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A few weeks ago, my spouse’s attention was drawn to a young man on the street corner below our nearby grocery — he was highly agitated, had fly-about hair and was speaking loudly to himself.  As my spouse parked her car, the man walked toward the store, then situated himself a few paces from the entrance and continued to gesture.  My spouse went in the store to shop; when she returned to her car, she saw the man enter the store.

Would these events and observations have caused you concern?

I venture that, for most people (including me), the answer would be based on prejudices or personal experiences rather than any purposeful training.  This is because our society has yet to adopt — let alone agree on — objective, constructive responses to those who exhibit odd or unstable behavior in public, especially when those people are strangers.

The U.S. Forest Service has a cartoon bear with a ranger hat to remind us about wildfires and how to prevent them.  But the Department of Health and Human Services has yet to deploy its own mental-health mascot, Serenity The Swan.  (We can only suppose that she is waiting in the wings.)  Given our nation’s conflicted mental-health objectives, Serenity would have little coherent to say to us in any case.  Meanwhile, we — the troubled souls and those concerned about them — have largely been left to figure things out on our own.

My spouse described her encounter to me when she got home from the grocery store, and we discussed the situation a while.  I asked, had she thought about calling 911, and she replied no.  She said, it didn’t seem like an emergency and “people can be a little crazy.”

• • • • 

The next day, our neighborhood’s Nextdoor site lit up with comments to a posting about a “mentally disturbed man with a dark and menacing energy” walking around a nearby park and “looking for his axe and ranting about Lucifer and strange stuff.”  Being that none of my Nextdoor neighbors have ever heard a mental-health message from Serenity The Swan, they were free to fill the void with their own public service pronouncements:

  • This encounter is a prime example why no one should be out and about without some sort of weapon close at hand. Mace, pepper spray, a walking stick, or something more lethal, whatever you’re comfortable with.
  • I saw him in the parking lot of Fresh Market yesterday. He appeared to be having an animated conversation with someone who was not there. There is a lot of mental illness out there these days.
  • A perfect example of what defund police should be about.  A social worker and police were needed there.
  • He is a registered sex offender known to police and first responders in the neighborhood.  He has had mental illness since his teens but those who know him believe he’s currently unmedicated.  We believe he’s homeless.  He rides a child’s bike and carries an axe.
  • He rides a child’s bike and carries an axe? For real.  And he is allowed to do that.  That is just crazier than he is.

I could not help myself and made a comment:

  • A 9-1-1 call would have been appropriate, if you didn’t already.

Because 911 is all I know.  This prompted a couple of replies which I could not discount:

  • Or a nonemergency call to law enforcement if you’re concerned but not dealing with a life or death emergency.
  • Just a heads up, the police will not respond unless violence [is] occurring. The police do not have enough manpower now.  We have sketchy people all over the place.

Let’s be clear — until now, I hadn’t given much thought to how I should report weirdness that falls short of being an emergency.  (As if I am a reliable judge of that.)  I do not have the non-emergency numbers of our local police departments in my cellphone.  I have no evidence whether calling 911 in such situations is a positive, a negative, or a waste of time.   I had never researched whether there is a mental-health-related alternative to 911 where we live and, if so, who would respond.  I know that if we do have such an alternative here, its existence has been well-concealed.

• • • • 

I hardly need to point out how the ubiquity of firearms in the U.S. has poisoned the way we deal with overtly disturbed people.  The gun-fetish interpretation (Scalia, June 2008) of the Second Amendment severed all ties between the words well regulated and arms, which has allowed very troubled people to inflict constitutionally-condoned mass harm.(1)  After causing such harm, they are at liberty (!) to dispatch themselves with their own guns or relegate the dispatching to the police.

Not that the police want that job.  No police officer (except maybe Polk County, Florida, Sheriff Grady Judge) wants any part of suicide-by-cop duty.  Tragic as these events are, there seem to be plenty of them thanks to firearms.  The flood of guns on the streets only adds to the fear and uncertainty of police officers as to the lethality of the objects they encounter in the course of doing their jobs.

The prevalence, hence future probability, of random gun violence has trained ever-fearful Americans, police and civilians alike, to treat “unstable” people as threats to be avoided, or to subdue and arrest, rather than as sufferers to be helped — assuming the community has the resources to help them.

Our fear is only made worse by how people with mental-health problems are presented on the news.  A 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University found that “when the news media portrayed a specific individual with mental illness, that individual was most frequently depicted as having committed an act of interpersonal violence.”  The study also concluded that “the news media’s … emphasis on interpersonal violence is highly disproportionate to actual rates of violence among those with mental illnesses.  [This] may exacerbate social stigma and decrease support for public policies that benefit people with mental illnesses.”

Clearly, we have learned to associate the mental-health issues of others with the prospect of danger to ourselves.  So what shall it be?  Do we want our social/governmental response to take care of the matter or take care of the person?

• • • • 

Which leads us to the 911 call and the response it may elicit.  Our county website has this to say about “right and wrong” uses of the 911 system:  A call to 911 should always be a call for help!  Use 911 for life-threatening incidents.  This includes:

  • If someone is hurt.
  • If you see someone taking something that belongs to someone else.
  • If you see someone hurting someone else.
  • If you smell smoke or see fire.

Neglecting for now the fact that “someone taking something that belongs to someone else” is usually not life-threatening, these 911 guidelines seem to exclude unstable behavior that falls short of being a crisis.  Sort of what the Nextdoor commenter said to me.

But doesn’t a person who may endanger themselves or others justify a call to 911?  Maybe not!  The new concern, based on highly-publicized interactions(2) between the police and the mentally-precarious, is that calling 911 may not be “helpful” in such situations, and for good cause:  Research Triangle Institute found that, of 159 officer-involved fatal shootings in North Carolina from 2015 to 202o, “about one-fifth involved someone who displayed signs of mental illness.”  National data follows the same trend.

The advocacy and research group Mental Health America echoes such concerns in its 2017 policy statement:

Unfortunately, we do not have appropriate systems in place to respond to mental health and substance use crises.  Among the wide-spread problems are: the lack of alternatives to calling 911; the lack of training for 911 personnel; the lack of alternatives to dispatching law enforcement personnel in response to mental health and substance use crises…

As a result, persons experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis may end up in confrontations with law enforcement personnel which have tragic outcomes, [or may] be transported to a jail and subjected to ongoing involvement in the criminal justice system when these outcomes are unnecessary, are harmful to the person, and do not lead to increased public safety.

If only there were a mobile mental-health crisis response unit that we could call, instead of involving law enforcement…  But wait!  Someone has thought of this already!  I think.

• • • •

North Carolina has a statewide information and referral service called “NC 211” which is operated by United Way of North Carolina.  Callers are referred to the local organizations “best equipped to address their specific health and human services needs including food, shelter, energy assistance, housing, parenting resources, healthcare, substance abuse, as well as specific resources for older adults, persons with disabilities, and much more.”

The only reason I know about 211 is that I was once a volunteer tax-preparer for a local non-profit financial counseling center.  We would let our clients know about 211 when we did their taxes.  But 211 otherwise gets little airtime around here — in fact I’d be surprised if 2.11 percent of the locals know 211 exists.

Nonetheless, I knew about it — so I visited the NC 211 website to see whether 211 might be the better number to call to report disturbing behavior.  That is how I stumbled upon RHA Health Services, which calls itself a “leading provider of high-quality supports and services for people with a variety of behavioral health needs in North Carolina.”  I then read that RHA has a “mobile crisis” team offering “on-site response, stabilization and intervention for people of all ages who are experiencing a crisis due to mental health disturbances, developmental disabilities, or addiction.”  That sounds… helpful.

I decided to call the local RHA office to ask: would it be appropriate to call RHA, rather than 211 or 911, the next time I am concerned about the erratic behavior of a stranger?  Here is a summary of my converstaion with the friendly RHA rep who answered my call:

•  The first question the representative asked me was, who suggested I should not call 911?  I replied, social media.  She paused, but she did not take pains to correct me.

•  She then said that, generally, individuals do not contact RHA directly unless the person who needs help is a family member or someone they are responsible for.  This is because the services that RHA delivers are by consent, i.e., someone needs to authorize them.

•  As to the specific case I mentioned, the agitated stranger in apparent need of help, the RHA rep suggested that the non-emergency police number would be the best one to call.  She assured me that the city and county have trained crisis intervention personnel, and that law enforcement reaches out to RHA as appropriate.  (I must take her word on this.)  But even so, she added, some people decline the mental health services offered to them.

• • • •

NC Policy Watch, a North Carolina public policy think tank, recently questioned whether police officers, even with special training, are the appropriate first responders to mental health situations:

Although North Carolina law enforcement agencies have been using Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, for more than 15 years to learn to respond to people in mental health crises, there’s now a growing belief that it’s unwise for police to respond to every emergency call, especially those involving mental health issues or homelessness. Cities in North Carolina are looking at practices in use around the country where non-police alternatives resulted in fewer arrests.

As such, members of the North Carolina House introduced a bill in May that would fund pilot programs in Charlotte, Greenville and Greensboro, to provide “alternative responses to citizens in crisis” and better facilitate “the response of behavioral and medical health personnel to nonviolent situations deemed appropriate by the city police department.” While it is good to see movement on this front, House Bill 802 is just one of 177 bills (!) awaiting action by the Appropriations Committee.  Who knows what its fate will be?

While we wait, may I suggest that, unless your county has put a better system in place, we should all look up the non-emergency phone numbers of our local police departments and store those numbers in our cell phones.  You know, just in case.

That said, it would be even better if we had a three-digit number for mental-health calls, the analogue of 911 for law enforcement and emergency calls.  What’s that, Serenity?  You say there is one?  Yes, sort of.  Last October, the U.S. Congress passed (and the president signed) The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020.  This bill established 988 as the national suicide prevention lifeline, effective July 2022.  It is unclear to me whether 988 will be reserved for strictly life-threatening situations or, as I hope, will also serve as a de-escalated alternative to 911 for mental-health distress calls.

We will have to see how this develops in each of the little states we live in.


(1)  A 2018 study by Silver, Fisher and Horgan of over 100 U.S. mass shootings from 1990 to 2014 found that “half of the offenders had a history of mental illness or mental health treatment but less than 5 percent had gun‐disqualifying mental health records.”
(2)  Just a handful of examples: Terrence Coleman, Boston, MA, 2016.  Ricardo Hayes, Chicago, IL, 2017.  Saheed Vassell, Brooklyn, NY, 2018.  Miles Hall, Walnut Creek, CA, 2019.  Daniel Prude, Rochester, NY, 2020.  Chris Craven, Mooresville, NC, 2021…
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≡  Whenever I ask Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes (typically when I am grilling burgers), I’m always surprised how quickly those few minutes pass.  It’s like, wow, already?  I hardly had time to sit down, and now you’re telling me those minutes are gone.  Good thing Alexa is not sitting on our shoulders, timing what remains of our lives.

≡  If you were to live on Wild Magnolia Way near Zirconia, North Carolina — specifically at the coordinates 35.1653N, 82.4559W — you could walk 1300 feet north, 1300 feet south, 1300 feet east, or 1300 feet west, and in each case, for better or worse, you would wind up in South Carolina.  (OK.  It would be worse.  Sorry, not really, South Carolina.)

≡  By the way, the previous “thought” took me over an hour to research.  Good thing Alexa was not sitting on my shoulder, timing how much of my life ticked past on that exercise.

≡  In Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, Gavin Larsen writes: “The curse of being a good faker is that people begin to think you’re for real, and then they expect things.”  For many, the next step along this path is self-deprecation, our indirect way of saying, “Please don’t expect anything more of me than I expect of myself.”

≡  The reverse side of this coin is impostor syndrome: they expected things of me, and those things were delivered, so they judged me to be competent even though the outcome was uncertain and only partly due to my effort.  I got more credit than I deserved for the fortune of working with good people.  Damn expectations, the curse of transactional life.

≡  I was just notified that MailChimp, the (free-to-me) service I use to send update notices to my subscribers, is selling itself to Intuit, owner of TurboTax and QuickBooks.  Somehow I will not be surprised the day I’m told that I will have to pay for the privilege of letting you know something new has been posted here.  As always, money marches on.

≡  Here’s a good one.  I’m always impatient to have my first cup of coffee after I wake up.  Last night, to speed up the process, I decided I would pre-fill the carafe with water and put the filter in the coffee-maker basket so that I wouldn’t have to fumble around with those tasks in the morning.  All I would have to do is grind the coffee, dump it into the basket, empty the carafe into the reservoir, and turn on the machine.  So fast-forward to this morning.  I go through the motions of making coffee and then sit down in the family room to wait, and voilà!  I’m amazed how fast the coffee-maker beeps to let me know my coffee is ready!  I go back out to the kitchen to find cool, clear water sitting in the carafe.

≡  The world would be a happier place if people didn’t get so bent out of shape when their expectations were not met.  When exactly did perfectionism become not only a thing but an entitlement?

≡  There needs to be a set of words for forms of government that are distinguished by the fact that men define them and control them.  For example, theomanocracy is the kind of government you find in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vatican City.  And then there is demomanocracy, whose most notable example is the U.S.A. — the 88th-ranked nation in terms of women’s participation in congress/parliament (23%).  But let’s not forget about commumanism as practiced in the People’s Republic of China — there is only one woman in their 25-member Politburo and no women at all in their 7-member leadership circle.

≡  If you are looking a word for forms of government distinguished by the fact that women define them and control them, then I can supply it — none-ocracies.

≡  I was rear-ended at an on-ramp in early June.  My vehicle had under 4000 miles on it, thus ended my new-car honeymoon.  The parts to complete the repair took two months to arrive, so the work was just finished this week.  Since the crash, I have become paranoid about other vehicles ramming into me from behind — I find myself constantly checking my rear-view mirror for drivers talking on their phones who don’t care about attention spans or stopping distances.  What am I supposed to do about them?  It signifies a huge loss of social trust when drivers are forced to manage the space behind them as carefully as the space ahead.

≡  Not long ago, my spouse noticed a highly-agitated person in the parking lot of our local supermarket, talking to himself.  She was concerned about his well-being (as well as those he might encounter) but she did not know who to call so he might get help.  After hearing her story, I was compelled to look into this — who would I call?  How would they respond?  There is no clear answer to either question, at least in these parts.  What about in yours?  This topic is much more than a “thought” and will be taken up again in a future post.

≡  Handbook of Western Culture Rule No. 118:  “No performer in a blues song, rap song or action movie shall say whom or isn’t.  [The preferred forms are who and ain’t.]  Moreover,  those who observe Rule No. 118 are considered to have adhered to Western Cultural norms and thus shall not be held in breach of conflicting linguistic rules in this Handbook.”

≡  Our not-so-local (Saga) “pure oldies” station often plays “Ferry Cross the Mersey” by the British band Gerry and the Pacemakers and written by the band’s leader Gerry Marsden.  “Mersey” refers to the River Mersey that divides the cities of Liverpool and Birkenhead, Liverpool’s poorer cousin.  Since I usually listen to oldies on my portable radio when I do outdoor projects — and since Saga has a rather limited rotation — I have probably heard “Ferry Cross the Mersey” ten times as much in my sixties than I ever did in the sixties.

I single out “Ferry Cross the Mersey” because, when I actually listened to the song, I was intrigued by the lyrics:  People around every corner / They seem to smile and say / We don’t care what your name is, boy / We’ll never send you away…

Where did this come from?  The song was about crossing an English river, for godsake!  Marsden makes it sound like his ferry transported him to a foreign and hostile land, only to be taken aback when the townfolk of Birkenhead didn’t spit on him and throw him into the stockade.*

But upon further review, I thought… rivers, walls, trenches, hollers, streets, railroads, Mason-Dixon lines… any boundary at all can serve as a way to separate us from them.  Maybe Gerry — and his ferry — were onto something.

* The north side (Liverpool) and the south side (Birkenhead) of the Mersey had been in different counties (Lancashire and Cheshire, respectively) for 783 years when Marsden wrote his song.
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Asked and Answered 3.4

Hello, and here we are again.  I thought I was done with this series on hanging pictures, but it seems physics never dies — it just gets more complicated.

Some commenters on my previous articles (Why Frames Tilt Forward, The “Hang It with Two Hooks” Calculator, and The Physics of Hanging Pictures) asked how they could hang items on wall studs, if the studs are off-center from the desired hanging spot.  This seemed to be a rather specialized topic, and beyond the scope of my series, so I deferred until now.  But a recent commenter rekindled my interest and finally inspired me to take a look.

Before I proceed, however, I must mention that I’m not the first to address this problem.  The number-one result (as of now) I found in searches for “hang item on off-center studs” is this article on by an author named MolecularD.  The author describes the principles involved and offers a set of equations (minus the math) that are meant to show the reader where to place the wall hooks.  Unfortunately, some readers commented that they did not get the desired result when they followed the author’s instructions.

The solution provided in the article is such a complicated equation that there is no way for me to verify it without essentially solving the problem myself.  Which is what I will do now, taking a somewhat simpler, more intuitive approach.

The four consecutive views in Figure 1 demonstrate the concept:

Concept of Hanging a Frame on Two Studs

View (A) depicts a frame hanging on a wall, centered at our desired position (dotted line), using a wire on a single hook.  Because of the symmetry of the system, there is no tendency for the frame to rotate one way or the other.  Ignore for now the fact that the wire extends above the top of the frame.

View (B) shows the studs in the wall behind the frame (we use a stud-finder to spot them).  The two studs are different distances from the center of the frame.  We drive a nail into the center of each stud, just touching the underside of the wire.  This does not cause the frame to rotate.

In View (C), we attach a piece of wire (blue) to the original wire, from the point where the first nail touches the wire to where the second nail touches the wire, without any slack.  The load is now shared between the central hook and the nails in the studs.  But this still does not cause the frame to rotate.

In View (D), we snip away the original wire where it touched the nails, leaving our new wire in place.  The nails in the studs now assume all the load, with the higher nail bearing more than the lower.  Still the frame does not rotate, so we have found the solution.

Obviously, I don’t expect readers to repeat these steps to hang their pictures — this was just a demonstration of concept.  Instead I will offer a calculator, with instructions for taking measurements, placing the hooks and cutting the wire, to help the reader achieve the final result.

That is, if you really insist on using studs.  Personally, I think it would be easier in most cases to forget about the studs and use the Hang-It-With-Two-Hooks calculator that I presented in my earlier article.  You would fasten the hooks to the wall with toggle bolts, which can hold a significant amount of weight when paired with the appropriate hooks.  (This video shows how to install them.)  But in the end, it’s your call.

The Setup

Oh, you’re still here!  This must mean that you really, really want to use two studs to hang your item.  Okay then, onto the intricate details.  Please consult Figure 2 (below) to get a sense of the important lengths and measures:

Diagram of Frame Hung on Two Studs

Start by measuring the height H and the weight of the item you want to hang.  Then mark the spot 0n the wall corresponding to the top-center of the item.  All other measurements will refer to this point.

Next, use your stud-finder to measure XA, the distance from top-center to the center of the closest stud, and XB, the distance from top-center to the center of the next-closest stud.

Now inspect your hanging hardware.  You want to (ideally) hide all your hardware behind the item you are hanging, which means the higher hook (A) should not show.  Therefore, you should choose a value for ZA, the distance from the top of the frame to the bottom of Hook A, that is slightly greater than the length of the hook.

While you are it, measure the length (D) of the D-rings attached to the item.  If you plan to attach the wire directly to the item, then this length is zero.

Your next measurement is WD, the distance between the D-ring attachment points.  If you have not yet attached the D-rings to your item, then mark the spots where you think they should be attached, and measure the distance between those marks.

Note that I have not asked you to specify Y, the distance from the top of the frame to the D-ring attachment point, or ZB, the distance from the top of the frame to the bottom of Hook B, or S, the length of wire to cut.  These values will be returned by the calculator.

There is one last thing you may have noticed on the diagram: to make the item hang true, you need to install a guide hook below Hook A to equalize the slack in the wire — and the forward tilt — on the left and right sides.  More on this later.

The Math and The Calculator

I provide geometric and algebraic solutions in this attachment.  The result we are most interested in is:

ZB = ZA+ (XBXA) tan θ

where θ is the wire angle, tan θ = (Y ZA)/(WC XA) and WC = ½ WD.

The formula for ZB assumes that Y, the D-ring attachment point, is a given.  But I don’t ask you to specify Y directly, as this involves a judgment call.  Ideally, the ratio Y/H would be about 1/5 (the “one-fifth rule”) to minimize forward tilt of the item.  But this might call for too small a wire angle and create too much tension in the wire.  On the other hand, if the  wire angle is too large, and Y/H is greater than 1/3, then the forward tilt could be excessive.

So what I did in the calculator is ask you to specify the wire angle, with 30° as the default. (The minimum entry is 20° and the maximum is the angle corresponding to Y/H = 1/3.) The wire angle is used to back-calculate Y as described in the attachment.

If the default angle seems to provide a reasonable value for Y/H, then go ahead with it, assuming the wire tension is not too high.

If the calculator flags one of your entries as out-of-bounds, don’t ignore it.  The calculator will not report any results if Y/H is greater than 1/3, and it will warn you if the estimated wire tension exceeds 25 lbs.  (You are responsible for selecting the appropriate hardware.)

Results are reported to the nearest one-eighth-inch.   The calculator provides guidance on positioning the guide hook and attaching the wire to the D-rings.  The suggested length of wire S includes 6 extra inches (3 inches per side) for tying the loose ends to the D-rings.

Final Notes

It may be a challenge to hang your item on three hooks.  I suggest you find a helper, if only for you to have someone to complain to while attempting it.  (Still, watch your language.)  You might start by feeding the slack of the wire through the guide hook and onto Hook A.  Then slide the item toward Hook B and feed the wire over Hook B.

You ask, do I have to use the guide hook?  If your item weighs much of anything, then yes.  The farther that Hook B is from the center, the more the item will tilt forward at Hook A,  since there is more slack in the wire on that side.  And the more front-heavy the item, the more uneven the forward tilt will be.  The guide hook helps keep the wire close to the wall on the Hook A side.

I end with my usual disclaimer.  My calculator makes it easier for a person to hang an item on two off-center studs using hooks and wire.  But whether this method is suitable in your situation is a judgment only you can make.  You assume full responsibility for your project. I offer this calculator as a convenience, but I accept no liability for damage of any kind, even if the suggestions offered in this post are followed exactly.

If you’re not confident how things are going to work out, you can always do a mock-up in your garage before you mark up your walls.

With that out of the way, good luck.  I would be interested to hear about any successes, failures or problems.  As always, your suggestions and feedback are welcome.

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