Monthly Archives: May 2013

The ‘Elephant in the Room’

On May 9th, thousands of  Canadians traveled to the nation’s capital and took part in the ‘Campaign for Life’ – an annual gathering of the anti-choice community to protest Canada’s pro-choice stance. In ‘solidarity’, regional chapters of the Campaign for Life coalition organized similar small-scale protests that will occur throughout the month of May.

Today was New Brunswick’s turn.

A few hundred anti-choice protesters met at our provincial legislature in Fredericton and engaged in a walk throughout the downtown corridor ending at the ‘Women’s Care Clinic’,  the aggressive New Brunswick anti-choice headquarters that is disguised as a women’s center. As New Brunswick lacks a law protecting women from anti-choice harassment, this ‘center’ is  conveniently located next to the Morgentaler clinic, the province’s only public abortion provider.

Yet I hesitate to even use the term ‘protesters’. The group, although dominated by adults, contained many children who were forced to walk alongside their parents. Forced to take a day off of school to protest a social issue for which they lack understanding. Forced to hold signs projecting hate – with faces of children, outlines of fetuses, and frightening words.

Forced to convict the 50 or so of us pro-choice activists who formed a human chain of protection around the clinic as ‘murderers’.

But for many children who group up in anti-choice households, associating abortion with murder is the only reality they know. In their eyes, there are only two options that are morally just: motherhood or adoption.

In their eyes, it’s really that simple. Isn’t this, after all, what women were ‘made’ to do?

But for those faced with an unwanted pregnancy, and for those stemming from the result of one, their reality is anything but.

I have accepted that I am the product of an unwanted pregnancy.

I was not wanted. Was unintended. Unexpected.

I won’t lie: to write that, say it, even think it, hurts. And it would for anyone. Most of us fear rejection from our family, friends, and partners. But for adopted children, like me, we were just that: rejected. And right from the get go. Some refer to this as the ‘ultimate rejection’ or the ‘first trauma’. But, over time, I’ve come to accept my reality, just as my birth mother had to accept her reality that the child she was bearing was completely and utterly unwanted.

In 1984, when I was born, my birth mother didn’t have a lot of reproductive options. It wasn’t until 1988 that Canada saw the introduction of a law that supported a woman’s right to an unrestricted abortion. While I don’t know the specifics of her situation, I assume my birth mother saw three options available to her at the time – an illegal and potentially life-threatening abortion, raising a child she did not want to raise, and adoption.

And so she ‘chose’ (if we can call such limited options a choice) the latter, and here I am. In my eyes, her decision to pursue an adoption was brave, selfless  and loving. I imagine the social stigmatization she faced. The discrimination she feared. The isolation she more than likely encountered. And following months of such unjust treatment, not to mention the pure physical torment of pregnancy, she then had to give me away and say goodbye for good.

Maybe leaving the hospital without me was easy, and perhaps it wasn’t. But the process she was forced to endure resulting from a lack of reproductive choice was definitely anything but easy. Anything but ‘simple’.

Neither is the reality of adoption. Living life, as a twitter friend of mine so brilliantly coined, as the ‘Elephant in the Room’.

It’s the issue that no one wants to talk about, and no one really understands. As a result, there is a lack of discussion about adoptive issues: rejection, isolation, a general lack of knowing about oneself. Adoption seems to make people uncomfortable, as if an adoptee has an illness that lacks societal compassion. People view us as shunned, unlucky, and ‘injured’, as if we all inherently have someone wrong with us.

They see us, as many adoptees continue to see themselves, as unwanted.

So no, adoption is not ‘simple’. Not for the mother, or the child.

Adoption is a wonderful choice, and a choice that I am beyond proud that my birth mother ‘chose’ for both of us. But adoption is not the right choice for everyone. Not all women are wanting or able to proceed with the challenges associated with adoption.

And even if they all wanted to, or if all were forced to, the harsh reality remains: there are not enough loving families in the world to adopt all the children that result from unwanted pregnancies. MILLIONS OF CHILDREN would grow up without families, would remain unloved and, just as they were born, would continue to live their lives unwanted.

A world without abortion hurts women and children. It’s as simple as that.

This is why abortion is such an important reproductive option. This is what the anti-choice community needs to understand. But perhaps more importantly, this is what the children of anti-choice families, like the ones I witnessed today, need to learn. A world without access to abortion is a world where ‘choice’ does not exist.

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Only Zombies Don’t Have to Support Mental Health

Today marks the end of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)’s Mental Health week. I am beyond grateful for the hard work of all the CMHA branches and the dedication of mental health advocates nationwide who worked tirelessly through social media to bring attention to this vastly important issue.

From the bottom of my feminist heart, thank you! All of your works, this week and every other week throughout the year, means the world to me.

Yet amazingly, not everyone sees mental health advocacy in the same light as we do. Even after all of this work. Some, incredibly enough, just don’t seem to see the point. At all.

Throughout this past week I have, like many of you, focused my twitter posts on mental health and, in particular, on the importance of mental health awareness.

Not all my posts, however, have received positive feedback. As a rather out-spoken feminist, I’m used to the occasional ‘falling out’; the anti-choice trolls live for a good twitter battle. But a ranting about the limited importance of mental health advocacy? That’s a new one to me.

The private message that I received went something like this:

“Only people with mental health problems should care about mental health. There’s no point going on about it”

Upon reading this response, I initially got angry. Well, if I’m being truthful, I became blood boiling, fits of rage, ‘imaginary fire coming out of my ears’ kind of angry.

And how could I not? 1 in 5 Canadians struggle with some form mental health concern. That’s 20%  of the population. Statistically speaking, we are all affected my mental illness, whether directly or indirectly. And for those of us who don’t have a mental health concern, we may not even be aware those around us are struggling. So yes, it is a big problem, And yes, advocacy is important.

It’s insensitive and misinformed remarks such as this that deepen the very stigmatization that plagues mental health. It is this lack of mental health literacy that causes far too many to remain concealed about their mental health concerns, choosing instead to forgo health seeking.

Put simply, misunderstandings = stigma = harm. Enough said. This is what advocacy attempts to change.

But perhaps there are those among us, regardless of the copious mental health awareness campaigns and the countless efforts of brave mental health advocates, that still don’t understand why we should care about mental health. How is absolutely beyond me. But, the good feminist in me says, “Kathleen, don’t judge and don’t respond with anger. Educate!” So that’s what I’ll do (I’ll go back to punching pillows later).

After much consideration, I decided to create a rubric, of sorts, to help those who are unsure whether they should care about mental health make an informed decision. Here it goes:

How do you know you should care about mental health

1) Do you have a brain?

  • If you answered yes:  HOORAY! You aren’t a zombie. That’s fantastic, because if you’re like me and are readily addicted to ‘The Walking Dead’ you know how miserable the life of a zombie truly is. You can continue to question 2.
  • If you answered no: Since you have no cognitive abilities (from, you know, the zombie brain) don’t move on to question 2. You do not possess a brain, have no mental health, and therefore do not have to care about it. I have heard, however, that ‘The Walking Dead’ is always looking for extras. This might be a perfect role for you!

2) You have a brain. With this brain, have you ever felt a thought, feeling, or emotion at any point within the entirety of your life? 

  • If you answered yes: YOU POSSESS MENTAL HEALTH AND THEREFORE HAVE TO CARE ABOUT IT.
  • If you answered no: You are either lying or are a zombie and, because you lack any a brain, do not realize you should not have moved on past question 1. Go back to question 1 and really consider the new career venture I suggested. If you lied, that shows thought and therefore your answer should have been yes.

There you have it. It’s really as simple as that. If you think, feel, ponder, question, day dream, or anything else that is at all cognitively related: YOU HAVE MENTAL HEALTH. Because you have it, you are obligated to care about it. And because you live in Canada, and 20% of the population struggles with a mental health concern, that means that likely you or someone you know is struggling as you read this. As a result, your obligation to care is heightened and you must support the advocacy work of others.

So, to all the non-zombies out there: PLEASE start taking mental health seriously. As we have physical health, we too have health of the mental variety. Would you ignore a zombie bite? No – you would attempt to treat it (if treatment is possible). And so you should for mental health – you must (and deserve to) take the necessary steps to maintain a healthy mental self.

And by being attentive to your own mental health that means you also must ensure not to perpetuate the stigma that mental health isn’t important or not worthy of public attention.

Because one day, if you struggle with a mental health concern, you are going to hope all the non-zombies out there are supporting you through your process.

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Struggling in the ‘Ivory Tower’: Mental Health in Grad School

Monday marked the start of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Mental Health Awareness week (May 6th – 12th). Across the country, various branches of the CMHA are holding a whole slew of awareness events that can be found by visiting their official awareness week page.

Improving mental health literacy is a crucial step in the breaking down of the wall of stigmatization so often associated with mental illness. We need society to understand that struggling with a mental health condition is IN NO WAY DIFFERENT from struggling with a chronic physical illness; both are exhaustive and all-consuming, both require assistance from health professionals and, more importantly, both are deserving of respect. We wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to ‘suck it up and bear it’, so why ask that of the 1 in 5 Canadians struggling with a mental illness?

The point is, those of us with mental illness aren’t asking for sympathy or special treatment, we’re just asking to level the playing field; we want society to recognize the importance of mental health in the very same light and with the same amount of compassion as physical health.

This week also sees the launch of Partners for Mental Health’s #NotMyselfToday campaign. Starting tomorrow, this fantastic national initiative will aim to improve awareness and acceptance of mental illness within the workplace. Each and every day approximately 500,000 Canadians will miss work as a result of mental illness. This has huge economic ramifications: nearly 30% of short and long-term disability claims are the result of mental illness. What does this mean for the Canadian economy as a whole? Of the staggering 51 billion dollars mental health costs the Canadian economy annually, nearly half, or 20 billion dollars, is the direct result of mental health related workplace losses, including missed work days or reduced productivity.

But more important than financial costs are the challenges faced by those attempting to combat mental illness within a toxic work environment. A 2008 study found that only 23% of Canadians would feel comfortable disclosing their mental health concern to their employers. And can you blame them? When society sees mental illness as dangerous, unpredictable, unreliable. When society continues to lack awareness, information, and understanding about these common health concerns. Can you blame them for not wanting to talk? For choosing to conceal? For preferring to struggle in isolation from employers and work colleagues?

It’s time for a change – it’s time that we begin the conversation about workplace mental health. By engaging various businesses and their employees in discussions about mental health, it is hoped that we can create mental health stigma-free work environments and improve the overall wellbeing of the millions of Canadians struggling with mental health concerns.

Now, it’s hard for me to speak about the topic of workplace mental health for one major reason – I have never worked. Sadly, it’s true. I started my university education when I was 18 and haven’t stopped, continuing directly into graduate school, completing two master’s degrees and now on the way to finishing my doctorate. So I can’t specifically speak to what it’s like working in a unhealthly workplace, and I can’t begin to understand the shame and isolation associated with a secretive mental illness at work.

But I can, however, speak to these same experiences during my long tenure as a graduate student. I’m not employed per say, but I have a ‘job’. My ‘workplace’ is just a little unconventional.

Graduate school, in many ways, is a lot like employment. As graduate students we work consistently long hours, we are generally underpaid, and there is always someone overseeing the work we do.

But unlike work, graduate school has other stressful elements:

  • the funding is never consistent (or if it is, it’s consistently lacking) and we are limited by the amount of hours we can work outside our respective institutions.
  • our ‘field of work’ costs us money (we pay tuition in order to make our institutions look good).
  • the pressure is always on (weekends and holidays mean nothing and the hours worked are up to us).
  • we must always ‘up your game’ in order to get ahead (‘publish or perish’, as they say).
  • there is no definite end in sight (there are limited jobs and we are all fighting for them).
  • for those of us in graduate school who work as research or teaching assistants, our workload in the same environment is doubled.

And the mental health stigma that shows its ugly face in the workplace also ravages graduate school. Graduate students may be afraid to disclose their concerns to professors and colleagues for fear of discrimination and further stigmatization within close-knit faculties. Resources on campus are overcrowded and underfunded, and most student health plans have limited coverage for off-campus help seeking. Additionally, the graduate work itself may be emotionally and psychologically taxing and support systems may not understand how to best assist the struggling grad student. It can be all too overwhelming.  Putting it bluntly, the stress is high and the support (financially, emotionally, psychologically) is low.

For me, graduate school has been a difficult journey. Struggling with anxiety, I have found it challenging to manage my excessive and often times emotionally taxing workload and various other responsibilities all the while ensuring to take time for self-care and anxiety management. I have found it all the more difficult to disclose struggles with graduate school colleagues; the cut-throat nature of the academic environment has made me fearful of telling my story for fear of not getting ahead, not competing at the level expected of me, and, worst of all, of my mental health challenges being ‘used against me’. It sounds neurotic (even as I write it), but sadly I’ve seen it happen before.

Along the way I’ve learned that balance is key, but still struggle to maintain it. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great support system that includes family, friends, and healthcare professionals. Also within this group includes several professors and colleagues. Disclosing my mental health concerns wasn’t easy, and it hasn’t always been a positive experience, but it has made all the difference in my work, my graduate progression, and in my everyday life.

But this is not the norm. Many other graduate students aren’t fortunate enough to encounter the same positivity as me. Many still struggle and do so in silence.

This is why the #NotMyselfToday campaign is important. Because regardless of where we work, what our work environment entails, or what work we do, those of us with mental health concerns will likely feel afraid and will likely become victim to the societal misconceptions about mental health that plague our workplaces, just as they do in any other setting.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. We deserve better and we, as a united collective, can work to change our current reality.

As part of the #NotMyselfToday campaign we can advocate for workplace mental health literacy and make our workplaces more accepting, safer, and healthier for all of us now, and for those joining the workforce in the future.

So I encourage all of you, whether you’re a grad student like me, or a top executive in a corporation – please become part of the #NotMyselfToday campaign and advocate in your workplaces on behalf of mental health: pledge your support for mental health, plan an event in your workplace, invest in the future of mental health awareness.

Because millions of us are counting on you.

For more information on how you can get involved with the #NotMyselfToday campaign, please visit http://www.notmyselftoday.ca/home

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