Monthly Archives: May 2010

the fun in social justice

i commit to writing a blog post exploring the fun in social justice.

once again, northern voice, vancouver’s annual blogging and social media conference, was a lot of fun. two inspiring sessions were about making a difference in the world: one about doing good by darren barefoot, and another about social media and social justice by ajay masala puri and jeremy osborn. the one about social justice, which took place outside in the grass on a beautiful sunny afternoon, challenged all participants to commit to doing one thing towards social justice.

social justice plays a relatively large part in my life – among other things, it’s one of the categories here on this blog. also, right now i work for an organization that is entirely dedicated to social justice, the mennonite central committee. as i was thinking about a possible commitment it occurred to me that while i do dedicate a good of amount of my time and some of my money to social justice, there are moments when the term seems a bit heavy, maybe a little too serious. that’s how i came up with the commitment of looking at the fun side of social justice. fun is important for me; fun sustains me. it makes sense, then, to invest something in the fun side of this – it’ll keep my interest in social justice going! so here are a few thoughts on the fun part of social justice.

each and every organization committed to social justice started out as a volunteer project, and i know of no social justice organization that doesn’t still rely heavily on volunteers. the cool thing about volunteering is that it can be tons of fun. who wouldn’t want to volunteer for the vancouver laughter mission society? how about collecting kids’ artwork for the canadian flowers for food society? one of the volunteer jobs i had a lot of fun with was organizing a fancy english afternoon tea party in the middle of the drug-infested downtown eastside to help collect money for bus fare for people who couldn’t afford it to go to doctors’ appointments, job interviews, etc. volunteering can give you a carte blanche – whatever you want to do, you can probably find a non-profit organization who will want to engage your services for it.

people engaged in social justice are often leading-edgers, pioneers. i think that’s why social justice and social media go so well together – they both tend to attract those of us who will never be happy unless we’re standing right at the cliff, looking at new possibilities, new landscapes. there’s such an excitement that comes with trying out something that no-one has ever done before (one reason why raul and i are so into mental health camp).

super cool people
and the people you meet! fascinating! one of my co-workers has assisted first nations people for decades – but he also has an awesome bluegrass band. another one of my coworkers, who is incapable of going through a week at work without coming up with at least one completely novel way to help our clients, has worked with the amish, busted his chops as a waiter in japan, and researched thai monks somewhere in a remote forest. granted, you can meet interesting people anywhere, but i don’t know of any other sector where the company of stimulating people is so easy to come by as in social justice circles.

community building
“it’s fun, you walk up and down the street and you know everybody. you sit and chat with people and you hang out,” says my friend micha, who works with a group that does neighbourhood-based restorative justice. of course there’s many ways of building community but again, people who feel passionate about striving for a common, elusive goal such as social justice – they just build a special kind of community.

where have you found fun in social justice?

mental health advice: tell me what you think

the other day i received a phone call from william (not his real name), very distressed. he was in the psych ward, on his third week now. “i gotta get better, i gotta get better!” he kept saying. his hospitalization had been preceded by a good six weeks of progressively worsening mental health. anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder were only some of the diagnoses that had been with him for many years. when he is healthy, he is funny and quirky, a dedicated stay-at-home dad who enthusiastically shares his two daughters’ passion with field hockey. when he cycles into his illness, his thought patterns quickly become more and more one-dimensional until all that is left is a looming preoccupation with how bad of a father he is and a clinginess that becomes almost unbearable to his partner, especially since it tends to be laced with hurtful sarcasm.

my involvement with william is only at the margins. when things get bad, though, we often spend a lot of time on the phone. he finds our phone calls comforting; i think it’s because i treat him like a normal human being, because i, too, have personal experience with mental illness, and also because i keep pointing out my boundaries, gently but firmly.

when william called and kept saying, “i gotta get better, i gotta get better”, my instinct made me blurt out, “you gotta make a choice here. either force yourself to get better – the old pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps method – or accept that you’re sick right now, and that this could be a slow process. but if you keep going back and forth between the two, it’s going to drive you around the bend.”

in my observation, one of william’s major problem seems to be that he is stuck in a painful, very tight loop of thoughts and feelings, a cage of unrelenting self-talk of self-loathing, control and neediness (“i’m a failure!” “no-one wants to spend time with me!” “jean bought the wrong kind of potatoes again!”) my blurting and telling him what i think he needs to do – not exactly according to the textbook of counselling – was at least partially informed by this observation. perhaps i was trying to say, “get out of your cage!”

over to you, readers. what do you think? was my exclamation to make a choice clumsy, too directive? if you were william, how would you have reacted? would you feel connected because i simply followed my instinct and therefore related on a real level?

bryan alexander improv

unable to hear internet legend’s bryan alexander’s keynote address at northern voice (the reverb was awful), i decided to turn it into an experiment. for about 15 minutes, i recorded the words i could hear (maybe every 10th word or so), then i categorized them and turned them into an improv style remix. here is bryan alexander (captured by bionicteaching), and below him, the remix

bryan alexander at university of richmond

good design minimizes confusion and empowers the user. good design is for anyone. so many anyones, they are a whole congregation. the first generation of users talked to nobody. that raised a lot of eyebrows, even frankensister’s. but then, brother, the creature changed, although not into a mouse. the congregation became an audience; there was a different character to it. they changed from puppets to humans – great human characters! “and that character acts,” said kathy sierra to bryan and sean, “it has footsteps! if you do it right, they will pay you the great fee of attention.”

at that point, everyone started thinking and reflecting and more thinking, and they came up with reasons and answers. there were times in 20th century technology, not like right now, where you simply began with two things: a new game, and a moment of confusion. you couldn’t just jump from china to the united states, that would have killed you. you would have become a casualty of science fiction horror stories, landing in the eerie, creepy graveyard that everyone fears. but then it’s never the shininess that pulls us in but the darkness.

let’s get back to technology, like twitter, twitter and more twitter. or turn on the TV, and you have virtual reality! media infects your computer when you download a podcast or some videos from flickr. actually, there are some series of videos i can’t really describe, they’re new gadgets (but really new versions of old machines).

how spirited they are! amazing! what a great way to design things! the intensity sure gets our attention. excellent! it brings up people’s self esteem – aaaah! very attractive, a wonderful gift to the world.

and what is that gift, you ask? it’s text! it’s storytelling. yeah, stories about science fiction, stories about writing stories. their titles can be so good, they themselves bring in large amounts of comments. stories are important. stories are the keynote.

of course, this needs to be explained, even though it’s not explainable. it’s a puzzle but it can be explained in part. you like a sense of mystery, don’t you? it’s a surprise. it brings contrast into your life. surprise is crucial, it’s a shocking shift to suddenly reveal the mysterious, to make it visible. like in a murder mystery. mystery, of course, is a thing of speed. it’s about the hidden chamber, the pregnant pause, the sense of awe and terror that comes with just a few very strange shadows …

and that brings energy into the design, an extra force. the power of it is engaging, it pulls us in. at the same time, we must draw on the balance of power. “it needs to be expressed,” she said, and after a moment of friction, it can be dumped, if only reluctantly.

all of this can lead to addiction. but there are a lot of ways. if you’ve ever heard the twilight, you’ll find out that it’s designed so that the covers are the series. it’s a classic, classic endemic economy that sets you up to trust each other. it can look like a facsimile, and i understand that concerns you.

you are silent now.

but you have the scoop.

good design is mysterious.

understanding mental health

may is mental health month. it might be useful to think about what we’re talking about here.

what is mental health?

there are many definitions out there. years ago i wrote a paper about my definition but i can’t find that paper anymore. so why not try again. let’s see …

mental. health.


mental comes from the latin word mens, which means mind. there are more ideas about what “mind” is than we’ll ever have time to talk about here; i think we’re forced to come up with our own definition for this one, too. so what do i think is that thing called “mind”?

it’s the intangible stuff inside a person. wait, just inside a person? animals, too? do you think a dog has a mind? a parrot? a sharK? a bee? we’re just a few words into this and already we get entangled. so let’s just say that non-humans may have a mind, too, but for the purpose of this blog post, we’ll limit it to humans.

“the intangible stuff inside a person” is too vague. we have names for the stuff: emotion, heart, feelings, thinking, perceiving, consciousness, soul, dreams, desire … (what have i left out?). when we use the word “mental”, at one point or another, we touch on all of these. but how do we fit all of these under one hat? is the word “mental” that hat?

how about “the inner life”? is that more descriptive than “mental”?

now of course what happens in that inner life – desire, particularly – influences very much what we do. they call that “behaviour”. indeed, for a long time, psychology (meaning “the science [-logy] of the soul [psych-]”) was referred to as the “science of behaviour.” so we could say that “mental” is about behaviour, too.

is “mental”, then, about the whole human experience, minus the physical stuff? not really. our experience and use of our body is profoundly influenced by the intangible stuff. how our eyes, ears and noses perceive is mental; how we experience pain is mental; how we have sex and deal with a cold is mental. many would argue that healing, from anything from cancer to broken bones to pneumonia, is at least partly mental.

seen like this, “mental” is a good two-thirds of our experience.


let’s move on to “health” now, a concept even vaguer than “mental”, if that’s possible. “health” is related to “whole”. so presumbly, if we have health, we have wholeness. and already, we’re back to perception because our being is so complex, we’re not able to tell whether we are completely whole. all we can talk about are those aspects that are in our awareness. which depends on the mind again. some people, both my daughters for example, are extremely aware of the far reaches of their bodies. every bruise registers on the richter scale. does that mean they are less healthy than the football player who keeps going even with a broken arm? and then there’s the story that everyone has come across – the health nut who suddenly dies of cancer. one day, there is health, the next day the opposite.

health is also often mentioned in connection with “wellbeing”. this is not a bad concept, since it alludes more clearly to the perception of wellness in the moment. the runner who trots along vigorously experiences wellbeing one moment, but not the next. it takes away at least a bit of the absolute claim of “wholeness”. that has advantages and disadvantages, as we’ll see in a moment.

mental health

in physical health, there are certain crude measures that establish the (possible) existence of health, such as blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, a lung x-ray, oxygen uptake, etc. and while in mental health, we have a big tome that tells us about symptoms of mental illness (the DSM, or diagnostic and statistical manual), there is nothing that details symptoms of mental health. so again, everyone is left to their own devices. of course, one can take a few tests to see whether they are “normal” (for example, there is a myriad of stress tests and depression tests; there is also the emotional IQ, or EQ) but most of that is totally driven by the medical model of looking for the absence of illness.

the absence of mental illness is, in fact, what most people are after. while that’s not a bad idea, it has a number of ramifications. mental illness still carries a huge stigma so understandably, most people go out of their way to make sure that they don’t carry that stigma. however, not being “branded” by a psychiatric diagnosis is not the same as mental health. it just means you don’t have the sticker glued to you that screams, “mentally ill!” in many instances this means that people who could easily get help for a comparatively minor problem such as situational depression won’t get that help, which then in turn magnifies the problem.

the idea of the absence of mental illness also hinges on how you define mental illness. “i’m not crazy like my brother-in-law who’s spent the last 5 years in the psych ward” says the hyper anxious weekend binge drinker, happy in her “knowledge” that she’s not mentally ill. let’s say we don’t know whether in fact she is mentally ill – but it’s pretty clear that she is not enjoying good mental health. she also illustrates the disadvantage of the idea of “wellbeing” because once she’s had her fourth drink, she might very easily experiences a few hours of feeling very well. (interesting idea: we could perhaps make a difference between “wellfeeling”, a momentary illusion of wellness, and “wellbeing”, which might refer to something than runs a bit deeper.)

has this thinking out loud helped? let’s try on this definition/description:

mental health is authentically felt wellbeing in all aspects of one’s inner life and behaviour.

i would love to hear about YOUR ideas!

call for speakers for mental health camp

is there something you’ve always wanted to say about mental health?  here’s your chance – the call for speakers for MentalHealthCamp 2010.

we are looking for session leaders who speak from personal or professional experience with mental health or mental illness.

we will have 9 slots for prearranged speakers (e.g. approved by the selection committee), and will keep 6 slots open for “mental moose” – a continuation of the unconference tradition of moosecamp at northern voice.  during mental moose, participants who are interested in leading a session can pitch them on saturday morning with a quick 30-second talk.  everyone will then vote on which sessions will be presented, and the winning sessions will be scheduled.

also, we would like to experiment with having one or two virtual sessions.  do you live in new zealand and would like to present?  are you unable to leave your children and your dogs alone in rural quebec but have an important story to share?  if you have the technical know-how, let’s talk about using technology to bring you right into our conference here in vancouver.

go to the MentalHealthCamp site for more information.