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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health
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Discussing uncomfortable power dynamics, colonialism, and white supremacy are part of the daily discourse when you’re an anti-racism educator – but the recent increase in the volume and volatility of hateful messages and death threats following a public appearance, or a tweet, have had a chilling effect.
“The rise of white supremacy and right-wing extremism and violence is very real,” says Selam Debs, whose anti-racism educational work focuses on dismantling discriminatory systems and speaking truth to power. “It’s essential for us to recognize that.”
Debs closed the storefront portion of her Kitchener business after her family started receiving threats. Although the local media covered the story, their focus on the hate effectively buried the substance of Debs’s teachings and point of view. She and others are often hushed in this way (making the need to have such discussions apparent), but at what cost?
“If you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis on your own mental health and the power of making change, there’s no formula to follow,” says Jesse Wente, Anishinaabe author, commentator, and fellow death threat recipient. “Put social progress in the strainer, and when all the ugly comes out, what’s left?”
It’s a good question. Taking a quick scroll of the latest Twitter outbursts makes me want to extend the metaphor — some days it seems like the ugly is blocking the colander holes that might let light through.
“If it involves personal threats, and your notifications are on fire, you make a calculation,” Wente says. “You have to think of your family — and of the real progress that is possible. If you have a forum to make change positively — that’s a gain,” he adds, citing past swells of support on social media that have led to name changes for various sports teams over the years.
Such progress is undoubtedly helped by powerful stories. Not only do they stick in your head and help ground common experiences, they often provide insight, comfort — and motivation. Stories can also reduce stigma, which often happens when a person with mental health concerns opens up about their struggles. That’s one of the main reasons the Mental Health Commission of Canada amplifies the voices of lived and living experiences through its magazine and blog. (For those who are feeling ready to do so, its tips on Sharing Your Story Safely are a good place to start.)
Of course, the decision to share a personal story can involve complications. If it’s a family story, is it entirely yours to share? What about future fallout? Once it’s on the internet, you can’t take it back.
In 2006, former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley used a book to tell the story of his son “Mike’s” mental illness, in Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness. At that time, the relative anonymity felt right. Flash forward to 2022, and “Mike” (now 43) is ready to change that narrative. Appearing in the Ken Burns documentary, Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness, he consciously chooses to own his story, reveal his experience, and make space for others facing stigma by using his full name: Kevin Mike Earley. “If we’re going to say there’s no shame in having a mental illness, how am I going to go around using my middle name?” he asked in a Washington Post article about the film.
Shifting the discourse“We’ve seen statues come down and school names changed to address colonial history,” Debs says. We are talking about the long game of raising tough topics to get to meaningful change. While questions about power dynamics and privilege have moved from whispers to full-throated discussions, without meaningful change these discussions are simply talk. So why share your story at all?
“I think there is a transformation happening, but there is a ridiculous amount still to do,” she says. In other words, incremental change is still change. Even so, we have to ask why some choose not to speak up.
“We understand why Black, Indigenous, racialized, queer, and disabled folks are not speaking up because there are consequences: you will not get upward mobility, you will be ostracized, you will be seen as aggressive and experience mental and emotional harm,” she says. “I think we need to differentiate between who we need to keep accountable for standing up and those who are not speaking up.”
Those who hold positions of power and benefit from unearned privileges need to do the work to speak up, she says, while making space for Black, Indigenous, racialized, queer, and disabled people to be heard safely, to be compensated for their labour, and to be allowed to lead conversations.
“I remember a time when, if you talked about microaggressions, you were seen as radical, but there’s now social currency within organizations to do this work. I think some are doing it because they know it’s the right thing to do, and some recognize the currency that comes with using terms such as diversity, inclusion, and equity,” she says. “The progress I have seen is the shift in focus from very passive language to addressing how racism, violence, and hate are showing up in the spaces we are in.”
Shifting the language we use can certainly transform the discourse. For example, well-meaning questions such as “How can we help disenfranchised poor people get more opportunity?” can be modified to ask “Who is perpetuating the harm, and what can be changed on a meaningful — as in a systemic — level?”
For Wente, it is also about the medium. He has a “hokey-pokey” relationship with social media, dipping in and out. “Recently I put my toes back in, and I can’t say I liked it. The failures of content moderation are more obvious these days,” he says, noting that his mental health improves when he’s online less. “That doesn’t mean I don’t say things that are meant to move things forward — I’ve just chosen a different venue to say them.”
It’s part of the reason he wrote Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance: to shift the discussion from tweet wars to panels, speeches, and other forms that support more nuanced conversations. “This is my daily work — to change minds and shift things,” he says. “To me, this is a very serious thing, and it’s only effective when you’re also dealing with other serious people. I’ve come to understand that some social media platforms are not the venue for much seriousness at all. I want to see people in a room where we’re actually talking.”
Wente cites past online-offline movements like Idle No More as having real-world gains, but much has changed from that more digitally innocent time — cat photos have given way to daily death threats. The death threats he has received online and on his home phone have led him to the uncomfortable realization that change making now comes with this kind of exposure. “Social justice has always required awareness, balance, and risk,” he says. “Threats happen over the internet and in real life, meaning people who make real change are having to face that.”
Yet, normalized violence reflects a terrible state of affairs, and it is becoming more overt and seemingly acceptable.
“As activists and educators in anti-racism, we are constantly met with violence,” Debs says, which leads to constant states of burnout. “There is a need to self-preserve because telling our stories again and again can become a kind of trauma porn. We have to find a balance between educating or sharing parts of ourselves and preserving our own well-being.”
What does Debs offer to others on coping in these spaces? “I don’t think I have advice, other than I think it’s important to understand why it is the way it is,” she says. A focus on equity and healing for Black communities has given her a guiding path, one she speaks about through her teaching.
“Black liberation is the way by which I live my life,” she explains. “And it comes with many different elements: it’s about personal self-reflective examining and recognizing that systems need to change in order to truly access healing,” she adds. “It’s also learning about my culture, foods, and language as a Black Ethiopian woman.”
She says it is also about decolonizing from all the ways she has been conditioned to see herself as inferior, and that happens through sharing knowledge to create that sense of liberation for others. Sharing your story in this way is a long-term investment. “The intergenerational abundance and well-being are about planting trees that we may never fully receive shade from,” she says. “Our children and our children’s children will receive the abundance of what is planted today.”
Wente sees his work as an obligation that occurs in spaces where he is often the only Indigenous person. That standpoint is one of the ways he helps balance the risks and benefits of opening up. “Your perspective is not one that is heard often,” he says, as we talk about changing narratives. His view on sharing one’s story, he admits, may come across as overly idealistic — but he’s sticking with it.
“If everyone shared their story, it would be hard to deny some simple truths,” he says. “The more people share their stories, the safer it will be for others to do the same.”
Inset: Selam Debs, Blue Aspen Photography
Inset: Jesse Wente, Red Works
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