We Need Diverse Authors: A Review of Dancing With Ghosts

dancing-with-ghosts

Image description: Book cover for the novel Dancing with Ghosts by Emily Gillespie. The bottom two-thirds of the cover is black with the title and author’s name in white text. The top features a galaxy background with pinks, purples and blue speckled with stars. On the left side, three ballet dancers are captured in silhouette.

I have written before on the dangerous and problematic pitfalls of people writing about marginalized experiences that they do not experience. I am a huge supporter of not only diversity in books but more importantly diversity of people writing those books. So I was pleased to hear that my friend Emily Gillespie had written a book and that it was going to be published.

Emily has lived experience with mental health* and wrote a novel that deals directly with a character who is experiencing what is possibly depression and anxiety.

The synopsis from Goodreads is,

Freshman year of university was supposed to mean freedom.

It was supposed to be her escape from parents who didn’t understand her – who turned Patricia away every time she reached out for help. New city, new school, new friends, fresh start – wasn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

Instead, when Patricia moves from her small, isolating hometown to the bustling, sprawling cityscape of Toronto, she finds herself more alone than ever. When she meets Derek – an intriguing yet mysterious classmate – she’s instantly drawn in by his worldly knowledge and easy charm.

For a while, things between them are perfect. For a while, it’s thrilling being invited into a world unlike anything Patricia’s experienced before.

But this isn’t a love story and not everyone is what they seem.

Dancing With Ghosts is technically classed as adult fiction, though could be considered a young adult novel. The protagonist, Patricia is eighteen & nineteen throughout the novel and though the book does deal very frankly with issues of mental health, sex, and various kinds of abuse (sexual, emotional, medical); the story is very much something that can and does happen to young people.

The book is a first-person narrative written in semi-journal style (by which I mean the narrator will occasionally address the reader directly). As a result of the casual narrative style, the protagonist occasionally breaks off into tangents. This was a bit jarring at first but as you get to know the character it becomes natural and I eventually stopped being aware of it.

I really appreciated the way Emily approached mental health in the novel, from how it isn’t always strictly labelled as a specific diagnosis but the impact is still real. This indefinability is not only realistic it also really highlights the issues that Patricia has in trying to set up official support systems when she doesn’t fit neatly into a box. The book also challenges that smug Canadian lie that seems to crop up anytime that a Canadian is trying to prove their moral superiority (usually to an Americal) “Yeah? Well, I’m going to have my feeling checked for free”.

Emily effectively weaves a story about someone who tries and fails to seek timely and meaningful healthcare and the emotional fallout of being failed by a system that horribly ill-equipped to deal with the volume and reality of the needs it should be meeting.

Dancing With Ghosts is not the kind of book you read all in one sitting. Not because it isn’t good or engaging. It is both but it deals with issues of abuse so head on and frankly that sometimes I had to take some time to sit with what I had read before I could continue.

This is the benefit of a writer who has experience of the thing they are writing about. Eve when they write fiction, it feels more real. I feel the shared frustration of a medical system that frequently underserves or fails disabled people. I struggled with Patricia’s frank attempts to make sense of how the various factors in her life contributed to what happened. I searched for those answers with her.

This is why we need more voices from the margins. Not people speaking for the margins.

 

 

Dancing With Ghosts is currently available for purchase in ebook form through Kobo.

There is currently no official print release date (I will update when one is available) but print copies will be available on Amazon and at the York University Bookstore in Toronto.

Dancing With Ghosts is being published through Leaping Lions Books a small independent publisher run by York University’s fourth-year Professional Writing program.

The official book launch will be on March 9th. If you are in Toronto and are interesting in attending you can find information here.

 

 

 

*Her current preferred label

Advertisements

On the Medicalization of Donald Trump

There has been quite a bit of discussion around whether it is appropriate to speculate about whether Donald Trump has a mental illness. The rhetoric and armchair diagnosis of Trump is already happening and it’s important to look at the arguments for why people are doing that and perhaps more importantly whether people should.

I am basing this post on an expansion of a comment I posted on David Perry‘s blog post on whether it is appropriate to speculate on Trump’s mental health.

Full disclosure. I am a Canadian and while my life may be impacted by a Trump presidency. I am unlikely to be directly impacted by any of the racist or harmful policies he’s suggested. He is after all only proposing to build a wall along the Mexico border.

Ultimately, though I am looking at the ethics and possible repercussions of pathologizing Donald Trump in terms of what it means for the rights of people with mental health diagnoses.

As I mentioned, people are already doing it but it’s important to question why.

Keith Olbermann made a 20 minute video applying a psychopathy test to Donald Trump. Olbermann did pay lip service to whether doing so was ok but rationalized it thusly “Trump started it” which is true. Trump has applied stigmatizing mental health language to many of his political opponents.

The problem with this justification beyond it’s childishness is that it forgets that pathologizing Trump doesn’t just impact Donald Trump. It also has implications on a broader level  to how discourse around mental health stigmatizes people with mental illness. People who haven’t been armchair diagnosed by a public just seeking to discredit a candidate that they dislike.

People have argued however that silence on mental health can be stigmatizing. Which is true but this actually assumes that Donald Trump has a mental illness. Which we do not and cannot know unless he tells us (and considering his propensity for lies, backs it up with evidence).

There is something to be said for there needing to be a discussion on people living without a diagnosis but I don’t think that a productive conversation on that is going to happen by speculating about the health of a public figure.

Particularly because of why people want to speculate about Trump’s mental health. Because let’s face it, it’s not out of a genuine concern for his well being. It’s because people want to discredit him.

Which brings us to the big issue. People are using mental health speculation as a way to discredit Trump and make him appear incompetent. This is deeply stigmatizing to people with mental health diagnoses.

If the logic is that by framing Trump as having a mental illness makes him unfit for the presidency then the message is that mental illness is equated with incompetence and that is a dangerous thing to not only assert but to advocate which is exactly what anyone saying “Trump is [insert usually bigoted term for mental illness here] are doing.

There is also the fact that much of the “evidence” people are using in their speculation is based on Trump’s bigotry. Finn has a great piece how “Wrong Does Not Mean Crazy” which focuses on how problematic it is to equate ideas we disagree with as evidence of the idea holder’s mental instability.

I cannot say strongly enough that bigotry is not a mental illness. It is also important to remind you that Trump doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He didn’t reach where he is by donning the guise of a supervillain (mo matter how abhorrent many of his ideas are) and threatening his way to the nomination.

No. He was supporters. Lots of them. People who see sense in the lies of his rhetoric.

Are we going to speculate on their mental health as well? Remember these people very likely number in the millions.

I honestly find it disheartening that people are so willing to perceive people who hold different ideals (regardless of how horrific they are) as rock hard evidence of mental illness. It buys into the “Mad=Bad” stereotype so people assume that if all bigots have mental illness then all people with mental illness must be at a bare minimum be frightening.

I refuse to believe that Donald Trump and his supporters are a case of mass hysteria. It is lazy thinking that seeks to erase the fact that humanity in large groups has rationalized the committing of atrocities.

When it comes to pathologizing Donald Trump, particularly in public forums. The goal isn’t really to have a substantive discussion on mental health. It’s a tool use to discredit him.

So no, I don’t think it’s appropriate to speculate on Donald Trump’s (or anyone else’s) mental health in a public forum.

If you want to make a point about Donald Trump being unfit to be president may I suggest pointing out,

He wants to build a wall on the Mexico border

He thinks that Mexico should pay for it

He has suggested banning Muslim immigration to the United States

He has suggested that Muslims be registered

Go after his policies. Go after his words. Go after his actions both past and present.

Speculating about his health with the intent to discredit him only stigmatizes others.

There more than enough material to suggest that Trump is unqualified to be president without supporting the existing stigma around mental illness by capitalizing on it by trying to attach that stigma to Trump.

 

 

So You’ve Made Progress in Expanding Rights to Academic Accommodation…But Do You Really Deserve It?

It is the day of my final exam, I have figured out the location for my alternate exam space. I show up early and wait for my invigilator. It is 15 minutes before the exam. 45 minutes later, they have yet to arrive. 5 minutes after that, the invigilator finally shows up, they’ve forgotten to pick up my exam from the department. I start my exam an hour late.

At a different exam, I sit in a small conference room across from my invigilator. I am concentrating on my exam. Across the table, the invigilator opens and starts eating a bag of chips. The bag crinkles, there are audible chewing noises. I try and focus on my exam.

I am writing a geology exam with two other students in an alternate space. We are seated at the same table as we have to share a single set of mineral samples. About half an hour into the exam we realize that we are missing a needed sample. Our invigilator is M.I.A.

These are just three of my experiences taking alternate exams during my undergraduate degree. They are pretty representative of my overall experience of not taking exams with the rest of the class. Sometimes getting academic accommodation is a catch-22, particular if you are writing exams separately.

This however does not diminish the importance of being able to access academic accommodations if you need them, however the process of getting them is daunting and the delivery often spotty.

This is why the new changes around accommodations for mental health disability at York University are so important.

York University PhD student Navi Dhanota (full disclosure: she’s a friend of mine) just completed a two year human rights complaint against York’s Counseling and Disability Services to be able to access academic accommodations without having to disclose a specific DSM diagnosis.

The policy change has been getting media attention in Toronto which in turn has garnered public comment (yes I know “never read the comment”). some of the comments indicate a lack of understanding of, the policy change, what it entails and how it came about.

  1. York University is far from the only university that has policies that require students to provide a DSM diagnosis or psychiatric label to qualify for accommodations. (though hopefully the shift at York will spark change at other universities)
  2. York is not the first university Navi has experienced this policy. However, York is the only university where she sought change through the Human Rights Code.
  3. The change in policy does not mean that people can simply self-identify as having need for accommodation. They still need medical documentation of need for accommodation but the specifics of the diagnosis can be kept confidential between the student and their physician. So the people complaining that fakers will be coming out of the woodwork can shut-up already.
  4. This policy change only applies to students seeking accommodation for psychiatric diagnosis. Students seeking accommodations for physical disabilities, learning disabilities and chronic illness must still provide specific diagnosis to receive accommodation. No that isn’t fair and it remains to be seen if it will require another Human Rights complaint to fix that disparity or if York will be proactive in fixing it without outside intervention.

Now we move on to why I shared those awkward and unfortunate alternate exam stories because I’m going to address the trolls. The people who have been using this as an opportunity to rail against the existence of accommodations in general. The most common complaint being “No one likes writing exams in packed gymnasiums and everyone would probably benefit from not having to do that”.

Normally, I wouldn’t spend taking them on but their sentiments were echoed by CBC As It Happens radio host Carol Off in an interview with Navi. The interview is only 6 1/2 minutes and Off waits until the very end of the interview to throw out the “but everyone hates gymnasium exams” comment right at the end, effectively making Navi defend the entire structure of academic accommodations in less than a minute. An impossible feat, though Navi managed to remain calm under the ridiculous expectation.

By bringing up this question Carol Off legitimized (though by no means invented) the public skepticism that exists any time a disabled person gets an accommodation. By providing so little time to the discussion, she all but guaranteed that the defense would be weak and therefor actively undermined the validity of the system.

I am going to take some time now to address some of these issues. I will touch on the importance of accommodations and the varying arguments around how they are distributed but I am going to primarily look at why the question from Off and the internet trolls is harmful and reinforces prejudice against disabled people. It’s the cousin of the “but what about the fakers?” Argument that has been rampant in the online comments about this story.

First let’s look at accommodations and the differing views around them. They range from the current and most common system (I’ve personally navigated accommodation bureaucracies at three Canadian universities). This system involves offering the bare minimum legally required with as many safeguards (extensive documentation and medical practitioner involvement) possible. The fear of the faker or system abuser is so high that many universities require a physician to sign off on each and every accommodation even when the condition or diagnosis has been disclosed and medically confirmed. Even if the accommodation is extremely common or universally needed by people with that condition. There is no good faith. The assumption is always that people are lying about their needs unless it is corroborated by a doctor.

Some disability activists advocate for a radical shift in the disbursement of services which addresses the mentality of “but we all hate gymnasium exams”. They argue that everyone should have access to accommodations regardless of disability status. Functionally this is untenable in a lot of ways particularly in terms of offering everyone alternate exam spaces. It also ignores that not everyone would benefit from certain accommodations and may actually find them detrimental.

Consider the accommodation of having a note taker. While people’s reaction to my utilizing a note taker during my undergraduate degree generally boiled down to “well everyone would do better if they didn’t have to take notes”. In reality this is more a knee jerk reaction to someone getting different treatment rather than better treatment. Studies actually show that when students take notes they tend to do better than if they don’t, even if notes are provided to them. So no, not everyone actually benefits from a note taker. It might actually harm academic outcomes for most people. My inability to take notes puts me at a disadvantage which is partially rectified by being able to have them provided for me. I will never be able to benefit from the academic advantage of taking my own notes.

There are accommodations that I would love to see universalized like access to speech to text software and good text to speech software. As it stands, the first is not an accommodation, it can be used by everyone at their own expense. In the case of the latter, universities might provide textbooks in alternate formats (something copyright law will bar the universal distribution of) but access to screenreading software is not provided. This software is very expensive so students who require it have to wither pay out of pocket or navigate the maze that is technology grant applications.

Many more people than those who require these programs for reasons of disability and expanding demand an access would likely bring the cost down to more manageable levels.

When people, particularly people with a public platform like Carol Off voice opinions (even in the forms of questions) that boil down to “everyone’s life is hard, why do you deserve different treatment?” it fundamentally erases the reality of disability.

Are there fundamental problems with how universities are run that hurt all students? Yes. But that is a separate issue from the systemic disadvantage experienced by disabled people. The two things should not be conflated. Doing so only further marginalizes disabled students.

At a university level, issues like crowded exams and the large class sizes that contribute to them are issues of under staffing. They can and should be addressed. The thing is even if they were, students with disabilities would still be disadvantaged in universities. Alternate exams exist not only for students who can’t write in gymnasium environments. Even a small exams can be to much for some students.

Accommodations aren’t about catering to a student’s preferences. They exist to rectify actual measurable disadvantages not experienced by other students. Constantly framing the conversation around nondisabled people and what they’re not getting ignores the fact that even though the delivery of post-secondary education is flawed, it was set up with them in mind. Accommodations aren’t perks or extras. They exist to level the playing field. To alleviate a structural imbalance.

Getting people to this understanding is crucial to help start alleviating some of the frankly overwhelming discrimination and prejudice, disabled students experience from their nondisabled peers and the university as a whole.

If the sheer rage that some people express when accommodations for disability are mentioned is any indication, people seem to view accommodations as this Utopian land of privilege. It is in reality far more often a quagmire of hurdles and stigma.

My general experience with accessing accommodations has been one where the response often feels like “ugh, I guess I’ll do this, if I have to”, that is if a professor doesn’t ignore you outright (see here for more information on that).

Add to that, the fact that accessing accommodations beyond the complex bureaucratic requirements for extensive documentation is deeply stigmatized. It is shrouded in secrecy and students are often made to feel guilty or ashamed for utilizing them.

After a classmate discovered I had a note taker (a service that is supposed to be confidential but is often not), I was told that I shouldn’t be allowed in university.

Without giving the full story about academic accommodations and their function, it is irresponsible to then question their validity more so when the respondent isn’t given adequate time to respond and has their argument be artificially weakened by the circumstances of the question. This legitimizes the already existing stigma.

As mentioned above, academic accommodations are often delivered in a piecemeal and less than respectful manner. The system is already flawed enough without adding to the existing skepticism we recipients face not only from the universities that deliver those services but from our peers as well.

Racism isn’t a Mental Illness, Stop Pretending that it is!

In the wake to the horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I and I’m sure most people are in shock. Unfortunately mass murders committed by white men are becoming all to common and we are justifiably frustrated by the lack of response that they get. I mean the news media is in overdrive churning out stories about the victims, the alleged perpetrator, the public response and the responses from politicians but in terms of a response that might actually stop events like this from happening there is little or no movement.

This is because atrocities committed by white people are all to often blamed on mental illness regardless of actual psychiatric diagnosis.

We know many things for sure about the nine murders at the Emanuel AME Church. We know that the alleged shooter Dylann Storm attended a prayer meeting there before making a statement, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go”. He then killed nine people.

The Emanuel AME Church is historically black and has ties to the civil right movement. It has been targeted by racist violence in the past. It is a recognizable symbol for black people in the United States. This in conjunction with Roof’s words should lead anyone to the conclusion that the motive behind the shooting was racism.

Yet, there are many who want to label Roof as mentally ill, they do this to erase the racist motives of the crime. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush said “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes”. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said “we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

This is ridiculous, the motive was white supremacy and racism but they get away with claims of ignorance because the suggestion is that the shooter was insane. Mental illness in this context exists in isolation and is completely unknowable. This is false from two perspectives. The first being the automatic assumption that white perpetrators of mass violence are mentally ill at all. Secondly from the assumption that mental illness exists in a vacuum without social involvement.

The first issue is the assumption that actions that are widely viewed as horrific must be the result of mental illness, unless of course the perpetrator is not white (then they’re a terrorist or their entire race is somehow uncivilized). The idea that rational people can decide to do horrific things is really hard for people to grasp but it is true.

The second is that racism as my post title suggests isn’t a form of mental illness. People who are mentally ill can be racist, misogynist or other kinds of bigot but rest assured it’s because of society not because they’re ill.

There is also the issue of criminal culpability. Simply having a mental illness does not automatically keep someone from being held criminally responsible. A person has to either be unaware of their actions at the time of the crime or to have been incapable of knowing that their actions were wrong. That does not mean simply disagreeing with the standard public mores. Which is why Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was able to be found both sane and responsible for the 77 lives he took, despite his lack of remorse and personal belief in his actions. People who can rationalize can unfortunately use that rationality to make horrific decisions based on virulent racist ideologies.

So why then is it so common for people to focus on the sanity of white perpetrators? A couple of days ago, I asked this hypothetical question on twitter “How can mental illness be used to humanize white perpetrators of mass violence but dehumanize peaceful people with an actual diagnosis?” It was rhetorical, I know the answer. The answer is racism and white supremacy.

White people who commit mass violence are in an interesting position in that, their crimes are softened by the excuse of insanity. In situations where the perpretrator is not white, outsiders demand accountability from the entire group. Muslims must decry acts of terror that they have no personal connection to. Black people are constantly told to look inward as a community to solve problems whether they are the perpetrator or the victims of crime. Yet here with white perpetrators they are both humanized and made other all at once. The full force of personal responsibility is removed by the label of insanity, but it is also this label that serves to shield white people from being collectively scrutinized in the way that we actively scrutinize others.

People with mental illness are deeply stigmatized (I am not going to look at that to closely here because the focus needs to be on racism right now but you can read more about how blaming crime on mental illness unfairly stigmatizes the mentally ill here). It is just another category by which white people can use to separate a person from the white male ideal. So even though the skin colour is the same, white perpetrators are still made separate from the rest of white people. This absolves white people from having to address the issues of white supremacy and how they lead to violence. The issue of violent white supremacy isn’t really just about individuals who choose violence but about the culture that fosters racist ideals and refuses to take responsibility for them.

This idea isn’t just a problem for white people who are unwilling to acknowledge the racist motivations of this crime. Even progressive allies fall into the trap of labeling racism as insane, he says “the roads that black people drive on are named for confederate generals, who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s…that’s insanity” (emphasis mine).

The video has been viewed over a million times. It has appeared in my Facebook feed over and over. The problem is that systemic racism isn’t some form of diagnosible mass hysteria. The following things were not the result of widespread mental illness.

The Holocaust

Apartheid South Africa

Rhodesia

British Colonialism

American slavery and subsequent segregation.

Canadian residential school system

The list could really continue. Equating systemic racism and white supremacy to insanity is a cop out, one that has been used to excuse white violence on both the individual and group level. It is not only false but actually fosters that idea that these incidents can’t be avoided. Which I know wasn’t Stewart’s intent, it just shows how far the rhetoric around denying white culpability is. Racism isn’t a mental illness and the evidence of systemic racism should not be explained in those terms because in the end it just excuses it.

As a result of this shooting, if the rhetoric of mental health continues, you can be sure its connection to racism will also be lost. We won’t see calls to treat and pathologize those who participate on websites like Stormfront. No one really believes that expressions of racism are inherently insane, it is just a convenient excuse to avoid forcing us to look within. WE can continue to claim that these kinds of actions have nothing to do with white people as a whole. Our white privilege and supremacy intact even if we recognize the true motives of the Charleston shooting as racist.

More often than not mental illness is not the reason for a crime or tragedy but it is the excuse most often given to excuse the wider reality of white supremacy and white culpability