Your pro gun control rhetoric is dangerous for people like me

Last week, I read this column by Aziz Ansari in the New York Times about how Donald Trump makes him scared for his family. It’s an important message: people like Trump (and plenty who are less obvious and less powerful than him) make the U.S. more violent and less safe when they make it socially acceptable to be racist. It may not be safe to be a muslim in the U.S. right now, and that’s something that deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting.

And then I got to this part:

One way to decrease the risk of terrorism is clear: Keep military-grade weaponry out of the hands of mentally unstable people, those with a history of violence, and those on F.B.I. watch lists.

“Keep the guns away from the mentally unstable people.”

Let’s break this down.

First of all, I completely agree that keeping military-grade weapons out of the hands of people who might do violence makes sense. Buy why name the “mentally unstable”?

I mean, who really needs military-grade weapons anyway? Nobody needs them, unless you’re planning to commit murder. So why are they being sold at all? I don’t think I need to explain that further, because I think my readers (and Aziz Ansari) understand this argument.

So why say “mentally unstable”?

This idea gets thrown around all. the. time.  If you read the news at all, you should be familiar with the theory that mental disorders cause mass shootings, and if we just do keep the guns away from people with a history of mental health issues, the shootingss will stop.  But we know that is not actually true.  It doesn’t work that way.

Mental illness has become a scapegoat for systemic violence.”Mentally unstable” is not a diagnosis, or a medical term at all. “Mental disorder” is understood as a category, but it is so broad it’s almost meaningless, because it includes everything from anxiety to autism to psychosis, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder – all incredibly different, and all having different relationships with violence.

I believe that people talk about violence this way because they are looking for a simple and logical explanation for horrific events like the Orlando shooting. The problem with blaming the mentally ill, apart from the fact that it’s factually wrong, is that it distracts from the real problem.

In most cases, hatred is the real cause of violence. In the case of the Orlando shootings, it’s pretty obvious that homophobia played a big role. Of course, talking about homophobia and hatred is harder than blaming an illness, because homophobia is such a difficult thing to tackle, and it’s easier to blame an individual who is “sick”.

This scapegoating represents a misunderstanding of what mental illness is, and contributes to stigma. As one researcher said:

the distortion is leading to a stigmatization of people with mental illness, sometimes preventing them from seeking treatment or even becoming victims of housing and employment discrimination, which in turn often perpetuates the problem.

This is a direct cause of stigma. When we throw around the word “mentally unstable”, speaking as if it is inherently violent and worthy of trembling in fear, we are directly creating stigma.

This is the reason we are still afraid to tell our friends and family what we are really dealing with and what our real needs are. We are scared to ask for support through our real illnesses. This is the reason that so many kids are afraid to talk about their issues.

Just like it’s not okay to blame all muslims for the actions of a few, it’s also not okay to pin the actions of some  criminals on all of us who live with mental illness. Doing so makes us less safe.

I absolutely believe that guns should not exist except in some specific situations, and military-grade weapons shouldn’t exist at all. Of course, this is a tough sell, and it’s easier to just say “let’s not give weapons to people who are mentally ill”, than to have a complex conversation about hatred and violence in our society.

But equating mental illness with violence in the eyes of the law is a dangerous road. When we equate mental illness with being violent or dangerous, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen, of how mental illness could be further criminalized. I’m afraid that background checks, which are supposed to keep violent people from certain jobs, will hurt people who have no history of violence at all. That people with depression or autism won’t be allowed to cross borders, buy hunting rifles, or work with kids.

If I had a chance to speak with Aziz Ansari, I would let him know that if you’re going to write about mental illness, you need to know what you are talking about, and be specific. You need to think what you are saying and what kind of impact it’s going to have on people.

Learn to know the difference between mental illness and pure hatred, and what role they each play in society.

Otherwise you risk putting us in danger.

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A free resource on disability & the bible

The Student Christian Movement of Canada, a radical left-wing, political and inclusive organization of young christians, wants to think through disability, and wants to encourage Christians to do so too. So when they asked if I would help them create a resource on disability and the bible, I was only too happy to do so.

Click here to download a free copy of the booklet (some assembly required). It has seven days worth of short bible studies and discussion questions on disability and ableism. It is a great resource for church leaders looking for a theme or creating a bible study, or for groups who want to think about how their churches can be more accessible.  I think it is worth doing on your own, too, if you just want to think about the questions or journal on them. If you are using it, I’d love to hear about how.

The SCM also has a number of similar resources on different themes, including migrant justice, feminism, and peace and nonviolence. You can check them out here.

Happy reading!

 

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No, hating “big pharma” is not ableist

“Big pharma”, the corporations that control the world’s prescription drugs, consistently take advantage of sick people for profit. Contrary to the headlines I’ve seen lately, hating that is not ableist.

What is ableist is judging people for doing the best they can with the options that are presented to them.

The problem with big pharma is not that drugs exist. The problem is that so much is driven by profit, and not by human need.

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Photo by Clever Cupcakes, Licensed under Creative Commons.

There are many times when prescriptions are necessary and important. Hello diabetes and HIV. But corporate lobbying has created a system where the go-to solution for almost everything is to just take a pill, without thinking about the other options.

For many common conditions, including the common cold, anxiety, depression, yeast infections, fever, insomnia, and chronic pain, there plenty of good treatment options that don’t involve drugs.

In an ideal world, pharmaceuticals should be one of the tools in the toolkit, along with massage therapy, physiotherapy, home remedies, herbal medicines, diet change, and rest. For most conditions, there are plenty of options, and in an ideal world, chemical drugs would be only one among many.

The real problem, as with so many things, is capitalism. Corporations need to make a profit just to exist, so they are always looking for ways to expand their profit. To do this, they work hard at convincing people (including doctors) that pharmaceuticals are the best option, instead of one among many.

The effect of this is that more people are on drugs than who need to be, and we’re all paying more than we should be.

But this isn’t the fault of any individual who takes drugs. People who take prescriptions are usually doing the best they can with the options they have, and they deserve respect for that.

Hating big pharma isn’t ableist. What’s ableist is judging people for trying to take care of their health.

And if you say you hate big pharma, what you really hate is capitalism.

 

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DIY, self love, and re-defining legitimate knowledge

That last couple of years I have been trying to eliminate chemicals from my life.

I started by using only vinegar and baking soda to clean my house. Then I started washing my hair with vinegar, dyeing it with lemon juice, and moisturizing it with coconut oil.

Then I stumbled on a blog post about how to make your own makeup from flowers and stuff that’s in your kitchen. Now I make my own deodorant, foundation powder, moisturizer, laundry detergent and sunscreen. I order homemade bug repellant from a local woman. My friend Andi is an herbalist, so I’ve bought remedies from them, and I’ve started reading about herbalism on my own, too.

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My homemade foundation powder. It is safe to eat.

It started as a small attempt to get rid of unnecessary chemicals. But, coupled with my passion for growing my own food, it turned into an effort to learn how to take care of myself. After a couple years of random reading of the internet, googling, reading, and experimenting I have gained an incredible amount of knowledge about how useful and amazing the natural world is.

The knowledge is freeing. On one level, because it reminds me how much we do not need capitalism. We do not need corporate research and development on how to prevent sunburn, because we already have what we need. Capitalism only makes us want what is unnecessary because there’s money in it. I knew that already in theory, but proving how unnecessary these chemicals are feels especially great. I wonder how many other things that we think are necessary are actually not.

Then there is the implications for my body. Using some of these homemade products was weird at first. My hair has a different texture. The homemade sunscreen leaves a bit of a film on your skin. My homemade foundation powder is finicky, and many of these products have to be applied more frequently than the chemical versions.

But then I got used to them, and I feel so good using them. Not only is my skin visibly more healthy, I also started to feel different in my body, and to think of it differently. I love it more. My body must be pretty wonderful if I don’t need chemicals to make it look and feel good, right?  I feel so much more in-tune with how it works, how it is feeling, and what it needs and when.

I am graduating university this month. I have weird feelings about it. There are times when I am happy about it, and other times I feel ambivalent. Mostly I remember how much the academy has fucked me over, especially as a disabled student.

But here’s the thing: regardless of what I learned in university, or didn’t learn, there is knowledge I have that is far more useful for taking care of myself. I have learned how to protect my skin from the sun, to make my own clothes, to grow my own food. I can learn to make my own remedies, to repair my own furniture, and fix my own house. To do those basic things that make life happen.

Being in tune with my body and knowing that I can learn to take care of it this well has so much more practical application than anything I learned in university. These are things you can’t learn in the academy, and I’ve learned some of them. I plan to keep learning them.

For someone like me who once thought I was stupid because I have nonverbal learning disorder, and who was told that I shouldn’t go to university, having this knowledge feels  especially powerful. Being increasingly self-sufficient feels powerful.

There are different types of knowledge, and I have access to many of them, but it’s good to remember that the academy is not superior. It is one way of learning and knowing. Those of us who are neurodivergent have different ways, and they are legitimate ways of knowing, too. We have our own bodies of knowledge that are important, useful, and good, even though they often go unrecognized.

There is so much unshared knowledge among neurodivergent folks about how we take care of ourselves. There are so many methods of taking care of our bodies that our ancestors used and were stripped from us by the medical establishment, by patriarchy, and by imperialism. This knowledge is valuable. I want to go to every neurodivergent person I know and say, your knowledge is valuable. Especially your knowledge of your body and yourself that you have learned and that probably many people have discounted.

We have so much knowledge to share.

 

Posted in mental health, neurodivergence | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I am invisible

img142There is almost nothing written about nonverbal learning disorder in adults. Almost nothing. What little there is, is written by the so-called “experts” – psychologists and the like, often about how to recognize it in adults, or tips for surviving the workplace. I have found exactly one published book written by someone with NLD.

It’s an invisible topic. When we talk about learning disabilities, we almost exclusively talk about raising (or putting up with) children who have them. Occasionally we talk about the education system and how to make it more accessible. But there’s more to learning disabilities than that. For one thing, there is the experience of those who actually have them. For another, there’s adulthood.

I’ve been wondering how to write about this for awhile. What’s the impact of it? Why does it matter? How do I describe that?

Then I saw this story today. In brief, Alex Johnstone, a young woman politician, faced a major setback because she told a reporter that she didn’t know what “Auschwitz” was. Only it wasn’t that she didn’t know what Auschwitz was, it’s that she has dyslexia and she didn’t recognize the word.

And it hit me what the problem is.

A learning disability has nothing to do with your intelligence. In fact, many people with learning disabilities have above-average intelligence (although I recognize the problems with the social construction of “intelligence”). People with learning disabilities lean strongly towards certain forms of communication and away from others. Dyslexia means you have trouble with reading and writing. NLD, among other things, means you have trouble organizing thoughts, communicating the big picture, and understanding nonverbal communications (like hand gestures, tone of voice, and facial expression).

Like Alex, as I have grown up I have learned to deal with my learning disability and I am mostly a competent adult. I have learned to play to my strengths, and that’s how I get through life. But also like Alex, I occasionally I mess up and do something really embarrassing and shitty.

What I wish is that our society would acknowledge that this exists. So that’s it’s not such a shock when someone accidentally does something seemingly stupid. So we can give people the benefit of the doubt when they don’t recognize word on the page.

Can we give people the benefit of the doubt when they mess up?

Can we learn to acknowledge learning disabilities in adults? Can we talk about them?

I know lots of people don’t want their disabilities to define them. They probably don’t want to be associated with the stigma of developmental disabilities. But we can’t be understood if we remain invisible.

 

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

Why I don’t believe in “self care” (and how to make it obsolete)

Someone asked me recently what my favourite self care strategies are. It seemed like a reasonable question until I realized that I had no idea what the answer is.

I drew a complete blank. Which is weird, because I’m a mental health activist and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to take care of myself as a person with mental and physical health issues. So why would I not have some go-to self care strategies?

I thought about it for awhile and I realized that I don’t really believe in self care, at least in the way the term is widely used. The common definition of “self care”  is based on an individualist paradigm that puts too much emphasis on the self, and justifies a whole bunch of crap.

Self care vs. coping

What does the term “self care” bring to mind for you?

The term “self care” is defined by wikipedia as “any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated….In modern medicine, preventive medicine aligns most closely with self care.” Essentially, self care is the primary responsibility that each (adult) human has for their own well-being, and the action they take in order to ensure that well-being. So, deciding to get enough sleep, to eat better, or making yourself go to the doctor, are all acts of self care.

It sounds simple and obvious enough. Until you realize that many people are actually really bad it. Men, especially, be pretty terrible at taking responsibility for their own health and well-being, and women are expected to step in and do that emotional labour for them.

Coping, on the other hand, is the things you do to get through a shitty time. Healthy or not. So, drinking to drown your sorrows, buying a new colour of nail polish to lift your spirits, or spending a lot of time playing video games in order to ignore your feelings are examples of coping.

This is not to say that self care is good and coping is bad. But it’s important to make the distinction between the two. Self care is necessary, always. Coping is just about getting through your day, and it’s only necessary if you’re having a shitty time.

The co-opting of “self care”for consumerism

There’s a problem that happens when we confuse “coping” with “self care”.  Consider a person with severe depression who is just trying to survive. Maybe they have a lot of trouble eating properly. So they eat a lot of pizza, because it’s the thing that they can get easily and convince themselves to eat. That’s coping. (And again, there’s no judgement here. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get through your day).

Coping is, unfortunately, a part of life under capitalism. Our basic needs are not being met, and we have to do what we have to do to get through life, hoping that someday, things will be better. Eating a lot of pizza might be a good way for that person to get through their day. But nobody would argue that eating a lot of pizza is a healthy dietary choice.

Using the word coping implies a recognition that the strategy should be a temporary measure. Coping is what you do until you find a way to be healthy in a sustainable way.

The term “self care” gets thrown around all the time when what we are really talking about is coping. Sometimes this idea is disguised by using terms like “retail therapy” or a “girls day”. Advertisements use phrases like “you deserve it” to remind people (and especially women) that they’ve worked hard and could use a break.

Using the term “self care” instead of “coping” justifies the ongoing nature of it. Calling it “self care” or saying “I deserve it” makes it sound like it’s as natural and necessary to life as making dinner.

But what if it’s not necessary? What if we’ve just been duped by capitalism into believing that it is?

This doesn’t only happen in mainstream consumer culture. I’ve witnessed activists who claim to be pro-labour and pro-environment spend lots of money on dresses and unnecessary clothing made in sweatshops, all in the name of “self care”. When it’s not disposable clothing, it is expensive but unethical pieces of furniture, gadgets, and trendy decor for their homes. I’m guilty of this too.

The result of this is that we end up spending a lot of resources on unnecessary things, even as we are trying to work for a less wasteful and anti-consumerist world.

We’ve bought into the consumerism that we claim to oppose.

This economy was designed to keep us dependent on consumer culture. Raptitude has a great explanation of this, which argues that capitalism has put workers into a trap where we rely on consumption to get through the day, to get to our next work day, just so that we can consume more. Using the term “self care”, when we really mean coping by spending money or wasting time, is just a way of justifying consumerism that hides behind a narrative of health.

So what is real self care?

Obviously not all coping is unethical. Coping sometimes means crying on someone’s shoulder, or spending time with animals, or drinking warm milk. These are not inherently unhealthy or unethical things. But we should be honest about what is a temporary thing to get through your day, and what is self care.

Self care, again, is about taking responsibility for your own health and well-being. It means being aware of what choices you have and what you’re doing that’s good for you and bad for you, and doing what’s possible (within the boundaries of what’s accessible for you) to keep yourself healthy. That’s self care.

It might include coping, but it’s so much more than that.

The value of community care

But what if we can’t take care of ourselves?

The real problem is that self care is an enormous task. Nobody can take care of themselves 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s just not possible. We know that’s true of children and the elderly, but for adults who think of themselves as competent, it can be a difficult thing to recognize.

Capitalism, and the individualism that supports it, have made us believe that as adults we have to take care of ourselves (and maybe our romantic partners). And so in order to get through it, we cope. We buy things we don’t really need, we eat out, and we shop for shiny new things. Because that way, it feels like we’re doing it all by ourselves. We believe that by paying for stuff, it means we’re taking care of ourselves, like capitalism tells us we are supposed to.

Do we really need that though?

Eating healthy and ethically is something I think about a lot. I like to cook, and I have some specific dietary needs that I need to follow in order to have enough energy most of the time. But it’s a lot of work. Sometimes, this means I eat takeout more often that I maybe should, and I end up wasting money and buying unsustainable food (that is still good in a dietary sense) because it’s more convenient. It’s a coping mechanism.

One way to get around this, however, has been to get other people to cook for me. This is still self-care, in a way, because I’m taking responsibility for it. But I’ve delegated that responsibility for one night a week to somebody else who knows my dietary needs and has the capacity and willingness to help me out.

This is community care.

Of course, when I started doing this, it seemed odd. Why do I, an “independent“, mostly healthy woman with a good job and a house, need friends to come cook for me on a regular basis? Isn’t that something usually reserved for sick people or family?

Why does it seem weirder than ordering takeout?

Because instead of relying on my wages/capitalism to make dinner when I can’t, I’m relying on my community.

Community care means that we do things for the people around us. My friends come over and make dinner for me, but it’s not a one-way street. I handmade some cosmetics for the same friends, and let them have lots from my garden harvest last summer.  We don’t keep score – we just take care of each other when we can and when it’s needed.

It sounds so simple, but here’s the big secret: community care can make our unsustainable coping mechanisms obsolete. If we can build a culture of community care, where people’s needs are met through each other, coping becomes unnecessary. We can cut down on waste. We can make our communities sustainable.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves. We all have to take responsibility for our own health. But asking for help is a really essential component of (real) self care that is too often overlooked. And we need to be willing to step in and help others in a tangible way, too.

We can, and must, rely less on our wages and on capitalism, and more on each other.

An article was recently circulating on social media about the importance of friendships when you’re single (and especially a single woman) in a world built for couples.

This issue can be expanded beyond singleness to the problem of the nuclear family/traditional monogamy. We are taught that we are only responsible for those in our unit – so if we need more help than they can give us, the only socially acceptable option is to pay for it.

We don’t need capitalism to survive. We can build the alternative.

It starts with prioritizing the well-being of the people around you. Offering to help. Making things instead of buying them, and giving away what you can. When you’re having a shitty time, ask for help before you decide to spend money. And if you’re not having a shitty time, offer to help others when you can.

Being able to rely on each other is the single biggest thing we can do to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression in our lives. But it won’t work unless we are all willing to think about what we can do for each other. Not just for our closest friends, but for everyone around us. Community care means making the community’s well-being our first priority.

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Five major barriers to basic mental health care

Trigger warning: the following includes discussion of health care professionals, depression, anxiety and mood disorders in general.

It’s June of the year I turned 23. I have just moved across the country, from Ottawa to Vancouver, and into my mother’s house, because I am too sick to work and can’t afford to pay my rent. The only thing I really need to heal is time and safety.

My therapist suggests that I apply for employment insurance (E.I.) medical benefits (a Canadian government benefit for those too sick to work), to help with finances while I take time to recover. To do this, I need a doctor to sign a form. I go to a doctor who I haven’t seen for years, but who still treats my family members. I bring with me a letter from my therapist that explains why I can’t work.

I’m nervous through the whole appointment. The doctor chastises me for not getting better medical tests, and in my nervousness I forget to tell her that I was tested, that I was monitored by a doctor in Ottawa until I moved to Vancouver only a few weeks ago.

Finally, I burst into tears in her office and she agrees to sign the form. She charges me $20 for it and orders blood work.

I walk home. It takes 25 minutes. I cry the whole way. I call a friend who listens to me while I vent about how doctors only make things worse.

A few weeks later I hear back about the employment insurance. The instructions on the government website were incomplete, and the doctor has to re-do the form. I go back.

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Time and agency are crucial to healing.

Mental health care is complex. When someone has a mood disorder (depression, anxiety, bipolar, or similar), there are so many different factors that can impact their health and well being.

Care means a lot of different things. One of the important ones is professional help. However, sometimes just accessing quality care can seem like an insurmountable struggle.

What follows is a list of the biggest barriers that my peers and I deal with when we try to access professional care. If you have more to add, I encourage you to comment below.

1. Cost

This seems basic, but it’s really important. Even here in Canada, where health care is supposed to be free, accessing mental health care costs money.

The only mental health professional that all Canadians can access free of charge is a medical doctor or a psychiatrist (i.e. a medical doctor who specializes in mental disorders). While a doctor can be helpful in some situations, there are many reasons to see someone with a different kind of training. Many very good therapists have advanced training in psychology, counselling or social work, but their services are not covered by provincial health insurance. Some cities have free clinics that offer these services, especially for children and youth, but these services are often inadequately funded and in very high demand, leaving them difficult or even impossible to access, especially in rural areas.

This problem is particularly pronounced for queer people, trans people, women, and racialized people, who are more likely to have mental health struggles, and are also are less likely to have good jobs with benefits. What this means is that the people who need mental health care the most are also the least likely to be able to access it.

2. Institutional limits

When I was a student union representative at the University of Ottawa, I was involved in advocacy work on mental health issues. Around that time, there was a significant increase in the demand for the use of the University’s free counseling services. More and more students were experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression (probably as a result of rising tuition fees, student poverty, and unhealthy academic culture) and as a result, more students were seeking counseling. Instead of hiring more counselors, the university’s response was to put a limit on how many times each individual student was allowed to see a counselor each semester.

It takes time to get to know and trust a counselor. For a counsellor to be effective, it’s important for a client to be able to connect with them. It takes time to get past the surface of symptom management and have the therapist get to know you well enough to deal with underlying trauma. If there is a limit to how many times you can see the counsellor that is available to you, there is obviously a limit to how much they can help you.

I’ve had a really great therapist for the last several years. I haven’t seen her regularly for that entire time, but I saw her when I had a major burnout, and have seen her occasionally since then when things have been bad. She works on a sliding scale, from an anti-oppressive and anti-capitalist lens. I’ve moved cities since I met her, but she continues to be accessible to me because she is willing to do sessions over Skype. This is valuable because it means that I don’t have to waste time getting to know a new counsellor each time I need to go back to one.

When I started a new job last year, I was excited that it included benefits (something that’s increasingly rare to actually find, and my expectations were low). Unfortunately, my benefits only cover counselling if I go through the counselling system that my workplace has an agreement with, or if my counsellor is a member of a specific professional association, which mine is not. On paper I have great benefits, but when I need a counsellor again, I will either have to go to a new counsellor in the system that my workplace (and start all over again with a new counsellor, wondering if they will be any good or even connect with me) or I will have to continue paying my current counsellor out of pocket. This is not prohibitive for me, but it reveals serious gaps in the system.

People who need a counsellor should be able to access one and choose the right one for them without worrying about cost and payment. The stress of figuring out the complexities of access can significantly exacerbate existing mental health problems. There is no reason that accessing good care should be this complicated.

3. Paternalism, and doctors as gatekeepers

Doctors don’t always believe their patients. In fact, almost everyone I know has had some experience of a doctor not believing in the severity of their physical or emotional pain. Doctors are even less likely to trust you if you are a woman, or if you have known mental health issues.

This can cause all kinds of problems. Like my doctor who chastised me before giving me a note, doctors are often called upon to sign off just so that we can gain access to more specialized care. Doctors are often required in order to get insurance benefits, welfare, access to psychiatrists and psychologists, even testing for learning disabilities.

Kori Doty recently wrote about how the process of proving their disability in order to receive benefits actually made them more unhealthy. The problem is, in order for people to believe you are sick, one actually has to look sick. If the doctor can’t see the symptoms by looking at the patient for only five minutes, the doctor may only have the patient’s word to go on.

Doctors, who are accustomed to being in authority and relying on scientific evidence, don’t like having to rely on trust. Add that to the stigma surrounding mental health, and what you get is many doctors who hesitate to believe that their patients are actually sick or deserving of treatment.

Activists like Julie Devaney have brought attention to how paternalism manifests in physical health care. When doctors don’t listen to their patient’s knowledge of themselves, it can result in more pain for the patient.  The results of sexism in health care can be very serious. And when a patient is mentally ill, caregivers are even less likely to respect a patient’s agency and knowledge of themselves.

Those of us with mental illness usually know exactly what we need, if we are given a chance to think about it and explain. Many of us have been dealing with our issues for much of our lives, and we know our own bodies and cycles. Whether we need a hug, medication, financial help, or a note to get out of class, we know what’s best and what will help us heal. If those things are inaccessible except through a professional and the professional doesn’t respect our agency, it’s going to be a lot harder for us to take care of ourselves.

It’s a mark of the paternalism of the system that in almost all cases, a doctor is the gatekeeper to accessing mental health benefits. It’s not unlike the maternal health care system historically, where for many years it was illegal to give birth anywhere outside of a hospital in the care of male doctors. Even in the last twenty years, the maternal health care system has opened up quite a lot, where now parents have many different options for caregivers (like midwives and doulas) and in many cases can give birth at home or in a birthing centre instead of a hospital.

While still far from perfect, the maternal health care model has shifted to one where doctors are present for care and support, but parents increasingly have the agency to decide the way they want to give birth. It not only is good for parents, but also relieves the medical system, because fewer people need to access it. The mental health care system is lacking this kind of move towards trusting the patient to being the ultimate authority on their health.

Paternalism drives many people to avoid going to the doctor. They might wait until it is worse, or they might have to search around for a doctor who will believe them. In the meantime, their situation is likely getting worse.

4. The definition of “success”

Remember the university counsellors I was talking about earlier? In addition to the restrictions on how many times a student could see a counsellor, the university had a directive for the counsellors: get the kids back to class. The department operated on the problematic premise that the main problem with mental health issues was that it was a common, or even acceptable, hurdle to academia and the counsellors’ primary goal was to guide the students through the hurdles so they can get back to class.

The problem with this philosophy is that not only does it normalize stress, depression, and anxiety, it also means that successfully treating a client is usually only defined as the student finishing their studies. Even if the student is not healthy or does not feel well, so long as they complete their semester, they are seen as a success.

This means that counsellors are only treating symptoms and are potentially disinterested in going into more depth about what is underlying students’ challenges. It also means that counsellors are not acknowledging the ways in which school might actually be the cause of a number of health issues. It also could be that some students are staying in school when it is making them unhealthy.

This is the problem when health care workers are funded by institutions like universities, schools, and private workplaces, rather than by the public health care system. Their jobs are tied to the success and public image of the institution, rather than to the health of their clients.

5. A narrow view of mental health

We have a narrow vision of what it means to be mentally healthy. A mood disorder is not a fever that can be taken away with ibuprofen, or a cut that can be cleaned with an alcoholic wipe. It cannot even be likened to a cancer that can be removed with surgery.

It is all-encompassing and often chronic. If you have a mood disorder, it can stretch deep into the fabric of your being, and can define your life. It is complex, and to deal with it, to really heal, a person has to deal with their traumas.

We have to look at mental health concerns differently from other types of illness. Mental illnesses are illnesses, but the healing process can be incredibly complex and it is always different for every person. Each person needs to be given the agency to figure out what they need in order to heal, and their needs need to be respected.

Depression, ultimately, is caused by genetic susceptibility plus stress. That’s it. (And if you don’t believe it’s really that simple, watch this video). But where does that stress come from? That question needs to be addressed.

Doctors are willing to dole out prescriptions and referrals, but rarely are willing to question the systems that made their patients sick. We don’t hear enough counsellors advocating for a shorter work week or returning to the earth for the sake our health.

We need more health care workers that are trained in anti-oppression. We need to be willing to think of work, stress, and colonialism as sources of illness. We need to realize how those things cause trauma and contribute to illness.

Who is the health care system for?

When you’re healthy, it’s easy to think that the health care system is easy to access.  When someone mentions how they are feeling, it’s easy for a healthy person to say “have you seen a doctor?” and assume that if the person hasn’t, that means they aren’t taking care of themselves.

The health care system can help. While it can’t help everyone, and it is certainly not the only solution, it is an important one.

We need to ask, who is our health care system for? Is it only for the rich who can afford it? Is it only for those whose illness is so severe that they need to be hospitalized? Is it only for workers, to get them back to work? Or is it for the people who are actually just sick, so they can become healthy, and live their lives?

The system needs to respond to the needs of those who need it most.

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