Let’s talk about the fact that a doctor recommended murdering a patient

doctor-medical-medicine-health-42273Trigger warning: this story contains discussion of eugenics and violence against disabled people.

Last year, a doctor at Labrador-Grenfell Health in St. Anthony, N.L. told Sheila Elson that her 25-year-old daughter Candice Lewis was dying, and offered to kill Lewis using Canada’s assisted dying laws. Elson immediately said no and is now complaining about the incident, accusing the doctor of being insensitive and pressuring her into conspiring to kill her daughter.

The CBC story refers to the proposed killing only as “assisted suicide”, but let’s be clear: if the doctor had gone through with euthanizing Lewis, it would have been murder. It is not suicide if the person themselves does not voluntarily choose to die.

The fact that this is not being treated as major national news is frankly outrageous. The doctor should be prosecuted for counseling murder or conspiracy to commit murder.

The story brings up all kinds of questions. Was there not adequate care available? Was the doctor even certain the young woman was dying, given that she is apparently still alive eight months later? Is someone going to investigate whether this has happened before? The CBC story (the only news outlet that appears to have reported the story at this time) does not say whether there is a response from the College of Physicians of Newfoundland and Labrador.

More significantly, the fact that the conversation even took place perfectly demonstrates why the capitalist system cannot be trusted to regulate assisted suicide. Elson valued her daughter’s life and told the doctor no. But some parents of disabled children do not value those lives. Some parents in that position might have listened to the doctor and taken it as permission to have their child killed.

Don’t believe me? In the UK, ninety percent of pregnant people whose fetuses test positive for Down syndrome will decide to get an abortion so that they don’t have to parent a child with developmental delays. Ninety. Percent.

To be clear, this is not an argument against reproductive freedom. However, the misunderstanding and devaluing of people with Down syndrome is horrifying.

The reality is, many parents see their disabled children primarily as a burden. They put their own feelings before their child’s needs, attempt to “cure” to their child’s neurodivergence, or they do not respect their child’s boundaries or need for basic privacy or consent. Disabled adults — with all kinds of disabilities — are frequently treated as perpetual children, incapable of making their own decisions or being the authority on their own needs. These issues have been covered over and over again by disabled activists.

These attitudes are clearly exhibited by the doctor in this case, who had the conversation with the mother instead of the daughter, disregarded the fact that the daughter was within earshot, and clearly had no interest in the daughter’s input.

Parents who are not like Elson, who see their children only as burdens because they are extra work to take care of — because our individualistic society does not give them enough support, and because their children are unlikely to bring their family prestige or economic power — might not see their child’s inherent value. If a parent also does not respect the need for their child’s consent, they might start to listen to a doctor who makes a suggestion like this.

This is a really difficult topic, but it needs to be acknowledged. People with disabilities talk about this among ourselves frequently, while others are often afraid to touch it.

While in theory, Canada’s assisted dying laws only allow for assisted dying when there is informed consent of the patient, there is absolutely no doubt that if Elson had said yes to the doctor, they would have gotten away with murdering Candice Lewis.

The assisted dying law itself is not to blame. The problem is the huge amount of power and unquestioning trust that is put in doctors, combined with a complete disregard for the humanity and inherent worth of disabled people.

There is absolutely no doubt that the way the system is set up, at some point someone will abuse it and kill someone who is not ready to die. It is the natural end of a societal attitude towards disabled people that says we are not worthy.

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Call for submissions: stories about living with Nonverbal Learning Disorder

9588998186_7d46a14f8e_o (1).jpgNonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) is not well-known even within disability justice circles. It’s one of the least common forms of learning disability and consequently there is very little written about it or about what it like to live with it. People with NLD are virtually completely unrepresented in media, and when people do talk about NLD, it’s mostly from the perspective of parents and caregivers. It’s time to amplify the voices of people with NLD.

Fellow people with NLD: we need to tell our stories! Our stories about our lives, our ways of looking at the world, our diagnoses, our experiences of trying to get an education, our stories of pain and our stories of getting accommodation and getting justice. The world needs to hear them if we want to make it a better place for people like us.

I want to put together a collection of stories by people with NLD, about their lives. If you have a story to tell, please consider submitting it to be in my zine.

I am interested original, first-hand stories from people who self-identify as having NLD about:

  • Being diagnosed with NLD or combinations of conditions
  • Fighting for accommodations or justice
  • Navigating relationships (romantic or otherwise)
  • Transitioning to adulthood and the workplace
  • “coming out”, i.e. explaining to people that you have NLD
  • Challenges in learning a life-skill (like driving, for example)
  • Living with anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges
  • Anything else that relates to your NLD or your life experience.

Poetry is also encouraged. Please limit your submissions to 5,000 words or less (short is completely fine).

Stories can be submitted to submissions@murkygreenwaters.com by October 15 2017 in .doc, .docx or .rtf format. Please use “submission” somewhere in your subject line. Questions can be submitted to this email address as well.

Unfortunately I cannot guarantee that I will include every story I receive and I cannot pay contributors.

A couple of extra notes:

In recognition that people have a diversity of abilities and limitations, if you are committed to submitting but you cannot work with a deadline or you need to deliver your story orally (or you need some other sort of accommodation), please email me at elizabeth@murkygreenwaters.com as soon as you can and I will do my best to work something out.

Please do not submit a story unless you are a person with NLD. The narratives of parents of people with NLD and other caretakers tend to dominate discussions of NLD and this zine is an attempt to amplify the voices of people who live with NLD. If you do not have NLD but you would like to help with this project, the best way is to share this page in your networks and offer support to the people you know with NLD who might want to submit.


Photo by r nial bradshaw via Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Larger class sizes hit kids with learning disabilities where it hurts

Until now, kindergarten to grade 3 classrooms in Manitoba, where I live, have been limited to 20 students each. Yesterday the provincial government announced they would remove the cap, and allow individual school boards to decide for themselves what is an acceptable classroom size.

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Me (on the right) and one of my life long best buds, Victoria, in 1996. We are both smart achievers, but we have had very different experiences in the education system.

This isn’t the first time this has become an issue in Canada. In BC, Class sizes have been at the centre of a struggle between the government and the teacher’s union since the early 2000s culminating in a supreme court ruling not long ago.

Larger classes are problematic. They make classroom management more difficult for teachers particularly by allowing them less time to spend with individual students and get to know them. It makes it harder for them to intervene in conflict between children and put a stop to bullying. More stress also means teachers likely aren’t performing at their best.

Larger classes hurt the quality of education for everyone, but especially for kids with learning disabilities.

I have nonverbal learning disorder (NLD or NVLD). In brief, NLD is either a developmental disorder or a learning disability, depending on which expert you ask. It is essentially a label for the fact that I have very strong verbal reasoning skills, but I face difficulty with other forms of communication. It doesn’t mean I can’t do them, but it’s much harder for me to understand visual-spacial and non-verbal communication. I also have some challenges with executive functioning. NLD is in some ways like autism and in some ways like ADD.

Typically of kids with NLD, I did great in school until about grade 4, and then I started to get increasingly frustrated with it. I did very well in some subjects and very poorly in others, which meant that to someone not looking very closely, it might have appeared that I was just lazy. Because I had poor non-verbal communication skills, I also had a lot of trouble picking up on social cues, which start to become important around age 9. This meant I lost friends and was severely bullied, to the point that I no friends in school in grade 5, 6 and 7 and I became suicidal.

My mom was the first person to notice that something was wrong. She could see I was frustrated and suffering, and she advocated for me at my school. She told me later that most of the teachers dismissed what she was saying. They told her that her expectations of me were too high because she was so highly educated, and that I was just an average student. My mom says she would have been okay with me being an average student if I had been happy, but she saw me suffering even though I hated talking about it.

My mom believes that what finally helped was that I happened to have the same teacher in grade 6 and grade 7. This meant that the teacher had more time to get to know me, and she started to believe what my mom was trying to tell her. With the teacher on board, the school referred me to a psychologist who diagnosed me with NLD.

The diagnosis was a huge relief. The psychologist said I was smart, and made me repeat “I am very smart” several times to reinforce that to my twelve-year-old self. And then he gave me and my mom some ideas for how to adapt my studying to better suit my learning style – ideas that have served me all the way through high school, an undergraduate degree and to this day in the workplace.

Most learning disabilities are first noticed by teachers in the classroom. I don’t remember how many kids were in my classes in middle school. But I have often wondered, if there had been fewer kids in my class, would the teachers have helped me sooner? It might have saved me a couple years of bullying and abuse and consequentially a lifetime of anxiety and depression.

If the class was larger, would I ever have gotten a diagnosis? Would I ever have learned any study skills? Would I ever have finished high school and gone to university?

Learning disabilities are not inherently a problem with kids; they are a problem with the way that education is done. Kids with learning disabilities have average or above average IQs, but lean strongly towards a particular learning style, or otherwise have needs that are not met by the school system.

Teachers who have personal relationships with the kids in their classroom, who really get to know the kids, make a huge difference to the quality of the learning that happens for everyone. Larger classes affect everyone’s learning.

But students with disabilities will be hurt the worst when they don’t have good access to their teachers. Students with learning disabilities, including those with NLD, ADHD, dyslexia and autism will suffer not only academically but emotionally and economically in the long term.

Many kids are diagnosed with other kinds of learning disabilities much younger than I was; they need their teachers’ attention, too.

The Tories’ announcement opens the door for cuts to education. Larger classes means fewer teachers will be perceived to be needed, which justifies cutting funding for education at the next opportunity. Then there is less money for education, which means more reason to cut teachers and make class sizes larger. This is the strategy of a government with a long term plan to erode public education.

Posted in neurodivergence, politics & public policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Believe women” is not only about sexual assault

6926917821_3e118b41b2_oThe following contains descriptions of sexism and mention of sexual assault. 

In case you missed it, there was a twitter thread that went viral last week when a man described how he discovered that the reason his wife and coworker was slower at dealing with clients was because clients treated her like shit because of her gender (and if you’re a man, you definitely, definitely need to read it).

It was an effective story because, not only was it well told, it was told from the man’s point of view, which of course makes it more notable and more believable than if the woman had told the story. Suddenly we have this perfect, irrefutable example of workplace sexism. (I’m not saying that he should not have written it; only that less people would have read it if a woman had).

For me the difficult part was how shocked this man seemed to be about what had happened. I wasn’t shocked. I don’t deal with asshole clients in my job every day like this woman did (I work in the nonprofit sector, which, while not perfect, does have the advantage of generally being filled with people with better intentions and less entitlement), but years of experience in many different jobs, both paid and volunteer, has taught me that confident young men are assumed to know what they are talking about until proven otherwise, but confident young women are assumed to not know what we are talking about until we prove ourselves.

We are constantly questioned, belittled, or simply ignored altogether. It leaves us fighting to be heard or to be recognized for our work, while our male peers are assumed to be great just because they are confident. I have seen so many young men praised for their awesomeness even before they have had time to prove themselves. If you want to know why so many more men end up in leadership positions, I think you need look no further.

This is not based on how a few individuals act; it’s a collective thing, and it is not limited to just men or just to a certain generation or to the workplace. When I get to know a man, I can usually tell whether he is the type who will believe what I tell him or not, or take my ideas seriously or not. Or even pay attention when I have something to say.

And I’ve also met women who aggrandize the men around them, who give them more credit than they deserve before they’ve proven themselves one way or the other. Often while ignoring the women around them who sometimes get no credit at all.

And this subtle, grinding fight is horrible. In my ten years in the workforce (not to mention 16 years in the school system and a life of volunteer leadership), I have learned, almost unconsciously, that I have to fight for people to listen to what I have to say or take my ideas seriously. It’s bad enough that I often find myself feeling surprised when someone in a position of power does take me seriously on the first try (which happens more as I’ve become more established in my career and my reputation, but it’s still hard to trust it sometimes).

I remember a disagreement I had a few years back with a close friend — a man, and ostensibly a feminist one. He argued with me about the definition of the term “internalized” when referring to forms of oppression. I was right, and he was wrong, and I know that because I can look up the term’s definition.

But what I remember of the argument was the feeling that I was fighting a brick wall, that he would never listen to me even though we were talking about feminist theory which he knew I had studied in university and he had not. I think I eventually gave up and told him not to talk to me about it anymore, and I wish I had just looked it up. When I think about this, I still get this crushing feeling of frustration in my chest.

So don’t blame me if I’m not shocked that a woman somewhere is having trouble with her clients because they don’t believe she knows what she’s talking about.

“Believe women” has become a rallying cry of feminists fighting for accountability for men who commit sexual assault, because women are so often not taken seriously when they report it. But the point about how little our society takes women seriously extends beyond the realm of sexual assault. When our knowledge threatens someone else’s comfort or ego or power, we are treated like we don’t know anything.

And it’s fucking exhausting.


Illustration by Waithamai via Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Five unhelpful things I wish people would stop saying to me

Our society is not very good at listening to neurodivergent folks. When we’re not being told we are lazy, the things we ask for are routinely ignored.

Sometimes the way that this happens is very subtle, and even the people who say they value accessibility sometimes say hurtful things when they are not paying attention. Here are some examples.

1. “You seem like you are okay” or “You seem normal” img031

This is a common reaction that I get when I disclose to someone that I have an invisible disability. Maybe people think they are being reassuring. It implies “don’t worry, you don’t seem like you’re crazy”, which I guess maybe should be comforting in a world where “crazy” is so stigmatized. But when someone says it, it feels like they’re not actually acknowledging what I’m telling them as truth. It feels like they’re not listening and they’re not interested in hearing what I have to say.

When people say “you seem normal”, it just sounds like they are afraid of neurodivergence and “crazy” people. It’s a veiled form of ableism.

“Normalcy” isn’t possible, and it’s not the goal, so trying to reassure me that I seem normal is really useless.

2. “Have you thought about seeing a therapist/counsellor/doctor/psychologist?”

On the surface this question seems like a legitimate reaction when someone talks about their mental illness. After all, therapists are supposed to be the people who can help with these kinds of situations, right?

The reality is, when people say this, they are usually stating the obvious. They are just making this suggestion because they don’t know what to say.

Before suggesting seeing a therapist or other mental health care professional, ask yourself two things: First, did this person ask for my advice? And second, is it likely that they haven’t thought of this already? If the answer is yes to both questions, then it is an appropriate thing to say.

The only other situation where it might be appropriate is with someone who is extremely close to you and that person is having trouble recognizing that they need more help than you can give them. Otherwise, just don’t.

If you literally don’t know what else to say, I would suggest learning some active listening skills. You should probably be asking, “is there anything I can do to help?”.

3. “The first step is to talk about it” or “it’s so important to be open about your feelings”

First off, I know that these are completely true statements and I agree with them. However, they have become the meaningless buzzwords (buzz phrases?) of mental health, and they reflect the short depth of understanding that most people have about the issue.

I talk and write about mental health a lot, and these phrases are often the response I get when I propose political solutions to mental health issues. I have also heard people say this as their only response to people with depression or anxiety talking about what they are going through and asking for what they need, which is an incredibly disrespectful way of ignoring what people are actually asking for. Too often, this is the only thing people know how to say about mental health.

People want to see mental health and disability as an individual problem that individuals have and should solve on their own. Talking is often the first step, but what about steps two through ten? When we constantly redirect back to step one, it’s because we’re avoiding the responsibility that we have for helping people, which may be more difficult than talking.

4. “Do you really think you have aspbergers/depression/bipolar/[insert label]?” or “Have you been diagnosed by an actual doctor?”

Our society has stereotypes about neurodivergent people. When someone discloses that they have one of these conditions, it’s common for our perceptions of the person to not match what the stereotype is, and that might be confusing.

It is often difficult for people to reconcile that someone they love might be both a fantastic and competent person and also neurodivergent or mentally ill.

Part of the problem is representation: people who have these conditions are very poorly represented in pop culture. Additionally, neurodivergent people are often the victims of othering. Mentally ill homeless people, drug addicts, and nonverbal autistics: our culture sees them as “other”. The default is to be scared of them, and to to associate with them with the people we like or love becomes needlessly scary.

Here’s the thing: the difference between the people in your life who are neurodivergent and the “other” people who are neurodivergent is probably only a matter of money and social supports.

I am one of those “competent” people with mental illness. I have a full time job and a home and a savings account. But I’m also ill and I’ve had serious crises in my life. Those crises were horrible and have had a lasting effect on me; I would not have gotten through them without the support and compassion of the people around me. Somebody else with similar issues but without access to money and social supports would easily end up on the street with nowhere to go. I am serious when I say that is the only difference, but our society perceives those “other” people a lot differently, as less deserving, than me.

Seriously, there is no need to be scared of the neurodivergent. We are generally not very dangerous.

When someone discloses to you a condition or illness, it’s none of your business what their doctor has said (or hasn’t said). What matters is your compassion and what you do to make sure their needs are met.

5. “Everyone experiences that”

This is a really important one. This is a response people give when I talk about specific symptoms. If I mention that my disability causes me to struggle with taking good notes in meetings, people will say “but everyone has trouble with that”.

Taking notes while simultaneously holding a conversation is a skill. Like any skill, some people find it easier than others, and practice will likely make you better at it. So yes, technically, everyone might have issues with that at some point. But I am exceptionally bad at it, especially considering how much practice I’ve had. I get by because I have a good memory for conversations, I write things down after meetings, and when I need to, I make an audio recording.

This is an excellent illustration of neurodivergence: everyone’s brains work differently, and everyone is better at some things than others. “Nonverbal learning disorder” is just a label for a particular set of pronounced strengths and weaknesses that I happen to have.

But it doesn’t mean that “everyone experiences that”. When I say I suck at taking notes, I mean I really suck at taking notes, and it’s not something I can just work on.

It’s similar to when someone says they are depressed and the response is about general sadness. There is a big difference between being sad and being depressed, and it’s very important not to confuse the two. Everyone has been sad at some point. Only some people have been depressed. Saying “everyone experiences that” is dismissive.

Posted in ableism, neurodivergence, nonverbal learning disorder | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Reflections on public pain and collective rage at the end of 2016

23874835704_b22c7c183a_oI’ve cried in public more times than I can count. I’ve cried openly on the bus after saying goodbye to a loved one, I’ve cried at parties, and I’ve cried at work. Yesterday I sat in a coffee shop and told a trusted friend about a bunch of shit that I’ve been going through lately, and cried with the pain and the release of a host of feelings I can barely describe.

I’ve lived with depression and anxiety for most of my life, and for me crying is a part of that. Crying in public has allowed me to get through my worst moments and release feelings that needed to be released. I don’t really care what strangers think, and I’ve been lucky enough to have  friends who are pretty supportive and non-judgemental.

But breaking down in public is almost taboo for many people. Even in the age of “Bell Lets Talk”, when our society is — supposedly — breaking down mental health stigma, Not Being Okay in public is still a pretty big deal. Even if you’re just crying in a coffee shop, social norms dictate that you should dry your tears before going up to order something, never mind the stares and ignorance that you’ll get if you have a panic attack or a more serious mental health crisis in a public place. People also tend to get judgemental of folks who speak openly about their current emotional pain in public or on social media. Although talking about it in the past tense has been increasingly acceptable, those things are generally supposed to be relegated to the private sphere.

This reality pains me. Not only because it encourages people, especially men, to bottle up their pain, but also because it separates us humans from what is happening around us. Do we have any idea how our neighbours are feeling? Our community? How do we know truly know how people are impacted by political realities if we don’t know how anything about their emotions?

The taboo around public pain is part of how capitalism separates us from each other. Like the nuclear family, it encourages us only to look out for ourselves and our kin, and not to learn to care for others.

Jokes about celebrity deaths aside, 2016 has been a really difficult year, and I know lots of people who have been impacted by the political realities of our time. Not just the prospect of  Trump presidency and its potential consequences, but also neoliberal cuts to health care and social services that affect literally everyone, directly or indirectly. All these things are a cause of pain.

2016 has exacerbated mental illness for lots of us. I don’t have a strong statistical analysis to back that statement up, but when I look around at the people I know, I know that it’s true. We know that marginalized people (particularly disabled people, indigenous people, and queer and trans folks) are more likely to experience mood disorders, and so it is logical to conclude that oppression is a major cause of mental illness. While we are descending into late capitalism and the era of Trump, the issue is going to become larger.

I’m not generally a proponent of mental health stigma “awareness”, because I think the people who speak loudest about stigma often erase the structural causes of mental illness. But to find the solutions, to find community support, we need to be able to be honest about how we’re doing, sometimes even with strangers. Can we do that? It’s very unsafe for many people, especially people of colour, to break down in public (in the worst cases, you can get apprehended by police), but I also think the only way to change cultural taboos is to break them. Openly, and over and over again.

We know that “civilized”, “rational” arguments are not winning us any kind of socialist utopia anytime soon. Much of the post-election analysis of Trump seems to have come to a consensus that fact-checking will not stop fascism. Maybe it’s time to start using the “irrational”. Maybe forcing others to see our feelings and to understand the effects of what this society is doing to us will help us turn the tides and make people understand.

Yoda said that “fear leads to anger”, and he meant us to be cautious about fear, but if we’re going to fight the Donal Trumps of this world, we need to turn our fears and our pain into collective rage. We need anger — public, collective anger — against the system that’s trying to tear us down. And we need to channel our rage into work against capitalism.

As I said, it’s not safe for everyone to be open about their mental illnesses and their pain. But for those of us who can, we need to be open, and we need to learn to listen and to create the space for others to be open, too.


Do you have a loved one with depression or anxiety? It can be overwhelming to figure out how to help. Ask me about a sliding scale consultation.


Photo by Daniella Urdinlaiz is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Posted in community building, mental health, politics & public policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau needs to stop talking about mental health

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau calls herself “an activist for women’s empowerment and gender equality” and has spoken out a number of times about her struggles with bulimia and anorexia. Most recently she spoke at an event called “Girlfriend’s Guide to Mental Health” in Ottawa.

While I’m sure her “philosophy of promoting strong mental health for girls and women of all ages” is appealing to some wealthy women with self-esteem issues, all I could do when I read about it was roll my eyes.

Trudeau’s approach is completely individualist, over-simplistic and useless for most of us who struggle with anxiety, depression, and trauma. It’s also not new.

Based on what is reported in the media, Trudeau has never proposed anything beyond “talking” as a solution. While basic communication is obviously important, and talking through feelings can help people process them, it is not a solution to mood disorders in and of itself. If it was, we would all be a lot healthier.

People with mood disorders usually need stable housing, professional counselling, fair wages, appropriate health care (physical and mental), disability accommodations, and a guarantee that their safety will not be taken from them if and when they can’t work. Not to mention an end to systemic homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, and other common sources of trauma.

These kinds of systemic solutions are continually erased by politicians and by campaigns like “Bell Let’s Talk”, putting the onus on the individual to find the solution for themselves through asking for help and talking about it openly with friends. This is  usually just another form of “just get over it” that doesn’t work for mental illness, just like it wouldn’t work for the flu.

A systemic problem requires systemic solutions.

And no wonder that a person like Trudeau, who can afford nannies and wears designer clothes, can’t possibly understand the struggles of people who suffer the most from mental illness.

The Ottawa Citizen reported that “As a mother of three and the wife to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Grégoire Trudeau has also had a front-row seat to the challenges and struggles facing families living with someone who suffers from a mental illness.”

This is completely absurd. How does being the Prime Minister’s wife give insight into people with mental illness? Mental illness disproportionately affects people of colour, indigenous people, queer and trans folks, and people with disabilities. Trudeau has no authority to speak for any of those people.

Of course it is okay for Trudeau to talk about her own experience, but she’s being treated by the Ottawa Citizen and the Huffington Post like she’s Canada’s representative for mental health, while her experiences are anything but representative. And given how unoriginal her ideas are, there’s no way the media would be interested in hearing from her if she wasn’t the Prime Minister’s wife.

It is also telling that while Trudeau loves talking about talking, her husband’s government is not listening to those who have been asking for concrete solutions. They love to talk about mental health, but true solutions will not come without systemic change to our economic system — something the Liberals are obviously not interested in.

Trudeau’s “activism” makes it appear that there is a response. It makes Liberal voters feel good about who they’ve put in power.

But talking about self-esteem is not a solution. We need people to listen to us, to hear the diversity of experience that is living with mental illness, to respect the wealth and complexity of the knowledge that we have, and to provide us with real support for our mental and physical well-being.

Our lives depend on it.

Posted in mental health, politics & public policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment