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Canaries in a Coal Mine



From 1911 to 1986, canaries were used in coal mines to detect dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. The phrase "canary in a coal mine" has expanded to mean a person or thing that may present an early warning of danger. “Canaries” may be people who have extra insight, a special spiritual connection, or sensitivity that makes their perspective unique. Unfortunately, people like this are often marginalized. They tend to me introverts who shy away from fame and fortune. They are generally considered "too sensitive" and abnormal.


Instead of celebrating these people and giving them space to thrive, we see them as imperfect and try to change them. They have problems fitting in, so we think then need to be fixed. They are not outgoing enough. They are too sensitive, depressed, or anxious.


All kinds of therapies are offered to help these people change. Self help books abound, promising hope for the insecure soul to realize her potential. If the therapy and books don't help, an arsenal of pharmaceutical is available.


While powerful psychotropics may help some people, there is growing consensus that these drugs are over-prescribed. Many believe they are doing more harm than good.


Medicating Normal is a documentary that follows the lives of several people suffering from anxiety and depression. They were prescribed psychotropic drugs to treat their conditions.

Each individual in the documentary said the drugs ultimately made them feel worse, and each person concluded that she or he would have benefitted more from learning skills rather than taking drugs. These “canaries” were "too sensitive". Their feelings were “bigger” than those of others, so they were proscribed brain-altering drugs to make them feel better.


What happens when canaries are muted?

In coal mines, canaries have “bigger” feelings than miners and show symptoms sooner. But, what if the birds were medicated to withstand greater levels of poison? Of course, they would cease to serve their purpose: miners would die.

According to the documentary, one in five Americans is taking psychotropic drugs for anxiety and depression. An NBC news article puts the number at one in six. These people might be considered as the more sensitive among us. Medications dull the full spectrum of their feelings. Along with anxiety and depression, happiness and joy are experienced less. But what if their “big feelings” are accurate?

Is it possible that some of these "canaries" might be sensing something lethal?

In deadening the sensitivity of the sensitive, are we dulling an alarm?


An important piece of the story about real canaries is that they were cared for. Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning would make them less active and vocal. When signs of illness were evident, the canary's chamber would door shut so oxygen could be released inside.


Oxygen can be synonymous with space. When people say, "I need to get some oxygen", it could mean "I need some space - to breathe, to relax, to gain perspective, to get outside". Instead of giving space to sensitive people, we medicate them so they'll tolerate more poison. In doing so, we may be quieting the warning cry of 56 million people.


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