This is the last in a four-part series exploring the Let’s Talk campaign. Part One is here, Part Two is here, Part Three is here. If you would like to support this work, please consider becoming a patron on my Patreon.
Let’s Talk about pushing the conversation out of the comfort zone – an interview with B.
B is a lawyer in Calgary whose family law practice is explicitly trans and queer-inclusive, and he is committed to social justice within family law. He used the Let’s Talk campaign as an opportunity to explicitly and directly address his own personal mental health struggles with his employer.
I know the Bell Let’s Talk day is really complicated. On the one hand it’s great to see the dialogue happen. On the other hand, it’s hard to get over the commercialization of this really important issue. It’s helpful to see celebrities speak out about mental wellness but it’s easy to feel like you’re only allowed to experience mental wellness if you’re a celebrity.
I think individual people can try to take advantage of the positive momentum behind this movement, though. I recently experimented with using Bell’s Let’s Talk day as a framework to address my own personal challenges with mental illness with my employer. I don’t know how it will work out. But I feel positive about my experiment and I’m hopeful it will work out.
I’m 32 years old. I’ve been a member of the Law Society of Alberta since 2010 and I’ve been an associate at the firm where I practice family law for 4 years. I like working where I do. Generally speaking, I think our management team is compassionate and actually cares about the people who work here. I know I’m lucky in that regard. However, like most businesses, profitability is still the bottom line. It’s impossible to be successful in our world without keeping a careful eye on productivity. Lawyers at my firm have targets; our value, as employees, is closely tied with the amount of money we make for the partnership.
In every year leading up to 2016 I maintained steady growth in my numbers. At various times, I have been the top associate in a number of areas. I bring in a lot of my own work, I have a good profile in the community, and I’m very productive. Up until 2016 I routinely received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the management team and from other partners. In 2016, though, a lot of that positive feedback dried up.
2016 marked an extremely challenging year for me, personally. My mother battled cancer throughout the year and ended up with a number of related and serious health conditions; my grandfather died; and a number of other personal things came up that created a very large black hole in my life that seemed to suck up everything I had to offer, and then some. I found myself in one of the darkest places I’ve ever been. Without getting into all of the details, all of the areas in my life that previously gave me fulfillment suffered in one sense or another. My career was no exception.
In 2016 all of my numbers shrank. I had to pare back all of my commitments in the community. I ended up putting off my continuing education (I am engaged in an LL.M and was scheduled to finish in 2016). I also became somewhat less involved in our firm culture (ie: attendances at firm dinners and firm events like our golf tournament). The impact of my mental wellness became real to me when, in a very short span of time, a few members of the partnership came to me with the exact same feedback: “We hope you’re ok. A bunch of us at the partnership table noticed you’re not your usual self.” When I asked for more specifics I was simply told that the partnership thought of me as a leader in positive energy around the firm and that people were starting to notice a definite deficit in that leadership. My performance with respect to my targets was also referenced, though I was told that the partnership wasn’t nearly as concerned about that at this time: “everyone is entitled to an off-year.”
My initial response to this feedback was absolute panic. As feedback about this kind of stuff goes, this was all very mild. However, I’ve been around the block enough times to know that this is how it starts. Many of my colleagues and friends have experienced mental wellness issues. I know that it starts with mild feedback but quickly escalates to more overt displays of displeasure over your “attitude” until you’re eventually fired because your employer thinks that you don’t really want to be there anyway. When I received my more mild feedback I really heard: “there’s something wrong with you. We don’t like you anymore. You’d better fix it.” In fairness, no one was saying that: it’s just what I heard.
I received that feedback about 5 months ago. This month, our associate evaluations were due. Every year associates have to fill out a reflective evaluation in advance of our employee reviews with management. The evaluations include the standard information you’d expect to see: “What are your goals for the upcoming year?;” “how can you achieve those goals?;” etc.
My evaluations have been relatively easy to fill out in the past. This year, in light of my performance and the feedback I received throughout the year, my evaluation was much more challenging. I decided I had two options: I could gloss over my weaker performance with a commitment to improving; or I could directly address the challenges I’ve grappled with.
Glossing over my weaker performance had some appeal. My numbers weren’t abyssal. Really, the only reason it’s noticeable is because I’ve had such positive success in every other year. Surely experiencing some shrinkage during one of the biggest recessions in a lifetime is forgivable or even expected. However, glossing over my performance didn’t address the feedback issue. Additionally, it potentially set me up for an impossible 2017. Promising to return to growth in 2017 might only lead to a more challenging review in 2018 if I can’t deliver.
On my personal evaluation, I decided to more directly engage with my employer about my personal challenges. I referenced the feedback I received. I was honest about my immediate internal response to the feedback, but then I praised the partnership for paying such close attention to the wellbeing of the associates and thanked them for their concern. I didn’t provide many details, but I hinted at the personal issues I’ve struggled with while referencing the major items (it’s no secret, at the firm, that my mother was diagnosed with cancer). I identified my hopes for 2017 but assured the partnership that I knew my challenges didn’t just evaporate with the change of the year (and, thus, reminding the partnership that my challenges didn’t just evaporate with the change of the year). And then, I expressly invited anyone on the management team or the partnership to talk to me about anything they wanted to talk to me about.
Inviting the partnership to talk to me was probably most challenging. However, I think it was the most important part of my evaluation. I needed the partnership to know that they could, and should, be open and transparent with me about any concerns they have. The partnership was clearly already having conversations about me. Inviting them to talk to me directly essentially gave me a place in that conversation. Also, getting more transparent and direct feedback allows me to try to be more responsive to specific concerns while being open about my own particular needs. Finally, opening up a dialogue with my employer helps with my own anxiety. Instead of panicking about the extent to which my employer is secretly hating me, I hope to have more confidence that I am, in fact, hearing everyone’s true concerns and that those concerns aren’t as catastrophic as my brain tells me they are.
Helpfully, Bell’s Let’s Talk day opened up a tiny crack in the door for me to make my invitation. My evaluation introduced Let’s Talk Day. I said that Let’s Talk Day helped me find the right way to address my challenges at work. I suggested that it’s a perfect opportunity for us to maintain openness in the partner/associate relationship. After introducing Let’s Talk Day I said:
“…It is important to me to be reliable and to meet your expectations, notwithstanding whatever else is going on for me. Please continue to discuss your concerns with me openly. I welcome your compassion but I also want to be valuable. I am open to receiving feedback and criticism about my work. Talk to me about your concerns; talk to me about my performance; talk to me about my work: let’s talk!”
This approach is not without its risks and I’ve yet to actually find out whether my experiment was successful (my review will take place next month). Certainly, I expect my frankness and vulnerability will catch the partnership off-guard. But I’m hoping that demonstrating my vulnerability and inviting my employer to be open with me about their needs will create a dialogue that will help both me and my employer to continue to develop a positive and mutually beneficial relationship. I’m experiencing a great deal of anxiety over my evaluation and my imagination is cooking up all sorts of nasty ways this could go horribly sour. But I know that another year of quiet suffering as my career erodes before my eyes would be the end of me. My vulnerability gamble might not work, but I’m thankful I’ve tried. I’m privileged and lucky enough to work in a place where an approach like this might have a shot. I figured I had to take a chance.
Win or lose, I’m glad Let’s Talk Day helped me find the framework to take this chance. Notwithstanding my current anxiety over my evaluation, I feel the most positive I’ve felt in a long time about the way my mental illness has impacted my career. I expect things will still be very hard and I might end up facing more dramatic loses to my career. But, for a moment, my mental wellness was no longer my own private burden to bear in the workplace.
B was able to use the Let’s Talk campaign as a way to start a conversation that he hopes his management will be open to. He’s in a good position because of years of steady growth, and because of his reputation within the firm.
Although I am hopeful and happy that B was able to take this step, I think that his story should be an indicator of how much more work still lies ahead. He is the outlier, in that he was able to leverage Let’s Talk day as an opening with his employer (though he isn’t sure yet whether this will be effective). He’s also in a better position to open up this conversation because his mental health challenges can be framed as situational, and externalized. The same is not true for individuals who are bi-polar, as Emily is, or who have other neurodivergences that can’t be situated so easily outside their core identity. In order for every person struggling with unsupported neurodivergences or mental illnesses to find help, acceptance, and equality, these conversations must move beyond the individualistic peer-to-peer model that is most common on Let’s Talk day (and beyond).
Similar to Flora’s concern that using her own name would negatively impact her employability in the future, B expressed concern about what he has witnessed when other individuals either admit to or are assumed to have mental health challenges. It is tragically common for unsupported neurodivergence to negatively impact employment. It happens too often, too easily, and is too quickly dismissed as a problem with the individual, for the individual to manage on their own.
In order for us to see significant, systemic changes that address both the issues that lead to so many people suffering with unsupported neurodivergences – unemployed, underemployed, homeless, and hungry – and that open up new and more holistic avenues to health, we need to push these conversations far past our current societal comfort zone. We need to start talking about the harms of systemic oppression on racialized, disabled, fat, poor, queer, trans, neurodivergent and otherwise marginalized folks.
We need to talk about intergenerational trauma, and about the deep harms of capitalism, colonialism, and systemic inequality. (These harms that hurt everyone, though not everyone equally. Inequality causes greater unhappiness in the poor as well as the rich. And our inability to speak openly about the ongoing harms of colonialism – not just on the colonized, though those harms are exponentially greater – but also on those of us descended from colonizers, who lack a connection to our own cultures and often feel that loss deeply but without any language to articulate and heal. The negative impact of these ongoing injustices is felt, to wildly varying degrees, by each of us. Healing these fractures in our social foundation will help everyone find easier and more accessible avenues to health.)
We need these awkward, uncomfortable, painful conversations.
We need them on Let’s Talk day, and we need them on every other day.
And we can’t do it alone. We can’t do it individually, in isolation and steeped in the shame that currently surrounds needing and accessing help.
Let’s Talk about where to find help
Valerie, a mental health clinician in Calgary, shared these resources for Calgarians:
– Distress Centre at 403-266-4357 (24 hour phones, plus walk-in therapy and crisis therapy)
– AHS Mobile Response Team – reached through Distress Centre, can see you at home or in the community
If you need to be seen in person more urgently, we recommend one of the Urgent Care sites:
Sheldon Chumir Urgent Care Mental Health
1st Floor – 1213-4th Street SW
Provides mental health assessments
Hours: Monday-Friday 08:00 am until 10:00 pm; weekends and statutory holidays 08:00 am until 08:00 pm
South Calgary Health Centre Mental Health Urgent Care
1st Floor – 31 Sunpark Plaza SE
Provides mental health assessments
Hours: 08:00 am until 10:00 pm; 7 days per week
If you’re interested in same-day, free, walk-in counselling, consider:
Eastside Family Centre
Suite 255, 495-36th Street NE
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:00 am until 07:00 pm
Friday 11:00 am until 06:00 pm
Saturday 11:00 am until 02:00 pm
South Calgary Health Centre – Single Session Walk-In
31 Sunpark Plaza SE (2nd Floor)
Hours: M-Th 4:00 pm – 7:00 pm; Friday 10:00am to 1:00pm
Distress Centre – Walk-In
300, 1010 8th Avenue SW
Hours: Monday to Friday, 1:00pm to 4:00pm
In emergency situations, please head to the nearest hospital emergency department.
If you want to discuss resources for yourself, or a loved one, consider calling Access Mental Health (403-943-1500, M-F 8-5) or 2-1-1 (24hrs).
The Greatist shared these 81 Awesome Mental Health Resources When You Can’t Afford a Therapist.
Healthy Minds Canada has compiled this comprehensive list of resources.
And I will be generating a curated list of resources in the near future.
Good luck, my friends. Let’s keep talking.
This is the third in a four-part series exploring the Let’s Talk campaign. Part One is here, Part Two is here. If you would like to read the article in its entirety right now, it is available on my Patreon.
Let’s Talk about social determinants of health, and moving beyond individualism – an interview with Flora
Flora (not her actual name) is a resident physician. She is a compassionate friend, a lover of horses, and a social justice-minded caregiver, with a practice that focuses on removing barriers to health for vulnerable people.
I think the Let’s Talk campaign is an important conversation starter, but it places the focus on mental health in the hands of individuals, when a lot of the mental health issues I see are related to societal issues that can’t be resolved by simply having people willing to talk about the way mental illness has impacted them personally.
No amount of talking about it is going to change housing, food, and job insecurity for vulnerable people. This isn’t to say that mental health doesn’t impact all of us, even those with the most privilege. But the individualist focus erases and ignores a lot of the ways that we create and then reinforce situations that create mental illness.
In medicine we see a lot of focus on resiliency as a cure for burnout in physicians. And I can’t help but read it as “Learn to deal with our abuse better.”
I don’t feel comfortable owning it at all. Like, labour laws don’t apply to us, the expectations on us are huge and the consequences of our mistakes are literally fatal. So don’t tell me that I just need to be more resilient.
To me resiliency is better conceptualized as “coping reserves.” It means the thing is still hard, because you have to cope, but you have the resources to deal with it.
I had a pretty big reserve after about two full years of solid mental health! But I’ve been slammed by a ton of stuff and my backups are empty now.
It’s frustrating, like running through the savings you’ve set aside for years in two months. You know you were putting it away for just this occasion but it still feels very vulnerable.
My program is super flexible and reasonable and supportive (yay public health, we understand the social determinants of health!) but I am terrified of what happens when I am struggling in the real world.
Within our microcosm, the system is designed to support my well-being primarily and then allow me to have output second, but the thing is I had to get through 8 years of “we don’t give a shit, produce the end product” to get to this place.
And so the people who struggled in undergrad, where’s their support and well-being? They provide counselling resources but that leaves the solution in the hands of the person who is struggling.
What about the people who were dealing with mental health and all the intersectional vulnerabilities who never even got the chance to access post secondary because of it? They have to hope they get a job with health insurance so they get $200 of counselling a year, as long as they pay up front and wait for reimbursement?
Starting the conversation is great. I’m glad more and more people are talking about it. It’s like the It Gets Better Project though. “Don’t kill yourself because we support you in a shitty situation and your situation might improve.” Not, “let’s fix the raging homophobia that drives you to suicidality.”
Both approaches are important but we can’t keep pulling people out of the river. Let’s keep them from falling in upstream.”
Flora offered a quick crash course in the social determinants of health with these links:
The Public Health Agency of Canada on “What Makes Canadians Healthy or Unhealthy“
The World Health Organization on Social Determinants of Health
And this comprehensive PDF on Social Determinants of Health from Canadian Facts
When discussing how to refer to her in this article, she said, “I would prefer ‘a resident physician,’ or Flora, because I have no idea what the politics will be like when I go to get hired. You’d think it wouldn’t matter because my entire job is advocacy for social change but…”
That “but” is a critical part of this conversation. The fact that people who are actively engaged in health and wellness still can’t afford to be open about their experiences for fear of the impact on their careers is telling. It points to the fact that systemic change is necessary, and that these conversations are not going far enough. The Let’s Talk campaign may be sparking conversations, but it’s keeping the issue focused on individuals when the reality is so much more complex and systemic. It may be individuals who experience the negative outcomes of unsupported neurodivergence and mental illness, but the systems and structures that make this so challenging are much bigger, much broader, and will require solutions that move beyond the individual.
We need social change.
Let’s Talk about corporations
Shannon, who has accessed a range of mental health resources, questions whether the benefits are worth the cost of providing so much free advertising for Bell.
Do the posts still count if you delete them all tomorrow? That was kind of my plan. But after 20 tweets I just raised a buck and how much did I advertise some shitty company? I don’t think it’s worth it. I’m thinking a better option would be to just give a dollar to a mental health initiative that’s useful and talking can always be encouraged other ways. Also, I don’t think the whole thing should cause so much extra stress for me if the whole point is to “help” mental illness… whatever that means. By the way, I don’t really know what it does mean. I don’t think the campaign generally does encourage openness at all. I agree that having conversations is important. And at the same time they’re jerks for doing it. I feel like they’re taking advantage of me.
Marginalized communities are unfortunately very familiar with being the “benefactors” of awareness campaigns that are nothing more than thinly veiled advertising, or the “awareness” that doesn’t actually accomplish anything.
Corporations using vulnerable groups to generate advertising is not new. Pinktober, or the highly commercialized “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” is a glaring example. Beatrice Aucoin, a breast cancer survivor and queer activist who writes extensively for ReThink Breast Cancer, says,
I think it’s good in that there is actual good being done with the Let’s Talk campaign: money donated by Bell for hashtag use or texts sent or whatever it is.
I think where criticisms can come in is thinking about what we are actually doing with whatever we share. I’ve seen some people on twitter start important conversations on it. I’ve also seen valid criticism of appearing to support: someone changes a profile photo to have a Let’s Talk frame or uses the hashtag when in reality when people want to talk to them about mental health, they are unsupportive or distance themselves from the person seeking support.
This has a more complicated edge for me than breast cancer corporate ties.
Slapping a pink ribbon on a product that doesn’t give to a charity or help breast cancer patients in some way? That’s bad and making money off of sick people. You also have to keep in mind what cancer charity is being given to, which is way more problematic in the US than in Canada. I’m part of a grassroots counter-culture of breast cancer patients who, mostly in October, examine products that are pink or say something about breast cancer. The ones that are clearly using us without giving back, we take photos and put them on social media and tag the companies to demand #whyisthispink. Some breast cancer peeps object to companies doing pink ribbon things at all, which I actually don’t because corporate giving and selling products are part of how charitable funds are raised.
If Bell supports charities that support mental health, that’s good. If that support doesn’t extend to allowing qualified employees with disclosed mental illnesses to work for them, that’s awful and needs to be called out, just as people who don’t support those in their lives with mental health issues need to be called out if they participate in the Let’s Talk campaign every year but don’t really support the people in their lives dealing with mental illness.
Shannon’s sense that the campaign doesn’t actually encourage openness, which Beatrice also points out, is supported by most of the people I spoke with. Although the campaign sparks conversations (mainly conversations about talking about mental health, rather than conversations directly about mental health) but these conversations didn’t extend far enough to open the door for people struggling to be honest about the details of their neurodivergences, and the impact of that on their lives, especially not with their employers.
In Part Four, we’ll talk about pushing the conversation out of that comfort zone and using the campaign as leverage with employers in an interview with B.
This is the second in a four-part series exploring the Let’s Talk campaign. Part One is here. If you would like to read the article in its entirety right now, it is available on my Patreon.
Let’s Talk about hospitalization, and the “Scary Brain Stuff” – an interview with Emily
Emily is a creative, playful, artistic woman with strong connections to her family and friend group and a penchant for wearing T-Rex costumes.
I’m glad that conversations are trying to happen and that more attention is being placed on people with mental illness – that it`s not the scary, “crazy” thing that we continue to see in movies and TV. The fact that initiatives like this are happening in order to try and destigmatize these issues and get people talking is good.
However, after today people will forget. This isn’t enough. It needs to be a constant public dialogue.
I’m glad people are showing solidarity but I still don’t feel like I can just come out and say that I have a severe anxiety disorder and Bi-polar II.
I told my boss last week about my Bi-polar II. She had no clue what it was and immediately started acting weird.
Mental illnesses such as Bi-polar, Depression, Schizophrenia, are all under a blanket of “scary brain stuff” that people don’t seem to understand and don’t get because the people that have these can look and act “normal”. It’s scary because we can’t identify it or label it right away.
Initiatives like #letstalk are nice and all but it’s not actually starting a conversation. It’s just giving most people something to do so they can feel good about themselves and have their Good Deed of the Week crossed off.
I still know that I can’t call into work because I’m having an awful day and can’t get out of bed because today I’m out of spoons and crying. It’s not visible, it’s not understood, and therefore not an acceptable illness or weakness. Mental illness is still joked about, feared, and not taken seriously.
I spent almost a year (on and off) in the hospital because my brain was literally trying to kill me. I am doing so much better now and I’m on medications that make it so I can live and love and FEEL and work. I HAD to go to the hospital in order for that to happen.
But I can’t tell most people that I spent time in a psychiatric ward because to them that’s where “crazy”, “unstable”, “weirdos” and “freaks” go.
It’s not a place that is viewed as where you go to get help.
If I were to say that I had to be in the hospital because of kidney issues or another major physical illness, but that it was all good and I’m well and there’s nothing to worry about, no one would bat an eye. There would be minor concern, obviously, but it wouldn’t have the impact that saying I had to be hospitalized for mental illness would.
One of those wouldn’t keep me from getting a job.
Let’s Talk about long-term and alternative supports
That issue of being able to get, and keep, a job is one that came up in most of the conversations I had about this issue.
The standard work week, and the expectation that people will be productive in these normative ways – work the regular job, pay the rent, see your therapist after work and read some self-help books on the weekend – really limits the avenues to health that are available. For most of the working population, taking an extended period of time away from work to access support is not a reasonable option. And for individuals who find themselves without a choice because their neurodivergences don’t allow them to work, the costs are huge. Emily needed that time in the hospital, but the impact on her ability to find work after an extended absence was significant and the financial impact of that time is still an issue for her.
Current workplace culture and expectations also cut off access to alternative supports and paths to healing.
Teresa says, “So, I’m not a huge fan of the Bell campaign although I’m certainly for more talking, reaching out and asking for help. I am a big fan of peer supported open dialogue, sanctuaries like Soteria and Diabasis House, health and lifestyle coaching, depth and transpersonal psychology, humanistic, existential, ecotherapy, art therapy, narrative therapy, trauma therapy…there is lots of good stuff out there but psychiatry holds too much power and is far too often the first place people are directed by campaigns like this.”
Accessing a sanctuary like Soteria or Diabasis House is expensive and time-consuming, and although sanctuary-supported living has significant positive outcomes for participants, it doesn’t have the necessary funding and our work culture doesn’t support it.
Part of the reason sanctuary spaces aren’t commonplace or accepted is because they challenge the deeply individualistic model that we take towards almost everything. Community care is critical, but our emphasis so often is on self-care and self-reliance.
Although I am a “self-care coach,” I believe strongly in the importance of community care. Often, community care is self care, and it is only possible to maintain sustainable community care when you have good self care practices.
We need safe spaces to fall apart in community, and we need to find ways to integrate community care with self care.
Let’s Talk about the intersection of race and mental health
Communities that have been marginalized for generations, and denied access to mental wellness supports, are the leaders when it comes to finding and creating alternative strategies for self and community care.
Black women, who are so often held to an impossible standard of strength, and whose struggle is often dismissed as nothing more than anger, are doing a lot of work when it comes to moving the conversation around self-care and community-care forward. This post at Blavity, by Amani Ariel, is important. She speaks explicitly about the ways in which self-care culture – with its heavy individualism and the isolating effect of an underlying message that says “you need care, so take care of that yourself” – can exacerbate rather than heal trauma.
Let’s Talk included Gloria Swain and the Let’s Actually Talk initiative, acknowledging the ways in which access to mental health supports and even space for the conversation is restricted for marginalized communities. It’s an important step.
It’s hard to talk about mental illness, especially if you’re a Black woman whose ancestors have suffered in silence for centuries because we were told we had to be strong and not complain. It’s difficult for the Black community to end the stigma when the people speaking about this illness look nothing like us. Mental illness does not see race, sex or economical status; yet, those who are marginalized are the ones whose voices and needs are not prioritized in such campaigns and dialogue. Making me feel like my depression isn’t important doesn’t help me heal. I am not invisible.
My name is Gloria and my depression is political. (Text from this Let’s Talk campaign image.)
Indigenous communities also face significant barriers to access, and see their traditional practices and sacred teachings appropriated into contemporary self-care/self-help practices that erase and exclude the indigenous cultures being used as inspiration. This happens throughout our culture, but particularly in many new age approaches. (A similar appropriation, erasure, and exclusion happens in a lot of yoga studios. Decolonizing Yoga is a great resource for folks who want to bring an intersectional awareness to their practice.)
SooJin Pate has also written about self-care within marginalized communities. This post includes specific ideas for self-care practices, including narrative framing strategies that are similar to my own work.
Communities that are vulnerable in multiple ways face significant barriers to accessing the mental wellness resources that are available, and since those resources are underfunded, understaffed, and the demand far exceeds the current capacity, it is often the most vulnerable who are the least able to access care, or to find care that acknowledges the specific intersections of their experience. Race, class, gender, orientation, ability – none of these identity categories exist in a vacuum. It can be difficult to understand how someone else’s experience is different from our own, but the willingness to stay present for uncomfortable conversations is a critical part of deep community care, and it is a valuable tool for self-care and growth.
In Part Three, we’ll talk about social determinants of health, and moving beyond individualism in an interview with a resident physician.
This is the first part in a four-part series exploring the Let’s Talk campaign. If you would like to read the article in its entirety right now, it is available on my Patreon.
Today is Bell Canada’s #letstalk day. There’s a lot of hashtagging happening, and a lot of billboards up and good intentions, but it’s a complicated and messy issue. It’s not a simple narrative – “this is a good thing” or “this is a bad thing.” What this is, as many health issues are, is complicated. It’s messy. It’s a big conversation.
One critical part of the conversation is the language we use around it. I use the language of neurodiversity, because the illness model is not one that works for me. I appreciate the Drop the Disorder movement, and the Mad Pride movement, and in my own personal narratives of mental health and neurodivergence, allowing myself to move away from an illness model and view myself as divergent rather than broken has been important. However, I know that the frame of illness works for a lot of people, and the idea of a “broken brain” can be the right fit for some. (I definitely understand the appeal of a metaphor that includes the potential for “fixing”!) It’s not the language that I use, but that’s not because it is wrong language.
But the larger conversation gets narrowed, at least in Canada, on one day in January, to the viral and hugely successful Let’s Talk campaign. The campaign has run annually since 2011, and has raised over $100 million for the various charities, research foundations, and grants that Bell supports through this program. Bell’s website says, “For every text, call, tweet and Instagram post, Facebook video view and use of Snapchat geofilter, Bell will contribute 5 ¢ more to mental health initiatives. So let’s work together to create a stigma-free Canada!”
Their initiative is built on four pillars, described on the site. “Dedicated to moving mental health forward in Canada, Bell Let’s Talk promotes awareness and action with a strategy built on 4 key pillars: Fighting the stigma, improving access to care, supporting world-class research, and leading by example in workplace mental health.”
It is sparking conversations. My facebook feed is full of temporary profile pictures featuring the hashtag, I’ve heard multiple spots on the radio, and people are talking about how important it is to talk about mental health. These conversations can absolutely reduce stigma, and that is a critical step.
But I’m also seeing a significant amount of skepticism, as well as deep personal pain.
Let’s Talk about the intersection of mental health and corporate culture
People are skeptical about another corporate initiative that hopes to raise awareness but may not do enough to shift the corporate cultures that actively harm people struggling with unsupported neurodivergence. It’s not just the stigma surrounding issues of mental health, unhealth, and diversity, it’s also the fact that there are very few acceptable ways to be a “productive member of society.” In order to be productive, you must be a worker, and mental health impacts productivity and expectations in the workplace.
As one resident physician described it, “I’m struggling a ton right now and the cultural narrative of “work=productive member of society and therefore notwork=lazy layabout who needs to get their shit together” is really bringing me down. Self care isn’t gratifying in the way working for 14 hours straight is for me.”
Unsupported neurodivergence fucks with productivity. It doesn’t mesh well with contemporary corporate culture, and no #letstalk hashtag will change that. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health challenges are viewed in terms of both absenteeism and presenteeism, and framed as economic issues – not because an inability to work means an inability to live in our culture, with its eroding base of social supports, but rather because of the cost to corporations.
Google absenteeism and you’ll see pages and pages of search results talking about the cost to corporations when full-time employees are absent, and mental health is a huge factor here. Absenteeism costs Canadian corporations an estimated 16.6 billion. And it’s talked about in terms of a problem that corporations need to fix – and that fix? Usually means reducing the number of days employees are absent.
But then corporations run into presenteeism. Presenteeism, or being physically present but disengaged, costs Canadian corporations 15-20 billion per year. Those are big numbers. Big numbers. The cost of unsupported neurodivergence for an individual is much smaller in terms of dollar value, and it’s much harder to find quantifiable numbers when discussing the personal costs. But does that mean the cost is less meaningful, less worth acknowledging and honouring?
And when employees are fired after disclosing mental health challenges, what is the recourse? How do we protect people from employment discrimination when the illness they are experiencing is still cloaked in mystery and fear and shame and stigma? How do we change corporate culture to make space for truly productive conversations about mental health when it is still not even remotely acceptable to speak openly with employers about depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, or other neurodivergences?
So the skepticism regarding the Bell Let’s Talk program is justified. Reducing the stigma by sparking conversations is an important step, but it’s not enough. And individuals who are facing under- or unemployment as a result of their mental health challenges feel frustrated that it is a corporation leading (and financially benefiting from) this initiative.
Let’s Talk about funding for mental wellness supports
The money raised through the hashtag interactions is tracked, and a lot of money is put towards various grants and funds. The money supports research, and funds community supports for children and youth, aboriginal communities, and military families, among others. These are important initiatives.
But mental wellness supports are chronically underfunded. Valerie points out that, “It’s great we’re donating and sharing and hashtagging to Bell (who does not seem to have Alberta partners this year) but here in Calgary we just lost 2 low-cost therapy programs this month because they lost funding. These were the Alberta Health Services women’s health resources (which offered 6 free sessions of psychology/year for all women) and Jewish Family Services (which had a great individual/couple/family counseling program at a sliding scale).
It’s frustrating talking to folks who are motivated to start the work and having to tell them it’s public waitlists or expensive private options. Every day I wish I had more to offer our neighbours when we’re discussing referrals. I’m glad we’re confronting stigma, but disappointing to know that just because you’ve recognized the problem doesn’t mean the help will be easy-peasy to find.”
Let’s Talk about starting the conversations
For others, the conversation is enough to make the campaign worthwhile. Angie K. says, “For me, this initiative is a huge positive. The fact that conversations are being encouraged, and had is a sign of progress. A few years ago I would have still been too ashamed to admit I have mental health issues. It may not be as much or as fast as we would like, and there is still much work to do on the behalf of the companies to accommodate those with mental illness, but it is a good start.”
A lot of people’s responses to the initiative include that same cautious optimism – the conversations are good, but they’re not good enough. It’s a place to start, but it can’t be where the conversation ends.
Unfortunately, it is where the conversation ends a lot of the time.
In Part Two, we’ll talk about hospitalization and the “Scary Brain Stuff” in an interview with Emily, and about other long-term and alternative support options.
At the end of November, I learned that I had been shortlisted for the Innovate Calgary RBC Social Enterprise Accelerator program.
I was very proud of this. The application was really well-done, and it was an accomplishment to have sat down and clarified what I want to do with this business, who I want to help, how I will help them, why there is value in this work. Because Innovate Calgary is a business-focused organization, and the Accelerator programs focus on helping entrepreneurs create profit as well as social benefit, the application really focused on the potential collaborations with business. I linked the self-care and narrative coaching to work I’ve done with Rebecca Sullivan on shifting leadership culture in large organizations*. I was really proud of it.
We spent a day putting the power point presentation together for the five-minute pitch.
It was going to be so good. I could picture myself standing in front of the judges, so convincing.
I could picture their responses. So enthusiastic! How could they not love it? This is important work! I am going to be so good at this, and it is so needed!
One of my most cherished personal stories – one of those stories that I come back to again and again – is that I am a good presenter, a good public speaker. I have loved giving presentations since I was a kid, and I have done public speaking in almost every professional job I’ve held. As the canine program coordinator at the Calgary Humane Society, I was interviewed on the news multiple times. As a dog trainer running my own company, I ran regular sessions for the Town of Okotoks on dog behaviour, and spoke to large groups about various topics. I facilitate workshops every month. I’m a public speaking rock star. I love it. I love it. And I’m good at it.
So, what happened on Jan 12 when I stood up in front of that panel of judges, with 8 months of business mentorship and networking and professional assistance on the line?
Clearly, I rocked it, right? I mean, I did all the positive thinking. I did the visualization. I had the positive self-storying down pat. I’m experienced. I know this stuff. I rocked it.
It was awful.
I wasn’t just awkward, I was a disaster. I panicked. I forgot everything I had planned on saying. I got stuck in a loop of saying “the stories people are told about who they are supposed to be” (I swear, I said that phrase probably twelve times), and I couldn’t get out of it. I started reading off the powerpoint slides, but then I panicked more because I know that’s terrible presentation form. I trailed off into awkward mid-sentence silence a couple times. After about seven minutes of my rambling (two minutes over the strict five minute limit), and less than halfway through my presentation, they cut me off. There were people waiting – the time limit was strict. The position was competitive, and mine was far from the only good idea being presented.
It was humiliating.
I felt sad, and ashamed, and disappointed.
I was proud of being shortlisted, and upset to have bombed so hard when it came down to it.
I failed so hard.
On the way out to our cars, Rebecca told me that the business will happen either way and that it was okay.
I went home, and crawled into bed.
There were a million good reasons for my failure.
I was sick.
I was over-tired.
My throat hurt, my head hurt, and I was medicated.
I hadn’t had as much time to practice, because I had been sick.
Still, it was a failure.
And I don’t like failure.
I like to be really smart. Really witty. Really awkward, in a charming way. Really smart. Did I mention smart?
When I was a kid, this was foundational. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I was very smart. I didn’t do well at sports, but I was very smart. And I was very smart in a very specific way – I was “book smart.” Word smart. Eloquent. Loquacious. (The former being a word I bandied about with obnoxious ubiquity as a precocious youth.)
That afternoon in front of that panel of judges with Innovate Calgary, I did not come across as particularly smart. I did not come across as eloquent. I came across as frazzled, and underprepared, and panicky. It hit me right in one of my most cherished core stories. It hit me right where I’m vulnerable.
This isn’t the first time I’ve taken a hit to this particular core story.
Fibromyalgia decimated my memory, my reading comprehension, my reading speed, and, for a few years, my ability to write. I’ve adapted now, but those were hard years and I still miss my old, pre-fibro mind.
The point of this post is two-fold.
First, it is an acknowledgement of how much I struggle with perfectionism, and shame, and unrealistic expectations of myself. I don’t want to be a self-care and narrative coach, I want to be the self-care and narrative coach. I am setting bars for myself that are literally impossible to clear on a first try, and those expectations are part of the reason it has taken me so many years to start actively pursuing this dream I’ve long held, of being able to help in this way. I want to change the world. I want to do it with my brain and with the power of my words, my narrative. I want that so badly. And I don’t want to fail on the way forward. I don’t want to trip and land on my face. I want to be at the end of the journey before I’ve even mapped the path. My clients will want that, too. You probably want that, in your own life. One point of this post is to say – I get it. I struggle with that, too.
I want to look that sharp and painfully deep desire fully in the face, and acknowledge it. Our most powerful and meaningful and beautiful dreams have the potential to fuel a shame machine that could push us into the shadows for years. Or, acknowledged and honoured and tempered with some humility (yikes, the vulnerability), these dreams have the potential to open doors for to address that shame and challenge, and even heal, those internalized narratives.
Second, it is a public acknowledgement of my failure. Not to beat myself up, but to remind myself that failure happens and that we survive it.
That our core stories can take a hit, and stay true.
It is an attempt to live within the narrative framework I’ve been working so hard to define – to know and welcome the positive and wholehearted truths about myself. To reframe and transform the narratives that are less wholehearted.
One of my core stories is that “Tiffany is smart.”
But I can reframe that. I can keep the part that feels whole and healthy – my love of books, my often-quick mind, my wordwizardy – and transform it into something with more space for failure and for adaptability.
“Tiffany loves books and words, and she is often sharp and insightful and able to convey a point.” (It is so much more true, and it doesn’t carry so many hierarchized ways of knowing – “smart,” with its implied corollary of “stupid.” With its implication that a “smart” person is somehow more valuable than a “stupid” person – these internalized oppressive hierarchies cause so much harm, and fuel so much shame and fear. Every voice is valuable. And there are many ways of knowing.)
In addition to healing my core story, I can add another story.
“Tiffany is brave enough to try something risky, and resilient enough to experience failure and keep going.”
That’s a pretty good story, I think.
I failed so hard, and I hated it. I still feel a flicker of shame when I remember it. But failure, and shame, do not have to be so powerful. They can be shifted into catalysts for change and invitations to compassion.
We can do this, my friends.
We can be brave, be vulnerable, be resilient.
We can get up and keep going, because we are so much more resilient than we know.
This post was available last week to my patrons. If you would like to see posts before they are made public, you can join the Patreon at www.patreon.com/sostarselfcare.
* This is a digression from the post, but the collaboration with Rebecca is really important. She’s been working with the Calgary Police Services, and I’ve been involved with that work, but the progress is so slow. Too slow. Organizations change at a glacial pace, and much like a glacier they grind the people at the bottom into dust. The weight of structural and systemic oppression, the constant microaggressions, the daily stereotype threat and the way it erodes resiliency… it’s great that organizations want to change, but while that slow change is happening, we must find a way to support the people who are being actively harmed during that painfully slow process. I think that there is a lot of potential in collaborating with organizations who are engaged in the process of pushing cultural change through and shifting towards equity and inclusivity and active, intentional diversity. Supporting the people who are suffering, so that once the leadership works through the process of addressing systemic and structural inequality, they haven’t crushed the people they’re changing to help.
Here’s part of the application:
There have been over 300 studies published in peer-reviewed journals regarding stereotype threat, and its pervasive negative effects. Stereotype threat, and the toxic narratives that drive it, undermine the ability of vulnerable identity groups to function in a variety of areas, including the workplace. It is a well-documented social challenge that impacts any person whose identity (their sense of self and their understanding of who they are in a social context) is impacted by stereotypes about their identity group’s ability to succeed in a certain situation. (Women’s performance in negotiations is a well-documented example of stereotype threat resulting in negative outcomes.)
One of the best ways to reduce stereotype threat and promote resilience is to give individuals tools that foster self-storying, self-awareness, and self-care. Resiliency models of intervention and empowerment have proven effective in raising consciousness about discrimination practices in a safe environment, and developing self-sufficiency skills to respond effectively and respectfully while maintaining maximum mental wellness.
Self-storying is one key practice of resiliency models. It gives employees the opportunity to use narrative to reframe a problem in ways that are both internally cohesive and strategically useful, meaning the individual has a sense of wholeness and authenticity, and a solid grounding in positive narratives of who they are and how they operate effectively in the world. Using narrative consciously and intentionally has been able to effectively, as David Denborough puts it, “retell the stories of our lives.”
Tiffany uses a variety of narrative approaches to teach self-storying, including leading clients through the process of identifying the harmful narratives they’ve internalized (the stereotype threats they are currently operating under) and also searching for possible resolutions to re-write those narratives and gain the confidence and support they need to move forward in their careers.
Self-awareness and self-care are parallel skillsets that allow clients to look clearly at what narratives they’ve internalized or are facing from colleagues, and to develop sustainable self-care strategies to help them build resilience to manage and eventually thrive in difficult situations.
It’s not reasonable to expect individuals who are facing threats to their emotional wellbeing and resilience because of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, and other identity threats, to wait indefinitely while organizations change. We must offer support at both the individual and the organizational level.
The goal of this coaching is not to “fix” the issues that clients are facing. Sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism… these issues will not be fixed with positive thinking or by being the “right” kind of employee. Rather, the goal is to give clients the skills to be able to navigate on-going challenges and to thrive despite the issues they are facing. This is a significant departure from traditional models, which tend to focus on “fixing” the person and making hollow promises that if the individual changes, the organization will certainly follow.