Monthly Archives: October 2009

rising up to end stigma

as you know, i am a proud member of the canadian mental health association. i am even prouder to announce that a participant advisory committee, that is, individuals who are using the services of the CMHA vancouver/burnaby branch, is hosting an event for people living with mental illness and those affected by it to talk about ways to fight the stigma and discrimination around mental illness. if you’re like me and get excited about grassroots initiatives, please come and visit! here is the full information

rising up to end stigma

please join us at our 2009 participants forum
tuesday november 3, 2009

this is an opportunity for individuals living with mental illness, family members and professionals
to engage in dialogue and share ideas about how we can each be involved in fighting the stigma and
discrimination associated with mental illness.


a 2-hour forum with speakers and plenty of opportunity for participant feedback and idea sharing.

with complimentary snacks and beverages

tuesday, november 3, 2009 – 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm

muti-media room
roundhouse community centre, vancouver bc
right off the new canada sky train line

wayne cho who from may 2008 to june 2009 ran across canada to raise awareness of anxiety and depression.

andrew kellett fraser health peer mental health advocate

hosted by the CMHA VB participant’s advisory committee

please RSVP by november 2, 2009
604-682-3269 ext. 8479

spiritual language

a while ago we talked about the lack of scripts for talking about mental illness (at least in “polite society”), and before that we had a conversation about how uncomfortable it can be to engage in peaceful communication.  and now evan took up the topic the other day and asked how can we talk about our spiritual experience?

“i find it hard to talk about spirituality,” he says.  which is interesting: spirituality is a much talked-about topic, especially on the internet.  so what’s the problem?  let me attempt to summarize evan’s ideas:

we don’t share a widely understood language, notwithstanding the fact that many different religions are represented, from christian to buddhist to new age.  in the media, these languages appear side by side, almost as flavours to go shopping for.  this is very different from the experience of spirituality, which, to name but a few,  can go to the depths of who we are, can mean “waking up” or “dying and being re-born”, or can have a feeling of inevitability – very different from shopping.

the wide variety of languages that can be found can also be beneficial; we now have the opportunity to talk to people from many spiritual traditions, even those who have none.

we need to represent our spiritual experiences, with poetic and academic words, with images, with sound – and we will probably be telling our spiritual stories for a long while before we will start understanding the language.  we will need to become sympathetic and respectful listeners and viewers and doers. our language will need to stay close to our experience.

this is different from religion, which has often been presented in terms of intellectual belief. this leaves out much of our experience: the delights of the senses, the connecting with others through emotion, moments of transcendence and intimacy …

evan finishes the post with this:

this post i hope is just a preliminary. i would like to hear about your spiritual experiences and whether these experiences have led you to any particular tradition; have you drawn on various different traditions, or even formulated your own? what aspects of your life do you regard as spiritual? are there some parts of your life that you don’t see as spiritual?

i am curious about that, too.  before we go on to exploring this, i thought it would also be interesting to go back to the two posts i mentioned at the beginning and see whether some of the commenters have ideas that may apply to spirituality.

make it positive

alexander zoltai suggested framing things in positive terms.  so perhaps rather than saying “it’s difficult to talk about spirituality” we could say “discussing spirituality is new for me and i’m excited about experimenting with different ways of talking about it.”

avoid labels

evan himself had the idea of avoiding labels.  instead of mentioning the catch word spirituality or words like god, church, prayer, etc. one could describe the actual experience.  “the other day i went for this beautiful walk; the leaves were of all conceivable shades of red, gold and brown, the sky was blue, the air was fresh and clean; it just made me so happy and grateful to be there right at that moment!”

do we really need to talk?  how about listening?

listening is something that ian from quantum learning said is important: “listen for what sits under the words of others”.  talking is about communication.  communication is as much, or more, about listening as it is about speaking.  listening closely to what the other has to say, or wants to say, may give us clues about how to engage with them regarding spirituality.  or it may just end up being that listening to them will be our spiritual experience.

choose who you talk to

sandy said that in connection with talking about mental illness it “takes quite a bit of getting to know someone before they’ll own that their life has a problem.”  in my experience, they same holds true regarding spirituality.  maybe that takes us back to listening again.  through listening we form relationships, relationships that may then be ripe for a discussion of spiritual experiences.

yet another commenter wrote that it feels good to share such experiences with others who have been there themselves.

using the written word

marie said “having a blog that brazenly describes what is going on with me ‘in secret’ is helpful. i write under a pen name; but when i want to share that side of me with someone in my 3D world, i can simply point them to my blog.”  this reminds me of a minister i was once friends with.  we could talk about a gazillion things but not about spiritual matters – for that we needed the framework of the pulpit, from which he spoke most movingly.

just keep talking

another commenter recounted that the only way he achieved a well enough state to have nice conversation as well s complete wellness was by continuously talking.  so here the advice would be to just keep on talking, no matter what.  this goes with what another commenter mentioned, namely that it’s important to remember that when we are afraid of judgment by others for talking about “strange” subjects, it often comes from being afraid to be judged my ourselves.   not everyone will understand, and that’s ok.

what do you think?  how can we talk about spirituality?

how many suicides are ok, mr. minister?

last week, the british columbia government (the one that pumps millions and millions of dollars into the 2-week olympics next year) made cuts “changes” to the budgets of about 90 (ninety!) health agencies in the vancouver coastal health region alone. the changes cuts will mean no harm to services, says minister kevin falcon.

it’s hard not to think of the fox that walks into the chicken coop, smiling sweetly, “oh don’t worry, i mean you no harm.”

the cuts, falcon says, are only administrative. apart from the fact that i have it on good authority that they are not just administrative, the question remains how an organization is supposed to run without administration, especially since just about all health service agencies i know are already running on razor-thin administration, and since the government keeps asking for more and more paper (=administrative) work.

let’s look at this.

burnaby is canada’s best run city. can you imagine it without a receptionist?

4refuel in langley won a best small business award in 2006. how do you think they’d do without a bookkeeper?

the cactus club is one of the best companies to work for. are they doing that without administrative assistants?

as you know, my concern is mostly with agencies that provide services in the mental health sector, a sector that is already seriously underfunded.

let’s look at one example – suicide prevention. saving lives is not such a bad idea, is it? how much does it cost?

* $5,000 will make possible one 60 hour hotline training class for 25 volunteers.
* $1,850 will make possible one 24 hour period of crisis hotline service for the region.
* $1,000 will cover the cost of suicide prevention and intervention to save 20 lives.
* $500 will train 20 youth, parents, or teachers on suicide prevention.
* $250 will sponsor training for one hotline volunteer, who can answer 450 calls a year.
* $100 will cover 1 week of CareRing calls to a vulnerable senior.
* $75 will make possible 1 hour of crisis hotline service for the region.

now think about it. someone had to gather this information. someone had to type it up. someone had to get it on the web. someone had to put the web site together, someone needs to maintain it. who do you think is doing this? guess what, it’s someone in an administrative function.

ask any struggling social service agency what their major funding problems are, and they will invariably have “core funding” on the very top of their list – the money needed to pay for the invisible but highly necessary costs, without which the services have absolutely no infrastructure to rest on. if you’re a crisis line and don’t have a bookkeeper taking care of the payables, who will send that cheque to the telephone company, without which there won’t be any crisis line?

so how many suicides would you like to prevent, mr. falcon? 20, or, say, 10% less because the lives of those other two people aren’t that important?

affirmations and research

a little while ago, a paper was published that suggests that positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, yet their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. we examined the contrary prediction that positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. a survey study confirmed that people often use positive self-statements and believe them to be effective.

two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (”i’m a lovable person”) or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true.

among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ”need” them the most.

ray at the affirmation spot has an interesting discussion of this. let me add a few more thoughts.

as ray points out, it looks like the researchers didn’t quite know how affirmations are best used (and i think that ray’s suggestion of how the research might be conducted next time are fabulous). unfortunately, this happens more than occasionally in social science research. from what i can tell, that can come from a) truly not having a good understanding of the research subject and b) some of the traditional methodologies in social science research.

as for a), my husband, an avid poker player, often complains about that. he is very interested in psychology and enjoys participating in poker-related research. almost all of the time, however, he finds that psychologists who research poker have little understanding of the game, not appreciating, for example, that many serious poker players don’t approach it as a game of chance (like roulette, for example) but as a game of skill. consequently, the researchers ask questions that are irrelevant to these serious poker players and therefore end up with irrelevant results. i wonder whether that was similar in the research ray talks about.

regarding methodologies used, we need to keep in mind that experimental research as it traditionally carried out needs to be tightly controlled, which means that the more variables are introduced into an experiment, the less control there is possible – which in turn means that researchers like to have as few variables as possible (i.e. they just use one question). there are some good uses of experimental research – the famous pavlovian dog, for instance, has spawned some truly remarkable work – but experimental research also has its limits. perhaps using this methodology was not the best one for the topic of affirmations. that, of course, poses a problem – experimental research is often seen as the only methodology that will give reliable results.

on the other hand, i think it’s important that these topics are taken under the microscope of research and science. i would not be sitting here on this laptop that is a hundred times faster than the first million-dollar computer i ever worked with if it was not for science, and you wouldn’t be reading it on your iPhone or on facebook. science is a great treasure. the argument “affirmations have worked for me, so this research is bogus” is not – not, not, not – valid. qualitative experimental research is about statistics and probabilities and the question is not, “did/do/will affirmations work for joe?” but, “for how many of these 100 people did affirmations work, and does this give us reason to believe that they will work for an equal percentage of a given population in the future?”

in the end, we need to figure out how we would like to use this research. if affirmations have worked for you and perhaps also your clients, great. you can just look at this research and say, “hm, interesting, doesn’t seem to apply to me.” on the other hand, if you have found that affirmations haven’t always delivered what you had hoped, perhaps this research has a clue to what’s going on. note the “perhaps”. that’s what research and other sources of knowledge (and maybe even wisdom) are – little pieces of a puzzle that sometimes but not always show us the way to a bit more understanding.

finding your way through grief

grief is not something that i have a lot experience with as a counsellor, so it was interesting to read through psychologist roberta temes’ solace – finding your way through grief and learning to live again. the book’s no-nonsense, empowering tone is set right in the first paragraph of the introduction:

you are experiencing this death in your unique way. your experience is valid for you. your response is right for you, for now. don’t let anyone suggest that you are mourning the wrong way. you are your own expert.

that resonates with me. there was a time when i felt ashamed that my father’s death had not affected me as much as my dog’s did; it would have been lovely to have heard these words.

like any good book about a specific subject in psychology and therapy, the principles used apply to more than just the topic, like this, for example:

trends come and trends go. philosophies are in vogue and out. stop listening to bereavement experts; they will change their minds and what is considered abnormal today will be obligatory tomorrow.

for example, there was a time when experts claimed that you must talk about the death, cry about the death, wail about the death. you were instructed to go directly to a psychiatrist if you were unable to loudly express your grief.

today we know better.

in line with this down-to-earth approach, temes peppers her books with a wide variety of suggestions from people who survived the death of a loved one, for example

suggestions from marion, a dog lover

my pets saved my life. when i couldn’t pull myself out from under the covers for anything else, i did for my pets. i recommend you get a pet or two or borrow on from a friend or a neighbour.

these suggestions are supplemented by people’s stories, told in their own words. i prefer these little biographical vignettes over the long-drawn-out narratives that often spike self-help books. you know the one: “one day, babette walked into my office. she was a tall brunette and worked at a prestigious bank in downtown san francisco. when she took off her jacket, i noticed her well-manicured hands shaking …” etc., etc. so thanks for getting to the point, roberta.

chapter 3 immediately drew my attention: “helping yourself” this is where you can really see roberta temes’ practical, life-affirming approach. the subheadings read

work is therapy
socializing is therapy
organizing is therapy
taking action is therapy
food is therapy
planning is therapy
religion is therapy
writing is therapy
art is therapy
learning is therapy
reading is therapy
sweet moments

she also doesn’t clobber the reader with simplistic “think positive” advice; in fact, in her appendix, where she lists more authors to read – something that i always appreciate in any book – she promises that the list will not contain anything that will estrange readers through overly confident and positive “smugness”.

the last page contains these words:

i wish your days to be filled with kindness and goodness and many reasons to smile. i wish your nights to be filled with secure sleep and sweet peace. i hope you follow a life-affirming path and i wish you a fine life ahead, full of good memories and laughter and love.

acceptance, is, ought, and baby food

a few weeks ago we had a conversation about acceptance. one of the things we discussed there was this:

acceptance is about the past not the future …

a common trap that we fall into in our thinking is when we jump without reflection between what is and what should (ought) be. in philosophy, that has been referred to as the “is/ought” problem. just because i say that yes, teachers used to beat students, and yes, i used to smoke (the “is”) does not mean that teachers ought to beat students and people ought to smoke.

one of the commenters then wondered how we can move away from an unpleasant “is” to a better “ought”

we could use a situation like this:

i can walk 4 miles an hour [the “is”]. since i believe this to be true [i.e. i accept the “is”], how can i believe that i could walk 5 miles an hour? [i.e. moving to the “ought”]

interestingly enough, around the time that we had this conversation, i also wrote about solution focused brief therapy. the solution focused tradition has much in common with appreciative inquiry, which has something to offer here.

we work from what is there: it engages the whole system. data from the past is analysed for common themes (including data from the client’s conversations with selected colleagues).’ this establishes ‘what is’. the client then articulates ‘what will be’ and ideas are put into practice.


it is quite permissible to experiment with not talking about the problem at all as it is ‘irrelevant to the solution’ and the coach also has ‘no idea where the solution will come from’. as gregory bateson pointed out, the solution comes from a second, or higher, order of thinking.

let’s combine our previous conversations about acceptance with these words about AI and see what happens if we apply them to the above situation:

in the past, i walked 4 miles an hour.

this is the reality, this is what happened. there is no regret, and it is not labelled a problem; it’s just “what is”.

by next year, i will [or want to] walk 5 miles an hour.

note that there is no “ought” (“i should”).  it is a future-directed expression of faith (“i will”) or desire (“i want to”).

i can do this by hiring a trainer, buying those expensive runners, rewarding myself with a trip to the south pacific, going to the gym each day, reading biographies of famous walking athletes, getting a really fast dog, befriending a training buddy, or signing up with a walking group.

there is no discussion of how hard it is to walk 5 miles an hour, or how you’ve trained before but it didn’t work, or how you can’t get motivated because walking reminds you of your athletic girlfriend (which would be discussing the problem). the brainstorming that created the ideas comes from a different part of the brain than the problem.

in the conversation that follows, we might choose one possible solution as an experiment and look for “one lazy step to take away today that will take you towards your solution,” as carey glass, the coach mentioned in the link above, says. “spy on yourself and look for tiny things that are helping: think baby food and it turns out to be caviar!”

i have seen this magic work over and over again. for example, i routinely ask clients who are very shy about networking to make one super simple phone call. “call them and ask them for their fax number; that’s all!” once they manage to do that, sweaty hands and all, they often surprise me by telling me that they found the person on the other end of the phone so nice that they ended up chatting for 5 minutes.

what would be your baby food?