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.