Toxic Masculinity and Mental Health

written by Shridula Gopinath

In September last year, India’s Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry launched “Kiran”, a 24/7 mental health helpline. An internal report, accessed by “The Hindu”, recorded data gathered between September 16th 2020 to January 15th 2021 which showed that over 70% of the calls received were by men. The inequality in these numbers is far from a coincidence. Instead, it exposes a much larger structural problem surrounding the issue of gender and mental health which millions of men battle with everyday. Canetto and Sakinofsky (1998) argue that there is a Gender Paradox in suicide, where women display higher suicidal ideation, but men have higher suicide rates. This paradox is likely to be explained by reluctance of men to report mental health issues and suicidal ideations. This raises questions about the ideals of masculinity and why they appear to be so incongruent with help seeking behaviour.

Where does it stem from?

The subtle practice of quelling emotional expression in men tends to begin with gendered socialisation at a very young age. Irrespective of our gender, we have all heard the phrase “Boys don’t cry” used when growing up. What about “don’t act like a girl” or, later on, “Man up”? Not only does this discourage men from showing emotion and communicating openly, it adds a stereotypical female connotation to all things related to feeling. This becomes more apparent as a problem when we take the wider patriarchal context into consideration. In societies like ours, things viewed as traditionally female are almost always synonymous with being inferior, shallow, and weak. General misconceptions about, and stigma surrounding, mental health are, therefore, made even more difficult to shatter when another layer of perceived shame is tightly fastened around almost half of the population. This barrier is even more difficult to penetrate since it is so deeply indoctrinated within us, to the extent where it is closely linked to one’s own identity. These toxic messages have been reinforced through cultural institutions and socialisation agencies, such as the media, and ridicule and criticism faced for failure to meet expectations of traditional masculinity, cements these notions. 

How does this ignite the problem?

Anybody who has experienced any mental illness for any period of time will agree that one of its most debilitating effects is the alienation and detachment one feels from their loved ones and the rest of the world, and more often than not, having somebody who makes you feel heard, be it a friend or a family member or a professional, can go a long way. This support and reassurance, that you are not alone in your experiences, can only be found when one feels able to open up and share their honest vulnerabilities and struggles- which is something men are usually discouraged from doing. As a result, the tendency to silently endure the pain by themselves, and not seek support from others, causes feelings of isolation to grow to the point where it may feel consuming.

The Kiran Helpline and The Gender Suicide Paradox

The Kiran helpline keeps the identity of the callers anonymous. There is no face-to-face interaction with the person at the other end, nor any worry of knowing the person on the other end personally. With these added layers of protection, men no longer need to worry about how they will be socially perceived. There is something to be said about the culture we have fostered if the only time when people feel comfortable enough to reach out for help is when they are able to divorce their issues and experiences from their individual and social identity. 

Mental illness does not target any specific demographic but the solution for it seems to. Canetto and Sakinofsky (1998) conclude there being an “underreporting on the part of suicidal males because of fear of social stigma, as well as underreporting by researchers, who may miss suicidal cues in males”. This argues that people may not be able to pick up subtle signals, if put across as cries for help from men. These indirect hints may, however, be the only ways in which men may be comfortable asking for help, since more upfront confessions of their struggles could feel intimidating and difficult to express.

Is this only a male issue?

Since men who suffer from mental health problems are a large section of the population, the stigma does not affect just them in particular. Much of this repressed sadness could release in unhealthy ways, such as anger. Anger is a gendered emotion and is typically perceived as more masculine, and therefore a more acceptable reaction from men, despite it being far from the truth. Although anger is a natural response to various situations, it is not exclusive to a particular gender, and the actions that follow unchecked emotional outbursts could have negative consequences for all those involved. In extreme cases, it may lead to physical or mental abuse of oneself or others around. This is just one example of the ways in which the combination of toxic masculinity and mental health issues can have disastrous impacts. Maya Salam, a writer for the New York Times, explains “Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be “tough all the time”; that anything other than that makes them “feminine” or weak. (No, it doesn’t mean that all men are inherently toxic.)”. It’s a seemingly impossible situation which benefits nobody but is perpetuated by many.

Mental health advocacy and awareness has done wonders over the years, but it still has a long battle to fight. With more articles, resources, and research, coming out everyday, and people being more open and speaking out about their honest experiences, the cold hard casing of toxic masculinity is beginning to slowly melt away. Gender equality activists also raise awareness about the destructive capacities gender roles have on everybody, and with the rise of information, access, and acceptance, more people of all genders are beginning to feel less alone in themselves, and more willing to seek help. The responsibility to keep doors to help open, and check in on how friends and family members are feeling, falls on everybody. Regardless of their gender identity and expression, everybody is equally deserving of help, and should feel just as able as the next person able to reach out and be heard.

References

Canetto, Silvia & Sakinofsky, Isaac. (1998). The Gender Paradox in Suicide. Suicide & life-threatening behavior. 28. 1-23

Damini Nath. “Ministry’s Mental Health Helpline Sees Most Calls from Men.” The Hindu, The Hindu, 7 Feb. 2021, www.thehindu.com/news/national/ministrys-mental-health-helpline-sees-most-calls-from-men/article33774872.ece. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

Salam, Maya “What Is Toxic Masculinity? (Published 2019).” The New York Times, 2021, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/us/toxic-masculinity.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.

What makes you, you?

Identify your values to lead a meaningful life

As we grow up, Life can seem to become more complicated. We’re faced with difficult decisions where the “right” choice might not always be easy or apparent. Choosing to pursue your relationship when your family is against it. Ending an abusive and toxic relationship. Being open about your gender or sexual identity. We might end up feeling stuck, with no way out of the situation. In those cases, a strong sense of who you are and your core values, can empower you and give back control of your life.

Lessons from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behavior change strategies to increase psychological flexibility. In ACT, identifying your values is central to enforcing commitment and, the more personal the values, the better you are able to enforce them. This awareness allows you to be mindful of your actions and damaging behavioral patterns and correct them. Following are a few examples by which this therapeutic approach may be applied for common disorders.

One of the symptoms of anxiety is overthinking. We don’t have control over other people’s decisions, past or future circumstances or even our own emotional reactions to situations but we do have control over our own decisions. In order to break the fatalistic overthinking pattern, it would be helpful to identify your values and if your actions in these make-believe scenarios conform to them.

People who suffer from Depression might feel unenthusiastic about their life because they’re stuck. While it is true that there are a lot of factors that lock us into these situations which feel inescapable, having the mental fortitude can lend an inner strength. Starting small, with just one value and how to improve your life around this value can be the breakthrough strategy to realizing the infinite possibilities to change your life.

Note: The above examples are simplified for easier understanding, however, they are in no way a representation of the entire scope of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as practiced in a professional setting.

Identifying Your Values

The following is a list of common values. This is in no way an exhaustive list and it is encouraged to add or edit these values to suit your personal experience. You may mark a ‘V’ for very important, ‘Q’ for Quite important and ‘N’ for Not that important across each of the goals.

  • Acceptance/self-acceptance: to be accepting of myself, others, life, etc.
  • Adventure: to be adventurous; to actively explore novel or stimulating experiences
  • Assertiveness: to respectfully stand up for my rights and request what I want
  • Authenticity: to be authentic, genuine, and real; to be true to myself
  • Caring/self-care: to be caring toward myself, others, the environment, etc.
  • Compassion/self-compassion: to act kindly toward myself and others in pain
  • Connection: to engage fully in whatever I’m doing and be fully present with others
  • Contribution and generosity: to contribute, give, help, assist, or share
  • Cooperation: to be cooperative and collaborative with others
  • Courage: to be courageous or brave; to persist in the face of fear, threat, or difficult
  • Creativity: to be creative or innovative
  • Curiosity: to be curious, open-minded, and interested; to explore and discover
  • Encouragement: to encourage and reward behavior that I value in myself or others
  • Engagement: to engage fully in what I am doing
  • Fairness and justice: to be fair and just to myself and others
  • Fitness: to maintain or improve or look after my physical and mental health
  • Flexibility: to adjust and adapt readily to changing circumstances
  • Freedom and independence: to choose how I live and help others do likewise
  • Friendliness: to be friendly, companionable, or agreeable toward others
  • Forgiveness/self-forgiveness: to be forgiving toward myself or others
  • Fun and humor: to be fun loving; to seek, create, and engage in fun-filled activities
  • Gratitude: to be grateful for and appreciative of myself, others, and life
  • Honesty: to be honest, truthful, and sincere with myself and others
  • Industry: to be industrious, hardworking, and dedicated
  • Intimacy: to open up, reveal, and share myself, emotionally or physically
  • Kindness: to be kind, considerate, nurturing, or caring toward myself or others
  • Love: to act lovingly or affectionately toward myself or others
  • Mindfulness: to be open to, engaged in and curious about the present moment
  • Order: to be orderly and organized
  • Persistence and commitment: to continue resolutely, despite problems or difficulties.
  • Respect/self-respect: to treat myself and others with care and consideration
  • Responsibility: to be responsible and accountable for my actions
  • Safety and protection: to secure, protect, or ensure my own safety or that of others
  • Sensuality and pleasure: to create or enjoy pleasurable and sensual experiences
  • Sexuality: to explore or express my sexuality
  • Skillfulness: to continually practice and improve my skills and apply myself fully
  • Supportiveness: to be supportive, helpful and available to myself or others
  • Trust: to be trustworthy; to be loyal, faithful, sincere, and reliable
  • Other:
  • Other:
    Russ Harris, 2013 Adapted from The Confidence Gap: From Fear to Freedom, by Russ Harris, Penguin Group (Australia), 2010.

The activity of identifying values can seem daunting at first glance. It might be made easier through the following activity.

Imagine you are 85 years old and all your friends are gathered to celebrate your birthday. One of your friends gets up to give a speech about your life.

If you had lived your life as you currently do, what are the most memorable qualities in the speech?

Now, take a moment to reflect upon the list of values. 

Imagine that you have made changes to how you live your life that revolves around your values. Now, if your friend made a speech, what are the most memorable qualities in it?

myStrength

How to Live your Values

While becoming aware of your values is a big first step, choosing your everyday actions to reflect them takes dedication and explicit intention. To make it easier, it might be useful to come up with 5 goals that aim at improving your lifestyle around your core values. Then, think back on how these values have been disregarded in the past, the more specific the experience the better. Now, with these memories in mind, come up with enforceable daily, weekly and monthly goals. It is key to start small and be specific when creating this list.

With commitment to your values, you can start to live your life with intention. However, it is unavoidable that we may sometimes slip back into unhealthy behavioral patterns. In those situations, you can reset your internal compass by becoming aware of your values and the reasons why they’re important to you. If the values are truly what make you, this exercise can jolt you back into control of your life.

Finally, Your values might be different in different aspects of your life such as family, relationships, work, community, religion, spirituality, etc. It is essential to make the distinction between beliefs and values. Beliefs might be imposed or imparted and are subject to change relatively frequently. However, values are central to your life’s purpose and generally become stronger when you overcome your mental health struggles. In conclusion, an awareness of your values helps in decision making and allows you to take control of your life and enforcing these values in your day to day life can impart a sense of meaning and direction to your life.

Ain’t Silly If It Works

trigger warnings:// self-harm, suicide

When I read O.Henry’s “The Last Leaf” in school, I never imagined a parallel version would play out in my own life. In the book, one of the central characters, in a moment of helplessness, links the falling of the leaves in a nearby tree with her own life and believes she would die once the last leaf falls. Without spoiling much, let’s say, a small miracle occurs  and helps her find the motivation to live.

        Around 4 years later, during a particularly tough time in my life, I found myself utterly uninterested in any of my previous hobbies, unsure about the future and in general very disillusioned. Coincidentally this was also the time I brought home a plant which stubbornly refused to show any signs of life for days together. A completely random thought hit me – If this plant survives and grows leaves, I would be okay too. I religiously made sure it got sunlight and fresh water everyday, sat beside it whenever I needed some quiet time and surely enough, the plant survived. And in some sense, So did I. It may not seem very drastic to some but this small plant eased something in me during those tough times.

           Here’s the picture of this resilient li’l plant.

    While I had stumbled onto this way of coping, I later learnt it wasn’t all that rare. I read several posts on Reddit about people delaying self-harm by waiting for the release of their favourite movies/books/video games. Let’s think about it for a minute. This kind of concrete expectation gives us something to look forward to while also seemingly providing a specific date, lending some amount of certainty in an overwhelmingly confusing world. These survivors didn’t stop with one date though. They settled on another one and delayed their suicidal plans for a few more months or years and so on. A kind of useful procrastination, if you think about it. 

               Does this really make a difference though? Our social media feeds are filled with alarming news one after another. About the planet, the economy, the country – all of it. Notifications pile up about all the cool stuff everyone else is doing and the comparison game seamlessly begins. At times caring, well-meaning friends or family are not quite sure what to say, assuming they are available to listen and understand. In such times, a specific date on which you get to reconnect with a beloved character or story seems awfully reliable. 

                  If you are in fact considering self-harm, you can try some of the following distraction techniques as a form of emotional first-aid :

  • Exercise
  • Spending time in nature or with pets
  • Journaling
  • Temporarily stepping back from people or situations that act as triggers
  • Finding a creative outlet 

Find more here

But a very important thing to note is that these kinds of distraction strategies can be maladaptive as well — this interesting study talks about how distraction methods can be adaptive or maladaptive for emotional regulation based on the intent of the distraction. It can be adaptive if it is done with acceptance but can turn maladaptive if done with avoidance. So it is very important to take into account what your emotional state is and to act accordingly. 

      This is in no way to suggest that we do away with professional help or that this method can effectively replace therapy. Seeking professional help and working on sorting out the underlying issue is of utmost importance and is what will help in the long run.. These distraction methods only provide us with some more time and drive to seek help. The idea isn’t to latch on to short-term fixes like these forever but to to utilize this time to seek help from a qualified professional who can understand the specifics of your situation and aid in recovery and help build resilience even in the face of future adversity. I realize that to several people, this might sound ridiculous or trivial. I mean given all the problems in one’s life, how would a new movie or show even matter? You might be tempted to say that life’s purpose isn’t such “silly entertainment” and needs to be aligned with a higher calling. A noble thought indeed. But for a person who is struggling to find the will to wake up each day and even get dressed, if a new comic book makes it easier, why not? 

           Recovery is a process and it can’t be solved or fast-forwarded through such hacks. Each individual needs to take their own time and have a  sound support system in place. While methods like this can help make things slightly easier,it is not a long-term solution. We absolutely do need to invest time and effort to work though the underlying issues.  But for the short term, even if it’s silly, even if no one understands it, if it makes the daily grind of life better at least for a while, it may be worth a shot.

(You can check out the story here http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/LasLea.shtml)

Masks

I’ve always wanted,

For everyone to like me.

I want to have someone to look to,

And someone who’d look to me.

You can’t be someone’s friend, 

Without being someone’s foe.

No two people like the same.  

And one personality can’t fill in two roles.

Masking myself seemed easy.

Although people say it’s hard.

Morphing your voice in a way,

For it to warm someone’s heart.

Changing you and your personality,

Along with the things that changed around.

Stepping in and out of the way,

Taking a chance, trying everything in a trance.

Masks lying on the bedroom floor.

One glowed up, another that’s worked sore.

So many masks, you’d think I lost myself,

The dead girl behind the masks I wore.

You’d think I lost a piece of me.

With every mask that I tore off of my face.

But, I’m not the girl, I’m the mask.

And no part of me is fake.

Wear the traits I like,

Trample the traits I don’t.

I don’t pretend, this is just me.

And I simply have a lot of personalities.

You like my mask, keep seeing it.

Don’t see the rest and change your mind.

There’s a reason that mask is still there.

And you’re no reason for me to leave it behind.

Throw punches at me,

Make my mask crack a smile.

A cracked mask, that’s hollow within.

A cracked mask, built by truthful lies.

Tears can’t spill over my mask.

And its eyebrows can’t crinkle and frown.

You see, there was never my “true self”

It’s just another mask when you tear this one down.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Art Therapy ft. Alexis Decosimo

While Art has always been considered a means of self-expression and communication, the establishment of Art Therapy as a therapeutic approach to mental health has been a relatively recent find. 


Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts
SoundCloud

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today let’s understand Art Therapy and how it can promote mental well-being as we talk to Alexis Decosimo, a registered art therapist and licensed mental health counselor with a doctorate in Public Health. She focuses on empowering individuals and helping them heal through artistic expression and self-discovery. 

Welcome, Alexis.

Alexis- Thank you, Valerie. It’s so good to be here.

Valerie- Thank you for taking out time to talk to us today about Art Therapy. Let’s try to get a very basic understanding of how art relates to mental health.

Alexis- Absolutely. Let me explain it this way- We live in a multi-dimensional world. We live through senses and relationships, sights and smells, and what I noticed about myself is what when I’m only talking, I only can access just a little bit of that storyline. So what art does is it breaks through some of those barriers of words and allows you to express yourself through all the different senses that you experience throughout your day to day. I can go into more detail from the mental health standpoint as well, if you’d like me to. 

Valerie- Sure.

Alexis- So we have our analytical brain and then we have our creative brain. An an Art Therapist, when I’m working with clients, by using art I’m able to integrate both the analytical and the creative brain, allowing a client to explore past the boundary of words to really explore through creativity and thoughts and feelings and memories, and do it in a way that feels safe and fun and creative. That really allows someone to see their memories and their feelings in a holistic way. 

Valerie-  Alright, so you did tell us what Art Therapy is but how does it compare to conventional Psychotherapy?

Alexis- Conventional psychotherapy uses words as the medium through open-ended questions and story-telling and really relies on that analytical brain, a lot of the time. What art does is it allows somebody to engage through their creative brain. I think the best way is to give you an example- In typical psychotherapy, when you’re working with someone, you might ask them “Tell me about your strengths”. A person might give you a list and maybe some examples. 

What an Art Therapist would do is say “Explore your strengths through imagery”, “Tell me what it would be like if you were a superhero”, “How would you go throughout your day and be able to use the superhero strengths to engage with the world around you?”. Then that person actually creates imagery of their idea of their strengths in a way that is fun and exploratory as well as a little bit magical but it goes beyond our conventional day to day life and it really allows someone to sink into that perspective of what strength and resiliency is and that person then gets the time to create those images and create those ideas, and then they’re able to use their analytical thinking brain to go back and explain their ideas. So it’s this holistic approach that connects both sides of our thinking brain.

Valerie- So what’s a simple way to get started? Is it possible for us to do it if we’re not artistic as people? Because I am someone who considers herself to not have any artistic ability so what’s a simple way for us to get started?

Alexis- I always laugh when someone says this. Clients come in and say “I want to do Art Therapy but I’m not an artist” and I always say “You can’t tell an Art Therapist that you’re not an artist”. If you have the ability to move your body, you are an artist. One of my favourite artists is actually blind and he creates all of his paintings through his senses and his memory of colours and what the world looked like before he became blind. There are people who aren’t able to use their arms and legs and they use their mouth to paint. So it’s not so much about this conventional idea about what art is, it’s more about being able to express yourself. 

I think it’s important to make the distinction between Art Therapy and art for mental health. Art Therapy is a mental health profession facilitated by a trainer or therapist. Unfortunately, even in the United States, Art Therapists are few and far between and a lot of the time, require financial means to be able to pay for sessions and so when you asked the question of how we can use Art therapy in our everyday life, putting aside the diagnosis, psychoanalysis and ideas of when we really look into mental health, and we look at it more as how to integrate art into our lives because art, in and of itself, is healing. It gives us the space to shut down the stimulus of the world and whatever we have to engage in, in our daily lives, and just gives us a moment to reflect and be creative. That’s really one of the most important reasons when we think of how to integrate art for our own wellbeing. 

You have mentioned that you’re not an artist although I believe everyone is an artist but I do understand that looking at a white piece of paper can be really intimidating and so colouring books are a really good start for a lot of people. I will say that they do term themselves as Art Therapy itself but it is not Art Therapy because it is not facilitated by a mental health Art Therapist but it’s really soothing and it can be really meditative so it can just be a really good place for you to go to where you don’t have to think about what you have to create but you can have some colours next to you and just shut down the rest of the world and engage in just the act of colouring and creating. 

I will say that art itself creates a bilateral stimulation in your brain, which actually helps you to relax and to let go of your day and so even colouring, with your eyes moving back and forth and your hands moving back and forth itself, can be a really huge thing but there are so many other things in coloring books so that is a great start for people who are really hesitant but there is knitting, I’m a huge fan of taking classes because it helps you learn a couple of skills so then you can go past that and create your own expression. There is a lot on YouTube about painting and about clay and knitting and so that’s a really good way to start as well.

Valerie- Right. In your opinion, when should people try seeking Art Therapy? If you’re going to psychotherapy, of course this is something that complements psychotherapy but how do you draw the difference?

Alexis- Well, I think the first piece is to know if there are Art Therapists available. I know in India there are some Art Therapists and it depends in different parts of the world. That’s where I struggle the most. Art therapy is still a relatively small field and it would probably be different for different people but if you’re in psychotherapy and you find that you have a bunch of walls that you can’t seem to get past and you can feel it and sense it and you can maybe see what you’re trying to get to but you can’t get words to it, that would be a great time to try and find an Art Therapist to see if they can help facilitate breaking past those walls or putting those sensations into words. 

The cool thing about Art Therapists is that we are trained as mental health clinicians so we are trained in the traditional psychotherapies and behavioral therapies. We have this extra skill that in learning all this, we’ve also learnt it through visual art and how to facilitate it through art. Some people have an art therapist as an additional therapist to help them and in a lot of cases, even in my private practice, I am a person’s primary therapist because I’m trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) so we can do EMDR but we can also have that additional art piece to it.

Valerie- Right. So let me ask you, you just said that even Art Therapists are trained in the traditional form of therapy. What got you interested in the alternative form of therapy through art?

Alexis-  As a kid I was always really artistic and I really had two passions- it was art and it was also engaging with people. One of my challenges as a kid was that I had a speech impediment and so I had a hard time communicating with other people and so I learnt that art was a really good way for me to express myself. I felt very confined with words. I should say that some people are very artistic with their words, with singing and poems and so words can definitely be used artistically as well but for me, I had a hard time communicating and so art was this way for me to break past that. When I was in high school, I was told about Art Therapy and after that I knew what I wanted to do! So I looked it up and I realised it was accessible to be and from then on, I knew I was going to do that. 

I will say something that I can is important is that Art therapy was accessible to me, to be able to go study. I think there are over thirty five schools in the United States so I knew it would be accessible but after graduating as an Art Therapist, I immediately went to my doctorate in Public Health because what I realised in my global work was that universities and schools of Art Therapy are still pretty inaccessible outside of some key countries and so my career build is really to look at the skills and knowledge of Art Therapy but beyond the therapy word. So really looking at it as how can individuals who aren’t Art Therapists or don’t have access to Art Therapists, access some of the key pieces of art, as you’re asking right now. This is how you can access art for well-being and for that positive aspect in our loves.

Valerie- I think it’s wonderful that you found a place where you could combine two passions- engaging with people, and art, and actually do that for a living and do that every day of your life. 

Alexis- It’s pretty amazing! It’s sometimes hard to explain because it almost feels magical sometimes, I guess that’s really the greatest word for it. I’ve had some clients recently where I give them an art activity like the superhero or creating space for your anxiety outside of your body, where it’s just a suggestion that I give but I don’t know where it’s going to go and all of a sudden the next week, the client comes back saying they feel so much better because they can visualize what they’ve been feeling or a place to put their anxiety outside of their body so that they don’t have to carry it. And we both just sit there stunned saying “That really worked!”. That really did something. Yeah, it’s a pretty amazing thing.

Valerie- Yeah, it is. So, what I wanted to ask you is that when you have the pandemic currently with everyone with isolated and a lot of people now dealing with a lot of mental health issues, also in general for you, working as a mental health counselor you listen to people in distress and you help them cope and that’s probably a constant part of your life. Personally, how do you take care of your mental health? Does Art Therapy play a therapeutic role in your life?

Alexis- Those are great questions. I would say that mental health clinicians now are definitely frontline staff. We end up being the safe place for a lot of people to put their worries and fears so that they can move a little bit lighter throughout this pandemic and feeling a little bit more safe and secure and so then we as mental health clinicians have the responsibility of carrying that and to me, it is such an honour to carry those things but as a human being, it is also very difficult. I am no stranger to trauma, one of my specialities is humanitarian crises and then additionally to that speciality, I worked during the Ebola epidemic and so viruses are also not a stranger to me. So it’s also quite interesting moving through this Pandemic because all of a sudden, it’s personal. In the humanitarian crises and Ebola, it wasn’t so much personal. I knew my family was safe and I knew I had a place to go home to where I could decompress before starting again and then all of a sudden, this Pandemic is everywhere and you can’t hide from it. So it’s a whole different kind of stressor. 

I had a pottery wheel in my Art Therapy studio that I had bought for my clients and they loved it and I loved being able to facilitate that with them and I’m only working telework right now because of the virus so I actually brought the pottery wheel home and I have it in a wooden shed out in my yard and I go to that pottery wheel almost every single day. It has been such a lifeline for me because I’m not in a place where I want to visually express my stressors right now, it’s better for me to feel like I can hold them and so for pottery, it’s something I don’t have to think about, analyse or dive too deep into but it’s soothing and I think that’s a really important thing about art- that it can be soothing and it doesn’t always have to be analytical or deep. It can sometimes just be soothing and enjoyable and a place to turn off the brain for a moment. So that has been my way of coping. That and just getting outside has been a huge thing for me. 

Valerie- That’s nice. It’s really nice that something that you do for a living also helps you calm down because you deal with so much stress when it comes to dealing with people and carrying that with you. It’s good that art is also a way for you to tune it all out and also just be there with yourself.

Alexis- Absolutely and I would also say that I have my own therapist that I see weekly right now. I sometimes look at her thinking that I know I’m giving her my stressors as other people give me theirs so it’s almost like a pass-off to some degree but I think it’s important to acknowledge that as a mental health clinician, it is almost as important for eating and sleeping as it is for acknowledging that it is a basic need right now to have that safe person to pass off some of your stressors and I think that is so important.

Valerie- That is so true. It is so important for us to just have people to talk to with so much going on and it’s great that you have that for yourself as well.

Alexis- Yeah, it’s been really wonderful.

Valerie- So Alexis thank you so much for taking out the time and talking to us and actually giving us an introduction to what Art Therapy is and how it works. We learnt from you that it’s one way to break through the barriers and when you can’t express yourself through words, there are other means for you to seek help and just calm yourself down and find peace. Thank you so much for being here and introducing us to this.

Alexis- Yeah absolutely, thank you Valerie. Really appreciate it. Thanks for having me. Thanks for all the work you guys do.

Valerie- Thank you.

Toxic positivity

If you find yourself being around people that make you feel like you’ll only ever be sad or if you keep hearing “you should be more positive about life,” “it’s not all bad,” “it could be worse,” welcome. I share your anger, I share your angst and I understand your frustration. 

Toxic positivity leaves a very bitter aftertaste when trying to open up about one’s mental health condition. One single comment can downplay serious and dangerous mental health conditions, especially if it is chronic. 

The sad part is that most people don’t realize the toxicity of “love and light” until much, much later. 

How exactly do you ascertain your confidant is toxic-positive? 

  1. The “positive reaffirmations”– if you keep hearing “it’s going to be okay,” “it could be worse”, “you’re attracting negativity by being sad all the time,”- You have a toxic-positive friend/ associate. 
  2. The “down-playing”– if your worries or concerns; insecurities and sadnesses are deemed “unworthy” of attention and you are asked to “deal with it”, you have a toxic-positive associate. As a human being, it’s your birth-right to feel things- regardless of if they are “positive” or “negative”. You specifically need no one’s validation for the same. 
  3. The “you are killing the vibe”– while boundaries are important in any relationship and no one should be subjected to emotional burnout, saying rude/hurtful things to someone who is already hurting and therefore excluding them from activities is top tier toxic behavior. Leaving such a situation will improve your environment of healing.  
  4. The “divert yourself, get busy”– your mental health is important and requires attention and time. Piling work on your plate can cause severe burn-outs. 
  5. The “you always feed down” – with any mental health issue, recovery isn’t speedy. And you should have all the time in the world to deal with it healthily. If you find yourself being rushed into recovery, your associate is toxic. 

How to avoid being toxic-positive confidant?

  1. Acknowledge their feeling– you don’t need to understand or empathize with your friend’s emotions or decisions, but telling them it’s okay to feel that way will open up a comfort zone/ safe place for them. 
  2. Healthy processing – seeking professional help is paramount in any mental health situation. Apart from that, using services such as LonePack Buddy, reading and researching ways to cope with the different types of mental health disorders, and assisting your friend in practicing the same is a healthy manner to deal with difficult times. 
  3. Healing isn’t linear– understanding that sometimes despite steady improvement there are times when one can revert back to their old state. Being patient and giving room for such conditions and reassuring them is important. Healing isn’t always beautiful or linear. It is energy and time-consuming. If you do feel exhausted, take a step back without trampling on your friend’s journey. Check out our blog about setting up effective boundaries without feeling guilty! 

How to distance yourself from a toxic-positive friend? 

  1. Set up effective boundaries
  2. Communicate your concern (in a nice way)- for example, “hey, f/n, I need a safe space to process/talk about my emotions, I understand that this might be heavy for you, but sometimes saying certain things is trivializing my actual condition, which isn’t healthy.”
  3. Respect the relationship. Not everyone can be in total harmony at all times; however, respect the past and present you share. Simply distancing yourself from this person is enough. You don’t need to take it upon yourself to educate the said friend right now. You can do that later. The last thing you need right now is more drama. 

What you really need when battling any kind of mental health issue:

  1. Unconditional support, but in the right direction. 
  2. Understand your condition and care for it- just like caring for a fracture or a wound, treat your condition as if it were physical- do the things that augment healing, don’t over-exert! 
  3. Get professional help- Therapy is always good and seeking professional help can assist in speedier healing! 

Remember, there is no sunshine without storms and there is no rainbow without rain clouds. To be absolutely healthy and sound, emotions need to be dealt with in waves. It is always an ongoing process, rather than a one-day event. Give yourself the time and right environment for the same. 

Habits as self-care


We have entered into yet another year. And a new year gives us the perfect opportunity to start new habits. But the most common problem that we all face is keeping up with the habits that we set and following them through. When it comes to mental health, habit formation can be a really effective form of self-care. On the days that you feel like everything is too much, habits ingrained into your routine can help give that little push you need to do basic tasks that in turn might help you feel better.

But before we take a look at what habits might actually help with self-care, have you ever wondered what actually goes into forming habits? 

Habit formation

Habit formation is essentially broken down into 3 parts[1]

  1. The cue
  2. The action and 
  3. The reward

We are given an incentive to do the action and once done, we reward ourselves to keep the positive loop up. But complexities in real-life habits make habit formation not as simple as it sounds. 

One of the popular studies that talks about habit formation looks at how automaticity relates to complexity of an activity [2]. The study concludes that consistency in settings is key to keeping up the habit. The more we perform an action, the more it becomes easier to turn it into a habit. And the level of automaticity also depends on the complexity of the task. The more complex a task, the lesser we tend to do it and hence the longer it takes to turn it into a habit. 

This gives us insight into what we can do to form effective habits — break them down into simpler, doable tasks. The simpler it is, the more times we are intrinsically motivated to it and the easier it turns into a habit. Now, how do we use habits as a form of self-care?

Habits as a form of automated self-care

Now that we’ve taken a look at what goes into forming habits, here are a few habits that you can consider building into your routine!

1. Planning out your whole day – One of the major things we struggle with, especially under the virtual environment we are working in given the pandemic, is feeling productive. Feeling unproductive can be a big let down and can weigh on us immensely. 

Planning out your whole day on a calendar system with allocating blocks of time for each task you wish to complete can help you tackle your day better. You will have set goals in mind to achieve and you can even get them done with menial distractions. But also keep in mind to set realistic tasks that you can achieve without pushing yourself too much.

2. Logging your day – Journaling and keeping track of your thoughts and emotions can be a great way of understanding your own self. Identifying what causes you unease and distress can be a great way to work towards bettering them. Doing this can also be a great way to remember your days as much more than just blurs of passing time. 

3. The 2 minute rule – This is something that is explained in the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. He goes on to say that if some activity can be completed in 2 minutes then it should be done right then rather than later. I’ve followed this myself and it is a great way to actually finish small tasks that build up with time and seem like mountains that tire you out to climb at the end of the day. 

Things like making your bed, washing your small dishes as soon as you use them, arranging your shoes when you enter your home are all some examples of this habit that I’ve developed myself and it serves as small bursts of happiness and accomplishment at the end of a long day. 

4. Meal-prepping – This one is actually something that has helped me quite a bit. As someone who has to cook their own food for every meal, every single day, it becomes very tiring very easily. Cooking can become more like a chore needed for survival than something to look forward to. While resorting to take-out is always an option, I prefer to meal-prep so that I can easily reheat my meals, save some money and also make sure I have a healthier diet, all of which help in feeling better about myself. 

5. Exercise – This might be the most heard of tip, but believe me it works. I’m not a person who enjoys exercising nor do I particularly want to be social and go out but doing some form of physical activity really does help. It can be as short as a 10 minute yoga stretch/ workout or even a small walk in your terrace. But this habit, as cliche as it might be, works. Do not forget that physical health influences your mental well-being as well and remember to take breaks and take care of yourself.

Habits might seem very hard to form, but a small step a day can actually help build them quicker than you might believe. Start off with simple tasks and track them over a time period. Before you know it, you’ll have built effective habits that actually help you with your physical and mental well-being. Happy habit building!

[1]https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/02/13/the-science-behind-adopting-new-habits-and-making-them-stick/?sh=4f4609c043c7

[2] Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.

Grow Up, Or Don’t

When I was a kid, there were;

Purple skies and pink rivers,

Paper cranes and wooden toys.

The world was only as big as,

The candy shop around the corner.

The big blue ocean,

Fit itself into the sound of a seashell, 

And hide and seek was only a game. 

But today, I hide behind the solace of my words,

As the same big blue ocean threatens to sink me.

My skies and rivers are both blue, too. 

There are no cranes or toys. 

And my world hasn’t grown any bigger. 

It all fits into a tiny smartphone. 

I realise it’s all a hoax;

To grow up.

So today, maybe;

I didn’t walk around the puddle, 

I remembered to colour outside the lines, 

And all my little paper boats,

Slowly sailed back to me.

Journeys of Hope : Part 1 – An Open Letter

This is an open letter to all those who took a leap of courage and faith. Those who pried open their lips to push out words that asked for acceptance, help, and validity for all the feelings that they struggled to explain with simple words. This goes out to those who clutched onto hope thinking that they would receive kindness and empathy in return for the small step they took to force jagged syllables from behind their teeth. Those who then saw all that hope shatter when their words and feelings were dismissed, mocked, or shut down without so much as a thought their way. This goes out to all those who only wanted someone to understand but in the end, took to swallowing all that they wanted to say, because they knew there was no point in screaming out when no one would listen. 

 

I, too, was that person. 

 

Talking about feelings is difficult. Trying to talk about how you’re feeling when it comes to mental health issues is even more difficult. In a world where dialogue surrounding mental health is still considered a taboo in many countries and cultures, you risk harsh judgement and sometimes even shunning if you try talking about mental health issues. But what hurts the most is when you try speaking up about all that is bothering you to the ones you thought would understand and stand by you in solidarity, only for the same people to end up throwing your own words back at your face. 

 

About six years ago, I tried talking about issues that had been bothering me for quite a while, only for my own feelings to be used against me. I didn’t really know how to make sense of my feelings then, because I was a confused 16-year-old who had no inkling as to what mental health issues were – we were never even remotely taught anything related to mental health in school, were we? And so there I was, scouring the internet to try to make sense of my confusion and I was honestly scared. I thought something was wrong with me, that something physically might have gone wrong to cause all this. But most importantly, I thought that I was alone in feeling this because everyone I knew was normal, right? Then there definitely had to have been something that was wrong with just me. Because how else would you explain the crippling swooping felt inside my stomach that wrenched me and the waves of never-ending sadness that crashed over and over giving me no time to even breathe some days. How was I to explain any of this to anyone when I myself had no idea what was happening? Nothing had gone wrong, I hadn’t experienced events that could be considered traumatic. I had a supportive family, some good friends, and was doing well in school.  What was I to say, that I had suddenly incurred some sick twisted version of a manufacturing defect? Who would have even believed me when I didn’t believe in what I was feeling myself? 

 

It took some time and a lot of research for the confusion to give way to clarity bit by bit. Slowly, over the course of the next 3 years, after reading through a multitude of forums and discussion groups, I realised I was battling depression and anxiety. And it took a lot more searching to realise that I might not be alone in feeling this way: resources were not abundant nor visible, even a few years ago. I understood that I was not “broken” or “defective”, that nothing was “wrong” with me. It took some time for me to believe it but time was a good friend. However, to say that my struggles stopped there would be a blasphemic lie. The first few times I tried to talk about my issues, I ended up being branded “the sad kid”. To my friends, I became the person who complained too much, was always sad (because of course, being sad is a choice isn’t it?), never participated in anything, didn’t like going out, didn’t like laughing, didn’t like socialising, was always alone, was “emo”, was seeking attention. There was no use in talking to them about this was there?

 

So I shut up. 

 

I bottled up everything that I wanted to say. I instead wrote them down for myself, weaving poetry out of emotions that found no home, found no place in this world. And that wasn’t liked, either. But by then I had stopped caring about what others thought of me. I had neither the energy nor the willpower to try to make the unwilling understand. But I promised myself one thing, that I would do everything in my capability to make sure that another confused and scared 16 year old wouldn’t have to go through what I did, alone. I did get better with time but there were only very few people who managed to understand what I had gone through and offered genuine support. 

 

Today, I don’t shy away from talking about my journey with my mental health issues but the reactions are still mixed. Some are supportive, some still think I exaggerate but regardless, I am in a better place where I can look back at my own journey and talk about it in hopes that it might help someone, somewhere. Only if we start dialogue can we expect change. It still is uncomfortable for me sometimes and I don’t expect everyone to talk about it but what I do hope for is that you, reading this, understand how difficult it is to speak up in the first place. For you to understand what it means to truly listen, to not mock or shun those who reach out to you for help. The topic of romanticization of mental health has already been addressed quite a bit (The Romanticization of Mental Health) and it is important to not let your views be skewed based on what you see on social media platforms. No two people’s journey is the same. Do not impulsively throw out words that you might not truly mean. Opening up your “DMs” to talk is a big responsibility and one that is not to be taken lightly. If you do not know how to talk to someone who reaches out to you for help, educate yourself. Guide them to better resources. But never, ever invalidate someone’s feeling because you personally do not relate to them.

 

If you, reading this, happen to be the person I was, I am so very proud of you for continuing the fight against your mental health battles. Mental health is a journey filled with trials and tribulations, disappointments and hope, good and bad days, and what a journey it is indeed. But you still made it this far, you’re fighting the good fight and always remember that you are never alone. Your feelings are valid, your emotions are valid and I hope that when things get tough, you do not feel the need to hesitate before reaching out for help. 

 

I still struggle with my issues, I still feel uncomfortable talking about them, and I still get mixed reactions even from good friends. But I hope these words resonate with you somehow. Even if it ends up making just an infinitesimal difference, that is enough. That is all I hope for. 

 

If you would like someone to listen to your worries, in a judgement-free, safe and inclusive environment, take a look at our LP Buddy program 

 

If you would like to know what it takes to be a good ally, here are a few resources 

How to be a mental health ally

How to Support Someone With a Mental Illness

What does it mean to be an ally to someone with a mental illness?

4 Simple Ways You Can Be an Ally to the Mental Health Community

 

Mental Health in the Workplace

With the quarantine in full effect, Some of us have been working from our beds – the line between home and work completely blurred. Some others have a little too much family time and work has been their escape. And, for yet many more the pandemic has cost them their jobs and uncertainty looms like a guillotine over their lives. The undeniable fact remains that this lock-down is a little crazy and completely chaotic, and working from home has only added fuel to the fire.

The conversation surrounding mental health has never been more important, and while more and more people are talking about it, one space that it is rarely discussed is work. The internal separation between our ‘professional’ work-selves and our home-selves makes the topic of mental health issues taboo at the workplace. The need for this dialogue is also scarcely driven by employees. Changing this corporate culture must be driven by every worker. Spreading awareness and building support for demanding these benefits is a vital starting point. Encouraging more open conversations about mental health between colleagues and peers can lead to a more robust employee-driven implementation of policies. Finally, focusing on continuous improvement and adapting to change is key to support a workforce that deals with rapidly changing ways of working. Regardless of the myriad occupations that each of us hold, we can focus on these common spokes to turn the wheel of change. 

While some companies have started recognizing this and provide benefits catering towards employee mental-health such as free therapy and paid time-off, this is far from being the norm. Corporations exploit this diffidence to enhance their profit margins. However, businesses may actually profit from providing mental health services as part of their benefits. The World Health Organisation estimates that the cost in lost productivity due to depression and anxiety disorders is nearly US$ 1 Trillion. 

The pandemic and resulting work-from-home paradigm has brought forth a new challenge to the mental well-being of the digital workforce. While traditionally, most companies viewed working from home with suspicion, the current state of the world has brought enlightening new facts to dispel this doubt. Microsoft was among the first companies to enforce work-from-home for its employees. It has also been proactive in studying the results of this ‘experiment’. Some of the highlights (or sobering facts, to be accurate) from this study are, 

  • Employees were spending 10% more time in meetings when working remotely.
  • Instant Messaging usually slows down by 25% during lunchtime. However, when working from home, it dipped by a mere 10%.
  • Instant Messaging usage soared by 52% during 6pm and midnight.

The World Economic Forum recommends these 10 tips to boost your mental health when working from home. Here are some of the key points.

  • Set up a dedicated workspace, which should be as free from distractions as possible.
  • Develop a schedule, which includes phases of focused work as well as breaks.
  • Try to establish simple routines which don’t require any self-control, such as a coffee break or starting your working day with an easy routine task.
  • Set up dedicated times for work and leisure – and stick to these times.
  • If possible, work in a different room than the one you spend your leisure time in. Particularly avoid working in your bedroom as it may remind you of work related issues, preventing detachment when you go to sleep.
  • Engage in absorbing activities, which capture your full attention after work. Good examples include exercise, cooking, mindfulness meditation, or focused playing with your children or pets.

Due to the advances of technology and to the delight of managers, the feeling that an employee is available at any time when working from home has become the norm. Mental health has taken a back seat. Zoom burnout and loneliness (especially in the case of the younger workforce) are frequent complaints. In a 2010 experiment conducted by Nick Bloom, a British Economics professor at Stanford University, for a Chinese travel agency Ctrip, one half of a 250 employee-group, were told to work from home while the other half worked in the office. To the surprise of the agency, the productivity of the Home group went up by 13% and the company could save nearly $2000 annually per employee from this arrangement. But the experiment also measured happiness and ‘feelings of loneliness’ were the main reason for employee dissatisfaction. 

A majority of people spend one third of their adult life at work. Even if the social value of dispelling stigma surrounding mental health at the workplace isn’t enough, there is also a clear economic motive. The same study that estimated the cost of lost productivity due to employee mental health issues also provides hope. As a positive incentive for companies to take up the cause of mental health in the workplace, the research estimates that for every US$ 1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of US$ 4 in improved health and productivity. Here are the key takeaways from the steps recommended by the World Economic Forum to build a mentally healthy workplace,

  1. Be aware of the specific needs and circumstances of the work environment of your employees and tailor policies best suited for your company.
  2. Seek inspiration from motivational leaders and employees who have taken action.
  3. Be aware of other companies who have taken action to put mental health policies in place.
  4. Successful implementation of mental health policies and delivery of benefits relies on collaboration. Take practical steps to put this into place.
  5. Figure out where to go if you or your employees need professional help for their mental health concerns.

Most of these measures can be implemented whether the employees are at office or working from home. The most important step is to ‘Start taking action NOW.’ Employees have found innovative ways to stay connected with colleagues, who for many, double as best friends and form an important part of their social network. It is time for businesses to open a more humane side of operations and recognize that whether their employees are working from home or at the office, their mental health is as much of a tangible factor in their success as any profit margin.