Category Archives: Mental Health

When the Media Takes it Too Far

Trigger Warning: The following article discusses suicide and self-injury.

We’ve all heard by now: Paris Jackson was hospitalized yesterday for an apparent suicide attempt.

I say ‘apparent’ because we just don’t know the specifics of what happened. Perhaps we will never quite know the details surrounding Paris’ medical emergency.

Not that the media hasn’t tried to put the pieces together:

There you have it: the play-by-play of Paris’ ‘apparent’ mental breakdown.

Except there is a problem with this story. There is an obvious detail that the media forgot to include. A fact of the story that we already know to be true:

  • Paris is a 15 year old girl.

Erase the close resemblance to her late father. Forget everything you’ve ever heard about Paris over the past 4 years. What’s left?

She’s a teenage girl who’s struggling, and a teenage girl who needs support.

Let’s say, for a second, that all of the ‘apparent’ events of yesterday are in fact true. Let’s assume, for a minute, that Paris was thinking about suicide, that she did hurt herself, and that she is in hospital getting psychiatric attention.

If all of this is in fact true than Paris did exactly what she was supposed to do. When she felt like she was at risk of hurting herself, Paris called a suicide hotline. She reached out for support.

That’s what hotlines, regardless of what type they are, were made for. They are available for us when we are at our most vulnerable, when we are in crisis, and when we need someone to talk to. And if she did in fact call the helpline, and the crisis interventionist did in fact call the police out of worry for her, than it may have saved Paris’ life.

All because Paris did the right thing.

And now? The media is punishing Paris because she reached out for help  and because she was taking care of herself. She is the butt of jokes, the source of gossip, the new ‘wild girl’ with the likes of  Britney SpearsLindsay Lohan, and Amanda Bynes -all female celebrities who have endured personal attacks because they were forced to battle a mental health concern in the public eye. All relatively young women who were not granted privacy in their time of need. I have to wonder – would the media be focusing so much on their downfall if they were men or is this yet another attempt to further perpetuate the ‘irrationality’ of women?

More than likely Paris, like any of us, didn’t call the helpline with the forethought that others, anyone besides those helping her, would find out. And why should she? The helpline is meant to be confidential. Regardless of whom your father is.

Someone obviously breached her privacy. Multiple people, who are employed to help her, broke her trust for the sake of a news story. In their eyes, she didn’t have the right to keep this story to herself.

What is the likelihood that Paris will ever call a helpline again, knowing that it was non-confidential? In reality, how many other young teenage girls, after hearing Paris’ story, will be deterred from calling under similar pretenses? Or seeking help in general, knowing they will be characterized just as these other young women have been.

And that’s the danger of exploiting a celebrity with a mental health concern. You send a message to the rest of society that mental health doesn’t really matter. That mental health is something undeserving of respect. That those who struggle with mental health are weak, damaged, crazy. It all makes it seem as though such individuals are not worthy of our support.

It is this very mentality that has caused the stigmatization of mental health that is so prevalent in our society. It is this line of thinking that keeps far too many in pain and isolation.

This time, the media took it too far. What happened to Paris isn’t funny, and it’s not newsworthy. It’s her life. And it’s the life of millions of others who are struggling with mental health and remain in harm’s way.

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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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When it all becomes too much: Reaching Feminist Exhaustion

Yesterday I reached the point of feminist exhaustion.

Jessica Valenti has referred to this as ‘feminist burnout’. And thanks to her and a fairly recently blog she wrote about the subject for The Nation I know that I’m not alone. Sadly, knowing that I’m one of many feminist advocates who feel overwhelmed, deflated, and at a loss with the world doesn’t really make me feel that much better.

In my academic day job I spend most of my time writing, reading, talking, and counselling about eating disorders and concurrent mental health issues including body issues, self-esteem, self-injury, and suicide. My research involves an exploration of the secrecy and stigma that surrounds eating disorders; a primary symptomology of these syndromes that causes far too many to remain isolated, refrain from seeking help, and more often than not, become sicker. It’s a terrifying but very true reality and it’s one that often hits me like a tonne of bricks.

Many with eating disorders struggle, suffer, and do so in silence and completely alone. In my, albeit very biased opinion, little has been done by way of research to assist those with concealed eating disorders. Why? Perhaps the research is too difficult, too complex, but more than likely under-funded and under-appreciated. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, eating disorder based research receives $0.93 funding dollars for each individual affected, in comparison to the staggering $88 funding dollars granted for each individual with Alzheimer’s disease. Yet eating disorders affects an approximate 30 million Americans, while Alzheimer’s reaches 5.1 million. The numbers just don’t make sense, but it explains why my area of research is so lacking.

So I continue to work in an area that is not really respected but still sees millions suffer. At times it becomes too sad to think about.

Outside of academia, I volunteer and advocate for reproductive justice and an end to violence against women. Currently, I volunteer as a client escort for the Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton, New Brunswick – the only public abortion clinic in the Maritime Provinces. I often write about my disgust with the lack of care for women’s reproductive health out East, and the limted attention that neglect of New Brunswick women receives nationally. I also recently started training for a new volunteer position as a crisis interventionist with the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre (FSACC). As a city with the third highest rates of sexual assault in the country, FSACC is a vital, crucial, all-too important resource. I have always wanted to get involved with this fantastic organization and, when I heard that they were in need of more volunteers, I figured it was a great time to give it a shot.

But blocking the way of angry anti-choice protestors so a woman can receive an abortion (A CHOICE THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT HAS DEEMED ALL WOMEN HAVE THE RIGHT TO MAKE) and constantly devling into the harsh reality of rape culture – the lack of sexual assault prosecution, the limited resources for survivors, the shame, blame, and stigmatization that surrounds the victim rather than the rapist – it becomes all too unbearable.

At the end of the day, the world is still a very patriarchal place and women are still forced to make the best of it in the hopes of coming out for the better on the other side.

It’s unfair. It’s unjustice. But it’s reality. So as I’m sure all good feminists do from time to time, I became overwhelmed by it all and wanted to shut down. Tune out the world. Pretend things aren’t as bad as they seem.

But jessica Valenti, in her wise feminist ways, has advice for us exhausted fem2 advocates: embrace it, connect with like-others, use energy where it’s most needed, and remember how important the work is. Because it is important. We have a long way to go, but look at how far we’ve come. It’s the hard work of strong and more than likely exhausted past and present fem2 advocate that got us here.

Prehaps most significantly, Jessica tells us to get creative with our exhaustion.Do something that helps the cause but HELPS YOU at the same time. Activism and self love all at the same time-  that’s something I can get on board with.

Hence why I’m writing about how I feel. I’m not overly creative in the t-shirt making, song writing, ‘paint out your frustration’ kind of way. But I love to write, and I love complaining and forcing others to take part in my frustration (that’s a joke…sort of). Writing is how I express myself, reach a larger audience, and give important topics a stage.

So I use my favorite of forums now to reach out to others in the hopes of connecting in our mutual exhaustion and beginning a dialogue to empower, enlight, and recharge us through the rough feminist waters.

The world will get better if we can make it through the undercurrent of androcentric mentalities and continue doing what we do best – fighting the good feminist fight. But we need each other, creative sounding boards, and lots of complaining to get us through a little less burnt out and a little more hopeful for the women of the world.

 

 

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