This is not a post about how to take care of somebody with dementia. It’s not about what you can do if you are taking care of a loved one. It’s not even about the experience. This is but a raw diary of emotions, watching from the sidelines, a mute spectator. An outpouring of the things I feel and wish I could share with somebody but I’m afraid to.
Trigger warning: Demetia, memory loss
Dementia is a disease that leads to a slow loss of memory and the ability to function normally. It’s hard to catch at first, hard to tell apart from usual forgetfulness. But at some point, it hits you hard. When you struggle to convince your loved one of something that you know as sure as day, but they refuse to accept. That was when it dawned on me that something was wrong. It took a while to get a diagnosis. Getting them to a doctor was an ordeal. Even now, there is no acceptance that there is something wrong.
As things went on, there were several realizations that were shattering. We all have our raw emotions, thoughts, prejudices all inside our heads. But those are filtered out and thought through before we speak, right? It is those very filters that also get removed when dementia strikes. You hear and see things that you would never have before. Irrespective of surroundings or the people around you. The worst qualities in the person get exacerbated. A stunning realization hits you when you hear what really goes on in their minds. That was probably always there and just was never expressed? Or maybe it was something else that was also picked up sub consciously due to the disease? You never really know. But a lot of those things can disgust and shame you. There is no better way to put it. You feel like the past has been a lie, wonder how you had never seen this side of them before. The paradox being that you still need to care for them, while slowly losing some of the love and respect. This makes the days harder as you go along.
Dementia could manifest with a lot of impatience and aggression from what I have seen. They become very demanding and irrational, be it for information, food or anything else they need. This takes an enormous toll on the care givers. Finding time for yourself, to switch off and do what you feel like becomes almost impossible. Even small delays or oversight can lead to a lot of aggression from them. Constantly nudging, pushing and bickering you, over and over again. They would not remember how many times they have said the same thing. They just keep going on and on. Your frustration is met with puzzlement, confusion and sometimes plain anger. There is no easy solution here. You may need to build up your patience and not show what you’re feeling. I had become really adept at hiding what I really feel and stoically put up a straight face.
The biggest source of frustration when dealing with a disease like this, is that there is no end in sight. Recovery and getting better are never options. The best you can hope for is that things don’t get worse. Even that means your current scenario would go on. You may desperately wish for the life before, when things had some semblance of normal. But that is but a memory, something that lies in your head, something you can dream of and yearn for but never get again. You move on, with your head down, hoping for the best, hopefully today might be a good day?
Through my experiences, I have realized something. During times like these, it is really important that you take care of yourself physically and mentally. Caring for, or just living with, someone who has dementia can be mentally very exhausting. You must be aware of what that is doing to your own health. Then, see what you can do to counter that. Make sure you have all your meals and check on your health regularly. The toll on your mental health can be even more severe. But it may not be immediately evident. You need to be really conscious and make an effort to take care of yourself and heal. If you have really disturbing thoughts and feelings, it is completely ok and understandable. Give yourself permission to feel that way, without guilt. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and process the emotions. Talk to people you trust, take some time to have someone else take your place and step out. Do something that give you joy and happiness. You need that, you deserve that!
We are all fighting battles, this particular one, watching a loved one struggle with dementia is devastating and difficult. Take care of yourselves as you power through it!
Mental health can be affected by being in stress-inducing situations for a long time. A significant bunch of folks navigating this journey are those who are diligently tending to their loved ones facing health challenges.These could be parents, grandparents, partners or anyone else. When loved ones are going through illnesses that affect their ability to function everyday, the family would need to step up and care for them. Sometimes, there are professionals brought in, but sometimes they may not be able to afford that. In both cases, there are one or a few family members who act as the primary caregivers. With or without professional help, they are ultimately responsible for the daily welfare of the loved one.
Being a caregiver is an extremely stressful situation. This stress can affect their physical and mental health. It might not be immediately obvious. But over a prolonged period of time, its effects will begin to show. It is paramount that caregivers take measures to combat this. It’s crucial for caregivers to proactively establish a regimen of self-care practices. Maintaining their own well-being is key to ensuring they can provide optimal support to their loved ones.
If you are someone who can relate to this, we hope you are able to put in place some of these routines. Otherwise, do look out for anyone in your circles who might be in a situation. Talk to them and see how they are doing, remind them to take care of themselves.
Let’s go over these self-care tips for caregivers.
Set Expectations with Peers
The biggest cause of concern for a caregiver is expectations from outside their family. Caregivers often grapple with a juggling act – there are work demands, social invites from friends, and family gatherings that come with their own set of expectations. These responsibilities can sometimes feel like they’re squeezing your time and energy. The smart move to alleviate potential stress and anxiety? Open up to your colleagues, friends, and extended family about what’s going on.Most people are understanding enough and would care about their well-being. They would not hold it against them and will be very accommodative. They may even be able to offer help and support. This communication and openness can go a long way.
It is easy to delay or skip meals while prioritizing a loved one. But this will take a toll on the body. Physical and mental energy is needed to be effective care. An important part of self care is to keep meals on track and eat nutritiously.
Sleep Extra whenever possible
Often, caregivers are woken up at odd hours, tending to their loved ones’ needs in the dead of night. This can happen multiple times in one night, can wreak havoc on their sleep quality, leaving their mental well-being at risk. . They should try to find time and take small naps during the day to recharge. These moments can coincide with their loved ones’ rest or when there’s a helping hand available to temporarily take over caregiving duties.
Get Things off your Mind
Feeling anxious, distressed or depressed is common among caregivers. Keepng those feelings bottled up can be detrimental to mental health. They need to talk to a partner, trusted friend, relative or anyone, about how they are doing and what they are feeling, to get things off their mind. If you know somebody going through such a situation, make sure to check in with them and make them comfortable to open up when needed.
Block some Me Time
Caregiving is as much a hustle as anything else. There is a significant risk of burnout, but there might not be any exit options here. Caregivers need to take time out for themselves, to do something they want to. This has to be a priority, to make sure they can keep going on with what they are doing. These moments can coincide with their loved ones’ rest or when there’s a helping hand available to temporarily take over caregiving duties.
Change of Environment
As often as possible, caregivers need a change of environment. It could be something as simple as Stepping outdoors to do something relaxing, away from the environment, to take their mind off the care. How often this can be done depend on the level of care needed and availability of backup. Be it once a week or once everyday, every little bit counts to recharge and refresh.
Credit and Positive Reinforcement
Caregivers, like all of us, need positive reinforcements occasionally to keep themselves going. As hard as it is to believe, they must realize that they are doing something valuable. With them, their loved ones might not have the same level of care and comfort. It is also up to the people around to provide some of that credit and reinforcement. Being appreciated for what they are doing is the best source of motivation.
If you are a caregiver, please do take the time to focus on self care. While making sacrifices can seem like the right thing to do, taking care of yourself is the best way to ensure you take the best care of your loved ones.
I want to have an open, heart-to-heart conversation with you. It’s been far too long since we last conversed, and I want to address our absence head-on. As the co-founders of LonePack, the buck stops with us. Samiya, Naveen and I owe you all an apology and an explanation.
The past year and a half has been an extraordinary time filled with challenges and uncertainties. Like everyone else, our team at LonePack has been navigating the turbulent waters of a post-pandemic world. It further coincided with a lot of changes for several people in our team. 6/7 core members were going through a major life transition – be it going back to college, hunting for a job or taking care of family who were ill. It has been a grueling journey, and the toll it took on us was more significant than any of us anticipated. Burnout consumed us, and unfortunately, it affected our ability to continue the important work we had set out to do.
We know that during this difficult period, when mental health was more crucial than ever, our absence left a void. It’s heartbreaking to think that we let you down.. let ourselves down… and let our team down. And for that, we take full responsibility. We carry deep regret for any disappointment, concern, or doubt that our inactivity may have caused you. While this is not an excuse, we hope you understand that our intention was never to abandon our mission or the individuals who depend on us.
Mere words cannot erase the lost goodwill. Yet, we want to assure you that we have spent this time reflecting, learning, and making significant changes to ensure a better future.
We are committed to rebuilding LonePack with a renewed sense of purpose and chart a sustainable path forward. We have taken concrete steps to address the root causes that led to LonePack’s burnout. Firstly, we have reduced our focus on effort-intensive projects that did not directly address the needs of the most vulnerable. This included taking tough calls to shut down much loved initiatives like “LonePack Letters”. We are implementing clearer volunteering time expectations, to ensure that our team doesn’t burn themselves out. And most importantly, we will be prioritizing the well-being of our team, ensuring that they get access to mental health support, making sure they feel supported in their emotional and professional growth.
But we cannot embark on this journey alone. We humbly ask for your forgiveness and support as we embrace this new chapter. We recognize that trust will need to be rebuilt from scratch. We are prepared to earn it back through our actions.
Before I conclude, we want to express our heartfelt gratitude for the unwavering support every one of you have shown us thus far. We hope we are given a second chance to move forward with you folks- hand in hand, driven by compassion, understanding, and a shared vision of a mentally healthy society.
Come June, we have Pride month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, to celebrate non-binary sexuality, and to demand systemic change for the LGBTQ+ community in society. It is also the time when several companies come up with a range of Pride-themed products and marketing campaigns aiming to display inclusion and cater to the LGBTQ+ community. The community is a “growing market” with increasing spending power ( estimated to be 3.7 trillion dollars worldwide) and firms have taken note. Social media sites provide options for rainbow emojis and backgrounds.Companies like Fastrack, Adidas, Reebok, IBM, Anouk, Godrej, Times of India, Brookebond etc. are letting their rainbow flags fly and churning out rainbow-themed products.
Are rainbow stickers and colourful packaging enough though?
This kind of marketing, also known as rainbow washing or rainbow marketing, is sheerly opportunistic and draws attention away from the core message while promoting no real change. With the entry of corporate brands in the Pride march, tickets have become expensive (with free tickets being cancelled altogether), further alienating those with lesser incomes.
Several retails brands like H&M and Adidas manufacture products from countries where homosexuality is banned and have not made any efforts to improve conditions there. Fashion labels that are said to support the cause refuse to recruit LGBTQ+ models. YouTube has mostly ignored hateful homophobic content to remain uncensored, despite claiming to value diversity. Goldman Sachs has recently come under criticism for discrimination in hiring and treatment of employees, going so far as to exclude an employee from an important conference call, because he sounded, “too gay”.
However, there are other organizations that have gone beyond cheery slogans and walked the talk for inclusivity that everyone can take note from. Absolut, Smirnoff and Wells Fargo have been closely associated with the cause for 30 years despite the initial backlash and have donated more than 400 million dollars for the cause. Apple’s Tim Cook openly called out the government for its anti-homosexuality laws and Disney threatened to move to a different place over Georgia’s similar laws. P&G has partnered a million-dollar deal with GLAAD to increase visibility for people from the LGBTQ+ community. Swedish furniture giant IKEA led the way in 1994 with a dining table ad featuring a gay couple. They were portrayed like any other couple and the company didn’t gloat or pat itself on the back. It went about integrating the ad into a larger campaign of inclusivity for all kinds of families.
Older members of the community agree that it is progress to see brands openly allying with LGBTQ+ community, but the Pride march is not just about celebration and tribute. It is about demanding change for those still suffering. In various countries, same-sex relationships and marriages are still banned, conversion therapy is legal and discrimination and harassment are a fact of everyday life. As Ahalya Srikant, Research Fellow points out “Living in a big city can make life easier to be out and proud of who you are. But for a lot of the LGBTQ+ community, pride is still a protest.” While corporations employ rainbow marketing strategies, movies and tv shows have taken the opposite route. Ever watched a character and felt a stunning moment of connection? When it was like seeing yourself and your own unique experiences mirrored? Well, for a vast majority of LGBTQ+ people, these moments come rarely, if at all.
Remember the last LGBTQ+ character in a movie or tv series? The character was either a flamboyant, effeminate fashionista, as tough as nails, “manly” short-haired fighter, the psychopathic villain or the adorable side character killed off to motivate the hero ( a. k. a. Bury your gays trope). They either appear fitting into these boxes, while also appearing attractive enough to the heteronormative viewer, or not ar all. That’s all the options available for the most part.
Earlier content wasn’t even ready to identify the characters as being LGBTQ+ lest they lose viewership or violate the Motion Picture Production Code. Predominantly LGBTQ+ characters have been relegated to the role of villains like in Silence of the Lambs. Due to the belief that non-binary identity itself was a deviation or perversion, those characters were often linked with psychopathy and violence.
China still bans the depiction of homosexual characters and major big-budget movies choose to feature minor queer characters that can be easily edited out. Another method used is queer baiting (or queer coding) where a person’s sexuality and relationships are implied in sub-text, rather than shown, an often-quoted example being Dean Winchester in the show, ‘Supernatural’. This method draws in queer viewers while also avoiding offending more conservative viewers. Both methods of course tell us that the homophobic view takes precedence.
Casting Straight cis-gendered people for LGBTQ characters hasn’t helped either. Many recent portrayals too have dropped the ball on LGBTQ+ representation. Akshay Kumar in Laxmii steadily belts out sexist dialogues and mannerisms in an effort to play a transgender character. Vignesh Shivan’s portion in Netflix’s “Paava Kadhaigal” is a mess of stereotypes- the foreigner lesbian, the ignorant villagers, short hair and jacket, attempts to demonstrate what a lesbian relationship means and the big reveal. It doesn’t help that these characters are often played by hetero cis-men such as Eddie Redmayne, Timothee Chamalet etc., furthering the myth that queer people are basically hetero people who are confused or putting on an act.
It isn’t all bad, though. With a change in audience perception, thanks to the collective efforts of shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Queer as Folk, and Will and Grace, nuanced portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters have been emerging and winning viewer’s hearts. Show writers and actors no longer shy away from acknowledging the sexuality of their characters. In fact, several of these out and proud LGBTQ+ characters like Raymond Holt, Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn 99), Nia (Supergirl), Sophia Burset and Nicky Nichols (Orange Is the New Black), Eric Effiong (Sex Education), Robin Buckley (Stranger things) and Callie Torres (Grey’s anatomy) have quickly become fan favorites. Callie became the longest-running queer series regular. Brooklyn 99 even won the GLAAD’s award for Outstanding Comedy series. What’s more, many of these characters are played by members of the LGBTQ+ community. These much-beloved characters have beautifully balanced talking about their sexuality and yet developing the character beyond this facet of their identity. From including gay characters only for shock value and easy jokes, Indian cinema has made significant progress. Movies like Fire and Memories in March that spoke about same-sex relationships, and Margarita with a Straw, that talks about the intersection of gender disability and sexuality, did start the conversation in the industry. Yet it took Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan, Kapoor and Sons, Super Deluxe, Bombay Talkies and Njan Marykutty in the last few years to really bring these stories to the mainstream audience.
In March 2021, we will even have the country’s first exclusive LGBTQ streaming service, PlanetOut with plans to venture towards including local stories and talent.
Regional queer literature is harder to come by, not just due to the taboo surrounding the topic, but also because many writers face, “…an increasing demand to fit into the ‘urban, upper class gay’ stereotype from publishing houses and editors…”, mentions Moulee, curator of the Queer LitFest Chennai. However with the rise of smaller publishing houses, self-publishing and the internet, it is becoming significantly easier to publish and access queer content and connect with each other.
But why does seeing LGBTQ+ characters in the media matter so much? – For starters, it provides comfort and connection to people who are already struggling with so much uncertainty and isolation. – Watching most characters similar to you portrayed as villains or conveniently killed off can lead to internalized hate and feeling misunderstood. – Trying hard to fit into narrow stereotypes shown on TV and feel lacking when we don’t is not healthy to anyone’s self-esteem or confidence. – It is not an easy topic to talk about and the presence of such characters even in fiction is a crucial starting point in normalization in society. – It is also inspiring to see similar role models thrive and succeed – Acceptance and popularity of these shows help queer people understand that they can be accepted and loved, too – It helps everyone gain perspective on the unique experiences of the LGBTQ+ individual Besides, don’t all stories, all voices deserve to be heard?
As Wired’s Editorial Fellow, Josie Colt frankly sums it up,”…Do corporations ever fly flags out of sincere support? Unless they’ve shown other actions of allyship, rainbow-washing seems like an attempt to appear hip, hop on the current bandwagon and make a few bucks while they’re at it. Should the same question be applied to people who tag along to parades? If that’s your one action of solidarity for the whole year, should you be wearing a rainbow at all? Then again, sincere or not, showing the world that much rainbow doesn’t seem so bad either.”
Let’s take this opportunity to ponder on our actions year-round. Do we happily cheer on regressive portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters? Do we continue to shop, and therefore support brands that utilize the queer identity for their own profits? Do we continue to ridicule and further these stereotypes? It’s time to start thinking because rainbow DPs aren’t gonna cut it anymore.
Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder– a disorder in brain function, affecting one’s emotions, communication, learning ability, and self-control. It doesn’t “spread” like a disease. It develops as an individual grows. The whole concept of disease/illness cannot be applied here. Autism is treated to help support emotional growth and communication, and is not “cured”.
Myth: “Everybody with autism is either non-verbal or savant.”
The more extreme (and especially rare) cases of people with autism are popularized, leading people to believe that ALL people with autism have either extraordinary skills or poor levels of understanding.
Though Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are characterized by unique patterns in social interaction and repetitive/restricted patterns in behavior; it is important to note that these characteristics vary in terms of severity and impact. For example, speech impairments can range from deficits in understanding to complete lack of speech. Several adults diagnosed with ASDs can live independently, while others can’t. The savant skill is a condition wherein a person with autism has an exceptional mental ability. However, this condition is rare and its degree varies as well. People with autism who show a particular interest or exhibit a particular skill set are often confused for having the savant skill, which need not be the case.
Myth: “Vaccines cause autism.”
This myth started with a research paper published in the 1990s, that linked vaccines with ASDs. However, the research paper wasn’t credible at all, and the medical professional had his license taken away. The myth has still stuck around to this day and contributes to the number of anti-vaxxers. A vaccine has no relation to autism; it only boosts your immunity and resistance against particular diseases.
Myth: “The number of people with autism has increased/ There is an autism epidemic going on”
Around 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism. This number is significantly higher than it was two decades ago. The only reason for this is that the awareness of ASDs began to increase in the 1980s-1990s. With this increase in awareness, more people were able to identify the signs of autism. Hence, more individuals got diagnosed. Apart from this, the definition of the word, ‘autism’ was expanded to be more inclusive of the variety of unique cases falling under the autism spectrum.
Myth: “People with autism are treated so that they can ‘resemble neurotypical people’ ”
Autism is a lifelong disorder. Methods that heavily intervene in a child’s life at an early age to “make” them neurotypical(like a few cases of Applied Behaviour Analysis, which requires being under supervision for 20+ hours per week.), tend to affect the child’s mental health negatively. Convincing a child that they need to be ‘fixed’ can lead to trauma and life-long anxiety. As Barry Pratz said, this mindset and these methods ‘treat the person as a problem to be solved rather than an individual to be understood’. Instead, allowing the person with autism to be in a comfortable environment, and understanding the reason behind any particular speech/behavioral pattern of theirs can help them remain safe.
Myth: “Autism is a case of over-diagnosis.”
Several researchers also argue that changing the criteria for autism and making it more inclusive, has led to an over-diagnosis of the condition.
Rather than it being a case of over-diagnosis, milder symptoms that are associated with behavioral challenges are being recognized and accepted under the autism spectrum. This helps to prevent further serious ailments that could occur as a result.
Myth: “Autism itself is a myth.”
In Lorna Wing’s concept behind the autism spectrum, she mentions that the autism spectrum “shades imperceptibly into eccentric normality“. This implies, that behavioral habits exhibited by people with autism are also exhibited by people without autism.
‘While people with autism self-stimulate, neurotypical people fidget. While people with autism have certain things they are sensitive to, neurotypical people have dislikes and preferences.’
While there may not be a well-defined line around the criteria for being included in the autism spectrum, there most certainly is a difference between neurotypical individuals and individuals with autism.
People with autism are diagnosed with ASDs. The core features of ASDs are trouble with social communication and inflexible repetitive behavior. Neurotypical people are not diagnosed with ASDs, or their symptoms do not fall under the category of the autism spectrum.
The similarities between people with autism and neurotypical people aren’t enough to debunk a disorder that affects all aspects of life for those who are diagnosed with it. Especially now that more people are aware of ASDs, people with mild symptoms are also diagnosed with autism.
As put rightly by Steve Silberman, “It wasn’t long ago that someone who spoke to his or her friends by typing on a keyboard was considered severely handicapped. Now they’re just a teenager.
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.
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.
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: 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?
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.
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 :
Spending time in nature or with pets
Temporarily stepping back from people or situations that act as triggers
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.
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.
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.
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 aboutArt 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.