Tag Archives: Mental health

Bisexuality and mental health

Did you know? Over 40% of bisexual people have considered suicide

Graphic by Shiri Eisner (blog, tumblr).

This was a difficult post to write. The subject matter and my real life circumstances were just a little too closely matched for comfort!

I submitted this to the editors at uni(di)versity a full week late, because I was dealing with significant anxiety and the brain fog and unproductivity that often accompany an extended period of acute, generalized anxiety for me. Every time this happens, despite my personal politics of openness about neurodivergence and accepting help when I need it, I feel ashamed and weak and vulnerable. When my neurodivergences impact my ability to be productive, I feel like I’ve failed. I haven’t been strong enough to keep myself fully functional, I haven’t been disciplined enough to produce work despite the anxiety, and I haven’t been self-aware enough to prevent the anxiety from spiraling out of control.

This is relevant because I know how frustrating it is to read posts full of information about how to make things better when you are stuck in the quicksand of things not getting better. As much as this post is meant to be an encouragement for all of us to be aware of the issues around mental health (particularly as they differentially impact members of the bisexual, pansexual, fluid, and otherwise non-monosexual community), I also want to acknowledge that you might read this and feel completely discouraged at the end because you can’t do anything about the bad situation, because you are experiencing your own convergence of circumstance and neurodivergence, or because you’re barely keeping your head above water. If that’s the case, I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not a freak, you are not weak, and you are not broken.

I suspect that many readers of this blog experience some form of mental health concern. A blog devoted to issues of diversity in post-secondary institutions is likely, I suspect, to have a readership of immigrant, queer, racialized, disabled, fat, non-binary and otherwise non-normative folks, and we are a vulnerable bunch. (As an example, The Straight recently ran a piece focusing on the vicious circle of depression that many immigrants experience.)

It can be particularly difficult to seek help or accommodations as a member of a marginalized group in a post-secondary setting. Seeking help requires outing ourselves as members of yet another marginalized group – the neurodivergent, often referred to as the “mentally ill” or those “having mental health issues.”

In academia, especially, this can be extremely challenging. We’re academics, right? We’re here to use our minds. And when our minds seem to be functioning in ways that society has declared are not normal, or when our minds stop functioning in the way we know they should (like when I slide into a depression, or a long period of anxiety), it seems to call our whole lives into question.

We may already be facing challenges in the classroom from teachers and colleagues who perceive us as less intelligent or less capable because of our identities. Asking for accommodations, or even talking openly about our neurodivergences, can be extremely challenging.

And yet, talking about mental health – being open with our own struggles and looking for help when we need it – is one of the best ways to improve the situation. (Though I say this, and say it with conviction, I also want to be clear that if you cannot or do not want to talk about your mental health, there is nothing wrong with that. It is not your job to fix the context you’re in!)

Mental health has been a hot topic in many places around the internet lately. The Frogman wrote an excellent piece on depression, focusing on teens and how they can access resources. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half wrote the long-awaited “Depression Part Two,” which sparked conversations all over the internet. When I read Part Two, I felt sick – it hit far too close to home. The Belle Jar wrote another hit-me-in-the-gut piece about self-loathing that touched on some really important (and rarely talked about) pieces of the mental health puzzle for a lot of people, such as the intense feelings of shame and anxiety that can come with neurodivergence.

The piece that sparked the idea for this post was Miri at Brute Reason, who recently wrote about “small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued.”*

As a mental health advocate, and a person with an anxiety disorder and a history of depression that includes self-harm and suicidality, I am very interested in building these kinds of communities for myself, and for the people around me. I am also a bisexual activist, and am deeply aware that the bisexual community is at a disproportionately high risk of mental health concerns. More than 40 per cent of bisexual individuals report having considered suicide (in contrast to 8.5 per cent of straight people and 27 per cent of gay people).

Some of the societal factors that increase our vulnerability can be exacerbated in post-secondary situations, where active “Gay-Straight Alliances” do great work but linguistically exclude us, and where classroom discussions often ignore or overlook liminal identities in discussions of orientation. It is rare to find a course devoted to bisexual (or other non-monosexual) orientations, though I’ve seen multiple courses on lesbian literature, gay literature, and gay and lesbian film come through my student centre. These courses are great, and I’d like to see more of them! But I’d also like to see something like Margaret Robinson’s Intro to Bisexual Theory taught more often and in more institutions.

Although each of Miri’s five points about valuing mental health ring true for me, the differential risk faced by the bisexual community means that I want to focus on her final point:

 5. Understand how social structures – culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc. – influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups – the poor, people of color, etc. – face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups – women, queer people, etc. – have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media – which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

One structural element that we need to start thinking seriously about is how bisexual erasure, invisibility, and monosexism impact the bisexual and non-monosexual communities. The bisexual community is already at increased risk of mental health issues, including the aforementioned disproportionately high risk of suicidality.

Shiri Eisner shared an excerpt from her book “Bi: Notes For A Bisexual Revolution” on her blog. This section is an analysis of the 2011 Bisexuality Invisibility Report and addresses, among other things, the differential risk of mental health concerns (including suicidality) for the bisexual and otherwise non-monosexual community. Her analysis provides an accessible look at a complex and often-overlooked series of issues. Regarding mental health she notes that:

whereas “[i]n nonurban areas, lesbians and bisexual women experience similar levels of frequent mental distress, the odds of frequent mental distress decrease significantly for lesbians in urban areas, while [becoming] nearly double for bisexual women” (emphasis in original). The researchers theorize that the reason for this is that gay and lesbian communities are more well-organized in urban areas, contributing to the isolation of bisexual people who experience rejection while seeking support, once outside of their home communities.

This is critical in understanding the situation faced by bisexual, pansexual, fluid and other non-monosexual individuals in post-secondary settings. Feelings of isolation and rejection can exacerbate emotional and mental distress, and it can be particularly challenging to be surrounded by groups and events that do not seem to have a space for you.

Classmates of mine have reported skepticism from university-employed psychologists and doctors regarding their sexual orientation (both as non-monosexual individuals and a polyamorous individuals – another under-supported identity group). One of my friends was recently asked by a doctor whether he has “homosexual or heterosexual sex” – in order to be recognized as a non-monosexual queer, he had to insert himself into that binary forcibly, and if he had been low on resources or feeling vulnerable, he may not have been able to take that risk.

These moments of erasure can have serious side-effects for individuals who then remain unseen and unrecognized as non-monosexual, and don’t receive the information and support that they need.

Eisner’s analysis offers further information that should make us, as academics, sit up and take notice. Not only are bisexual individuals at increased risk of mental health concerns across the board, we are also likely to have lower levels of education, and bisexual support services are significantly underfunded. In fact, Eisner notes that:

“in years 2008 and 2009, out of over 200 million dollars given by US foundations to LGBT organizations as grants, not a single dollar in all the country went towards funding bisexual-specific organizations or projects.” This “LGBT” money did not “trickle down” to bisexuals, either: a survey conducted by the editors of the report, found that of the LGBT organizations in San Francisco willing to reply to a survey about bisexuality, most do not offer content that is targeted specifically towards bisexuals.

This is reinforced by another finding: whereas bisexual people make up the single largest group among LGBT’s, “only 3-20% of the people accessing LGBT-focused services are bisexual.”**

I believe that the systemic oppression faced by bisexual, pansexual, fluid and otherwise non-monosexual individuals is something that can be changed. We can encourage bisexual youth in high school so that they feel confident entering post-secondary, and we can support them once they get here. We can become aware of (and advocate for) the support groups that do exist in our communities. In Calgary, Possibilities hosts a monthly discussion group, a monthly coffeeshop social night, and a monthly Community Cafè (in collaboration with Calgary Outlink) and at the University of Calgary, the Q Centre is explicitly bi-friendly. PFLAG Canada offers a list of resources for bisexual individuals. Acknowledging our existence in your everyday language, and welcoming our inclusion in your spaces and events goes a long way to changing those feelings of isolation and rejection that Eisner cites.

It’s always difficult to make space. The things that are supposed to be secrets – unacceptable or incomprehensible identities, circumstances or struggles – are much easier to keep quiet about than to speak openly. But if you have the time, and the privilege, and the resources to be vocal – consider doing it. You could make a huge difference in your own or somebody else’s life.

And even if you will never be vocal, be informed. For example, discussions of “bisexual privilege” that fail to recognize the incredible cost of “passing” as straight are damaging and contribute to the monosexist dominant culture – know it, so that you don’t contribute to it!

Wrapping up this post, I find myself struggling with the strong desire to write “5 ways to make things better for the neurodivergent bisexuals around you!” I want to end on a positive note and provide a road map to a better place. I think that those kinds of didactic posts, while useful, can also be frustrating to read and limiting.

Instead, I will just admit that I have a pretty big horse in this race. I want things to change, but I don’t actually have the solutions. I am one of the neurodivergent bisexuals that Eisner writes about. Miri offers a good starting point for changing the culture around mental health, but I’d love to hear your suggestions. How do you think bisexual folks find the post-secondary experience where you are? How about the culture at your post-sec regarding mental health? What would you like to see change? How do you think we can make that change happen? What have your own experiences of neurodivergence and/or bisexuality been?

*Although I think that the language of “mental illness” can be problematic, and is often used to inaccurately frame neurodivergence as uniformly “ill” (for example, many people with ADHD, a learning disability, or an Autism spectrum “disorder” may not view themselves as disordered or ill), I do agree with Miri’s call for communities with space for neurodivergence and mental health issues of all flavours, from the unusual but delightful (such as a neurodivergent individual who does not experience their neurodivergence as a problem) to the bitter and harmful (neurodivergences that are experienced as illness or disorderings, which is how I would categorize my own depressive tendencies when I become self-harming or suicidal).

**Edited to more accurately attribute this quote.

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I have so many thoughts: Adult ADHD in university

I graduated two days ago. After five years of undergraduate study in what feels like a thousand different programs (let’s be honest, it was four), the university that I moved across country to attend approved my request to graduate and gave me a diploma. It’s got a shiny seal on it, and my full name, and proclaims to the world that I put in the time and effort to receive a BA in archaeology. As I crossed the stage, feeling like a confused and ungainly deer in headlights, the Chancellor shook my hand, congratulated me on convocation, and asked “What’s next?!”

I don’t know this man. I know he asked because he felt he had to say something to each and every student, and I appreciate his feigned concern for my future plans. But I had no answer for him beyond an awkward laugh and “We’ll see!”

My honest answer might have been “Sandwiches!” I was just trying to get across the stage without my heels falling off. At that moment, getting back to my seat in one piece was “what’s next.”

The thing is, I’ve never known what’s next in terms of the so-called Big Picture. At one point during the Chancellor’s address, he said “It is time to live life on purpose – not by accident, but on purpose.” I am really, really, really bad at this. I have been for as long as I can remember. It’s not my fault, but it is part of who I am. Learning to accept that has been one of the most valuable lessons I have worked through in university.

I have ADHD. I wasn’t diagnosed until the summer before my last year of university, at which point I was tired of giving up on things and losing interest in everything that I thought I enjoyed, and growing increasingly anxious about living in a world that wants everyone to have a plan and follow through on it.

I’m lucky. All my life I have been one of the “smart” kids. I finished my schoolwork so quickly and correctly that I could just move on to whatever else I wanted. I had a 3.8 GPA when I moved to Calgary for my fourth year of university, even though I’d only ever done the minimum courses in my specified major each year and had changed my major annually.

But I couldn’t keep it up. I had reached the point where my answer to an innocent (but condescending) “What are you going to do with your degree?” or the similarly awful “Are there actually any jobs in that?” was a disgusted look and a request that the questioner go to hell. It wasn’t a real answer, but I didn’t have anything better.

“I don’t know; I haven’t looked into it. I’m just getting this degree so that I have a degree. I don’t care what it’s in. This was interesting for 3 classes and I’m sick of changing my mind and being in school forever.” That was my honest answer, but it wasn’t usually what people wanted to hear.

I didn’t like admitting it, either. I didn’t like thinking that I’d forever be in this cycle of hyper-focusing on one facet of education and then tiring after two weeks and doing it over and over again. I was realizing that diving head-first with limbs flailing into an academic pursuit wasn’t going to get me anywhere. First, I needed to learn how to swim back to shore – or, at the very least, tread water.

For a while, I was in kind of rough shape. I saw career counsellors who helped me decide on zero career paths; instead, my sessions turned into Coping with Anxiety and Insomnia 101. When my counsellor had to move and I was reassigned to another woman, she interrupted my ramblings to ask if I’d ever been tested for ADHD. After my initial raised-eyebrow reaction at her interrupting me to ask if I had attention issues, I realized that she might actually have a point.

My counsellor directed me to the DRC – which I automatically thought meant the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but quickly learned was the Disability Resource Centre. I went through the necessary steps (and there are so many steps!) of having a psychoeducational assessment. The verdict was that I have Combined Type ADHD, which (for me) means that I can be loud; I have difficulty staying on task, remembering what I’m doing, and maintaining focus and goals; I fidget; I get frustrated and might throw a tantrum; and I can’t sit through most movies.

I don’t bounce off the walls, I don’t scream for unknown reasons, and I do have manners; these are the outdated and narrow minded views of ADHD which my parents tend to harbour, which is one reason why I was never tested and diagnosed as a child. I also have opted not to seek treatment through drugs. For many people drugs are the right choice, but given my mild ADHD and a combination of other factors, they’re not for me.

My counsellors and doctors and I have worked out a semi-successful system of behavioural therapy to deal with my overactive mind, but I fail sometimes. That is okay. It is okay to make mistakes. I am okay.

Along with the diagnosis of ADHD, I got some perks from the DRC. The people working there are absolutely wonderful. They actually take time to get to know you and help you do your absolute best with the tools that you have. I was allowed to have a calculator for all of my math- related tests, I got to write my exams in my own private room where I could walk around and talk to myself, I was given breaks during my exams and tests, and I had a vaguely worded letter for my profs that gave me an excuse to briefly leave class when I just couldn’t sit there anymore. And it really helped. My test scores were better, my professors were more understanding, and my anxiety lessened.

Now, having graduated, I’m not in that environment anymore. I don’t have a professor giving me something to work toward every month, be it a test or a paper or a class presentation. But I still have ADHD.

I still don’t know what I am going to do with my life. I don’t even know what I’m going to do this afternoon.  I still go to the washroom to pee, get there and see an errant bobby pin which reminds me that I had laundry to transfer to the dryer, get halfway to the dryer and see the fridge which is short on margarine, then go to the grocery store with a full bladder and damp clothing that will just have to wait to be dry until my boyfriend gets home. I’ll inevitably come home without the margarine, too.  I still get caught up in the thrill of watching an episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” while sewing four different projects and convincing myself that opening a bridal boutique is a viable career option. And I’ll teach people how to bake while they’re there … and play the ukulele … and we can colour!

Is there such a thing as a bridal boutique daycare? Because that, my friends, is my freakin’ niche.

I went to university because it’s what other people told me to do, because I was smart. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know who I was or what plans I had. I was there to help myself figure out who I am, to learn how to do whatever it was that I decided I wanted to do, and to get a degree mostly just to say that I could do it.

I don’t regret my five years of university, but I do wish that I’d found ways to turn it into a tool to prepare me for life outside of school. Instead, I let it just be something I was doing, one test at a time, until it was over. I know I’m not alone in experiencing university that way. There are lots of reasons why recent graduates in today’s economy have no idea where to work and are grateful for any job they can land; I’m sure one of the reasons is that universities make it hard to navigate the full range of job options that are available.

People with ADHD are expected to work to fit into society. I think that it’s something that society needs to recognize doesn’t fit, and that not-fitting is okay. My years at school gave me wonderful experiences, the greatest friends, undying support from my family, and two pieces of paper. One is a diploma that says I know some theory of digging and past cultures. The other is a psychologist’s report that says I have ADHD. I want the latter to be seen as an asset too. Drowning in the “Post-Grad Real World” isn’t fun.

Feeling like nobody will toss you a rope because they don’t trust you to hold on long enough is even less fun.

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Finding a place for students with invisible disabilities

More than 4 million Canadians are disabled; about half of those people live with invisible disabilities.

The term invisible disability is an umbrella term which encompasses all disabilities that affect the ability of a person to live their life, but show no physical or visible sign.  Among the conditions that are classified as invisible disabilities are chronic pain, dyslexia, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Most universities have centres that offer support and services to disabled students, and the University of Ottawa is no exception. Both the Student Academic Success Services (SASS) and the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) operate on campus and provide services to students with disabilities.  While I did not make use of these services during my undergrad, the CSD has some pretty fantastic resources and programs, especially if you’re looking to expand your understanding of disability.

SASS assists students based on their needs, which are determined through a formal process that requires medical notes detailing the nature and limitations of the disability and asks for recommendations for accommodation.  Programs like this one are often centered on physical disabilities, leaving students who have invisible disabilities alienated.  In the case of mental health issues, it is not always possible to provide a diagnosis and evaluation of a student’s limitations and needs, because they may fluctuate constantly and can be difficult to diagnose.

The fact that many students who have invisible disabilities conceal their disabilities in order to pass as a non-disabled student contributes to their alienation in post-secondary institutions.  When you consider the intense pressures and expectations placed on university students to complete the requisite amount of work, to maintain good grades, to cultivate a social life, to find a partner and so on, be sure to think of the additional barriers placed on students with invisible disabilities as well.

Another major issue facing students who have invisible disabilities is the perception that their disability is not legitimate or real.  The expectations and increased stress levels placed on students creates a mentality that you have to be strong enough, smart enough, and capable enough to succeed in university.  This mentality makes it difficult to ask for assistance, especially when that assistance comes in the form of “extra help” or “special attention” and can leave you with the feeling that you are somehow inferior to students who can succeed without assistance.  We need a solution that can break down accessibility barriers without singling out students with disabilities as less capable or somehow separate from their peers.

During my undergrad degree, one of the ways my anxiety and depression affected my classroom experience was through course evaluation structures.  Both anxiety attacks and depressive episodes can make it difficult to attend classes, and even when I was able to do readings, borrow lecture notes and maintain my grades, the loss of up to 20 per cent of my final grade for class participation took its toll on my marks.

The stress of final exams can lead to increased stress levels and panic attacks for some students, and the inability to attend class can cause students who would otherwise be succeeding to get lower grades, fail courses and, in some cases, drop out of school entirely.

Introducing alternative or more flexible course evaluation structures is one way to accommodate students with invisible disabilities without singling them out as special or less capable as their peers.  A flexible course evaluation structure might entail a professor providing two or three slightly different options for evaluation.  For example, the professor might provide an option where the exam grade is worth less with an additional assignment, or where participation is worth less and a major paper is worth more.

There are many ways that invisible disabilities can add stress, barriers and complications to the lives of students living with them. While there has been an increase in discussion about disabilities on campuses, there needs to be a more active discourse about invisible disabilities and how they affect the learning experiences and lives of students.

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Studying through mental illness

My academic career is not what I expected it to be. As a student with disabilities and mental illnesses that have, in many ways, come to define my experiences as a student, I am now a far cry from the “normal” kid who started university back in day. Along the way, my personal identity has been forced to adapt and shift dramatically. I’ve struggled (and continue to struggle) to define what it is to be smart, what it is to be responsible, what it is to be able or disabled, what it is to call oneself a student.

In some ways, a university is the ideal place to get diagnosed with mental illnesses and disabilities. Lots of post-secondary institutions have support structures in place that, in theory at least, make professional help and advocacy as accessible as possible. At the same time, though, the structure and bureaucracy can be hellish, and it’s hard to express how damaging the attitudes of some people can be. Stigma surrounding mental illness is a major problem in all aspects of society, and universities are not immune to it. In fact, in some ways it might be worse: broadly speaking, academia values rationality and personal merit, and those aren’t always compatible with, say, “I don’t know why I’m so afraid to go to class but I am” or “I am literally not capable of staying on task right now.”

It gets more complicated, because rationality and personal merit are things that I deeply value as well. It is a daily challenge to reconcile my belief that I am smart and work hard to get what I want with the reality that sometimes I need extra help. Being mentally ill also doesn’t shield you from societal attitudes about mental illness. Those attitudes make it all too easy to hate having “Disabled Student” as part of your identity, or to develop an internal litany of “you’re lazy, you’re stupid, you don’t belong here.”

“You don’t belong here.” That’s the worst, one, I think, because it breaks my heart to think of all the students who don’t get the help they need and so drop out, thinking it was a personal failure on their part. That is a huge waste; the people I know who have been in that situation have huge potential to succeed, given the right support.

As it turns out, I don’t need to be told that I should be trying harder or should have been more responsible when I ask for help. I’ve already had those thoughts myself, thanks, and in the past I’ve beaten myself up about them so much that I’ve stopped myself from getting the help I need. But I’m starting to figure out that I can contain multitudes: I am smart, and I have mental illnesses. I am a hard worker, and I need extra help sometimes. I am a really good student, and I am a student with disabilities. These are not contradictions, and we are all better served when they’re not treated as such.

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