Our commitment to the power of story and lived experience (hang on…what does that mean?)

By Bess Harrison, WCHM Health Promotion Officer

In recent years personal narratives of mental illness and recovery have become increasingly used as a way to reduce stigma, to educate and enlighten the masses, to build empathy and understanding, and to empower those of us whose stories have been traditionally silenced within dominant discourses of mental health and illness- Statistics, policy debates, service delivery, resources, treatments, psychiatry and psychology, welfare, deviance.

I need to preface what I am about to say by saying that when the voices of people most effected by something are silent I will be with the first to defend their right to be heard. I work here at WCHM because of our values, because we value lived experience. But that doesn’t mean I think that the hard work of thinking around what exactly this can mean is done. The more mainstream the concept of mental health consumer involvement becomes, and the less we will need to defend our place at the table the quicker we can get to what I think is far more interesting- the critical, the deeper, the nuanced, the fraught, paradoxical.

I have a deeply ingrained intellectual habit of finding the potential bad inside the good, and the good inside the bad. I am temperamentally a loverhater of paradox. Lately I have turned by habit to the use of stories in the mental health sector. In contrast to discourses of mental health that homogenise, pathologise and label us, stories re-assert that people living with mental illness are people first. Stories humanise us. Generally when someone tells their recovery story they talk about their friends or family, their interests – we get a sense of who they are other than someone who has experienced mental illness.

So are personal narratives of mental illness and recovery inoculated against contributing to stigma? I come across a lot of these narratives, online and live. They are used for good reasons! However my habits of mind have forced me to start asking some questions- Do we as well-meaning organisations promote and provide platforms for certain kinds of mental health stories but not others? Do the stories we hear and promote ever challenge us? Or do they tell us what we want to hear while challenging ‘’them’’? Who are ‘’they’’? Are ‘’they’’ listening? Can the same story be useful in one context and counterproductive in another? Does the appetite for personal narratives overemphasise us as mental health consumers, and maybe as ‘’everyday folk’’ but not leaders, advocates, social commentators, critical thinkers, experts, mental health professionals whose perspectives have no doubt been informed by our life experiences (just like everyone else!)? Do we inadvertently place limits on what consumers feel they can contribute? Do we place limits on ourselves? Is it more useful to simplify or complicate mental health and illness when trying to combat stigma? I fear that we (the sector) may sometimes use stories to promote the ‘right’ way of conceptualising mental health and illness rather than using stories to mutually examine our ways of making meaning out of emotional and mental distress.

Correct me if I am wrong but there are very few public forums for the deliberate exploration of how we conceptualise mental health and illness, and talk about what difference thinking differently makes. We are so often educating others or defending ourselves – as ‘’consumers’’, as service providers, or as people with a policy position- that we rarely have the time to create the space to dig deep with each other. Of course digging deep does not have reportable outcomes, does not assist with grant aquittals and might be risky. It might cause friction! It might call our own work into question! EXACTLY WHY IT WOULD BE GREAT!


Review: Women, drinking, and sexual violence

By Annelise Roberts, WCHM Health Promotion Officer

Last week Emily Yoffe published ‘College Women: Stop Getting Drunk’ in US online magazine Slate. In the article, Yoffe uses a 2009 US study on campus sexual assault to argue that fears about ‘victim-blaming’ are preventing educators from having important conversations with young women about alcohol and sexual violence:

“Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kind of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart.”

Yoffe’s article prompted a flurry of online conversations across the globe, including here in Australia. Mia Freedman backs Yoffe on Mamamia.com., arguing that the relationship between women’s drinking and victimhood is entirely straightforward: Let’s say there was something you could tell [your daughter] that would dramatically reduce the likelihood of her being sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Would you tell her? I would.

This sentiment has been echoed by various media commentators including (unfortunately) Susie O’Brien, who cites “plentiful evidence” proving that the link between women, alcohol and sexual violence is just “commonsense” (sic).  The problem here is that telling your daughter not to drink alcohol will not “dramatically reduce the likelihood of her being sexually assaulted.” There is, in fact, no evidence to support this claim. It’s a claim which O’Brien, Freedman and Yoffe appear to have extrapolated from research related to alcohol use and the occurrence of sexual violence in US colleges, but there is no credible piece of evidence I have ever seen that proves that sexual assault can be prevented (or even that it’s likelihood of occurrence can be reduced) by having either the perpetrator or the victim abstain from alcohol.

The reason for this is that being a victim of sexual assault is not something that individuals can prevent by ‘risk managing’ their own behaviour. The facts are that girls, boys, women and men are made victims of sexual violence in all kinds of situations (of which college dorm parties are just one example); that sexual violence is actually far more likely to be perpetrated in the home by somebody known to the victim than on the street or in a club; and that a sexual assault is, by definition, a situation in which the victim has been denied any capacity to have an influence over the outcome. A sexually violent situation is created when a perpetrator decides to assault a victim—it would be very misleading to suggest that any other factor is relevant here.

Yoffe also uses her article to talk about the ways in which alcohol poses a risk to our physical and mental health. Fine—binge-drinking is harmful in numerous ways, and it’s important that we’re made aware of that so that we can make informed decisions about doing the best things for our health. But building a causal link between drinking alcohol and ‘becoming a victim of sexual assault’ is inaccurate, and really unhelpful. The only way to prevent sexual violence is to get perpetrators to stop committing it.


Media watching women

By Angela Carnovale, WCHM Health Promotion Officer

Miley Cyrus: Not talking about Miley Cyrus in this section of the e-bulletin would be like not adding truffle oil to a menu—totally out-of-touch with the perhaps shallow, but oh-so-important world of pop culture cool. First there was the We Can’t Stop music video clip. Then there was that 2013 MTV Music Video Awards (VMA) performance. And now there is the Wrecking Ball video clip. But more entertaining than Miley’s antics, as compelling and repelling as they are, is the commentary frenzy that now surrounds her. At one end of the spectrum, Nolan Feeney at The Atlantic generously suggests that Miley’s VMA performance was an attempt at commentary (albeit failed) on her co-performer Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines, which is widely thought to promote rape culture. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who fear for Miley’s mental health and exploitation at the hands of the music industry, such as Sinead O’Conner who wrote an open letter to Miley—sparking its own media fenzy—in which she says: “I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos. It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping.” But as endlessly juicy as it is to see shocking/funny/sexualised displays from young female pop music icons and ponder whether this spells the demise or progression of female empowerment, the last word should go to Miley herself who responds to her ‘haters’ by tweeting more raunchy photos of herself, such as this one.

Cyber violence against women: The British arm of Twitter found itself in the midst of a media storm in August—summarised here in this article by Estelle Shirbon at The Age—after Caroline Criado-Perez experienced a torrent of death and rape threats on the site for campaigning (successfully) to have Jane Austin appear on the 10-pound note. Twitter was slow in responding, but eventually succumbed to community outrage and improved the systems of reporting and responding to abuse on the site. Brianne Hastie at The Conversation asks what the virulent abuse directed toward women in cyber space says about sexism and misogyny today, and whether women’s responses to it mean we’re more willing than ever to speak out.

The enduring fascination with women who do not want to be mothers: From time to time there is a flurry of media interest in the ever-growing group of cultural curiosities known as women who do not want to be mothers (WWDNWTBM). The latest flurry was caused by a report in the Daily mail on the findings from a study undertaken by controversial researcher Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics, that women’s urge to have children decreases by a quarter for every 15 extra IQ points. But if you’re about to snap at how astonishingly rude to the reproducers out there Kanazawa is, hang on, because in a stunning display of how to lose friends and irritate people, he actually concludes that ‘intelligent people [by which he means women] are the ultimate losers in life’ for lacking common sense and going against nature. Alecia Simmonds of Daily Life has provided a delicious dressing down of Kanazawa’s findings, which contains some good cultural analysis of WWDNWTBM too.


WCHM women and work

By Angela Carnovale, WCHM Health Promotion Officer

Over the last quarter Marcia took the opportunity for a well earned rest and headed off on a European adventure! Throughout August and September the team did a stellar job in maintaining and progressing the Centre’s work; wrapping up work from 2012-13 and embarking upon a new set of projects and initiatives with energy and innovation. But of course, we’re thrilled to have Marcia back and to have the full team working together.

The WCHM Annual General Meeting (AGM) was held on Thursday September 26 at the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery. At the AGM we said farewell to three Board members—Jackie Fairweather, Aodhamair Lenagh-Maguire and Ruth Webber—whose contribution to the Centre will be missed. We also welcomed three new Board members—Renee Toy, Maiy Azize and Beth Connolly—and look forward to working with them over the coming year.

We took the opportunity at the AGM to celebrate the great work and achievements of Women With Disabilities ACT (WWDACT) and the ACT Women And Prisons (WAP) Group. It was humbling to hear how much these organisations manage to achieve and influence with their limited resources, and to be reminded of the way in which WCHM learns and is enriched through these partnerships.

Both groups have had a busy last quarter too. WAP members have been continuing to develop and deliver the ‘Raising the Bar’ awareness training, while continuing to provide peer support to women in the ACT at all stages of involvement in the criminal justice system. WWDACT are also underway with a number of projects. Of creative and noteworthy significance is the upcoming ‘Strong Women, Circus Sisters’ troupe performance taking place to mark International Day of People with Disabilities On December 3. The ‘Strong Women: Circus Sisters’ Troupe is made up of a diverse group of women with disabilities who have come together to enjoy a fun fitness program culminating in a unique community event, which celebrates their strong and valuable contribution to the ACT. You can come along and support the troupe on December 3, from 2-3pm, at the Merry-go-round in the City.

In WCHM related news Bess partnered with WAP and Playback Theatre Canberra to host an interactive theatre event for Mental Health Week exploring the relationship between gender, mental health and the law. Playback is a form of theatre in which trained actors create a show out of real life stories from the audience. The event aimed to bring together women with experience in the criminal justice system, mental health consumers, policy makers, people working in legal services, people working in the community sector, or anyone wanting to gain insight into the intersection of gender, mental health and the law to share stories, listen and learn. The event was a great success, and some of the feedback from the audience included: “Fantastic, much higher impact than just talking in a more conventional forum”, “Great messages. Listening…how gentle and supportive. Thank you” and “Outstanding. Thank you- evoking the emotions makes it real and lasting. Much gratitude.”

Bess is also progressing a research project into the experiences of women diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in accessing appropriate support in the ACT, which was identified by the Women and Mental Health Working Group as one of the key priorities for the year ahead. Bess will conduct semi-structured interviews with women in the ACT region who have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in order to answer the following key research questions:

  • What is the extent and nature of negative attitudes and stigma experienced by women diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder when seeking support from mental health and other health professionals?
  • To what extent do women diagnosed with BPD in the ACT have access to appropriate, evidence-based support, and accurate information to assist their recovery? Are there barriers to access? If so what are they?
  • What are their main concerns and what key messages do they have for service providers, policy makers, other women with BPD diagnosis and WCHM as advocates?

The qualitative data will be analysed and used to produce a written report on findings, situating the findings within the broader Australian context of existing programs, best practice guidelines and relevant research. By July 2014 a series of recommendations for future action and areas of further inquiry will be developed.

The rest of the team is busily working away on existing projects too! Silvia is undertaking work to develop a Women’s Safety Assessment framework and register to be used for ACT public events and other initiatives. As part of this project, WCHM was recently approached by the Centenary of Canberra staff at the Chief Minister and Treasury Directorate to organise and conduct a Women’s Safety Assessment for the ‘SPIN’ festival that was held at the TAMS Depot at Fyshwick last weekend. The assessment was undertaken by seven women volunteers, facilitated by employees from Events. Overall the assessment was a success, with the women providing feedback to event organisers in time for small adjustments to be made to improve women’s safety.

Jenni is leading a project, in collaboration with Care Financial Counselling, to develop appropriate and relevant resources to boost the financial literacy of specific marginalised groups of women in the ACT and region. Resources will be developed for older women, refugee women, women transitioning out of prison and women who are leaving domestic violence. So far, Jenni has undertaken a comprehensive literature review, drafted frameworks for required content for the resources, and held two workshops—one with women with lived prison experience and the other with services supporting women leaving domestic violence—to gain feedback on the draft content for the resources. The next stage will involve engaging with appropriate stakeholders who can assist in writing the content for the resources.

Annelise is progressing work on developing a set of tools that will support ACT media to report more accurately, appropriately and respectfully on violence against women. The project developed out of conversations hosted at the Partners in Prevention lunch 2012, at which a media table explored how they could contribute towards creating a community that respects the rights of women to live free from fear and the experience of violence. The products developed by this project will assist journalists and other local media to gain a better understanding of the various forms of violence against women and children, enabling them to report on the issue with greater accuracy. The tools will focus on four key issues: domestic violence, sexual violence, Indigenous family violence, and child sexual abuse. In the development of these resources, WCHM is partnering with other local community sector experts Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Beryl Women Inc. and Domestic Violence Crisis Service. The University of Canberra will pilot the materials as part of this year’s curriculum for the Bachelor of Communication in Journalism, and the National Press Club will launch the products in an event towards the end of 2013.

And, finally, as summer approaches, it is again time for Summer of Respect. This year we are again trialing a new approach and will be undertaking a smaller number of initiatives designed to have a greater impact with our target audience: men aged 16-30. To begin, we are working with artist Helani Laisk and social change marketing firm Agency to design three initiatives, which include: an Avant Card campaign, which will see 10 000 free postcards distributed throughout Canberra cafes, restaurants, theaters, schools, universities and cultural institutions; an audio-visual animation, which will be distributed online via media such as YouTube and Facebook; and a poster campaign, which will feature in men’s toilets in bars, clubs and other social venues. These initiatives will focus on positive bystander engagement, encouraging men to think about the positive and safe ways they can call out sexual violence with their mates. All three initiatives will direct interested men toward a central website (www.whattosay.org.au – not live until Nov 1) where they can find more information and resources about how to be a proactive bystander.

To support these initiatives, the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre and WCHM will also be getting out to a small number of key community events to extend the message directly to men in the ACT community, which will hopefully include Summernats, the National Multicultural Festival and university O-week. If you are interested in knowing about the Summer of Respect 2013-14 as it unfolds, please follow us at https://www.facebook.com/summerofrespect

And as usual, Summer of Respect will begin with Reclaim the Night (RTN). RTN 2013 will be held on October 25, from 6:15-8:30pm, in Garema Place. The theme for RTN 2013 is child sexual abuse, to bring attention to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. As per previous RTN events, there will be speakers, the march, food, dance and drumming, and music mixed live by Lady Bones DJ. We hope that you’ll be able to join us.


Worth Checking Out

By Silvia Page, WCHM Health Promotion Officer 

Julia Gillard in Conversation with Anne Summers:In case, like me, you missed this screening on multiple channels a few weeks back then here is a nudge to watch Julia Gillard in her first interview since losing the Prime Ministership to Kevin Rudd.

The Hoopla website is the creation of Wendy Harmer, author, comedian, TV and radio presenter and all round talented women. The Hoopla strikes a balance between in depth news and opinion pieces and lighter more humorous content, all with a focus on women. With enough variety to provide a little something for everyone, it really is worth checking out.  

Steve Biddulph – Raising Girls: Margaret Throsby’s interview with psychologist and author Steve Biddulph about his latest book Raising Girls is well worth checking out. Biddulph is the author of a number of books including the worldwide bestseller Raising Boys which was written to provide advice to parents on how to understand their sons. He was voted Father of the Year in 2000 for his work encouraging the role of fathers in Australia. Turning his attention to girls, Biddulph partnered with Melinda Tankard Reist, Lydia Jade Turner, Sarah McMahon and Dr. Michael Carr Gregg to write Raising Girls which looks at a range of issues including body image, depression, alcohol, friendship, managing social media and more. Visit Steve Biddulph’s website for more information.