, records and then, with the help of friend, publishes online Roommate 2 making out with his male date. Roommate 2 is so humiliated that he announces his suicide on Facebook and jumps to his death from the George Washington bridge. Tyler Clementi’s suicide was the fourth widely reported death by suicide of an LGBT teenager in the past few months.

Roommate 1 and his friend have been charged with invasion of privacy. It is yet to be decided whether they will also be charged with a hate crime.

Both Kathleen Parker and Meg Riley conclude that all of us must assess our own behavior and determine how we can behave differently to preclude such events in the future. Parker’s solution would be accomplished by the community of ‘decent’ folks refusing to tolerate invasions of privacy. . . our own or that of anyone else. Riley’s focus is on bullying of lesbian and gay kids and argues that we must ‘stand on the side of love’ refusing to allow people to be victimized because they are different from most of us in any way.

Reading these articles and viewing the news report on these sad events inevitably makes me think about our current rush to electronic medical records (EMRs) in the world of behavioral health care and chemical dependency treatment. How will be assure the protection of the privacy of the vulnerable populations we treat? Will we put them even more at risk by how we handle the records of their treatment?

I am reminded of a conversation with a customer several years ago. They were in the process of implementing their second try at an EMR. They were working on issues of security and access to data, and were attempting to make decisions about how to handle employees who read the treatment records of clients they have no business viewing. One of their experiences was with a staff person reading the record of a neighbor; another was a family member viewing a cousin’s record.

Of course, these breaches of privacy could almost as easily occur in a paper record world. Pulling a file off a shelf or out of a file drawer is not much harder than calling the record up on the computer. The paper record probably takes a bit more effort and sneaking around than just logging into the EMR that sits on the organization’s network and taking a quick look at what is entered there. Cases in California two years ago emphasized this; medical and nursing staff who had a right to view hospital records did not seem to hesitate at viewing the records of celebrities in their hospital for treatment, whether involved in their care or not. 2009 laws in California increased reporting requirements if inappropriate access of records is discovered. Last year’s HITECH requirements also focus this issue.

It seems to me that the more important issue is how we address the matters of human curiosity and discomfort with others . . . whether celebrities or LGBT clients. How do we create a culture of respect for other people and their right to keep their own information private? Where do we draw the line in our own lives? Do we gossip and tease and reveal secrets shared with us? Or do we empathize and protect and defend those in our lives who are different?

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