mental health

Trigger Warning for Happy Fun Ball?

Safety sign reads "Warning: Unpredictable Triggers"by Roxanna Bennett

A few years ago I signed up for an Artist-Educator class. I was working at an art gallery teaching kids and wanted to learn to write a more structured curriculum. I was super stoked about taking the class. It was a ten-week night school course, the class size was small, entrance was competitive and tuition was expensive.

The instructors were warm, friendly, and knowledgeable. The other students were creative, interesting, and passionate about the pedagogy of arts in education. The coursework was engaging and intensive. There was nothing not to like about having the privilege of being chosen to be a student in this class.

But five weeks in, I was forced to quit.

I have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,(C-PTSD) which differs from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in that the trauma that caused my condition is not one single event but a lifetime of multiple traumas beginning in early childhood.

C-PTSD is chronic and can mean a lifelong struggle with symptoms like hypervigilance to threat, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty achieving REM sleep, dissociation, depersonalization, depression, and a host of related issues such as eating disorders, self-harm, identity disorders, paranoia, hallucinations, agoraphobia, and selective amnesia.

One of the hallmarks of anxiety and trauma disorder are panic attacks that can be triggered by outside stimuli. Triggers can vary greatly from person to person. While it is simple to assume survivors of, for instance, sexual assault, would be triggered by watching a violent television show or reading about a similar incident in the paper, this would be disingenuous. Triggers are subjective, intensely personal and can appear innocuous.

At the time I signed up for the class I had been in therapy three to four times a week for several years and was transitioning off of Long Term Disability. I had worked very hard to develop a skill set that would get me out the door in the mornings and allow me to manage panic attacks, a medication regimen to regulate my sleep and a lot of support from friends. I felt in control of my life, positive about my future and excited at my prospects.

Imagine my shock when I experienced a sudden, full-blown panic attack during a simple group game during my class. There were eight of us in the room, standing in a circle, tossing a volleyball back and forth in an example of a warm-up exercise that we could use with future students. Read more

Posted on by Roxanna Bennett in Feminism Leave a comment

Starting a Conversation on Bisexual Women and Mental Health

bisexual female symbolby Lola Davidson

Over the past few years several studies have shown that bisexual mental health issues are some of the most serious and overlooked health problems.

Bisexual women regularly deal with stigma and shaming from several different communities due to the intersection of biphobia and misogyny. Research shows that bisexuals have the highest risk of anxiety and depression, as well as the lowest level of social support out of any orientation group. I wanted to talk about why that is and how that ties in with the gender issues bisexual women deal with.

Something I’ve noticed that happens to both lesbian women and bisexual women is intense anger directed towards us for not entertaining the idea that our sexuality exists for men. There is still a lot of hypersexualization that happens to women when they’re with other women, and that hypersexualization can quickly turn even more violent when these women make it clear that they are not okay with their identity being seen as a fantasy. This violence can have a huge negative effect on women like bisexual women, who already receive a lot of social stigma for our orientation.

Bisexual women have the lowest overall mental health, which leads to loneliness and suicide attempts (in fact, 45% of bisexual women have considered or attempted suicide). The struggle of bisexual women has been marginalized for too long because of the way we are dehumanized as sex objects and because bisexuality is often delegitimized as a sexual orientation.

This also explains why severe issues of bisexual mental health are commonly overlooked. It becomes a vicious cycle, because the trivialization of these issues adds to the anxiety and depression which bisexual women face, and which women in general face after being told that their struggles are not legitimate struggles.

Being LGBT is tough and being a woman is tough, and being both can sometimes make you a constant target for scrutiny and harassment. I want this cycle to break and I think with March being Bisexual Health Awareness Month this is a great time to talk about how serious of an issue this is, and I truly believe that starting this discussion is the best way to start to end this stigma.

(bisexual female logo via Wikimedia Commons)

Posted on by Lola Davidson in Feminism, LGBT Leave a comment

Happy Self-Talk and Beating the Poo

"Think Positive" written on the side of a cargo containerby Matilda Branson

I talk to myself all the time. For example, this morning on my walk to work  (an adventure in itself navigating the crumbling who-needs-infrastructure streets of Kathmandu) I stepped in what looked and smelled distinctly like – ok, was – a human poo (no point judging – when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go, and open defecation is just one of those things in Nepal, slowly improving as water and sanitation practices improve). Anyway although my initial reaction was wanting to scream in fury at the sheer inconvenience of the world, instead I found myself talking…aloud:

“Well, that sucks. Stepped in a poo. Cool. Stinks a fair bit and looks like that person liked corn. Ah well. Buck up Matilda, onwards and upwards! The day is definitely – can only be – all uphill from here.”

This is a pretty flippant example, but talking to myself – both aloud and internally, consciously and unconsciously – influences my days, and their general outcomes and my impression of them, completely, and I think a lot of this boils down to how I talk to myself. (However, if you are one of Life’s people who can look in the mirror, pull down your cool sunglasses and with a beaming twinkle of a smile go with the “Hey hey good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’ today? Growr!” 100% of the time, there is no need for you to read on).

Sometimes we can be super harsh on ourselves. Sometimes if I catch myself in the mirror after a big night out, or when an enormous bowl of pasta consumed during a 10 p.m. indulgent dinner  is still chilling in my tum at 8 a.m. the next morning, my immediate thoughts will inevitably centre around, “Why hello Madame Wobbly Jobbly, how are we today?” usually joined by a detailed examination of cellulite on the upper legs.

Obviously, such self-talk really leaves you feeling positive about your body and self (insert Australian sarcasm here), and it’s amazing how quickly this can  turn to “what am I doing with my life/what is it all about/what is the point of it all?” thoughts – particularly if hungover. Even slightly banal self-talk can be unconsciously negative, and have an impact on our thoughts and actions, and not for the better. When was the last time you thought about how you talk to yourself?  How does it influence your day to day functioning, your relationships, your general self-perception?

Another common one: being super busy – at work, socially, with family, chores, washing, picking up things, getting to the bank, appointments – and having that “Oh, I have to do this/I should do that…”  and feeling a bit frazzled, stressy and stretched a bit thin. A handy technique can be to switch such thoughts from “I have to” and “I should” to, “I choose to…”  Suddenly, it’s not the world controlling your life and making you tired – it’s you realising you choose to do these things (ok, to be fair, at the far end of such a spectrum is the “I choose to wash my clothes so as not to be socially excluded because of my stench.”) But you see what I mean.

If you suddenly start to realise you choose to do a lot of the things in your life, and you’re finding it too hectic – maybe you can choose not to do all of them, or not all at once, or maybe just a bit less, and you can then choose to take up that course/job hunt/brilliant-but-scary opportunity you’ve convinced yourself you don’t have time for because you have to do all those other things.

Sometimes you can feel like crap. And that’s fine too, particularly when something really, really cruddy has happened, like a traumatic incident. Sometimes there’s nothing worse than someone saying, “It’s okay” when it’s really not, or “These things happen”, when you really wish they plurry well wouldn’t, and actually, they really shouldn’t happen. Then it’s ok to say, “Well, yeah, life is just dang cruddy right now, and it sucks.”  That’s ok too, as long as when the time comes, you can see the positives again.

Have a go at first listening to how you speak to yourself – and then actually talking to yourself positively. Sometimes it can be surprising how harsh you can be on yourself at times. So be gentle. Practice thinking (at the risk of sounding like My Little Pony-meets-Enthusiastic-Life-Coach-meets-Peter-Pan) happy thoughts, focusing on the enjoyable, nice parts of life, and how awesome you, and your place in it, is.

All I can recommend is: don’t let an innocent little poo ruin your whole day. Make sure you spend a bit of time every day thinking about how cool, awesome and amazing you really are.

(image CC-licensed by Jean.julius via Wikimedia Commons)

Posted on by Matilda Branson in My Reality Leave a comment

My Reality: I Have Emetophobia

Screen Shot 2013-05-19 at 10.50.35 AMby Jessica Critcher

While I missed the boat on Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada (May 6-12) May is Mental Health Awareness MONTH over here in the US. Jarrah’s bravery in opening up about her experience with Trichotillomania (Hair-Pulling Disorder) inspired me to speak up about my emetophobia.

Emetophobia is a strong fear or aversion to vomit. I know, most people don’t like it. But for emetophobes like me, it’s a constant fear that warps into a daily struggle. Some don’t even type or say the word “vomit” out of superstition. Here is a pretty neat infographic on the subject. Wikipedia also has a nice summary:

Emetophobia (from the Greek εμετός, to vomit, and φόβος (phóbos), meaning “fear”) is an intense, irrational fear or anxiety pertaining to vomiting. This specific phobia can also include subcategories of what causes the anxiety, including a fear of vomiting in public, a fear of seeing vomit, a fear of watching the action of vomiting or fear of being nauseated.[1] Emetophobia is clinically considered an “elusive predicament” because limited research has been done pertaining to it.[2] The fear of vomiting receives little attention compared with other irrational fears.[3]

This fear has also caused me to indirectly be afraid of several other things, like traveling by boat (never tried it, too scared!), roller coasters, crowds, hospitals, dental exams, new medications, new foods, drinking or being around drunk people, pregnancy or being around pregnant people, and little children, because they vomit like it’s their damn job. I will avoid all of these things things to varying degrees just because the possibility of feeling slightly nauseated or hearing someone talk about being ill exists.

This phobia has also caused me to fear a lot of other things because they are connected to a concern or incident specific to me, including cashews, McDonald’s, Vicodin, multi-vitamins, intense exercise, and even just being at the gym. Read more

Posted on by Jessica Critcher in My Reality 5 Comments

My Reality: I Pull My Hair Out

(not my real hair)

(not my real hair)

by Jarrah Hodge

I’ve been struggling with whether or not to write on this topic ever since we started the “My Reality” series here at Gender Focus. On the one hand I think it’s important to share these stories because the stigma involved with mental illness is a huge problem. On the other hand, that very same stigma made me worried that talking about my experiences would cause my friends and coworkers to look at me differently.

But I finally decided to face up to the potential consequences because of GF contributor Roxanna Bennett, who is writing about her own experiences on her blog Choose Your Own Adventure. She drew my attention to the fact that last week (May 6-12) was Mental Health Week in Canada, and the main goals are raising awareness and fighting stigma.

So here goes.

I’m a gainfully-employed communications professional, a cat-loving uber-nerd, an occasional TV commentator and a feminist activist and award-winning blogger. I also happen to have a disorder that was until recently known as trichotillomania. In recognition of the fact that the disorder has nothing to do with “mania”, the DSM-5 has now added an explainer to the name: Trichotillomania (Hair-Pulling Disorder).

Trichotillomania (I’m just going to use the short-form “trich” or the previously-recognized abbreviation TTM for the rest of this article) is classified as an Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorder and it is characterized by the irresistible urge to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other parts of your body. I’ll start by giving a few more facts before I go in to how I experience it.

According to Psychiatric Times, up to 3.4% of adults have TTM (Olivia Munn is probably the most well-known example) and nobody knows for sure what causes it, though there are theories. It is not a nervous habit that you can just stop. It is also not causally-linked to experiencing child abuse or other trauma. It does not come out of a desire to self-harm; it doesn’t even hurt. According to the Trichotillomania Learning Center, trich actually acts as a “a self-soothing mechanism” to alleviate anxiety.

Tackling stigma is important in dealing with all mental illness but in trich has a particular direct connection to beauty ideals in our society. Most people with TTM are girls and women like me, who deal with constant messages telling them they have to look a certain way. When their disorder leaves them with bald patches on their head or gaps in their eyelashes, many withdraw. If a trichster doesn’t feel their elaborate beauty routine is enough to let them fit in, they may isolate themselves from work, school and/or medical care. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in My Reality 21 Comments

Canadian Girls Face Interconnected Life Challenges


Participants in a Girls Action Foundation leadership training session, 2012.

by Jarrah Hodge

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, the Girls Action Foundation has released a new report about the situation facing girls in Canada. Beyond Appearances: Brief on the Main Issues Facing Girls in Canada contains findings from a close review of population surveys and academic literature and shows that girls in Canada face serious and interconnected life challenges, at rates higher than the general public might expect.

I spoke with Saman Ahsan, Executive Director of Girls Action Foundation. She has worked with and on behalf of girls for most of her career.

“There were a couple of statistics that I found really alarming: one was the proportion of girls who try self-harm. In BC we found one in five girls had attempted self-harm in the previous year and that really showed me that the mental health of girls in Canada is something that needs attention,” said Ahsan.

“Another statistic I found alarming is the rate of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. It’s shocking that as a nation Canada can just sit by. I don’t think action is being taken at the level that needs to be done.”

17% of reported missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada were under 18 years old.

Ahsan summarized the situation facing Canada’s nearly 3.6 million girls today:

“Girls are facing a lot of issues that are very intertwined – all the issues they’re facing such as mental health, violence, their career and educational prospects, their physical health – are intertwined and reinforce one another.”

For example Ahsan said many girls experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety as a result of experiencing violence and feeling unsafe at school. Some of the most disturbing stats in the report were around violence: 46% of high school girls in Ontario reported being the target of unwanted sexual comments or gestures. Four times more girls than boys are sexually abused and 75% of the time it is by a family member or friend. The situation is even worse for girls with disabilities. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism, Politics Leave a comment

My Reality: How to Become an Orphan

Child's_drawingby Roxanna Bennett

[Trigger Warning for discussions of child rape and molestation]

I divorced my entire family in 2005 and it was the healthiest action I’ve ever taken for myself.

In 2004, I started getting panic attacks every time the phone rang. I had never had them before so at first I was convinced I was dying, that I was having a heart attack or something was wrong with my brain. I broke out in hives a lot. Had nightmares. Found myself spending entire days in bed, just staring at the ceiling, unable to play with my son. Sometimes making his dinner and staring slack-jawed at the television was a challenge. I’m not sure when I made the connection between what was happening in my family and what was happening with me but when I came to the realization that they were the source of my pain, I had no choice. It was them or me. My son or my mother. I chose my ability to function as a healthy parent over the feelings of my family and this is why.

I was raped by my uncle, my mother’s brother, when I was four years old. My mother is an identical twin, her sister was like a second mother to me. My biological mother was distant, anxious, sometimes cold. Her sister, my aunt, was more outgoing, warmer. My mother moved out of the province when I was 18 and it was my aunt who was my source of support during my early adulthood. She nursed me when I was sick, let me sleep on her couch when I had nowhere to go. She stayed with my son every night for a year while I put myself through night school. We were very close.

My uncle, who had damaged me beyond measure when I was a child, had been living in British Columbia for years when I made the decision to orphan myself. And this is why, and it sounds small to say it but it wasn’t, it was because of a family vacation. Read more

Posted on by Roxanna Bennett in My Reality 21 Comments