Tag Archives: stigma

Suicidal Student Kicked Out Of Dorm Because He Might Negatively Impact Other Students

10 Feb

TW: talk of suicide

Imagine this: a student living in a university residence contacts his Residence Life don. He has fallen and injured himself, and there is blood everywhere. He is afraid he might die. He needs help.

Surely in this scenario the don would seek immediate assistance for the student. They would bring him to a clinic or perhaps a hospital. Once the student had recovered, they would welcome him back to residence – maybe even put up a banner or throw a little party.

Certainly the student would not be asked to leave the residence.

Yet recently when a similar situation happened at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the student in question, Blake Robert, was told to pack his bags and get out.

The difference is that in the real-life version of this story, Robert wasn’t physically sick or injured. Instead, he was depressed and struggling with suicidal ideation. After reaching out to his Residence Life don, Robert was told that he could no longer remain in student housing because he was “a threat” to other students. He was told that if he were to die on campus, it would have a “negative impact on the psychological well-being of other students in residence.”

As he put it so succinctly in his article for Acadia’s student newspaper, Robert was basically being told to go die somewhere else.

Normally I don’t like to compare physical ailments with mental health issues, mostly because I feel like doing so often validates the exact position that it’s trying to deconstruct – namely, that we still live in a society that considers physical injuries or illnesses to somehow be more real and more worthy of time and attention than mental illness. I don’t want people to accept my mental health struggles because they’re pretending it’s the same as me having diabetes – I want folks to accept that I’m struggling with something that is scary and occasionally makes me want to die and is in fact nothing like diabetes. However, in this case I think examining an institution’s reaction to a mental health crisis versus how it would likely react to a different type of health crisis is fair; doing so shows the clear stigma and lack of understanding that still persist when it comes to mental illness.

The bald facts are that had Robert contacted his Residence Life don about a broken leg or the stomach flu or a bout of pneumonia, he would have been given prompt medical attention and no one would have breathed a word about him leaving student housing. Instead, the don spoke to him in person, set up an appointment for him with student counselling, and then two days later was part of a team of people telling Robert that he needed to leave because he wasn’t “safe” in residence. Apparently the best way to ensure someone’s safety is to remove them from their support network without any plan or offers of assistance. No wonder Robert felt as if he was being sent off campus to die; he was basically being told that the university wanted him to go to a place where he was no longer their problem.

At no point did anyone take Robert to the university health clinic or the hospital.

At no point was he given the chance to advocate for himself.

Instead, Robert was subjected to a disciplinary meeting where he was told that he might perhaps be allowed back into residence in September, if he was healthy enough. He was told that the Residence Life manager’s word was final; there was no chance for appeal. The Residence Life manager said to Robert that Residence Life dons are essentially like “landlords” and can’t be expected to care for students with mental health issues. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that an actual landlord wouldn’t be able to evict a tenant because of mental illness.

Says Robert:

“… Had I actually broken clearly expressed rules, or otherwise willingly threatened the safety of other students, I would have been afforded due process through Non-Academic Judicial, perhaps involving the RCMP. But suffering from a life-threatening mental illness is apparently seen as such an egregious crime and so dangerous that Student Services’ executive director, in charge of counselling, accessibility services, Residence Life, etc., found it acceptable that I was promptly ejected from campus without warning.

Just let that sink in – a student accused of committing a crime would likely have found themselves in a safer position than Robert did.

A student with pretty much any type of physical illness would have been offered some kind of care.

Instead, Robert was treated as if he was worse than a criminal.

Imagine being in a place that is so dark and frightening that you are sure the only way out is to die. Imagine being in that place and allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to share how you feel with someone else. Now imagine that this person’s response is to tell you to get the hell out before you scare anyone. Imagine that, unlike Robert, you don’t have parents who live less than an hour away and can come pick you up. Where do you go? What do you do? And more to the point how is any of this supposed to alleviate what you’re feeling?

Sadly, Robert’s case is not uncommon – a similar story came out of Yale last year, and the psychiatrist Robert later saw at a local hospital said that universities often deal with suicidal students in this way. This is the lived reality for people living with mental illness – you’re sick, you’re so fucking sick that you might die, but don’t you dare tell anyone about it. Even the people who are supposed to help you are just as likely to hurt you.

I am so angry right now. I am angry and sad that this shit is still happening and huge institutions like universities are getting away with it.

This is why people don’t disclose mental illness. This is why people don’t ask for help. This is why people suffer and sometimes die without ever saying a word. This. This. This.

Where the hell are Bell Let’s Talk and “end the stigma” all that other feel-good bullshit when stuff like this happens?

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Stigma

26 Jul

When BlogHer asked me to speak at their annual conference on a panel called Mental Health in the Online Space, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. For one thing, I’ve never spoken at a conference before, and for another, I’m hardly a professional when it comes to talking about mental health. I mean, sure, I have lots of thoughts and opinions and feelings about it, and I feel pretty comfortable writing about my own experiences, but I’m by no means an expert. In fact, when I first received the invitation to speak I was sure that BlogHer had sent it to me by mistake.  But it turned out not to be a mistake, which is how I found myself sitting in a fancy conference room in a fancy hotel in fancy ol’ Chicago talking about whacky brain things.

The whole thing went pretty smoothly; a lot of it felt like we were preaching to the choir, to be honest. Our audience was mostly made up of people who had either had their own mental health struggles or else had experience with mental illness through their friends and family. Most of what we said was met with sympathetic nods or else comments from audience members who wanted to share similar issues that they’d experienced. About halfway through the session, though, just as I was starting to settle in and feel like I was getting the hang of things, one question caught me by surprise.

One of the panelists had mentioned that she hadn’t told her employer why, exactly, she was speaking at BlogHer, because she hadn’t wanted to divulge her mental health history. This is a pretty common dilemma faced by most people who live with mental illnesses, so I didn’t think anything of it until a hand shot up in the audience.

“I don’t have a mental illness, so I’m sorry if this is offensive,” said the woman, “but you’ve all talked a lot about stigma and, well, if you don’t tell your employer that you’re mentally ill, aren’t you contributing to that stigma?”

At that moment, we all looked at each other, and I could tell that all of us were thinking the same thing:

Ohhhhhh, she doesn’t know.

She doesn’t know that when you tell someone that you’re mentally ill, they look at you differently. When you tell your boss that you’ve struggled with your mental health, they start to treat you like something other, something lesser. Instead of your usual assignments or tasks, you might be asked to take on something a little more boring, more mundane. When you want to know why your role has changed, your boss might tell you that they were concerned that your former duties were too stressful for you. When you try to explain that, no, it’s not like that, you might get a look that’s a cross between father-knows-best and we’re-just-looking-out-for-you.

She doesn’t know that even if you do divulge your status as mentally ill, that doesn’t mean that you can talk about it, casually, as if it’s just another illness. For example, when someone at work asks you how you’re doing, you can never just reply, oh, you know, sad and a little anxious. If you have to take the day off because you woke up to a panic attack and you feel as if the grim, grey sky might crush you if you move from your bed, you can’t tell your employer the real reason why you won’t be at work; instead, you have to fake a convincing cough or else invent disgusting details about a fictional stomach flu.

She doesn’t know that when people talk about mental health in their workplaces, they run the risk of getting fired. Oh, not fired specifically because of mental illness, because that’s illegal, but fired for one of any number of trumped up reasons that their employer might come up with. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired for taking too much time off for doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions, even if those things are necessary in order for them to function. She doesn’t know that someone can be fired while they’re on a leave of absence due to anxiety or depression just because they’ve posted pictures of themselves smiling on Facebook.

I wish I was making that last one up, but I’m not.

Most of all, what this audience member doesn’t know about is the stigma; stigma felt by everyone, your friends, your family, your doctor, and even you, yourself, the mental health advocate. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have to learn as much about your illness as you can because your doctor’s understanding of it is, at best, incomplete. She doesn’t know what it’s like to go to see a psychiatrist, one of the best in his field, and, after you’ve explained your history to him, none of which has been in any way violent, harmful, or neglectful towards others, have him ask if Children’s Aid has ever been involved with your family. She doesn’t understand that those of us who struggle with mental health issues grew up in the same world as everyone else, and we absorbed all the same toxic messages about mental illness that everyone else did. She doesn’t know about how we internalize that stigma, how we have to fight against our own shame, guilt, fear and doubt in order to love ourselves or even just take ourselves seriously.

She doesn’t know about how some of us hate ourselves for these things that are not our fault, and then feel like hypocrites for hating the very things that we’re trying to educate others about.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? Education, I mean. That’s the way to end the stigma and shame and fear. I know that, other mental health advocates know that, and even that woman in the audience knows that – which is why she was asking about how my co-panelist could hide her mental health issues from her employer rather than taking the time to educate them. The fact is that education about mental illness is incredibly important. But (and this is a big but) you can’t put all of the responsibility for educating others solely on the shoulders of mental health advocates. For one thing, it can be exhausting and emotionally draining to try to explain over and over again the particulars of brain chemistry and trauma and he ways that those things can shape your life. For another, being one hundred percent open about your mental health all of the time can, as mentioned above, have real-life consequences. And yeah, in a perfect world you could be like, fuck this job if they’re going to look down on me for an actual, bonafide illness, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes you have to take what you can get just so that you can pay the bills.

Education about mental illness needs to start earlier for everyone, and it needs to come from the top down. It should be included in grade school health classes, in curriculums designed, in part, by mental health advocates. Education needs to come from doctors, who need to be properly educated themselves about all the ins and outs of the sad, lonely world so many of us find ourselves in. Education needs to be everywhere and be accessible to everyone in the community, because that’s honestly the only way we’re ever going to get to a place where someone can casually say at a dinner party, oh man, I had a manic episode yesterday and coming down sucked but I feel way better now, without everyone else giving them the side eye.

Because I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty down with living in that world.

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Violent Crimes and Mental Illness

16 Dec

In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there’s been a lot of talk about mental health. Comments like, “Now is the time to talk about mental illness!” and “We need mental healthcare reform NOW before this happens again!” are littering my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Many people, people that I care about and whose opinion I respect, want to use this tragedy as an opportunity to talk about how America’s mental healthcare system needs to change.

But you know what? Now is not the time to talk about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely in favour of mental healthcare reform, both here in Canada and in America. We need better access to mental health professionals, and shorter wait times to see the ones that are available. We need to end the system of patient abuse that occurs in group homes across the country. We need to make therapy and expensive medications more accessible to people who may not have a steady income. We need to increase the monthly payments to those who are too ill to work, because what they receive now from the government is not enough to live on.  We need to give people with mental illnesses the tools they need to advocate for themselves, and we need to work towards ending the stigma that comes with the term “mental illness”.

I do believe that talking about our mental healthcare system is something that we need to do, and badly.

What we don’t need to do is conflate mental illness with shooting 20 small children.

See, the thing is, mental illness is a pretty broad umbrella term that covers all kinds of things. Depression is a mental illness. So are anxiety, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and many, many other things. And yes, some symptoms caused by some of those illnesses can cause violence, but, given the fact that 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, I think that we can safely say that most people who are mentally ill are not prone to going on shooting sprees. In fact, studies have shown that people living with mental illness are four times as likely to be the victim of violence.

It has recently been reported that Adam Lanza was, according to his brother Ryan, suffering from both Asperger’s syndrome (which is on the autism spectrum) and a personality disorder. However, according to the same report, the brothers hadn’t been in contact since 2010, and it is currently unknown whether Adam Lanza had received further diagnoses since then. But the term “mentally ill” was being tossed around for a while before Ryan Lanza’s statements were made public, and, from what I can see, there is still a lot of assumption going on about what Adam might or might not have suffered from.

I know that most of the people who want to talk about mental illness right now are good people. Like the rest of us, they’re trying to figure out what just happened and why, so that we can make sure that we never have to live through a tragedy like this again. I’m sure that these people think that it’s kinder, more humane to say that Adam Lanza was mentally ill, rather than just calling him a monster. Unfortunately, what they’re actually doing is making mental illness the scapegoat here. What they’re doing is adding to the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

At the end of the day, saying things like, “Now is the time to talk about mental illness,” is not going to help anything. It’s not going to make an event like this less likely to happen again. In fact, if anything, by continuing to spin the narrative that the mentally ill are violent killers, you are probably making it less likely for those with mental health issues to seek treatment. By making mental illness out to be this big, scary thing, you are making it more likely that friends and family will ignore any signs of problems in their loved ones out of fear and denial. By simplifying the gun control debate to something like, “Well, mentally ill people just shouldn’t have guns,” you are contributing to the idea that people with mental illnesses are scary, dangerous and cannot be trusted.

And although I don’t feel like it should need to be said, let me reiterate: yes, I want to talk about our mental healthcare system. Yes, I want to talk about mental illness. But I don’t want to talk about it today, not when all anyone can think of are those 20 children whose lives were lost. I don’t want to talk about it when the term “mentally ill” conjures up images of a young man storming into a school, armed to the teeth and ready to open fire on innocent people. Because while there are people whose illnesses cause them to be violent, and those people certainly do need a better healthcare system, the vast, vast majority of people who desperately need to see mental healthcare reform will never harm anyone.

I guess that what I really want to say here is that this hits home for me. I’ve been pretty open on here about living with depression and anxiety; I received my first diagnosis when I was 16, which means that I’ve been grappling with these illnesses for nearly half my life. These disorders are a part of me, and I try hard not to be ashamed of them.

So please keep in mind that when you talk about mental illness, about the tragedies it causes and the lives it takes, you are also talking about me.

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How We Talk About Mental Illness

10 Nov

Jared Lee Loughner was sentenced yesterday. In August of this year, he pled guilty to 19 of 49 charges, including first degree murder, after going on a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona. His actions left six people dead and injured twelve others, including former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Yesterday he was given a sentence of seven consecutive life terms in prison, with no chance of parole. Jared Loughner will spend the rest of his life in jail.

I remember this shooting vividly. It happened on January 8th, the day I was admitted to the hospital on bed rest at 34 weeks pregnant. I spent two weeks in the high risk antenatal unit, with only books and my computer to fill long hours spent in an uncomfortable hospital bed. Because I spent so much time online, I followed the shooting and its aftermath intently, metaphorically holding my breath as I, along with so many other people, waited to see if Gabrielle Giffords would live after taking a bullet to the head during the attempt on her life.

That’s what the shooting was, after all – an attempt to assassinate Giffords, whom Loughner hated for many reasons, chief among which was that she was a woman. In fact, he’d said repeatedly, both online and in person, that women should not hold positions of power. That was why he’d shown up there that day, why he’d brought a 9 mm Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol to a public meeting held in a supermarket parking lot  – because he couldn’t stand the idea of a female member of congress. The thought chilled me, as I’m sure it did many other women.

I’ve continued to keep up with Loughner’s legal proceedings, in part because of the mixture of fear, fascination and revulsion the shooting inspired in me, and partly because, in my mind, this event is somehow bound in the circumstances surrounding Theo’s birth. There was something so strange about sitting in a hospital, doing my best to ensure that a healthy new life came into this world, while someone else worked equally hard to take another life, or rather, several lives, out of it.

I’ve read a lot about the shooting.

I’ve read about Gabrielle’s amazing recovery, and her struggles to regain her mobility and independence.

I’ve read about Christina-Taylor Green, the nine year old who was among those killed.

I’ve read about the other victims, and how this tragedy has impacted their lives and the lives of their families.

Mostly, though, I’ve read about Loughner. How at first he was declared unfit to stand trial after a federal judge ruled that he was mentally incompetent, saying, “At the present time, Mr. Loughner does not have a rational understanding of these proceedings.” How he was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and was found to suffer from delusions and disorganized thinking. How, when he finally was deemed fit to stand trial, he was so drugged that he could barely talk. How he still resists being medicated, and has to undergo forcible treatment at the hands of prison officials. How he often doesn’t really seem to understand what happened that day, and has stated in court that he believes that his assassination attempt was successful, and that Gabrielle Giffords is now dead.

It’s pretty clear that Mr. Loughner is seriously ill.

I’ve been reading some of the victim impact statements today, and I’ve been surprised at how some of the victims talk about his illness. Take, for example, what Mark E. Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, had to say:

“You tried to create for all of us a world as dark and evil as your own. But remember it always: You failed.”

I found this jarring, to be honest. Let’s be really clear here: I think that Loughner’s actions were, indeed, evil. I know that a mentally ill person’s “world” or mind or whatever term you want to use can certainly be called dark. However, it bothers me that Kelly would refer to the delusional world that Loughner lived in as evil. It also bothers me that Kelly seems to believe that Loughner had some kind of agency over his actions, as if he wasn’t driven by the illness that gripped him body and soul.

Another statement that I read said the following:

“We’ve been told about your demons, about the illness that skewed your thinking.

It’s a painful saga, a tale of missed opportunities and lack of support, of the appalling absence of attention to your behavior. Your parents, your schools, your community –- they all failed you.

That is all true, but it is not expiation. It is not enough. There are still those pesky facts.

You pointed a weapon at me… and shot me… three times.”

While the victim, Ashleigh Burroughs, acknowledges that Loughner was ill, she seems dismissive of his “demons”, demanding, instead, that he answer the “pesky facts” – as if he hadn’t already tried to answer them, only to come up with nonsense, jumbled facts and recollections of the day that are flat-out untrue.

I am not here to criticize Kelly or Burroughs, and I am certainly not here to diminish what they went through. They’ve seen and experienced things that I hope to never, ever encounter. I am not saying that how they are dealing with this is wrong, or that what they said is wrong. What I’m saying is that the way that we, as a culture, talk about mental illness is fucked up.

The things is, this hits close to home for me, because mental illness is something I’ve struggled with. Still do, in fact.

It’s not something I really talk about, ever. I’m deeply uncomfortable even as I type this out, but I want to share this with you, so that maybe you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

When I was in high school, things were tough. I felt sad and hopeless, frequently without any concrete reason. I cried, often, both at home and in public. I wonder, now, if my social isolation lead to this, or if my isolation was a product of how miserable I was. Chicken or egg, right? Certainly both lead to a sort of vicious circle of being alone, then being sad because I was alone, then having no one want to be around me because I was so annoyingly, unendingly down on myself and finally ending up, once again, alone.

When I was sixteen I told my mother about how I felt, and she took me to see our family doctor. He gave me a prescription for Paxil and referred me to a therapist. I hated therapy and stopped going after a few months; the medication didn’t seem to do much, so my doctor increased it, and then increased it again. I couldn’t sleep at night, and I was exhausted all day, sometimes napping on my desk during class. I couldn’t concentrate, and often left my homework unfinished because I was too tired or unfocussed. My grades started to slip, and my teachers grew frustrated with me. One even recommended that I be removed from the special arts program that I was part of. I went from being an A student to barely pulling Cs and Ds and the grownups in my life tsked, shook their heads and told me that I would have to work harder. I failed grade 11 math the first time, and then, the second time around, desperate to pass, I cheated on a test. I got caught. I was suspended. My doctor increased my medication. I didn’t feel any better.

In university, things were initially easier. I had lots of friends, and I was once more getting As and Bs. I forced myself to complete my assignments, working in the computer labs late into the night. My concentration improved, and I tried to be less of a perfectionist with my work – even if I thought something was badly done or incomplete, I submitted it. I turned in every single  assignment on time. I figured that what I’d been lacking in high school was gritty determination; I decided that I could push my way through anything. I thought that if I didn’t succeed at something, it was because I hadn’t tried hard enough.

Then, in third year, things got tough again. I had to leave school due to my financial situation, which was hopelessly snarled after three years of monetary incompetence and inattention. My mood grew worse and worse, and the university clinic doctor frantically tried medication after medication, hoping something, anything would work. Nothing did. I finally received an official diagnosis from him of dysthymia, a mood disorder marked by chronic depression. I started to feel like the future was endless and blank, and that I had no way of getting myself out of this hole. I talked about suicide. My doctor had me hospitalized.

I have literally never told that to anyone other than my mother and Matt until now.

Things got better after that, although I’m not sure why or how. My hospitalization was nearly ten years ago now and, although there have since been some serious dips in my mood, until I was hit with postpartum depression I’d managed to steer clear of that dark place. I even totally went off any kind of medication for seven years, encouraged by a hospital psychiatrist who told me that I wasn’t really depressed, that there was nothing chemical about it, I just had bad coping skills.

I stopped thinking of myself as someone who was living with depression; I told myself that I was just moody, or easily upset. If I had to put a name to what I was feeling, I called it anxiety, which seemed easier and more socially acceptable. Calling what I felt depression made me feel like I was making excuses for myself, and it made me feel like a freak. I refused to us the term mentally ill to describe myself. I went back to my philosophy of pushing myself hard, and then harder when things were difficult. For a while, it worked.

Then Theo was born, and everything went dark, and I couldn’t get out of it.

As part of the postpartum depression program I participated in at Women’s College Hospital, I had to have a monthly meeting with a psychiatrist. My family doctor had put me on Zoloft just before I joined the Women’s College program, and it was up to this psychiatrist to figure out whether or not I was on the correct medication, and what the right dosage was. I gave her as complete a medical history as I could, and then immediately asked how long I would have to be medicated.

“Well, let’s see,” she said, looking back through her notes. “It looks like you’ve had two, maybe three major depressive episodes in your life. You’ll need to be on the Zoloft for at least a year, but I would recommend that you stay on it for five.”

I was shocked. The medication was supposed to be temporary; I wasn’t sick, just fucked up on hormones. I’d thought that I would only be taking Zoloft for a few months, until this whole postpartum depression thing cleared up. That was how it was supposed to work, right? When I told her that, she just smiled.

“I think your old doctor’s original diagnosis of dysthymia was correct,” she said, “and, based on what you’ve told me, I think it’s likely you also have generalized anxiety disorder. This isn’t going to go away once your hormones settle down.”

So here I am, nearly two years after the birth of my son, still medicated and still struggling with my mood. I’ve more or less come to accept this, though. I am a person who is depressed. I am mentally ill.

This is hard to talk about, and what makes it harder is the way our society views mental illness. In the media it’s portrayed as frightening and dangerous, or else as funny and laughable, but rarely as something normal, rarely as something that so many people live with every day. We throw around words like crazy, insane, or psychotic when we’re talking about people whose actions we disagree with. In spite of strong evidence to the contrary, we view it as something made up, or an excuse not to get work done. We want people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and we don’t believe them when they tell us that they can’t. We marginalize and mock the people who need us the most.

Mental illness is deeply stigmatized in our society, and will continue to be so until we do something about it.

When we believe that Loughner had agency over his own actions, rather than being controlled by a serious illness, we contribute to that stigma. When Mark E. Kelly refers to the world view of a schizophrenic as evil, he contributes to that stigma. Hell, the fact that we even use words like “evil” or “demons” to describe mental illness contributes to that stigma.

The tighter we hold this stigma, the longer we continue to have beliefs about mental illness that are untrue and have no basis in scientific fact, the harder it is to talk about it. And the harder it is to talk about it, the more people will go untreated. And the more people who go untreated, the higher the risk of something like this happening again.

Which is why I’m talking about this now.

Edited to add: I certainly don’t mean to imply that all those who are mentally ill lack agency over their actions, or even that that those who do lack agency do so all of the time. I also don’t mean to say that someone who is gripped by mental illness will suffer from it forever. I don’t really know how to talk about this, and I acknowledge that I am probably missing a lot of information, and communicating badly. I apologize for that, and for any offence that anyone might take from this.