Categories
The Observant Immigrant

The Changing Face of Family

By Candice Louisa Daquin



A Maori family in European dress (nineteenth century). Courtesy: Creative Commons

The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, like many other first nation people including the Aboriginal tribes of Australia and Native Americans of North America, have a differing view of family to dominant mainstream Western culture. Maori culture prizes the family over the individual, a person gains the most respect through their commitment to their community, not through their individual accomplishments.

The Maori word: “Kaumatuatanga,” is concerned with keeping families and the Maori community together, and “Whakawhanaungatanga” relates to the Maori belief that family bonds should always precede other matters in life, and benefit the whole, again rather than the individual. A good friend, adopted by Anglo-New Zealanders but biologically Maori, and taught in the Maori ways, explained that; “Maori’s respect the White man’s ways, but have their own, especially where family is concerned. To Maori, family is history and future, the individual must work to strengthen their future collectively and respect their history, or their individuality has no value. In other words, family guides the individual and each individual Maori is made aware, irrespective of adoption or other circumstance of his/her history.”

My Maori friend, Esther explained that while she was adopted, given up by her birth mother who at sixteen did not feel she could care for her child, she was embraced by the Maori when she sought them out years later, and was taught of her ancestors, whose record of arriving in New Zealand, in minute detail, was recorded in the Maori tradition and passed on from generation to generation. Esther was able to find out the name of her specific tribe, the head of that tribe and the name of the boat her tribe took when they embarked for New Zealand from Polynesia, years prior to any Anglo settlers. Esther explained that; “Having such a rich history, knowing not only where I came from as an individual but as a people, gives me more security than any Anglo child I know, irrespective of my adoption. Even if my birth mother had not embraced me, my people, my extended family, did, and I have always felt accepted and welcomed by my culture. This leaves me feeling less dislocated and unaware of my history than most people and I find it impossible to be insecure with such a rich extended family.”

Contrast this with the story of Susanna from Toronto, a Canadian 33-year-old single-mother. Susanna’s family is of English/French descent. Her mother lives in Vancouver, she has never met her father who left her mother soon after Susanna was born. At 25, Susanna, in a relatively stable relationship at the time, became pregnant and had Emily. Soon after Emily was born, Susanna’s partner got a job offer in the US and chose to leave with another woman whom he had been seeing. Devastated by the loss of her partner both financially and emotionally, Susanna was unable to support herself and sank into depression. She continued to struggle financially and received little assistance from her mother who has remarried and her half-sister from that marriage.

“At times, it feels as if I have no family,” Susanna says, smiling at her daughter who she reports, has lots of friends at school and is doing well. “I fear for Emily’s future because she has no support network, she doesn’t see any of her grandparents, she has no brothers and sisters and if something were to happen to me, I really don’t know who would take care of Emily. I didn’t think in 2007 anyone would be as isolated as I feel, but then I talk to other single moms, and they tell me they’re struggling too. Sometimes I don’t think anyone really considers us, or the impact of our isolation and what effect that has on our kids. I know Emily is getting old enough to notice when I get depressed and be adversely affected by the state our finances. I want to give her so much more, but I never feel I have anyone to turn to for help. My social life died as soon as I had Emily because I couldn’t afford a babysitter. I’m only 33 but I don’t remember the last time I had a night out, sometimes my frustration gets really bad, and I lose my patience with Emily. It’s not her fault but it’s not mine either, I didn’t know I was going to be dumped, I didn’t think my lack of own family would impact me as negatively as it has, I used to have a lot of friends and now I only know other single parents who like me, struggle to make ends meet, we’re a lonely bunch.”

Susanna is only one of the roughly 1 million (Statistics Canada, 2001) single-mothers in Canada today, juggling a full-time job and full-time childcare with radically different support networks. No longer able to rely upon an extended family for baby-sitting; Susanna has had to adapt to the changing face of Canada’s traditional ‘family’.

It may be ironic that developed countries have significantly higher rates of single-parent family households, with the US leading the way at 34%[1] and Canada close behind at 22%. Historical reasons for single-parent families have been replaced with modern-world explanations linked to the evolving social and cultural demographic changes especially in the last 30 years. Despite cultural shifts, many negative connotations remain associated with single-parent families, and “non-traditional” families, despite this “non-traditional” model eclipsing the old normative two-parent, two-gender nuclear family. Today it seems, anyone can be a family, and the word “family” is associated more with an experience of (family) than a tightly fitting model. The question then becomes multifaceted; Have we identified what needs these new family structures have? Are those needs of the individual being met by the new family dynamic? And are the needs of these differing faces of family being met by social institutions?

Single Mothers by Choice (SMC) founded in the US is the largest advocate and networker for single mothers in North America. Statistics compiled by SMC show that many single-mothers are electively having babies by themselves, for a variety of reasons including a wish to have children outside of a marriage, by oneself, or in a same-sex coupling. Motherhood is, likewise, no longer restricted to marriage, nor do women have to abide to the old-fashioned concept of having their children in their twenties ‘just to be safe’. Career women in particular, are finding, motherhood later in life, fulfills their maternal instinct and equips them with greater financial resources to meet the needs of single motherhood. Many women are eclipsing their male partner’s earnings and as such, some men are opting to share if not take over the rearing of children, whilst other women find job-sharing roles with their counterparts a more practical way of meeting motherhood responsibilities while remaining in the work force. The 1980 comedy film, Nine-To-Five, exemplified the struggle that began in the 80’s with women entering the work place in increasing numbers due to emancipation, a wish for a career and financial necessity often the result of divorce. In the film, a character is fired because she misses work due to her child’s illness. Later on, she is reinstated by a female boss, and permitted to job-share so that she might work and have time for her children. This trend extended to childcare facilities being available onsite and special incentives for mothers.

Despite progress, women continue to earn less than men, typically being responsible for the children and often receiving little or sporadic financial support. While the French Government, concerned with falling birth rates, recently instituted a programme to incentivise women to have more children, paying them more per child and “rewarding” them for having children, as well as making it easier for them to work, this program and others like it do not cover the issue of a spartan or non-existent family network. Can we really hope to replace the extended family with social institutions?

Out-dated theories of the ‘ideal family’ continue to be quashed by the ever-evolving modern reality of today’s family structures. Kids born in the 1960’s and 70’s may have directly experienced divorce and thus, have different perspectives of what a family structure entails, and how best to form it. Laws in Canada allow same-sex couples to adopt, and prior to that, same-sex couples who had children from previous unions, did so anyway. The law cannot dictate a family, it can only work to support those families that emerge from its society and hope to be effective in meeting those changing needs. Stacy, growing up in the 70’s was reared by her father, at the time a very unusual move. Her mother, a die-hard careerist, had little interest in children and left Stacy in the care of her father. At the age of six, Stacy was questioned by school social workers who were concerned that Stacy might become the victim of sexual abuse, simply on the basis of her living with her father.

Stacy’s father never abused Stacy and she grew up to campaign for the rights of single fathers, who Stacy says, often receive unequal treatment at the hands of biased social institutions who favor a mother’s rights over her children. Adults like Stacy are the parents of 2007, bringing with them a different perspective of what is permissible and acceptable child-rearing. “I never felt like a boy just because I didn’t’ grow up with my mother. My father can still sew better than I can, and he wanted to parent me, my mother wasn’t interested. To me, an interested parent is far more valuable than a disinterested one, irrespective of gender,” says Stacy, now actively involved in the Canadian Equal Parenting Group, with her own family, Stacy decided not to marry because she prefers the; “Goldie and Kurt” model.

When Susanna found herself abandoned by her partner, pregnant and unable to hold down a well-paying job, she turned to online message boards and found that she was not alone. “I felt like such a failure but began to see that we condemn ourselves the worst and if we can believe we’re capable of doing a good job, maybe society will catch up and not condemn us. I wasn’t a 16-year-old ‘welfare mom’ as many young moms are called, but even if I had been, I’d like to think I’d have been given a chance, people are quick to judge but who is judging the fathers who leave? Or the social institutions that fail to provide?” In online communities, Susanna found groups of single mothers who networked to provide childcare and support, as well as a healthy dose of information about how to get through the sometimes-confusing system of healthcare and welfare available for single parents.

Recently Susanna has connected with single-parent camp organisers for Emily. Although most are private and can be expensive, there are reductions based on income and plenty of notice available for planning and saving. Likewise, the organisation Canadian Parents Without Partners (CPWP)[2] offers friendship and support for those parents like Susanna and also those parents who actively chose to become single parents. This said, in an article entitled: Navigating Family Transitions: Evidence from the General Social Survey (Beaupré, Pascale, Cloutier, Elisabeth)[3] points at both positive and negative consequences for changing families in Canada, including resources available to young families with less familial support than ever before and the economic consequences of divorce. In The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America (1985) by Lenore J. Weitzman[4], studies confirmed societies worst fears, despite the liberising effect of divorce, women were suffering, with 14% of female divorcees seeking Welfare during the first year of divorce and divorced men seeing a 42% increase in their standard of living versus a 73% drop in living standards for the average divorced woman. Over ten years later, the same author wrote in the American Sociological Review an article named ‘The Economic Consequences of Divorce Are Still Unequal’ (1996)[5] and today they remain gender biased. What can Canada’s services do to support those families still falling through the cracks?

In the article, ‘Social Support and Education Groups for Single Mothers’[6], authors Lipman and Boyle report that one in eight Canadian children live in a family headed by a single mother, “vastly overrepresented by families living below the poverty line.” The studies exiting research showed an increased need for societal support and social assistance to improve the educational and mental-health outcomes of single-parent households. Further, it pointed to the vast improvement in status for those individuals who did receive adequate social support and education. This link between education, social support and family success for those headed by single women, only reiterates a pressing need for more resources and greater attention given to the needs of these family units. Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC) claims responsibility for Canadian citizens from the cradle to the grave and aims to improve the quality of life and skill set of every Canadian. This aim must continue to adapt with the changing face of family today, to ensure no Canadian is left behind, neglected by the slow turning wheels of a bureaucracy.

Few Canadian women today will believe their future will be that of housewife, not in the work force, unskilled for that work force, with children, while her husband supports them through a job. Many families today require a dual income, women want to work, husband’s might not, husband’s may not exist, couples may not marry, marriage does not guarantee safety! These and other considerations have factored into the evolution of the face of Canadian families today, we may have temporarily lost ourselves in this metamorphosis, as often happens when change is not matched with response to change, but as with any evolution, we will recreate the face of family in Canada and find new and continually evolving ways to meet the needs those new families present through programmes like JumpStart, a Canadian community-based charitable programme that helps kids in financial need participate in organized sport and recreation. The Government and its social bodies must be swift to anticipate the trends and directions Canadian families take, and in lea of such agency support, women make their own connections, online, in groups and through networks of like-minded women, doing what they do best, surviving and building.

Look around you. Women are doing it for themselves. Fathers are rearing children and joining together to have an informed parental voice, same-sex and transgender couples flourish as the rainbow families of diversity, mixed-race families continue to educate their children about discrimination and the pride of being multicultural. Studies indicate no harm to children brought up with the absence of one gender, or in mixed-race households. Much of what has historically held us back and limited acceptance is our own unwillingness to embrace change or try to understand it. Scores of children have lost parents for a variety of reasons, and will continue to, with the ravages of war, divorce, abandonment. Change is ever-increasing. We can never impede change. It is part of our biological destiny.

Children will continue to bear witness to ever-new forming families, with step-siblings, step-parents, different cultures, traditions and genders, complex extended families that cannot be measured in neat categories but are perhaps the building blocks of any social structure, the purpose being, for people to come together and support one another. The key is to find extension if not in our immediate family but those we make, and to avoid isolation, the real cause of depression and loss. Children can grow as long as they are loved and cared for. If we find ourselves lost it is our role to build a ship and invite others aboard. As Esther, my Maori friend, said: “My family is all around me, and my adopted family remains in my heart also. I can share my family with everyone because they share my pride in my heritage and where I came from. Everyone should have some pride about where they came from so that they may dream and have somewhere to place that dream so that it continues safe.”


[1] Reported in 1998, source: http://family.jrank.org/pages/1574/Single-Parent-Families-Demographic-Trends.html

[2] Parents Without Partners www.pwpcanada.com

[3]Evidence from the General Social Survey, Beaupré, Pascale, Cloutier, Elisabeth, http://cansim2.statcan.ca/cgi-win/cnsmcgi.pgm?Lang=E&SP_Action=Result&SP_ID=40004&SP_TYP=62&SP_Sort=-0

[4] Free Press (1985) New York.

[5] The Economic Consequences of Divorce Are Still Unequal, Lenore J. Weitzman, American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jun., 1996), pp. 537-538

[6] A Randomized and Controlled Trial of a Community-Based Program, Ellen L. Lipman, Michael H. Boyle, published at www.cmaj.ca November 17, 2005

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
The Observant Immigrant

When is a mental illness not a mental illness?

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Shakespeare’s King Lear: Was he mad or grief stricken? Courtesy: Creative commons

Depending upon the country you live in, you may have to think back a long time or not so long, to imagine a time when talking of mental illness wasn’t mainstream. For many countries mental illness is still a taboo, but the internet has made knowledge of mental illness more wide-spread. You could be forgiven for thinking most people suffer from some form of mental illness. In reality, statistically, the majority do not. Most of us however, go through hard times where we may exhibit behaviour shared with those suffering from mental illness.

Having just finished co editing a large book on mental illness, I began to think about how we swung from one extreme (never acknowledging mental illness) to another (talking about it all the time). As a psychotherapist this isn’t perhaps surprising but the extent to which we label and evoke mental illness as explanation, might be.

Sometimes atypical behavior isn’t mental illness.

Teens, the elderly, the dispossessed, so many groups may suffer what seems like a mental illness but it really a natural response to a challenging situation. The adjustment of growing up. The challenges of getting older. Losing partners. Losing parents. Hormone changes. Trauma. Treating these events, the same way you would someone with a long-term mental illness like schizophrenia is ignoring the difference between an illness and a causative episode. With health insurance companies demanding categorisation in order to approve insurance, there has been a gradual shift toward ever-increasing terminology and labels. The problem with this is someone going through depression because they lost a parent can be seen as mentally ill — just like someone suffering from severe schizophrenia. But the two are not the same. We must be careful not to confuse malaise and regular responses to trauma and challenges, with a deep-rooted illness that might not be as curable. Why? Because we’re no longer understanding crucial differences in what we deem mental illness.

Therapists and medical professionals can be far too quick to state unequivocally that someone is mentally ill. This matters because just as ignoring mental illness and not talking about it, is wrong, so is over diagnosing it. The reason being, when you label someone, you set into motion years sometimes of inaccurate diagnosis and treatment which can do more harm than good.

Before you dismiss this as a rare event, think again.

Here are some case studies (real names not used) I have come across in my work:

John was told he was bipolar and was sent to an outpatient ‘group’ in a local residential center for mentally ill people. This was on the basis of his arguing repeatedly at his place of work and finally being fired. He also had several car accidents that he put down to ‘feeling angry’ and he attacked his wife during an argument. He was prescribed high dose psychotropic medication and his insurance was charged for the expensive therapy he received daily.

His family were horrified to find out their father was ‘suddenly’ mentally ill with bipolar disorder ll in his late sixties. They didn’t question the authority of the doctors until it became obvious something else was going on. At that time, he had sunk into a deep depression and seemed to be losing his ability to drive. The family asked the psychiatrists whether he could have dementia, to which they were repeatedly told — no he’s mentally ill. Firstly, this is an erroneous way of describing a condition as blanket-diagnosing mental illness, and second, they were wrong. John had the beginning of Alzheimer’s and his delayed diagnosis caused great heartache for everyone involved.

The question of how any competent psychiatrist could have diagnosed John with Bipolar ll which rarely if ever ‘suddenly happens’ late in life, is but one example of how a system will fit a diagnosis to its dominant perspective, in this case an assumption that certain behaviours are always congruent with a mental illness. John like many with Alzheimer’s did share some symptomology but nobody bothered to consider an alternative diagnosis and thus, the incorrect medication, expense and uncertainty caused a sad diagnosis of Alzheimer’s to become even more protracted and painful. Equally it should be mentioned for the sake of fairness, that there is an over-abundance of dementia-related diagnosis of older people where other causes are not considered and this is the same shortsightedness.

Liza, was diagnosed with schizophrenia based on muted affect, spells of catatonia and trauma response as well as insomnia, severe anxiety and depression. She exhibited paranoia and fearfulness as well as despondency and out bursts of anger. Even if those symptoms could fit the diagnosis for schizophrenia, they are too generalized to be assumed as such. Nevertheless, Liza was given EST (Electric Shock Treatment) and institutionalised for years, without another diagnosis being considered. It turned out Liza had never had schizophrenia but after years of medication it was hard to tell what was causing her behaviour. It wasn’t until years later when she began to open up to a therapist who cared, that Liza found out her symptoms were the reactions of severe childhood abuse and sexual abuse. These had never been considered because she was not asked about sexual abuse, and did not volunteer about it (most sexual abuse survivors don’t). It was easier to medicate her and inflict EST on her, than really understand what was going on. Liza went on to live a full life, but with the scars of her experiences and a deep mistrust of the psychiatric field (rightfully!).

These are two of many, many stories I could share of clients with misdiagnosis histories that caused them and their families a great deal of suffering. Of course, there is the flipside of people not being diagnosed with a mental illness and equally suffering and I acknowledge that happens too. The purpose of this essay is to consider the epidemic of over-diagnosis and how, maybe with good intention, we’ve swung from one extreme (nobody is mentally ill) to another (if in doubt, it’s a mental illness).

Whilst I am the first person to say accurate diagnosis and treatment can save lives when it comes to the mental health field. I have seen how doctors and practitioners can be subject to the undue influence of social trends in diagnosis and medication and how this can influence the accuracy of their diagnosis. Psychotropic drugs can have life-long effects which if that’s your only choice compared to the misery of a mental illness, you will accept, but what of those who didn’t need them in the first place? My concern is the over-medication and over-diagnosis of certain kinds of mental illness set a cascading storm into motion.

A colleague of mine who works as a psychiatrist had her own experience of being on the ‘other side’ when she developed a sudden onset illness. The illness included heart palpitations. My colleague went to the ER with chest pains thinking she might be having a heart attack. The physicians on call determined she wasn’t and their next recourse was to suggest it was an anxiety related issue. They prescribed anxiety medication and recommended she saw a therapist. My colleague went another appointment only to find out she was sitting in front of a psychiatric nurse. Despite her own qualifications as a psychiatrist, she said at the time she felt vulnerable, unsure of what was happening and very afraid. She explained her feelings of fear to the nurse, alongside her concern that she had no definitive diagnosis. The nurse did not refer her to another medical doctor for further tests. She recommended heavy duty anti-anxiety medications.

Because my colleague is a psychiatrist, she had the presence of mind to decline but it got her wondering what would have happened had she not been clued into the failings of the system? She could easily have been taking strong medications for a ‘suspected’ case of anxiety, without really finding out what was wrong and caused her heart palpitations. It took my colleague a long time to finally get an answer. A rare disease. With treatment she recovered. The lesson she learned however, terrified her. She now understood how at the mercy of doctors most patients were and how often diagnosis wasn’t a precise science or even an educated guess, but more of a ‘by rote’ method that was deeply flawed.

She showed me the thirty something bottles of medications she was given with every appointment and explained that had she been truly suffering from a serious mental illness, she would have had more than enough to overdose with, even given the safety protocols of modern medicine. She also explained the ease with which she was given extremely powerful drugs, without a documented diagnosis and how many side-effects those medicines potentially had. She is now an advocate for change, hoping the medical industry and the pharmaceutical industries can be cautioned against rash diagnosis and over-medicating. It worries me that it takes an expert in the field to raise a red flag and I remain pessimistic about her success in changing a well-oiled system that earns billions in kick-backs and profit from the perpetuation of an illness rather than a cure.

Getting into hospital unless you have a heart attack or amputated limb isn’t easy any more. The model is more about treating patients and sending them home. This works for many, and expands on the ‘care in the community’ concept with mental health (which has floundered since inception, creating huge groups of homeless mentally ill) but does not work for everyone, especially those with harder diagnosis. Consequently, many of us have learned what it feels like to be a patient going through a broken system, what you had to do to get what you needed and how hard that would be if say, you were in the throes of a serious illness (be it mental or physical). Some doctors are responsive, caring and compassionate, whilst others merely check a box. The inadequacy of systems set up to help both the physically and mentally ill is underfunded and the level of treatment often fractured, in favour of cost-saving protocols that were often unapplicable to those they served. How challenging must it be for patients to seek good help during some of the hardest times of their lives?

I have sympathy for the over-worked/under-paid GP/family doctor who is restricted by insurance protocols and limited in what they’re able to offer their patients. I understand how it may seem easier to offer an anxiety medication or label someone bipolar, than spend weeks trying to get to the real cause. But you don’t heal anyone with a wrong diagnosis, and you mar the field of psychiatry by misdiagnosis. It’s no wonder I’m often mistrusted as a mental health worker, because so many of my patients have had negative experiences of being judged, marginalised and labeled, by previous psychotherapists and doctor. It only takes one person to assume you’re not coping and must be clinically depressed, to set into motion a whole chain of events. What if that practitioner had looked beyond the obvious and considered the evidence more closely? But sometimes it’s easier to reach for the prescription pad. You are doing someone a disservice if you medicate a vulnerable person on the basis of basic symptoms rather than looking at the whole picture. It’s a catch-22 situation with such short appointment times and a burgeoning patient load.

In prisons, where a high number of inmates have mental illness that are not treated through accessible programmes, drugs have become the surrogate for competent therapy. It is simply cheaper to drug a patient than offer 1-1 therapy. Whilst it may not be fiscally possible to offer low-cost or free therapy to everyone who needs it, we shouldn’t use drugs as a substitute if they’re not the answer. Most psychotropic drugs were designed to be used short-term but many people take them for years. If you imagine some of those people could be misdiagnosed or not really suffering from a mental illness so much as a hard time that will resolve, then you’re responsible for drugging people who shouldn’t have ever been drugged. How is this an answer to anything?

In nursing homes, patients with dementia and other diseases often take over ten medications that ultimately won’t cure anything but will make the pharmaceutical industries rich. The reason? To keep them compliant and calm. So they won’t bite, make a fuss or tax the underpaid staff. Again, I can sympathise with wanting to medicate a troublesome patient, but in shrugging everything off to mental illness we lose touch with the real cause and effect and shirk our responsibility to accurately treat people. Maybe with fewer doctors and ever-increasing medical costs this is no longer possible, in which case as more of us age and get dementia or alzheimer’s, expect to see a steady increase in the use of psychotropic medication as a means of management.

I have met many who have had similar sudden onset, long lasting catastrophic illnesses. Many of them were told by doctors that these illnesses were psychosomatic or psychiatric in origin when it turned out to be a hundred percent physical. Whilst I don’t deny that some illnesses can be psychiatric in origin, many are not and women are far more likely to be told their illness is ‘in their head’ or ‘an issue of nerves’ – and this not just from the medical industry, but their families and friends. Like anything, when you’re in a dark place it’s very easy to convince yourself, the doctor is right, which can further exacerbate misdiagnosis and unnecessary suffering and stigma.

For the seriously physically ill, this is as bad as having a heart attack and being told ‘you are anxious you need to calm down’. It is counterproductive and often causes people who need help not to seek it. The blurring between the physical and the mental is unacceptable. Whilst there is clearly a mind-body link, assuming everyone with anxiety must be mentally ill (rather than anxious for a good reason) is short-sighted and potentially damaging. Likewise, labeling every woman histrionic because she’s panicking about something, is using mental illness categories as a weapon.

The gender divide between how doctors treat female versus male patients is a long-standing inequality, based upon the old concepts of hysteria (a female term applied toward women only) and the link between mental instability and the female body. Whilst it is true that menstruation, hormones and menopause can definitely change a person’s mood, this is not the same as true mental illness and it is high time we understand the difference between feeling anxious or depressed and suffering from clinical depression or anxiety. The only way we achieve this is by quitting our tendency to label certain groups without further enquiry. This includes women, people of colour and lower-income persons — all of whom are more often assumed to be mentally ill than other groups.  

The harm of a misdiagnosis is, as I said earlier, as bad as no diagnosis. The rush to come to a conclusion is something that turns into a scarlet letter for the bearer. Despite our best attempts, mental illness is still stigmatised, and as such, once diagnosed, this can affect everything from future job prospects, marriage, friendships to even housing. In the information age, medical privacy is constantly under assault, and even future employers are able to find out about people’s private lives. Should they discover that person has a mental illness that they stereotype as being negative, this could reduce a person’s equal chances. The old adage, ‘crying wolf’ also applies because we over-diagnose and popularise in unhealthy ways. That causes people to shirk when someone really does need help.

Why do we stigmatize the mentally ill? I often hear from clients who are overmedicated and some who are undermedicated, both extremes existing because one provokes the other. A lot of psychotropic medication is not effective and placebo at best, leaving the medical industry with a big question mark as to how to help the mentally ill. Whilst I don’t have all the answers either, I would say, ensuring someone is really mentally ill before acting on it, is one positive step toward reforming a broken system. Currently so much money is spent on mental illness but people are not getting better, they are getting sicker. That means something really isn’t working. I’m not convinced the recent move to online psychiatry is the answer either, given the danger of powerful medications. I’m also not convinced strong medications like Ketamine and Ecstasy should be given without close monitoring. I’m all for creative thinking in medicine, but not without caution.

Finally … when is a mental illness not a mental illness? We should be open to alternative diagnosis rather than the category of mental illness as a catch all for when we’ve no better answer. Just because something isn’t apparent, doesn’t mean it’s a mental illness. There is so much the medical industry doesn’t know and often it takes patience and commitment to discover a rare disease. If we didn’t spit people out and try hard to see as many people as we could, we might have time to discover the real cause and not send people home with incorrect medication. It’s damaging and it further stigmatises those who really need mental health treatment. On the other hand, sometimes feeling anxious is just feeling anxious, and not something to pathologise. We will all feel depressed or anxious at times, it doesn’t mean we need a category and our current system doesn’t seem to have another option. How about we start with asking the patient – what do you think is going on? Often, we learn the most from our patients, and they will help us know whether they have a mental illness or are just going through a hard time. The difference between providing short-term supportive care and getting someone on a life-time of strong medication is huge and we need to have our eyes wide open.

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
The Observant Immigrant

Is Sensitivity a Strength or a Weakness?

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Rodin’s The Thinker. Courtesy: Creative Commons
“I may be a dreamer, 
 But I’m not the only one.” 
 -- John Lennon (Imagine). 

As a child I remember understanding on a very basic level the concept of cruelty. I recall vaguely thinking in the simple way children think; “Why is that person so mean?” It wasn’t because I wasn’t getting what I wanted and stomping my foot, it was more observing a cruelty and trying to make sense of it. Bottom line, children understand these things pretty early on and it forms what becomes their moral compass.

We can and do change over time but those early lessons tend to stick around. My early lesson was that I recognised that I cared. I observed that some other people did care too and some other people did not. I think ever since then I have wondered why some people are cruel.

More recently there has been a debate of sorts over the ‘value’ of being sensitive. Can you be too sensitive? Is there value in being sensitive? The issue is split. Some believe sensitivity is a weakness. Others recognise it makes life harder. Some think sensitivity is related to mental illness, whilst some believe we need more sensitivity in this world.

As a therapist I am often asked this question. I have also asked it of myself. I tend to berate myself when I am ‘too’ sensitive, but this is a learned behavior, based on being shamed for being sensitive in the past. The truth is I think you can literally speaking be too sensitive (for your own good, because it’s you who is hurt most by it) but most people who are told ‘you are too sensitive’ are being gaslighted or manipulated.

Through my life I have been told so a few times. Predictably, I felt ashamed because society perceives sensitivity as weakness. I consider myself a strong person, a resilient person, but I know the way I’m perceived by those who know I’m (also) sensitive, is weaker. This has never been truer than since moving to America, where the ‘bad ass’ mentality rules and women over-compensate by being emotionless and ‘strong’ as a rebuke against sensitivity.

Sensitivity is out of fashion; it has been for a long time. Maybe, by rejecting sensitivity, people believe they are automatically stronger (and perceived by others to be) we hold up role-models of impossibly strong people who are not depicted as sensitive. None of us seem to revere sensitive, kind people. On the contrary, we usually suspect them. We admire the person who is sarcastic, quick-witted, a little ruthless, and undefeatable. Therefore, I will seem like a sensitive person trying to justify sensitivity by writing this. And you wouldn’t be wrong. I think sensitivity has a bad rap and I’m personally tired of how insensitive people are. I don’t think this is commendable, cooler or something to aspire to, but sometimes I feel I’m in the minority.

Most recently I had two conversations within a day of each other, where I was told ‘maybe you’re being too sensitive’ and shortly after that I talked to a good friend of mine about this. Her answer got me thinking about the way sensitivity is perceived and how wrong-headed we are. She said ‘well maybe more people should be sensitive’ and those simple words were a bombshell. Exactly! We wouldn’t have to go around covered in armor if people were more sensitive! We wouldn’t have to be ‘bad ass’ if others were kind and thoughtful!

When did we become a people who worshipped coldness over warmth and compassion?

I might sound like a spiritual evangelist writing this, and ironically, I don’t believe in God, but many of my concepts are in keeping with those you might see in the Bible. Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Be compassionate and kind to those who need it. Those are not concepts we enact, instead we admire the person who is rude, emotionless, ruthless even. What happened to make this happen?

When I left university the first time, armed with my degrees I thought (naively) I could go out into the world and get a good job. Why shouldn’t I have thought that? I had worked hard I deserved it, didn’t I? When I recall how I thought back then, I was really a naïve person (though I thought I knew everything) with no comprehension of how hard the world could be. Not only was the job-market seemingly impenetrable, but nobody was impressed with anything I had to offer, and I felt utterly deflated within a short period of time.

Some would say bringing down a peg or two is a rite most young people go through when they get into the real world. But I still recall that time as being one of deep despair and sadness, to imagine a world that wasn’t fair or kind. I had genuinely thought it could be! The struggle to establish myself financially was uphill and took a long time. During which I experienced repeated knocks to my confidence and was told over and over that I was nothing/nobody. It seemed like colleagues, bosses, etc. thrived on putting down the young people who got on the first rung of the ladder.

I have never forgotten that. I ask people even now if they had the same experience(s); Some say yes, some say no. Initially I took it personally because it felt personal, but I came to realise it was a rite of passage, where young people were put down and put in their place by those who had come before them. It remains a horrible practice with no real value, after all, we need to believe in ourselves, not be trashed and put down. For some, it may be easier to get over than others. I was in the latter camp. I had grown up being put down, so the last thing I needed was for it to happen again.

This is when the idea of grin and bear it, muscle through, take it or leave it, man up, comes into play. This is but one of many times in life where the emphasis is on being ‘strong enough to endure it’ and to put aside one’s true feelings about a situation (outrage, hurt, confusion) in favor of ‘sucking it up.’ Given that I had not joined the military, I found the urge to react this way very strange. I wanted instead to ask why it had to be this way, why people let it be this way?

This relates back to my earliest understanding that some people are cruel. But our response to some people being cruel is weird. Instead of calling them out and doing something collectively about it so that they do not continue to have the power to be cruel, we seem to want to join them? The shaming of those who are sensitive seems a way to a line with those who would be cruel, even as logically all those who a line with the cruel, might once have been sensitive.

Why do we think being sensitive is such a weakness when it is far weaker to be a hard-nosed uncaring person who doesn’t give to anyone, than to be a caring person who wants to treat others as they would wish to be treated? I can’t say I understand it now any better than I did years ago. When my clients ask me, I remain as perplexed at people’s cruelty as I ever have. There simply seems no good justification for it. And moreover, why people glorify cruelty and think kindness is ‘suspect’ ‘insincere’ or ‘weak’ baffles me.

Sensitivity means you notice when someone is upset and you care. Insensitivity means you don’t care to notice what happens to anyone and you don’t give a damn. When you put that bluntly, I find it hard to understand why someone would wish to be the latter, other than it’s easier, and might be less work. But what about conscience and morality? For many of us, we have that prickling of conscience if we have mistreated someone, we want to be a good person. We try to help others, so how could we ever want to align ourselves with someone who didn’t give a damn?

Yet how often, from the schooldays onward, do we see the popular kid is the mean kid, or the most liked child is the one who does nothing for others, but is considered ‘cool’ or the boss who is mean but somehow respected, or the adult who has lots of friends though they never do a thing to help others? It’s not always the kind, sensitive person who is popular, in fact their motivations are often suspected, and they might be considered weak and cloying.

Moving to America I struggled with this considerably. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, if I like someone, I do go out of my way to be a good friend to them. I think that’s how it should be. But my good intentions were often suspected, people would even say to me (as an insult) “you’re so NICE” (meaning: Boring) or they wouldn’t believe my kindness was genuine. As to being sensitive, I was told I was ‘too’ sensitive if I stepped over the formality people had with each other, where people didn’t really ask how someone was doing, or follow up and care enough to get closer.

In fact, I didn’t understand how people got close, because everything was so superficial and formal. I began to see that many friendships were just that, convenience based. Those who had children hung out with others who had children, and car pooled. Those who went to the gym talked to others who worked out a lot and maybe met on weekends to work out, etc. But the moment you no longer had that in common, you rarely kept in touch. The deep friendships I had sustained back home, seemed rarer.

I was told this was because you made those kinds of friendships in childhood and once you were an adult you didn’t make friends like that. I wondered why not? All the rules of friendship baffled me and the difficulty of getting meaningfully close to people seemed incredibly hard all of a sudden. With colleagues a work — those I had known for years and whom I worked with closely — I wrongly assumed we were also friends. But they saw me only as a tool for the job I did. They invested no more in me as a person as they would in someone they had just met, even if we worked side-by-side for years.

To this day that strikes me as strange. I’m not standing on a moral high horse saying that I can’t fathom these things, I think I’m just stating a fact. I find it difficult to understand why someone would be cruel. Why someone would make someone else feel bad (deliberately) or why someone would put someone else down for being ‘weak’ just because they’re sensitive and care. Since when were those ever-bad attributes? Could it be in our rejection of older morals, we have adopted ones that cut our nose off to spite our face?

Having been told people do not trust ‘nice’ people I began to understand what that meant. Sometimes socially when you meet someone who is initially really friendly, they turn out to be less than you imagined, whereas someone else, who was perhaps initially aloof, can turn out to be a great person. I have learned friendliness doesn’t always equate to good people. Sometimes it is a front or an act. However, if you are a genuine person and sensitive to others, this is more than just initial friendliness and yet, you might be suspected because of people’s previous experience with ‘kind or friendly’ people.

When did it become rare to be kind and when did we begin to be suspicious of kindness? Intellectually I understand it but emotionally it’s so strange. I have had conversations about related subjects such as why women don’t like other women (they think they are backstabbers) or why women aren’t feminists (their experience has been women are often worse to them than men, so why would they be a feminist?) and I think they’re all related themes.

When we can’t trust the motivations of others, we might suspect the worst if that is our prior experience. Nowadays we’re more liable to mistrust a kind person than someone who is aloof or sarcastic. We’ve got things around the wrong way. And all because some of us are cruel and delight in hurting others, which includes warping the truth. Because the truth hasn’t changed. Being sensitive means caring about others, and this should never be something to ridicule or deride. Nor is it weak.

If after reading this you conclude I’m writing this to justify my own sensitivity, then you wouldn’t be wrong. I hope you see it’s leading to a much bigger picture too. I also hope you know I am not justifying sensitivity emotionally but defending it based on reason and fact. After all, sensitivity isn’t all emotional. We have often mistaken sensitivity for some kind of mental illness but it’s nothing of the kind. True, some mentally ill people may be sensitive, but that’s all. Sensitivity, unless it’s pathological in its extremity, is a natural human response. But still those who wear their heart on their sleeve are humiliated by those who are still in the school yard.

I would love a world that embraced the idea you can be sensitive and strong, because I truly believe you can. I also like the idea of a world where people’s past experiences wouldn’t close them to trusting someone’s kindness, or suspecting kindness of motivation. Do we really want a world where we’re all so removed from each other we no longer care? Is that the world you want to live in? It’s not the world I want to live in. I want my boss to care if I’m struggling, I think on a logical, emotional and realistic level this will improve our relationship. I don’t think humans are robots or unconnected. I think caring is how we connect and I want to. Living in a disconnected world where nobody cares what happens to anyone else, seems a dystopian nightmare. As we grow in numbers this is logistically more likely to occur. Let’s at least let those who are sensitive, flourish rather than shut them down and shame them.

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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