Category Archives: mental health

Signal Boost: Blog Carnival of Mental Health

Over at Astrid’s Journal, Astrid has a proposal up discussing a Blog Carnival of  Mental Health:

I was thinking about either a monthly or quarterly carnival, depending on interest. I would be willing to host the first carnival, but I need other mental health bloggers interested in taking over from me. So, if you are interested, please let me know.

She’s getting things rolling in comments  but could use more hosts, and I want to make sure people are aware it’s going on because I think it’s a fabulous idea, and there will probably be a call for submissions soon.

Recommended Reading for 15 October, 2010

The month’s going fast, isn’t it? Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

At Deafinitely Girly, Nobody puts Deafinitely Girly in a deaf box:

Sometimes I wonder what I should do about this living in a box thing – should I work with it? Get it some comfy cushions, make myself right at home, play up to the illusion that I’m going nowhere fast. Or should I throw the damn box out of the window and continue the daily fight to prove that putting people in boxes – no matter who they are or what they do – is a very outmoded way of thinking?

At Rolling Around In My Head, A Pop Quiz by Dave Hingsburger:

Clearly there are two ways to view every situation. I am wondering about all of you. Was the curtain a thing designed to give privacy or was it something which indicated the hiding way of shameful movement?

New Zealand: Government Bullying Must Stop by Red at Walking is Overrated:

This bullying of innocent families (who, let’s be honest, have enough on their plate) must stop. The Government is relying on the apathy, relative inertia and fear of the disabled community to make life hell for the people who deserve it least. No other group in society is so reliant on the Government from birth as people like myself who are born with a disability. We must support each other, and band together to tell whoever is behind this vendetta against good, hard-working families who are dedicated to their kids, that enough’s enough.

Singapore: Call for awareness on mental health issues at TODAYonline:

Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef said: “It is also significant that there was another follow-up survey (to the one done in 2004) that showed 37 per cent (of those surveyed) said even if they had serious mental health symptoms, they would not come forward to seek professional help because of the fear of stigma.”

Canada: at The Standard, City of St. Catharines plans for an inclusive election experience:

“We looked at everything from the Facilities Accessibilites Design Standards checklist, the updated building code and for accessibility, said Karen Ellison, the city’s election co-ordinator.

“We’re trying to make this a superior experience.”

Send your links to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com. Let us know if/how you want to be credited.

Let’s Bust Some Myths: Depressed People Are Always Sad or They’re Faking!

Last year, after the incredibly scientific method of “looking at Facebook photos”, Manulife Insurance Company decided that Nathalie Blanchard wasn’t really depressed, she was just faking it, and thus cut off her disability-related funding.

Mix up a few details, and Blanchard’s story is a pretty common one. Whenever I talk to people who are currently living with long- or short-term depression, or have lived with it in the past, they tell me the same story: Friends thought they were faking because they managed to get out and have a good time. They laughed at a joke once and everyone decided they were “over” their “funk”. They didn’t act like stereotypes of depressed people, so they must not actually be depressed.

Woe, and all that.

This is what short-term depression was like for me: I spent four months getting up, going to work, doing my job quite well, eating at work, coming home, feeding the cat, lying down on the couch, falling asleep, and waking up to do it all again the next day when the cat bit me to remind me that I had to feed him. I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t go online. I didn’t eat when I wasn’t at work. I didn’t go into my bedroom. I enjoyed my job, and was often bubbly and vivacious at work, and while everyone outside of my job figured there was something up, everyone I worked with thought I was great fun and having a lovely time.

This is what short-term depression looked like for my friend: She spent a few months being aware of every possible way she could kill herself in a room. She was really angry and yelled at people a lot. She would go for long walks in the dark and wonder if someone would just hit her with a car and be done with it. She cut off most contact with her friends and spent as much time as possible alone. She was told that she should “get over it” – whatever “it” was – because everyone gets “down” sometime and she was just being a drama queen.

This is what short-term depression looked like for another friend of mine: He didn’t feel like doing anything, so he didn’t. His doctor encouraged him to go out with friends, so he went out with friends, and laughed when other people laughed and acted as normal as he could. Sometimes he’d have a really good time, and then he’d feel bad because if he was having a good time, he probably wasn’t depressed, and that meant he was just a horrible person, so he’d go back into his room and not do anything because otherwise he was bad, and then the doctor would encourage him to go out and the cycle would begin anew. But most of the time he just didn’t feel much of anything. People told him he must be getting over everything because otherwise he wouldn’t be getting out.

Depression can be sitting alone in a room being sad or down or feeling empty and alone. But when this is the only thing that people think of when they think of depression, not only are there cases like Blanchard’s, but there is pressure on the person with depression, from friends, family members, co-workers, even themselves, to look “depressed enough”.

This stereotype can also lead to people with depression delaying seeking assistance. When I was depressed, I didn’t think I was really depressed, because I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t crying. I just didn’t want to talk to anyone. At all. Ever again. But I just knew I wasn’t depressed because I didn’t want to die. It took me many months to get any of the help I needed, and many of my friendships were irreparably damaged in the meantime.

This stereotype can also lead to more social isolation for someone with depression. If one needs to “act depressed” in order for people to take depression seriously, that can lead to sitting alone even if sitting alone isn’t what one wants to be doing.

I can’t tell you how people will behave when they’re depressed because, even when depressed, people can and do make all sorts of choices. They may do any of the things I’ve referred to here, or they may do something else entirely. If you think you’re depressed, I encourage you to do what you need to do to get through it, and I hope you find the help you need to recover.

For your reading enjoyment, a “Things People Say To People With Depression” Bingo Card. It looks like it was originally posted by inbar–1423 on Tumblr. The link is to one with the image described.

ETA: Actually, the bingo card was originally created by YouKiddinRight on Livejournal. Thanks for the correction!

Teeny Little Super-Meta: The things I can’t write about

And they say that the truth will set you free/but then/so will a lie

— Ani DiFranco, “Promised Land” (2003)

Yesterday, I wrote some things down, intending to use them for a post. The half-post or so that I wrote was inspired by, in large part, bullying-related suicides recently making the national news. It was difficult to write, as much of it was stuff I have kept to myself for a while — both for the sake of those I care about, and for my own mental health.

After I finished writing, I realized that I could not use any of it. Because the thought of  exposing this stuff to an audience was, and is, too painful. I want to believe that writing it down helped me in some way, because otherwise what I wrote exists as just a barely-legible scattering of meaningless words, scrawled on a piece of paper.

There are many things that I can’t write about here on FWD, or on my personal blog. Many of the things that I have experienced are so emotionally fraught that I am reluctant to even consider writing about them, mostly for fear of going into a black hole of emotions from which I may not be able to get out.

There are other reasons, too, such as protecting the people that I care about in any public retelling and/or analysis of these events. Some of these people may not have heard every part of the story, or even every story. There are also people — many of whom have a central role in these painful stories — about whom I do not care, and I would relish the opportunity to textually rip some of these people apart. It would be easy to say, “They ripped me to shreds, and now I will grate them like cheese, using my keyboard. It is payback time.”  Paradoxically, my own selfish concerns about my integrity prevents me from using my keyboard as a weapon.

The twist, of course, is that writing about these things in the “right” way — dispassionately, analytically — might help someone. Posting about things that are painful for me to think about, let alone write about, might reassure someone going through similar issues that they are not the only person who has dealt with some scary things.

And, like many people, I like the idea of helping someone get through rough times, or reassuring someone or someones that they are not alone in facing trying circumstances. Maybe that’s selfish. Maybe it’s part of human nature. Maybe it’s both.

Writing publicly about these things, on the other hand, may get me comments that I do not particularly want to face. This could not have happened. How do we know you’re not just making this up? Do you always have to write about yourself? Let’s look at this objectively. Why can’t you focus on something more important? I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that. Why can’t you just let it go? It was so long ago, anyway. We all have difficulties, what makes you so special? Who do you think you are?

According to the dichotomy of writing for an audience, I should either “get over it” and write about x or y more important topic, or excavate all of these painful things — that is, come forward with them publicly, dissect these less-than-savory experiences and my role(s) in them like a vivisected frog laden with pins to keep it from slipping out of the pan — in order to help others.

I think this dichotomy is bullshit.

But, the main thing is:  Very often, I cannot tell the whole story, for highly specific and extremely personal reasons. I might, in time, choose to reveal parts of these stories. I certainly do not have an obligation to do it all right now.

[Note: The title of this post was partially inspired by Sesame Street’s Teeny Little Super Guy short segments.]

Review: Stand Up for Mental Health

Last night I attended Stand Up For Mental Health Days on Campus, the first evening of the cross-Canada tour of Stand up for Mental Health.

I was trying to sort out a good way of summing up what Stand up for Mental Health (SMH) is, but I figure I’ll just use the description on the website:

David Granirer counsellor, stand-up comic and author of The Happy Neurotic: How Fear and Angst Can Lead to Happiness and Success, created and leads Stand Up For Mental Health (SMH). David teaches stand up comedy to people with mental illness as a way of building their confidence and fighting public stigma, prejudice, and discrimination.

Our shows look at the lighter side of taking meds, seeing counsellors, getting diagnosed, and surviving the mental health system. We perform at conferences, treatment centers and psych wards in partnership with numerous mental health organizations. SMH performs in Prisons, on Military Bases and University and College Campuses, at Government, Corporate and Community fundraisers and Forums, and Most Importantly, for the General Public across Canada and the US.

SMH will be on several university campuses over the next week, so I wanted to take the opportunity to review the show in case people are trying to decide if they want to go.

Go.

While some of the jokes and routines are funnier than others (my sense of humour is a lot dryer than this sort of thing does), the whole point of them is to talk about being Actually Crazy, to humanize what Actually Crazy looks like, sounds like, and behaves like. And it is, remarkably, not like in the movies.

The performance I attended opened with the CBC documentary “Cracking Up” (unsubtitled), which covered a year in the life of the program, highlighting five people who started out afraid to even say their names and ended giving a sold-our comedy performance. The documentary manages to somehow be both hilarious and harrowing, making it clear how much of the social stigma about mental health and mental illness deeply affect those of us who live with it. The people in the documentary learn that they can be funny, that they can talk about what’s happening in their lives, that they can speak about being Crazy. At the same time, though, the audience sees that this is not all just fun and games and being silly. It’s very apparent that these are people whose lives are incredibly difficult because of both the social stigma of mental illness and the actual affects of their conditions. Many of them live in very very small spaces in what are considered dangerous areas of Vancouver. One of them disappears and attempts suicide part way through the year the documentary covers. This is not a Very Special Lesson, but a pointed commentary.

The thing that Granirer and his group does in this is talk seriously about mental health issues while surrounding them with safe and easy-to-digest humour. This isn’t the first talk I’ve gone to at University that does exactly that. Jorge Cham’s talk about Procrastination and how he developed PhD comics also uses humour as the bread in a “people in grad school kill themselves and that’s something we’d like people to avoid doing” sandwich. It’s like folks in North America need to be eased carefully in to acknowledging that short-term or life-long mental health conditions exist, and the way to help is to talk about what’s going on, and what this culture of silence and stigma actually does to people.

On the surface, SMH looks like it’s going to be a fairly simple “come out and see a bunch of crazy people talk humourously about being crazy”, but there is a very serious point to it: mental health stigma kills.

I really recommend people in the Canadian cities the tour is touching down in this week take the chance to go and see the show.

If you’re interested in supporting the program but can’t make it out to a show, consider voting for them in the PepsiRefresh Challenge (Canada), as they’re hoping to mount a larger tour next year.

Pass/Fail

As I mentioned recently, I’ve just gone back to school. I was enrolling for classes over the summer and kept coming back to a course called “Mental Health Policy.” Here’s the description: ‘Examination of evolution of social policy and services for mentally ill, with emphasis on political, economic, ideological, and sociological factors that affect views of mentally ill and services they are provided.’

Sounds right up my alley, right? Half of me really wanted to take it, but the other half of me wants to stay as far away as possible. Because I don’t want to hear people talk about people with mental illness like they’re a separate species, like there’s none of them in the room. I don’t want to hear people advocating for involuntary commitment. I don’t want to listen to people talk about how hard it was on them to have a relationship with a person with a mental illness. I absolutely do not want to hear the terms “those people” or “crazies” or “lunatics.” I just don’t.

I know that in theory, the professor is supposed to take care of those kinds of things. But the more time I spend on disability issues, the more thinking and reading and discussing I do, I find myself moving more and more to the radical end of the spectrum. Reconsidering and rejecting a lot of the “for their own good” policies I’d been okay with in the past. Thinking more and more about the social model of disability and becoming more insistent on demanding movement and changes and sacrifices from TABs instead of being willing to sacrifice and go without.

And I don’t have any faith that the professor would agree with me about all of that. There’s a difference between demanding baseline sensitivity to disability issues – using people first language, recognizing and respecting autonomy, including the viewpoints and rights of PWDs in discussions – and expecting the professor to be as or more radical than me on every potential issue. The first is reasonable (or should be), the second is not. (Unless maybe I was enrolled at Radical Disability Studies University.)  But I knew that if the professor didn’t live up to that unreasonably high standard, I would feel irritated in every single class meeting. I would think about how radical or confrontational to be in my papers, my exams, my class discussion.

And then there would be the big question: do I disclose my disability status, or not? Do I talk about mental health policy without being explicit that I’m in the group of people who would be affected, or do I trust these strangers with extremely personal information about myself? Which of those could I live with? Which would make me the least uncomfortable?

So I’m passing up this learning opportunity – and potential teaching opportunity, as I’d imagine I’d run into some “teachable moments” at some point during the class. Because I just don’t want to deal with it. I just don’t have the energy.

And that, frankly, is a real shame. I’d love to do the reading and have the discussions and engage in the thinking that comes with the class. And I’m sure I have some opinions and experiences that would enrich the discussion and benefit other people in the class. But it’s just not worth it for me.

How Do You Fight A Suicide Epidemic?

Content note: This post contains discussions of bullying, abuse, and suicide.

An alarming number of gay youth have committed suicide in the United States in recent weeks. There were probably more than I listed here; there tend to be disparities in what the media does and doesn’t report. Rates of suicide and suicide attempts among queer/questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual, and gay (QUILTBAG) youth are estimated at approximately one and a half to three times that of the general youth population and possibly even higher; there aren’t nearly enough studies and there’s a particular dearth of studies when it comes to trans youth and youth of colour (.pdf, sorry). My friend Kirya Traber refers to this as an ‘epidemic’ and I think that’s an appropriate word to use; if you have a population dying at a rate that stark, it’s an epidemic.

Seth Walsh was a 13 year old middle school student in California. Walsh was experiencing bullying in school, the school knew about it and did nothing, and his parents withdrew him from school, putting him on independent study. Despite not being in school, he was still bullied. He attempted to hang himself and hovered on life support for nine days before dying.

Asher Brown was 13 too, a middle school student in Texas. His parents couldn’t afford designer shoes and he was mocked for his sexuality and his clothing. On the day before his death, he was pushed down a flight of stairs at the school. His parents filed multiple claims with the school requesting action on bullying. Nothing was done. The night before he died, he seemed sad, but when his parents asked him what was wrong, he said nothing. He shot himself in the head.

Caleb Nolt was 14, a high school student in Indiana. He was a twin, and enjoyed working on building projects and baking cookies.

Billy Lucas was 15, a freshman at a high school in Indiana. Again, school officials were notified about bullying. He endured years of teasing because he was gay. On the day of his death, he started fighting back against the bullies when they harassed him in class and he was suspended for it. He hung himself in the family barn.

Harrison Chase Brown was a 15 year old Colorado high school student. He was interested in history, volunteering with local historical organisations, and he loved music and art. An organ donor, he gave his heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, and a lung after his death.

Cody J. Barker was 17, a high school student in Wisconsin. He was an activist who wanted to start a gay-straight alliance at his school despite the fact that he experienced bullying for his sexual orientation. Like me, he enjoyed watching James Bond and listening to Lady Gaga.

Felix Sacco was a 17 year old high school senior in Massachusetts. A guitar player, he was described as ‘quiet’ by many people who knew him. He threw himself from an overpass.

Tyler Clementi was an 18 year old college student at Rutgers. Classmates filmed him without consent during a sexual encounter and posted the film online. He asked for help and didn’t get it; in fact, some helpful Internet commenters even suggested that his roommate was unsafe around him because he was gay. He jumped off a bridge.

Raymond Chase, 19, was a college student in Rhode Island. He was out, proud, and enjoyed Harry Potter and dancing. Despite appearing happy on the surface to many of his friends, he hung himself in his dorm room.

One school district in Minnesota has experienced seven suicides in the last year, four of which involved gay students and bullying. One of them was Justin Aaberg, 13, who hung himself in July.

These young people were all failed by the people with a responsibility to protect them. Anti-bullying campaigns repeatedly tell young people to report bullying to teachers, and tell young people who witness bullying to report it, and to speak up about it if they feel comfortable and safe doing so. In all of these cases, there were documented patterns of bullying going on, including physical assaults in some cases. Classroom disruptions. School officials were clearly aware that something was going on, and they did nothing to support the endangered students in their midst. When the core of an anti-bullying campaign is ‘report it’ and reporting it does nothing, that sends a pretty clear message to people who are experiencing bullying in schools.

Knowing that students are being abused and threatened, knowing that suicide rates are especially high among QUILTBAG youth, school districts should not be standing by. Dealing with bullying is complicated, I’m not going to deny that, but it’s clear that many of these districts provided no support for endangered youth and those youth paid a high price for it. The solution to bullying often seems to be to allow (or force) the bullied student to withdraw from school, or isolating the bullied student in other ways, rather than confronting and addressing the abusive behaviour. Or the recommendation is to suspend the bullies, which is not the right solution either.

In 1986, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

He was talking about the willful ignorance cultivated about concentration camps in the 1940s, pointing out that the same could be said about many ongoing human rights violations. The skyrocketing death rates among QUILTBAG youth in the United States are an epidemic. They are a human rights violation. They are an atrocity. They are a smear upon the already tattered reputation of the United States. For all the talk of freedom and equal protection under the law, youth cannot even be safe in schools.

We especially need to talk about violence against transgender youth and skyrocketing rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. The recent suicides have gotten a great deal of press coverage, which gives me hope for having a national conversation about this issue, but it’s important to avoid leaving trans folks in the cold; like many transgender people, this is a personal issue for me. While seeking out stories for this piece, I couldn’t find any news stories specifically focused on suicide among transgender youth and it’s important to be aware that our suicides are often not reported or are reported confusingly, making it hard to raise awareness and keep accurate statistics.

Youth advocates all over the United States are working with QUILTBAG youth, and many are working directly in schools. I think we need more of them, more people creating safe spaces for endangered youth, more people calling school administrations up on the carpet for their inaction, more people creating a framework for resistance to bullying in schools. It’s clear that school districts will not change from within, and that those that do want to change have no idea about how to do it; getting more advocates into schools feels like the only concrete thing I can suggest in the face of this epidemic taking my QUILTBAG siblings.

If you’re a QUILTBAG youth in need of suicide counseling, please call the Trevor Hotline: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR

The We Got Your Back Project is a new project to reach out to QUILTBAG youth that could use some support!

Veronika Decides to Die: A Very Special Lesson in Living Your Life Right

Book cover for Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho. A mostly blue cover depicting a snowy scene with a blurry shadowy figure of a (presumably) woman walking on the snow among some blurry shadowy trees.Every now and again I come across a book that I enjoy enough to read repeatedly. I have several of these on our bookshelves at home. The Harry Potter Series is an annual read for me in my YA set. The Kushiel’s Legacy series is another, in my Not YA set. There are, though, few books that I have encountered that I have read and enjoyed at different periods of my life when that have meant different things to me. Particularly because I have gone through some dramatic life shifts, and because those shifts have given me some fairly fundamental changes in how I view the world, politics, religion, human nature, and mostly myself as well.

One of those books, which has had a great impact on me and which I have enjoyed in immensely different ways at hugely different periods of my life, partly because of the way the author’s experiences are painted into the word work and partly because of the story itself, is Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die. Veronkia was recommended to me by a friend who has in the past recommended other books that I have always enjoyed for one reason or another (including The Hitchhiker’s Guide and I, Lucifer, and who also gifted us with a set of 4.0 books for our wedding — you will either fully appreciate that or you won’t), and for me and the way I chew novels for breakfast was a quick read. It took me the better part of a morning. That friend knew that I sometimes practice what is commonly referred to as astral travel, and what I sometimes more commonly lump in with lucid dreaming (they feel the same to me) and thought that I might find the scenes about this topic interesting. I did. In an odd and slightly disturbing way.

In fact, that is how I would describe my first foray into Veronika. Odd and slightly disturbing.

So: Spoilers Ahoy and also a Trigger Warning for descriptions of attempted suicide, a potentially upsetting rape-like scene, and descriptions of mistreatment in a mental hospital.

Veronika Decides to Die (Veronika decide morrer in the original Porteguese) is set in Ljubljana, Slovenia, tells the story of Veronika (I suppose you could have parsed that one out), a 24 year old young woman, who has decided that she has reached the height of her life. She had determined that from this point that life and beauty will probably get no better, and out of no real sadness or unhappiness she has made, in her opinion, the perfectly rational decision to end her life. Her incompleted attempt on her own life winds her up in a mental institution called Villette, in Slovenia, where she awakens to the news that her attempt has irreparably damaged her heart; she is told she has only days to live.

The story is supposedly based on Coelho’s own experiences in mental institutions in his youth where his parents send him for refusing to acquiesce to their demands that he become an Engineer instead of a writer, or at least something useful and respectable. Coelho’s refusal to become something productive proved, to them, that he was “mad”. One of the central themes in Veronika is the idea that collective madness is really sanity, and that sanity is really in the hands of the beholder. Essentially, if everyone in a room, or even a kingdom, believes one reality to be the truth, except for a single person, irrespective of that one person’s authority (the doctor, a king, etc.), then the sanity of that authority is irrelevant, because it is the collective reality of the masses that matters and thus becomes the rational way of thinking.

The way you view this theme really depends on your views of people’s right to define their own mental abilities. I viewed this book through two very different lenses in my life, one where I was fighting my own mind, and one where I was coming to terms with myself instead; a period of self-acceptance rather than self-loathing (still working on that last part). Veronika depicts a mental institution that both suppresses people’s free will, yet allows them to stay beyond the requirement that binds them if they choose to do so. Don’t be fooled, however: There are still many things going on, such as forced medication, forced inside and outside time, and even a scene that describes, very graphically, a treatment of induced insulin shock that sends a patient into what she calls a state of astral travel. The balance of treatment of human dignity with that of the way that disabled people are often treated as objects to be shuffled around and poked and strapped down is troublesome at best, and hard to read without a watery field in front of you at… well my worst. Maybe not yours.

Very troubling to me is the overarching theme, embodied in Dr. Igor, the head psychiatrist at Villette, who has decided that Veronika, a beautiful and vibrant young girl, is wasting her life, and must be taught a Very Special Lesson. So sad, is it, that she has decided to throw away youth, and beauty, and that she is ignoring all that life must be waiting to hand her. He, obviously, knows her life better than she, and is uniquely prepared to teach her that she is, indeed, Doing It Wrong. R-O-N-G, even. How good of Dr. Igor, this man, to come and rescue this poor, helpless, and foolish girl from what might have been the worst mistake ever.

Dr. Igor has this theory, see, that people, like a defibirillator paddle on a heart, just need a jump start to avoid the heart attack that is this mental illness, something he calls “vitriol”. He believes he can shock people into appreciating life and just help them realize that they can simply buck up and learn to love life again.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, gentle readers, if at this point you are still with me, so I won’t go into detail about how Veronika becomes not only the tool by which he provoke many of the residents of Villette, including Eduard, a patient diagnosed with schizophrenia who becomes a love interest for Veronica, and Mari who has frequent panic attacks. I also won’t tell you how Veronika learns her own Very Special Lesson, because she is not left out of that condescending rule of Dr. Igor who swings his diploma like a true Patriarch. She suddenly sees that she is free from the rules of a society that has given her a laundry list of expectations, and that she now may act like the “crazy” person that she is being treated like. No one believes that she just felt like ending her life, for no particular reason, so she may as well act the part. She starts to see the comfort that is Villette’s lack of accountability.

I think this book speaks strongly to the way that we dehumanize and mistrust mental health patients and people living with any variety of mental illness. Even if I don’t always appreciate Coelho’s delivery.

A caution to you, gentle readers: There is a rape-like scene, depending on how you read it (the first time I read the book, I did not read it this way, the second, I certainly did). Veronika performs a masturbatory act in front of a person who neither consents nor denies consent. It is fairly graphic in description, and it very much made me uncomfortable, no matter how “freeing” it made Veronika feel.

The book was made into a movie that I have not yet seen, as it didn’t appear at any theatre anywhere near where I was living. It stars Sarah Michelle Gellar as Veronika (a stellar choice, IMO), and David Thewlis, most well known to me as Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter series, as Dr. Igor. Should I get the chance (I love you, NetFlix, for coming to my APO!), I may revisit the review.

Who out there, gentle readers, fellow contributors, has read Veronika? Thoughts? Popcorn? Tomatoes?

Book Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons

Things That Make Me Go Hmmmm: Psychiatry-themed Plush Toys

In Germany, the toymaker Paraplush has evidently just released a line of psychiatry-themed plush toys. Each comes ‘packaged with a personalized medical history and treatment plan.’ They’re tied in with an online game made by the same company (warning, Flash, autoplay). Like, for example, Kroko the crocodile:

A closeup of the head of a stuffed crocodile, clinging to a pillow.

Kroko here ‘needs your help!’ His ‘patient profile‘ tells us:

The patient’s hypersensitive hallucinatory perception is a symptom of a paranoid psychosis. The signs are a mental block and a Gestaltzerfall (disintegration of structure) of the habitual field of experience. The consequence is a compensational reactivation of archaic reaction patterns.

The idea behind the toys, according to the creators, is that ‘Children and grown-ups like their [the plush toys’] vulnerability and find something in them that gives them a great sense of comfort in helping to heal them.’

I am reminded of the giant plush microbes I buy for my cats to play with. They experience a great sense of comfort in shredding ebola.

There are a couple of things going on here that I find troubling. I am, in general, not a fan of the cuteification of disability issues, and thus, plush representations of mental health conditions presented as an educational tool bother me. This is just a personal reaction; I know that other people may well feel differently, and I admit that a part of me is kind of bemused by the idea of buying a plush representation of one of my disabilities.

I think there’s also an argument to be made, though, that some people might find these toys beneficial (or just funny in a reclamatory way), and might enjoy subverting the ‘patient profiles’ and ‘treatment plans’ or even writing up treatment plans of their own as a way of reclaiming and owning their own experiences with the mental health establishment. Indeed, I wonder how my perception of these toys would change if they were being produced by and for people with disabilities with the specific goal of empowerment.

I am also really bothered by the reinforcement of psychiatrisation going on with these toys; there’s one toy labeled as having ‘multiple personality disorder,’ for example, whom we are informed is ‘unable to accept herself,’ stressing that the conclusion we are supposed to draw from the patient’s history is that she needs to be ‘fixed’ through integration. Likewise, I assume most of the treatment plans are predicated on the idea of mental illness as something that needs to be controlled, probably with the use of medication. I suspect that other approaches/perspectives/experiences are probably not included in patient profiles and treatment plans.

And, of course, the company’s store is labeled ‘The Asylum: Psychiatric Clinic for Abused Cuddlytoys,’ which…could we not make ‘asylums’ cutesy and funny, please, given that people are forcibly institutionalised to this day in facilities where abuse really does happen? Sometimes really horrific abuse?

What about you? How do you feel about this line of toys? Do you think the context, of who is making them, for whom, and with what intent, is important to consider?

Dear Imprudence: One of These Things is Not Like the Others

On last week’s Dear Amy, a reader wrote in for some relationship advice. The reader’s girlfriend is becoming more distant, and the reader wants to know what to do:

Dear Amy: I have been in a relationship with a woman for two years. I love her. She says she loves me. She says she wants to marry me and be together forever.

In the beginning, she needed to see me every other day, if not more often. All of our phone calls were long and rich with conversation.

Over the last several months, she has cheated on me numerous times with an ex-boyfriend, although she says she doesn’t like it, didn’t plan it and doesn’t love him.

Lately all phone calls happen while she is watching television or reading. They are very empty.

She has turned down all of my offers to get together.

When I express my feelings of confusion or when I tell her I miss her, she makes me feel I’m out of line. She is hostile.

How can I get her to open up to me again without seeming needy and insecure?

I believe the ex may be back in the picture, but I don’t know if this is the reason for the distance.

She is also bipolar.

How can I bring the love of my life back into my arms again?

— Hopelessly Devoted

Notice anything about this letter? As I read along, I thought ‘gee, this sounds like a situation where the relationship is pretty much over, and the party writing the letter just doesn’t realise it, or wants someone else to affirm it. There’s some emotional distance going on, and the letter writer is struggling with it.’ This is a scenario that plays out pretty much every day in relationships of all sorts.

And then, bam, the second to last sentence. ‘She is also bipolar.’ Just kind of thrown in there. It feels like an afterthought to me, rather than being brought up at the start of the letter as a piece of information that may potentially be important, and it feels less like being aware of something that might impact their relationship, and more like an attempt at just tossing off blame for where the relationship went; ‘she’s bipolar, and that’s why all of this is happening.’

Are there some disabilities that impact the way people think and interact with others, process information, and handle emotional conversations? There absolutely are. Being aware of the things that might change someone’s comfort level or ability to engage with a conversation is not the same as blaming someone for an integral part of that person’s identity and deciding that person can’t be approached at all. The girlfriend has become the disability, and everything wrong with the relationship  is suddenly because of the disability.

Amy responds:

Dear Devoted: You already know the truth. Your girlfriend has lost interest in you.

Whether she is cheating on you again or is going through a depressed cycle of her bipolar disorder, you cannot force her to love you, want to be with you or even have an honest conversation with you about your relationship.

I suggest, therefore, that you be completely honest with yourself and frank with her about your own needs.

You want honesty, fidelity and a close, romantic relationship. So say so. You won’t come off as needy, but as a guy who knows who he is and what he wants.

You also have to be willing to walk away from a relationship that is so imbalanced. You deserve better.

Amy’s approach here doesn’t really integrate an honest discussion about disability and how it might impact how the girlfriend is feeling. There’s one brief mention about ‘going through a depressed cycle,’ but that’s it. The advice about being frank is pretty solid; the letter writer definitely does need to communicate, but it might be good to start with communicating on terms the girlfriend will feel comfortable with. Perhaps she doesn’t want to talk about this on the phone and would feel more comfortable in email. Maybe she wants to meet in person. Maybe she needs some space and is having trouble articulating it.

The way Amy approaches this, it’s centered on the letter writer’s needs. She classifies the relationship as ‘imbalanced’ while providing rather imbalanced advice. She’s right when she says that you can’t force someone to love you, but lack of love might not actually be what is going on here. Indeed, the girlfriend may very much love her partner, and just be in a bad place right now.

It’s not clear from the original letter whether the people involved in this relationship have had a conversation about the girlfriend’s disability and how it sometimes impacts the ways she thinks and feels. Sometimes, people are just distant and not interested in a relationship anymore and it has nothing to do with disability. Sometimes, people are having a hard time of things in ways that are related to their mental health conditions, and need to be supported. Not by being reduced to their disabilities, not by having their disabilities blamed for everything, but by having a space where their needs are accommodated.

The message we are left with from this particular advice column seems to be  that people with bipolar disorder are inherently unsuitable for relationships or serious conversations, and neither of these things is true.