Monthly Archives: October 2013

Writing Workshops – Coming again next year! Book early!

Here’s what one participant had to say about my recent weekend writing workshop for women at the lovely Strong House Inn in Vergennes, Vt.:

“Participating in a writing conference for a weekend when I had never really written before seemed risky, questionable, presumptuous. But the gift of a skillful facilitator provided a level of comfort and safety to channel my writing in an encouraging and structured way. What an unexpected treasure it was to write with other women whom I would never see again but with whom I became energized to write and share my words. As I look over those words now I am drawn back to the power of writing and sharing my thoughts and feelings. The key was the spark ignited by Elayne’s craft and her intuitive sensitivity as she guided me forward. ”

Check out my workshop page! I do them from Maine to Mexico! Hope to see you at one! (Please feel free to share this message).

When It Comes to Mental Health, Do No Harm

Recent gun violence has shone new light on mental health issues. There is renewed focus on meeting the needs of people with mental health challenges and that is a good thing. But an exhibit at a public library in Ithaca, New York serves as a reminder that extreme caution must be exercised as the mental health establishment addresses the complex topics of how to insure accurate assessment and improve services.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, mounted by the Tompkins County Public Library and the National Alliance on Mental Illness/Finger Lakes, is an emotional exhibit and a chilling reminder of what can go wrong when individual practitioners and health systems fail to understand their patients and assume too much power over the lives of others.

When Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995, hundreds of suitcases were found in the attic of an abandoned building. The suitcase contents bear witness to the lives of their owners before they were incarcerated at Willard. They were individuals with jobs, families and friends who led normal lives. But because many of them suffered loss and grief, poverty, unemployment and other life stresses they were diagnosed, labeled, and sent off to an asylum that they never left.

Over 50,000 people were admitted to Willard during its 125-year history. Many of them died there, alone and quite possibly driven insane by the experience.

Among them was a Scottish woman named Margaret who lived at Willard for thirty-two years until her death. A nurse in London, her fiancé was killed in World War I, after which she emigrated to the States. While doing graduate work, Margaret suffered a serious head injury; then she contracted tuberculosis. Still, she traveled, worked and enjoyed her friends. While hospital records report that she became paranoid, a friend described her as “a woman to be admired, easy to entertain, pleased with so little.” Margaret was committed to Willard at the age of forty-eight. When she told her intake interviewer that she felt “like a fly in a spider web,” he had neither the imagination nor, it seems, the intelligence to understand her metaphor and so she was locked up and subjected to experimental, high-dose psychiatric medication until she died.

Ethel was another inmate. She married young and had two children. Her husband proved to be a violent alcoholic and womanizer. Later she lost three more children, after which she left her husband, sewing to support herself. Alone and desperately sad, she took to her bed. Her landlady had her committed. She spent forty-three years at Willard, probably in part because she resisted regulations. Her two surviving children visited her only three times. In her suitcase were family photos, silverware and linens, a bible, and a set of handmade baby clothes.

In their important book Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840 – 1945, Jeffrey Geller and Maxine Harris share the stories of twenty-six women like Margaret and Ethel whose first-person accounts of incarceration in mental institutions are horrifying and moving. (Some of them were put there by husbands who found their unpopular views or behavior inappropriate for proper ladies.) One of them wrote, “How little did I know where I was and what I was put into that house for. Such a crime I never read of, and it is covered up under the garb of derangement, and I am the poor sufferer.”

In my 2002 anthology, Women’s Encounters with the Mental Health Establishment: Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper, contemporary women tell their stories in poetry and prose. What’s startling is that they are saying the same things that the women of the asylums did, often using the same words to describe their experiences.,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpg

And that is why knowing about the suitcase exhibit, especially as the fifth edition of the “psychiatrist’s bible” or DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), has recently been published, is important. For while asylums like Willard no longer exist (and while not only women were put there), and in spite of the fact that some people really do suffer terribly from mental illnesses, a very real danger still lurks within the broad range of psychiatric assessment and care.

It continues to be all too easy to mislabel, to assume, to wield power over, to not understand, to misdiagnose when people face emotional challenges and traumatic life events. Whether females, veterans, children, or others who find life daunting extra care must be taken, and deep compassion called upon, among the helping professions as they encounter mental and emotional suffering.

It is too easy, even for “experts,” to miss the real stuff of people’s lives, to jump to conclusions, to confuse pain with pathology. Therefore the pledge to “do no harm” must be urgently recalled. Not doing so could be catastrophic, as Margaret, Ethel, and multitudes of others could attest to, if they’d ever been allowed to speak the truth of their lives.

What the Shutdown Means for Women

She’s a young mother, pregnant with her second child, who relies on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – WIC – for food and medicine when her son gets sick. When the federal government shut down she became one of almost nine million mothers, and their children under five, who lost their vouchers for food, baby formula, and breastfeeding support.

She’s a victim of domestic violence who has nowhere to go for help because funds usually available under the Violence Against Women Act have been reduced or eliminated.

She’s Michele Langbehn, a beautiful young mother who told her story on CNN and then started a petition to try to save her life. Having endured multiple surgeries, nine months of chemo, and two cycles of radiation to stop the spread of her rare form of cancer, she was under consideration for a clinical trial of a new medication that just might save her life when the shutdown hit the National Institutes of Health.

Michele Langbehn and her daughter

“I’m furious that Congress has chosen to shut down the government and leave so many of us behind,” Langbehn’s petition said. “This is not just about the debt ceiling or national parks. For me, the shutdown means that Congress is denying me potentially life-saving treatment. I speak for everyone battling cancer when I saw we don’t have time to wait.”

Why, I wonder, haven’t the critical needs of women like these – caretakers, breadwinners, mothers, daughters, elders in need – been given the priority of parks, monuments, food safety, and deserving veterans when it comes to policy and publicity?

All over this country, women who struggle to make ends meet in the best of times now face disastrous challenges, setbacks, and fears for the future of their families. Most of these women remain invisible, certainly in the eyes of privileged, uninformed, insensitive, politically driven policymakers under that big white dome in Washington. What do they know of moms who have to miss work and lose pay because Head Start programs or adult day care facilities for their aging parents have been closed? How many of them have looked at the face of a sick child and had to choose between food and medicine? Who among them has a child who won’t be able to attend college because financial aid has been cut?

As one blogger noted on, “Republicans are all about how babies are so great that women shouldn’t be able to say no to having one. … However, they clearly don’t love babies enough to make sure the alive ones are fed.”

That observation reminds me of what feminists pointed out back in the 1990s: Mean-spirited conservatives in Congress are all for supporting children from conception to birth. After that, it’s up to you, Mom.

And it’s not just about mothers. It’s about young women in college – and there are more of them than men – whose financial aid is being cut. Will they skimp on contraception, or meals, or meds, to make ends meet?

It’s about elderly women who can’t afford to heat their homes in winter if they depend on help from the Low Income Home Energy Program.

It’s about single women whose economic stability is seriously challenged when they are furloughed, and it’s about their health and wellbeing when they have to forego health care or preventive services like birth control, HPV testing, and pap smears for lack of funds or because of the moral objections of Neanderthals who get to hold them hostage.

The Affordable Care Act – can we please stop calling it Obamacare – has already meant that millions of women across the country have been able to access preventive health care without a co-pay, and more will benefit when the law takes full effect. It has already been measurably cost-saving: The Guttamacher Institute, for example, has shown that for every dollar invested in birth control services, nearly six dollars is saved in the long term.

As Dr. Atul Gawande, who writes for The New Yorker, and others have made clear, to date the Affordable Care Act has allowed more than three million people under age twenty-six to stay on their parents’ insurance policy. Seventeen million children with pre-existing medical conditions cannot be excluded from insurance eligibility or forced to pay inflated rates. And more than twenty million uninsured people will gain protection they didn’t have. A “new norm is coming,” Gawande says. It’s a norm that underscores that Americans are “entitled to basic protection.”

Who but the meanest and most politically driven could be against that? Virginia's Tea Party-er Eric Cantor

The answer is a group of nasty, small-minded, heartless Tea Party members who are about to go down in flames. It gives me no pause to watch that happen. But taking women like Michele Langbehn and so many others down with them positively turns my stomach.

of Gender Bias Presents Workplace Challenges

She is a successful businesswoman whose colleagues respect her. Still she sometimes experiences “difficulty getting traction for my ideas.”

She has worked in her law firm for five years and has just had a child. Her boss advises her to take a staff role instead of staying on the management track. “It will be easier,” he says. Too late, she realizes “there is no path back to the line.”

She likes her firm and feels she has been treated fairly. “But it seems every time a leadership role opens up, women are not on the slate.”

What’s the common denominator in these scenarios? The answer is “second generation gender bias,” a phenomenon that has been studied by the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons College in Boston.

Working Wloman

Second generation gender bias is a term that highlights the subtle gender dynamics that exist within an organization’s culture and work norms. These norms and work practices go far in shaping such formal systems as hiring and promotion practices as well as compensation. But these discriminatory actions are not deliberate. In fact, many organizational leaders are shocked to learn that their “progressive” businesses and institutions have fallen victim to such bias, which can affect men as well as women.

According to Dr. Spela Trefalt, a co-author of the Simmons study, second generation gender issues “cover those work cultures and practices that appear neutral, but can result in differential experiences for and treatment of diverse groups of women and men.” While seeming innocuous, cultural assumptions support the notion of men making better leaders, and “reflect masculine values and the life situations of men who have dominated in the public domain of work.” Women’s “invisible work” such as team-building, problem-solving, or addressing diversity issues is often seen as displaying feminine attributes, but such skill sets need to be recognized as effective work.

As several experts recently pointed out on the Harvard Business Review blog, “second generation bias does not require an intent to exclude; nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context … in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential.” And they add, “without an understanding of [the phenomenon] people are left with stereotypes to explain why women as a group have failed to achieve parity with men: If they can’t reach the top, it is because they ‘don’t ask,’ or are ‘too nice,’ or have simply ‘opted out.’” These messages, they say, “tell women who succeed that they are exceptions and women who experience setbacks that it is their own fault for failing to be sufficiently aggressive or committed to the job.”

Examples of gender-based dynamics abound. For example, good leaders are expected to be strong, confident and assertive. But when women act in that manner they are judged as self-promoting, aggressive and worse. If they act too collaboratively they are viewed as weak. And while many businesses and organizations have policies that appear to reflect work-family values, the ideal worker is often seen as the one who puts the job first. Since women remain the primary caregivers in families, the edge goes to men.

A recent Gallop poll shows that 15 percent of American women believe they have been passed over for promotion or other work opportunities because of their gender. Thirteen percent thought they were denied a raise at some point because they were women.

The leadership gap between men and women in business is persistent despite measures to combat overt discrimination. The percentage of female corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies is stuck at 14 percent. Similarly, the percentage of women serving as board directors is 16 percent while the percentage of women among top earners is only eight percent. Ironically, recent studies show a significant correlation between greater representation of women in executive and board positions and stronger financial performance.

So, what to do? The first step, as with most challenges, is raising knowledge and awareness, the forerunner to behavior change. But beyond that, women need sponsors as well as mentors, among them male – and female – bosses who must be intentional in advocating for competent women with leadership skills.

As Spela Trefalt and her co-researchers say, “Working together, women and men need to intervene strategically to interrupt these dynamics in ways that are good for the organization, for women, and for men.”