Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
In Canada, June is an opportunity to celebrate and learn about Indigenous history. At the same time, though, we're coping with a profound national grief. Some people are coming to terms with the truly devastating realities our Indigenous communities have faced and continue to face for the first time, while others have expressed that they are saddened but not surprised by the ongoing news. The mass graves found at the sites of former residential “schools” are painful reminders of not just a historical trauma but also the current and ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma, cultural genocide, and persisting systemic racism. Instead of celebrating Canada Day this Thursday, here are 3 calls to action to honour Indigenous peoples.
Before we dive in, for any Indigenous community members who have been affected by this news, please know that there are resources available to support you, as listed on SACE’s website.
Hearing the truth
Some of you who are not part of the Indigenous community have already been wondering how you might be able to respond to surfacing events. Personally, I appreciate SACE’s sentiment that “Reconciliation must start with truth”. We can all make a commitment to hearing the truth with humility and compassion.
Following this, we can become familiar with the calls to action of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the calls for justice found in the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
As we all move through this challenging time and more people reconcile with the truth, I imagine that waves of grief may arise, though experienced differently for everyone. It may be helpful to keep Susan Silk’s “Ring Theory” in mind. From my perspective, it reminds us that we’ll all be impacted by the stories we’ve been hearing to varying degrees. Our job is to ensure that we’re gaining the support we need from those in our own circle or further away from the trauma, and sending support toward the centre of those most impacted by the event.
Source: Illustration by Wes Bausmith
While reading or listening to stories of trauma, I also think it’s important to consider how we can do so in a way that allows us to stay in a seat of empathy and presence. Often, people begin with an aim to stay informed but end up dissociated because they’ve become dysregulated by imagining the traumatic events. You may relate to the idea of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” in order to understand what they’ve gone through.
It turns out that imagining what it would be like to experience someone else’s trauma not only puts us at risk for vicarious trauma, it also isn’t very effective. If you’re reading or listening to a lot about trauma right now, I invite you to try something else instead: stay curious. I’ll be sharing more about this idea in an upcoming course I have on vicarious trauma, so please watch for that.
Ensuring appropriate healthcare access
Finally, for those who are healthcare professionals, there are a number of things we can do to ensure appropriate healthcare access. Start by checking out this article on How We Can Support Indigenous Peoples’ Wellness. I also have found it helpful to learn about the ideas around decolonizing mental health. It aligns really well with a feminist counselling perspective where we try to understand the historical and present context people are dealing with in order to understand why they might be struggling and offer trauma-informed support that aims not to pathologize.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Karlee Fellner where, in addition to talking about decolonization, she focused on “Indigenizing Psychology”. On her website, she offers a definition for both terms:
“decolonizing involves breaking down colonial ideologies & how they manifest, looking to Indigenous counter-stories of survivance & relationality instead. Indigenizing centres Indigenous ways of knowing, using local knowledges, traditions, and languages to address the interests of particular communities. together, these processes contribute to Indigenous self-determination and healing”.
I hope these brief ideas have been helpful. If you’re looking for more, please keep listening - both inside yourself and to the many voices in our Indigenous communities as well.
In a post last month, I shared with you some reasons why you might find therapy useful for dealing with some aspects of the coronavirus crisis, like shame reactions to feeling judged, pandemic-related anxiety, and information overwhelm that can lead to feeling hesitant about medical advice. If you’re still unsure about starting therapy, here are three more ways psychologists can help during a pandemic.
Many of you have shared with me the feeling of stagnation you've been experiencing this past year, or feeling ‘blah’. Handily, a number of you have also sent me this incredibly popular New York Times article on “languishing” that finally put a name to this experience so many people have been having. If you haven't read it yet, it may be worth your while, but here’s a summary. Languishing can be placed in the middle of the mental health spectrum between depression (ill-being) and flourishing (well-being): it’s the absence of well-being. You might experience a lack of excitement or joy, a sense of emptiness, difficulty to focus on work or to feel motivated, but you’re not having symptoms of mental illness—however, research suggests that languishing might be a risk factor for experiencing them later in life.
Languishing is different both from burnout and depression. In this short column my colleague Tami-Lee Duncan did for Edmonton AM, she describes how you might be able to distinguish languishing from major depression, and what you can do if you've been feeling this way.
I know for many people I spoke to, having a name for the experience was enough to bring some relief. We know this as psychologists—naming our emotions and contextualizing them helps us feel better, even when we can't change our situation. This is why bringing up this feeling in therapy can be immensely useful, and help move you once again towards flourishing.
Intimate partner violence
Since the onset of the pandemic, increased social isolation and less access to resources mean that people who typically experience intimate partner violence (IPV) are even more at risk for abuse. Psychologists recognize this increase in violence against women as a "shadow pandemic", although some initiatives point out that this narrative can impact the way we think about sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as something that is hidden, or that is only related to the pandemic, and the responses to it.
If you have experienced or currently experience IPV or SGBV, therapy can be a safe space for you to work through it and the various issues that can come up related to that, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, challenges in new relationships, financial autonomy, and more. Psychologists can also help you identify signs in your relationship that might point to an abusive dynamic, and direct you to other resources you can turn to. Most importantly, they should be able to offer empathetic, non-judgemental listening.
I recently came across these wonderful resources from the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health that frontline workers and service organizations can use to ensure they're responding in a trauma-informed way. If you're a frontline worker hoping to increase your knowledge on IPV or trauma, you may also be interested in the manual I wrote last year for the United Cultures of Canada Association.
If you’re a COVID-19 frontline worker or first responder, you may need extra support to stabilize the nervous system during times of immediate crisis and distress in order to do your job. Your psychologist can find specific strategies that work for you and walk you through them, so that you can have these tools whenever you need them.
One of those strategies is the SE Crisis Stabilization and Safety Aid toolkit, SCOPE: Slow down, Connect to body, Orient, Pendulate, Engage.
These simple interventions take less than five minutes to do, and you can print out the toolkit to keep it with you everywhere (check the link for the printable PDF version).
Remember that if you are a health care provider or first responder living in Alberta and you’d like to access support specifically for coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Disaster Response Network offers 1-3 pro-bono sessions for those who need it.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.
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