September round-up

A brief round-up of September, mostly rants.

  • One day, I got a call from a previous employer just before my evening class was about to start. She asked if I was in HK, I said yes, and then she asked if I am free to help her the next day. I hesitated because she didn’t say what kind of help she needed, is it something that I can do from home or does it involve running an errand, is it going to take a few minutes or hours or a day? Besides, she still owed me payment. She said she needed help with photocopying and scanning and I thought to myself, “not again.” What did she take me for? A printing shop? I asked her whether or not I could use her department’s photocopier machine or whether the office administrator could help because my home printer is not well-suited for the task. She said something about leaving the documents for me to collect but I couldn’t hear her on the phone properly as I was outside. I told her I have to end the call as my class has started. Maybe she trusted I could help but I feel more like being taken for granted. Thankfully, when I followed up with the department’s administrator the next day, she has scanned and photocopied the documents to her.
  • For my other part-time job, I was working in a project related to online counselling. I wrote before about reading the chat logs of frequent users to the service. I put a lot of heart into reading the chat histories, even though I was employed on a part-time basis, I was working full-time. I was very appalled with the counselling skills and quality, in particular, the case of a counsellor who hung up on a caller. When I highlighted this case to my team, I was disappointed by their cold response. How can it be okay for a helpline counsellor to hang up on a caller? From that moment, I’ve lost motivation in working on the project. Most of the attention is directed to the technological aspects and AI as opposed to the quality of counselling and improving user experience. Besides, now that school has started, I simply don’t have the time to take on additional work but I’ve promised to help with the manuscript writing. Hopefully, I can get that done by the end of this year and take my hands off the project.
  • September was a month of information overload. Information about registration and course enrolment was unclear. I didn’t receive my registration package so I asked my department for it who told me to ask the graduate school who told me to check with the faculty. I wanted to take a course offered by the psychology department. My department (social work) asked me to check with the administrator from the psychology department who asked me to check with my department. When I told her I’ve already checked with my department, she said she will check and reply to me but she never did and when I followed up with her, her reply was unhelpful. Nobody seems to know what they are doing. There were other examples and even though they mostly involved a couple of email exchanges, I already felt I have had enough of human interaction.
  • As research postgraduate students, we’ll be assigned to be teaching assistants (TA) in the next semester. During orientation week, a professor came into our class to talk about the roles and responsibilities of a TA. She took about five minutes to introduce herself and instead of telling us her experience, her introduction was more about how experienced she is, that she has been in the faculty for xx years, she has sat in xx committees, who she has taught etc. I don’t understand why she felt the need to spend five minutes emphasizing her experience, it felt to me like she was showing off her authority. She said that in addition to research, in order to excel, we have to be good at teaching, administration and building networks. I appreciate all that information and admit that what she said was true, but her emphasis on achievements and air of authority made me uncomfortable. It made me especially uncomfortable because I knew she was one of the professors involved in the autism project (although I don’t know if she was behind the team who published the misleading article that claimed that autistic people lack empathy) and that she teaches a course on special educational needs. For someone who specialises on individuals with diverse needs, her speech doesn’t seem particularly inclusive to me. I am taking her course in the next semester and that makes me nervous. I hope it was a false impression and that she is more approachable than she looks.
  • I’m taking research methods and statistics class this semester. Statistics is a challenge because I hated maths in school. My dad tried to teach me maths and he was a horrible impatient teacher. He would smack me when I got an answer wrong, spat at me or hit my head. As much as I know that his intentions were good, I really hated him. Statistics brought back those memories but I’ll need to overcome my fear. I did a ten minute presentation last week on t-test, even though I was nervous and my presentation wasn’t particularly good, I was proud of myself for giving it a go.
  • Lately, I’ve been hearing more thumping and footsteps from my upstairs’ neighbours especially during the day. Before that, day time is usually quiet, I’m not sure what’s their status now and who is living upstairs. The unpredictability affects my mood and there’s nothing much I can do except to put on my noise-cancelling headphone, and have my hoodiepillow and ear defenders ready by my bedside.
  • On the happier side, my cat is well and I now have a monthly income to support my living. Sorry I haven’t been active on WP. I hope everyone is well.

Anxiety level (Sep 2019): 80 / 100


What doesn’t kill you may kill others: suicide stigma and ethics

Image from Pixabay

I value lived experiences. I believe they can teach us a thing or two and we can learn from those experiences. However, no two persons are alike, experiences will differ from individual to individual, and circumstance to circumstance. Nonetheless, it is hoped that through listening to others’ lived experiences, we can better understand each other. I think the value of lived experience lies in helping us make better informed choices and decisions. But it is one thing to share your experience, it is another thing to call it a good advice or guidance. For example, I use self-harm as a coping strategy when things get overwhelming. What you can learn from my experience is that not all people who self-harm do so with the intent to kill themselves. It does not mean that I encourage other people in a similar situation to do the same, it would not be ethical for me to put people in harm’s way. For that reason, care must be exercised to ensure that I am in no way claiming that my coping strategy is meant to constitute good advice. When you are writing on a sensitive topic like mental health, especially something potentially triggering like suicide, you have to be careful to make the distinction between sharing what is your lived experience and what constitute good mental health advice. Simply put, what works for you does not necessarily work for another, it may even be harmful to others. Whether you are an advocate or researcher, with or without lived experience of mental health issues, you have a moral responsibility to ensure that you do no harm.

Unfortunately, this is a problem I encountered recently when I read a book chapter on suicidal thoughts written by a person with lived experience of mental health issues. The book is divided into different chapters according to mental health conditions and contained strategies to help people achieve better mental health and wellbeing. I need to confess that I have not read the entire book. Our library did not carry that title but I could make an inter-library request to read a chapter in soft copy, which I did. I thought of making use of this opportunity to decide whether or not I want to purchase a copy of the book myself. I chose the chapter on suicidal thoughts because that’s my research interest. I probably chose the wrong chapter to begin with. This post is in response to a point made by the author in the chapter on suicidality, it is not a review of the entire book, which for all I know, could contain many excellent mental health advice.

The chapter follows conventional suicide prevention practices by looking at the risk and protective factors. In trying to discourage suicide, the author wrote that suicide has a huge negative impact on other people, from the person you buy your groceries from, to neighbours and acquaintances, including the fact that children or family members bereaved by suicide become more at risk of suicide themselves. The author added that one way of understanding this is to see that suicide is “extremely selfish.”

My reading of it is that the author is saying suicide is selfish because people who suicide do not think about the huge negative impact on other people. I find this problematic on different levels. First and foremost, there are many stigma surrounding suicide, one of which is the notion that people who suicide are selfish. Selfish is one of the items included in the Stigma of Suicide Scale, which was developed to measure the stigma of suicide in the community. I had difficulties trying to reconcile the fact that on the one hand, the book claims to be a guide to good mental health, on the other hand, the author is making a statement that perpetuates the stigma of suicide. If this was simply a matter of individual preferences for example, someone makes a statement that meditation is good for people with anxieties and I disagree, I would have let the matter rest. But this isn’t, so I wrote to the author to seek clarification. The reply I got was that the author was describing a self talk strategy they used as a protective factor to keep them from acting out their suicidal thoughts, it was not meant to judge or blame others.

This would make sense. Indeed, when I posed the question to a private online support group, there were people who said that the thought of their loved ones and the thought of the negative impact on others prevented them from acting out their suicidal thoughts. However, the very same people who made those comments did not think it appropriate to tell someone who is suicidal that they are selfish. Some commented it could make the situation worse. Others thought that it was neither helpful nor would it have made a difference. The common sentiment was it would have been more helpful to remind the suicidal person that they are loved. This is where my main criticism of the chapter lies. The author has shared what worked for them personally and I acknowledge their lived experience. However, this is not a book on the personal recovery journey of a person with mental illness, it is a resource book on good mental health, which is not only meant for people with mental health issues but also their caregivers and supporters. Because it is not clear from the reading of the chapter, the author can be mistaken to suggest that it is appropriate to tell people who already are suicidal that they are selfish. This not only runs the risk of perpetuating the stigma of suicide and makes it less likely for people to seek help, it also runs the risk of increasing the burden of those feeling suicidal and may do more harm than good. This also highlights a paradox of suicide prevention: preventing suicide by stigmatising it, which in my opinion, is unethical and unworkable.

I understand that there are people bereaved by suicide who would think that it’s selfish. They come from a place of hurt and their feelings should be validated. They need help to heal and not be shamed or guilted for how they feel. My purpose in writing this post is a reminder not to blindly follow advice and to be sensitive to individual circumstances.

Do I think suicide is selfish? I think what troubles me most with this question is that we are singling out suicide as a selfish act and people who suicide as selfish. My response is to challenge with a counter-question, who isn’t selfish? The visitor who drops by my house unannounced, the students who keep talking during a lecture, the school who refuses to accommodate students with special educational needs, the boss who expects employees to work outside office hours, the audience who keeps looking at their phone in the middle of a movie screening, people who destroy the environment and refuse to acknowledge climate change etc. I believe we can find numerous examples from our everyday lives. Are all these people selfish for not considering the impact of their actions on others? I believe humans are one of the most selfish being on earth. One of the things I don’t understand is why are we singling out different groups and stigmatising them for things that are universal to human. As with the case for attention-seeking, what’s wrong with seeking attention? Isn’t it a basic human need? Are people who suicide selfish? Aren’t we all selfish? Can anyone say they have considered every negative impact of their actions and never done anything selfish? For sure I can’t. We can address a stigma by denying it or we can do so by challenging the rationale and assumptions behind it. When we talk about stigma, we usually think about the negatives and forget that stigma is also used to describe something beautiful. I much prefer Pixabay‘s interpretation of stigma. 

Search results for “stigma” on Pixabay

A load of crap

If I told you that this was no ordinary day, this was no ordinary beach, and we were surrounded by an army of soldiers…

You don’t really believe the load of crap, do you?

These were taken during my trip to Australia in July 2019. The location is Inverloch, a seaside town in Gippsland, in the state of Victoria. We were there to do a bit of coastal walking and were taken by surprise by the colony of soldier crabs. I’m only assuming what we saw were soldier crabs because of the information board at the starting point of our walk. When I googled “soldier crabs”, it is said that they have a light blue body but the ones we saw did not look blue to me. Here’s the board with the information. You can click to enlarge or refer to the paragraphs below for the description.

The box relating to the soldier crabs read as follows:

The Estuary

The lower section of Screw Creek is estuarine or under the influence of both seawater and freshwater. Estuaries are important places, especially as they can be breeding grounds for fish and provide habitat and sanctuary for juvenile fish.

The mudflats next to the creek are dominated by White Mangrove. Mangroves grow in the intertidal zone (between high and low tide marks) so that they can receive air to their pneumatophores. Walking on the mud around mangroves compacts it and damages the mangroves and at Screw Creek the boardwalks protect the mangroves. Mangrove provide shelter for juvenile fish and their leaves provide nutrients for fish and other animals.

The mangroves here are home to a colony of Soldier crabs which you may see from the bridge. These crabs will disappear into their holes at the smallest noise, but resume feed when they feel safe.

Here’s a video I took, sorry for the quality.

A cupful of doubt and a teaspoon of optimism

School has officially started and I’m trying to stay afloat navigating through the sea of information on the website. There are certain compulsory courses which I have to take and I have already missed one class due to following a timetable on the website which hasn’t been updated. I don’t know if I’m the only one who finds it confusing, other people in my class already seem to know each other. After months of anticipation and excitement, I feel an incoming waves of anxiety approaching. I am a person who lacks confidence. This is actually my second attempt at undertaking a research degree. The difference between then and now is that I am now aware of my limitations and challenges associated with autism to avoid repeating the same mistakes. But knowing my autistic limitations is one thing, there are things beyond my control and require the understanding of others such as the environment and my sensory needs. My energy level is another problem. I sleep too much and that affects my productivity, perhaps I’m just lazy. My executive functioning performance is slow and I’m not as bright as many people. I can’t offer any valuable insight into my autistic mind like many of my fellow autistic bloggers can. Am I really up for this? Will my research make an impact to others? Who cares about the experiences of unknown autistic people living on the other side of the world? When people talk about the values of neurodiversity, advocacy and lived experiences, do they really mean it? Am I worthy enough? Will I ever be good enough? My situation is looking up but I haven’t changed a single bit inside. A cupful of doubt and a teaspoon of optimism.

I know I am stronger than I think I am.