Episode 16: Mental Health, Normative Social Messaging, and the Healing Labour of Community Activism
Dr. Cindy Holmes is a queer, cisgender, white settler of English, Scottish and Irish ancestry who who grew up in the traditional territories of the Anishinaabe, Attawandaron and Haudenosaunee people of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation in Guelph Ontario. She is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Victoria. Her interdisciplinary scholarship and pedagogy grows out of more than 25 years of community work and is informed by decolonial and anti-racist feminist, queer and trans theories, and the grassroots social justice movements from which these theories emerge.
"Being able to be involved in community organizing was an important part of my own healing."
Dr. Cindy Holmes
Waving, Not Drowning
Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning, a UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.
In today’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Cindy Holmes. Cindy is a queer cisgender white settler of English, Scottish and Irish ancestry who grew up in their traditional territories of the Anishinaabe, Attawandaron, and Haudenosaunee peoples of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation in Guelph, Ontario. Cindy is an Assistant Professor in the school of social work at the University of Victoria. Her interdisciplinary scholarship and pedagogy grows out of more than 25 years of community work and is informed by decolonial and anti-racist feminist queer and trans theories and the grassroots social justice movements from which these theories emerge.
In our powerful conversation, Cindy shares with me how she was an undergraduate student coming to understand her identity as a queer woman, while at the same time, really grappling with some very challenging mental health issues like depression and negotiating past trauma; and Cindy shares how all of these sort of struggles were really amplified or magnified by having to engage with inhumane systems, systems that were homophobic with societal messaging around what was normal with stigmatizing attitudes about mental health. And Cindy shares how she really coped with the inhumanity and traumatizing effects of these systems by joining with others in her community, in activist work, in advocacy and community work, to really resist these systems by advocating for change, for social justice, and that this work of coming together with others in this powerful and important labour was an act that was very validating and that she joined with others who saw her for who she was, but also that it was the work of resisting these systems, advocating for change and for more humane systems that really facilitated also a kind of healing. Cindy and I also talk quite a lot in this conversation about the relationship between resilience and systems or thinking about resilience in a new way…. that it is not up to the individual– that the responsibility should not be carried by the individual to develop the skill of resilience entirely on their own, that the individual just needs to have more willpower, for example, or more strength to be resilient. We talk about how systems need to support resilience. They need to encourage it through their own humanity, and that sometimes we lose sight of the ways in which systems amplify and deepen feelings of alienation of trauma, that systems can do violence, and that we need to think about how it is that we can continue to work, to transform our systems, not only so that they are more humane but continue to advocate for the systems to change so that they support our students’ ability to be resilient, that they support our community’s ability to be resilient and, that it is not, at all the case that it is up to the individual alone to bear the weight of trying to be resilient. And how is it that in the very first place that systems are constructed in such a way that they then require the student to be resilient because they need that strength and resilience simply to be able to live within these inhumane systems.
I think that what’s so crucial about this conversation today is that we are really talking about how to work within these systems in order to change them, and how to redefine our understanding of resilience and that systems need to also be held accountable and to be forced to change; so that when we talk about creating resilient communities, that when we talk about helping students to be more resilient, we are in no way placing that responsibility on the individual student themselves, but rather we are really recognizing and trying to think about how systems themselves need to be better, to do better to help students thrive. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Cindy Holmes, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Hi, Cindy, it’s such a pleasure to have you here today to share some of your own experiences as a student. How have you been doing?
Cindy Holmes: Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for having me. I’m doing well, although, like everybody, there’ve been lots of ups and downs over this last year since the pandemic began. And I think one of the most significant things for me was at the very beginning of the pandemic, my mom got sick and passed away, and that she became unexpectedly sick at the end of January, and she lived in Ontario. And so, in February, I went back to see her and returned back to Victoria with the plan to go back to see her in March, but then we went into lockdown and the beginning of the pandemic, so I wasn’t able to get back to see her in March, and she passed away April 3rd. So it was unexpected and, I think that one of the hardest things has been grieving and quarantining at the same time– really that isolation and loss, you know, not being able to connect with friends and family, not being able to have a celebration of life service that we would normally have, or funerals, all of those kinds of ceremonies than many people have been dealing with that in this past year, so that’s been a definitely the most significant thing that’s shaped this year for me. But at the same time, there’s been some unexpected gifts that have come from this time. You know, other people in your podcast have shared about slowing down, certainly for me and for our family.
We really miss being able to travel to see friends and family, but at the same time, we have appreciated the slowing down. We’ve spent a lot more time in nature and a lot more hikes, but I think there’s been a stepping back and asking what’s really important in life. And I think that happens when someone dies anyway. It sparks those questions, and certainly, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what really does matter, and that’s taken me to focus more on some of the everyday moments of beauty– the bird song really taking time to save her and appreciate every day, everyday beauty, everyday joy.
Rebecca Gagan: I’m so sorry to hear about your mother, Cindy, and I can only imagine how difficult it has been to grieve during a pandemic. I spoke with another faculty member for the podcast, and she lost her father during the pandemic; he was living in Romania, and so she could not be there. She could not go there. And we were really talking about the challenges of, as you’ve said, of grieving during a pandemic, and she sort mentioned that she almost had had to defer her grief in some ways, and also defer saying goodbye to him and that she sort threw herself into her work and into her teaching as a way of kind of distracting from that grieving process, which was so much more difficult during a pandemic. My parents live in Ontario, and I’ve certainly found it just so difficult to be away from them. My father has Parkinson’s and has had some health challenges this year. And you just… it’s a kind of helplessness of feeling that you can’t be there. How do you support them? And as you say, then how do you grieve those losses? You know, it’s a bomb that you’ve been able to, as you say, slow down as a family and connect into some of the things that can bring joy and beauty and seeing how those things really coincide in the same moment.
Cindy Holmes: Yeah. I actually think that strangely, there’s the two sides to this, for sure. The isolation and the suspended grieving that you’re talking about. That’s definitely true. I can’t really believe it’s been a year since she died. It was– and a year of the pandemic, it feels not at all that long, but then there have been other positive things. One of the things that sustained me through this time is I’ve taken up sourdough bread baking, and a close friend of mine is a professional sourdough bread baker, and so she’s mentored me and coached me. And I’ve really– it’s been a really therapeutic experience for me. So, I’ve been baking, not only for our own family, but I’ve been baking for neighbours and coworkers and friends and sharing bread every week, delivering bread to different people– some people whom I know and others whom I don’t know that well. And that has really been a nice connection also to my mom, because she was a professional cook and baker, and she– this is a nice way to connect with her, even though we never had a connection around sourdough baking, this somehow feels like a way to honour her. And it– the baking, the actual act of baking, has been a very healing and good for my mental health.
Rebecca Gagan: And I think this is why maybe so many people are making bread these days and sourdough… that there is something therapeutic about the process and what you described, Cindy, also though, is a way of breaking bread with others– not actually sitting down at a table with them, that the sharing of the bread is a way of being with others in certain ways, as you say, and even it being with your mom, so it feels like a really, as you say, healing work.
Cindy Holmes: Yeah, it has. And the joy that I get from seeing other people’s happiness with a loaf of bread is really significant. And that’s been something that I would not have anticipated at all a year ago. I wasn’t baking bread and started last May, and it’s been it’s also just been a great hobby and something to take my mind away from other stressors.
Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. I think that also what you’re sharing, Cindy, is the importance of having– especially now, like having something else that you can do that might feel therapeutic, or almost meditative, right? So, something that takes your mind away from the stress and the anxiety. And I think, especially right now in this moment of the pandemic, where I think we had maybe thought some of that uncertainty would have dissipated, but in fact, it has not. And so, trying to find ways to cope with all of those emotions, as you’ve said, the anxiety, perhaps grief, uncertainty, and it sounds like you’ve really found something that really helps. Yes, I received a loaf of bread from a friend not too long ago, and I received it with such delight, and my whole family has consumed it very quickly, but it was such a nice–
Cindy Holmes: I’d be happy to share some with you.
Rebecca Gagan: Oh, thank you. I will gladly receive it, Cindy. So you know that one of the reasons I’ve asked you to join me in conversation today is to talk about some of your own experience as a student since this podcast is really about sharing faculty stories of a challenge, of struggle so that students understand that they aren’t alone, that the– it can make it easier for them to seek help and to know that their own professors have also really shared in some of those challenges and struggles. So, I was hoping Cindy that you would be able to tell us some of your story today.
Cindy Holmes: Yeah, thanks, Rebecca. One of the things I have loved about the podcast, and I’ve been listening to the podcast and sharing it with my students. And one of the things that I have loved is this piece about sharing stories of struggle because it really breaks down the barriers and the stigma I think about– a lot of us sometimes we’ll feel that we’re alone and students, I think sometimes feel that way, so knowing that their professors have had some of the similar struggles, has been one of the great parts of the podcast. For myself, I’ve really had a lot of ups and downs with academia, and sometimes, I say to students and colleagues, I have a love-hate relationship with academia. And I really have had a long stretch between each of my degrees– between 6 to 10 years– and some cases; I didn’t take a direct route to a PhD and this position as a professor, and in some ways, it’s a bit of an atypical journey, but that’s actually been quite positive for me. I spent a lot of time between each of my degrees doing feminist anti-violence work, social justice work, and community organizing. And that really– I think I value different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of expertise, not only academic knowledge so that connection to community work has been great. It’s also been part of a mental health strategy. Taking those breaks between each of the degrees was really important for my own well-being.
I first started my undergraduate degree in religious studies at the University of Waterloo, and that’s back in 1984, so quite a long time ago. And I started I thought at the time I might be a United Church minister. I grew up in a very inclusive United church. As a child, my interest was around social justice, and social justice and religion and spirituality. It was pretty exciting for me to start university, but pretty quickly I started to feel a lot of the stress of school, the pressures– and my mental health was really starting to suffer. The pressure to take a full course, pressure from my parents to get high grades, leaving home for the first time… I was also really grappling with some childhood trauma, some family trauma, and that was a really new thing to be able to be away from home and start to have some of this bubbling up inside of me was really in the fall of my second year in 1985, I had a more difficult time. I started to feel more depressed. I was really anxious and pretty overwhelmed. I was also starting to discover more about my identity as a queer woman, and that was something that I had not– that was a new discovery for me, and there was a point in the early in the term when I really felt I couldn’t imagine continuing. I couldn’t figure out how to get support, and I was very depressed. I didn’t want to live, and I made a suicide attempt at that time, and after that suicide attempt, I went to find someone in my university residence, a staff member, and I told her what I had done. And I was not well at the time, and she called an ambulance and took me to the hospital—a lot of what happened after that was a bit of a blur. I was pretty sick, but I was released from the hospital and started to see a counsellor, but a month later, that counsellor, who was a counsellor at the university, she was concerned that I was going to make another attempt, and so she phoned the police and had me removed from campus and taken to the psych ward at the hospital.
It was a pretty traumatic experience. I had never– I didn’t want to go to the hospital at the time…being taken against my will by the police was a pretty difficult experience. Looking back on it, I see how concerned she was about my well-being and that she really was at a loss herself for knowing how to support me, so I don’t have a sense of blame towards her, but it was also pretty traumatic experience for me. The time that I was in the psych ward was also pretty challenging. I experienced a lot of heterosexism, and one of the psychiatrists told me I just needed to get out get a boyfriend. There was a lot of these kinds of statements that really didn’t understand what I was going through. There was– I didn’t expect positive mental health support at the time. And so, you know, wrapped up with all of this, was for me trying to understand more about my identity as a queer woman, and so much of that I was grappling with shame and stigma and homophobia. My family, not really understanding this– not understanding my sexuality, not understanding the mental health challenges that I had.
And when I did get out of the hospital, I continued seeing a counsellor at the university, and that was extremely helpful. I’m so grateful that I had free counselling at the university– and someone who was not homophobic, who was, you know, a feminist and a very supportive person, that really helped me to heal from the pain of the past and to start to think about what I needed as being separate from what my parents wanted; helping me understand and celebrate who I was as a person, and I made a decision. I dropped out of school. I took a year off. Then I returned part-time. And that decision was a really positive thing for me. I started working in a coffee shop, going to school part-time, and then I started to work in a shelter for homeless women as an advocate and a crisis worker. And I started shifting my degree a little bit to focus more on social work and took a lot longer to complete– the degree was six years to finish. And even that, I felt some sense of shame that I didn’t continue in the typical way of going full time and a four-year degree, but it really was the best way for me, and it enhanced my own health and well-being, and it allowed me to get the experience doing the work in the community that I was passionate about. So, after that, I was really interested in continuing school, believe it or not, even though I had that long stretch. And I had the dream of, someday, maybe being a professor and started to think about going to grad school, but when I applied to do a master’s– I applied to do a master’s in women’s studies– I was rejected, and I was told, “you don’t really have it. You know, it’s not likely that you’re gonna be able to get in”– and my application– they told me in my application was not strong, and I was pretty devastated at that point and decided to just take a break and continue doing the community work that I was doing.
I think that one of the central overarching messages that I was grappling with at the time was that to have depression, to experience anxiety, to make a suicide attempt, to experience psychiatric intervention of any kind, and to be queer– all of those things individually, but then combined together really meant that you were sick, mad, crazy, unstable, undesirable, and I have really internalized that. So, I felt a lot of shame and a lot of stigma… I thought that there must be something wrong with me. And even often– you know, even in terms of speaking about each of those things simultaneously, I think of them as the things that were happening simultaneously for me, but not necessarily co-related, so I don’t think I was depressed or had anxiety because I was queer. I do think that I was dealing with depression, and I was dealing with some family trauma, and I think that societal messages about being queer and about what is normal, both in terms of sexuality and gender, as well as normative ideas about well-being and mental health. I think all of that was actually what was contributing to the stigmatizing and the sense that there was something wrong with me. Finding people who would validate who I am, who would challenge these stigmatizing and pathologizing narratives, was really essential. And the other thing that in addition to finding a really great counsellor who helped me through that time, was also connecting with communities that were also responding, I guess, in some ways, I would say, activists and community organizations, social justice organizations that were speaking out and challenging these homophobic, heterosexists, and in some ways, also sanist– these ideas about mental health that really are that there is one way to be. And that really pathologizes people who have had any psychiatric or mental health challenges. I think being able to be involved in community organizing was an important part of my own healing. It helped me feel strong. It helped to challenge this idea that it was an individual problem and see that there were actual structural barriers and systemic forms of oppression that were contributing to how I felt about myself. And I think that’s something, for students, I would really– and for anyone listening– I would really want people to know that this piece about shifting from an individualized, private idea of private shame and thinking about the systemic is a real-important part of mental health and well-being. In fact, there’s research that shows that community activism participation in social movements can really support your mental health, and that was true for me. I got involved in feminist organizing and, later, queer LGBTQ organizing, and that was very empowering for me.
Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. And I think, Cindy, one of the things that you’ve just shared here, is that sense that what was very, I would say, painful and added harm to you as an undergraduate student who was already grappling with trauma, and then you went to get help and found that those systems actually exacerbated– that they were homophobic, that they stigmatized mental health in ways that was absolutely detrimental to your well-being. And so, one of the things you’re sharing is that there is a way in which as you were, you know, a student really grappling with your identity, grappling with, you know, all of these issues that had come up for you as do come up for university students–
Cindy Holmes: Exactly. It’s a common experience.
Rebecca Gagan: So common, and you were dealing with all of that, but dealing with it in a system that was broken, and that amplified those challenges. And I’d like to say that things are somewhat better now, but I think we’re still, as you so helpfully point out, that we’re still really dealing with this idea that mental health, challenges, for example, that that’s all on the individual, right? That, even the term– and this is why, as I’ve already said on this podcast, that I really struggle with the idea of resilience because it needs to be a term that is based or approached from a systemic, and not put on the individual as if it is just a matter of will or grit, that the individual can overcome alone and that if they cannot, then it is something, as you have talked about, that is shameful and deficient somehow in their own being. And so–
Cindy Holmes: I so appreciate that you should have shared that in one of the earlier podcasts. I actually wanted to mention to you that what you had shared about your thoughts on resilience, it resonated with me so much, and it’s something in my own life personally, but also in my teaching and my research in social work. I’m interested in disrupting dominant narratives about resilience that are often very individualist and very linear; that really, this idea that you had a challenge when you were young, you overcame it, that it’s an individual problem versus a social or societal or systemic problem. I think that if you experience ups and downs, failures and successes throughout your life, it doesn’t mean that you’re not resilient and strong. And that, too often, the stories about resilience ignored the impact of ongoing systemic inequities. For example, ongoing colonialism for indigenous people, for hetero-sexism and cis-sexism, for queers and trans people, and two-spirit people, and other forms of systemic oppression. And I think that we have to be thinking about the way those systems impact our mental health and our well-being. The other thing I want to say in relation to what you’ve just mentioned about the problems that I experienced accessing mental health services. That I wanted to say to students, it’s really important to reach out and break your isolation, and if you don’t find the right support, keep looking. Sometimes it takes a long time to find the right people and to advocate for yourself. I have experienced harmful mental health support from people who were heterosexist sanist, but I have also experienced incredible people who have made a massive difference in my life in terms of my own healing, and my own well-being, and my own growth.
And so, there are people who are feminists. There are anti-racist counsellors. There are queer and trans-positive counsellors out there, and other kinds of community supports that aren’t just counselling as well. So, one of the things I wanted to mention is there’s mental health support through things like the Fireweed collective, offers mental health education and mutual aid with a healing justice lens. There are other resources. Perhaps we can find a way of linking to some of those as well that are outside of the mainstream medical model. The medical model is a support to many people, and sometimes taking meds can really make a difference for people in terms of helping with mental health challenges, and then it’s not for others. And so, it’s important that we don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach and you have to find your own path and your own– what’s going to work for you, and sometimes that takes time to find what that is and finding the right people.
Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. And not to feel that if you encounter, for example, a counsellor and it’s not a good fit, it’s okay to say, “this isn’t a good fit. This isn’t right for me,” and that you try somebody else. In my own life, I’ve had lots of different counsellors and therapists, and it took a long time until I found the right fit. And it was then even sort outside of, I would say, a traditional medical model of counselling or therapy. It was not what I was thinking, but it was the right fit for me, but it did take time. And I hear from students, too, that sometimes they access mental health support, and it doesn’t feel like a good fit, and then they don’t want to try again.
Cindy Holmes: Yeah. Well, I really relate to that, and I think that’s the other thing I just want to say to people is that I get that, and that’s okay. And when we have experienced harm or felt invalidated in with a medical professional or a mental health center provider of any kind, it’s really hard to reach out and trust and go forward to try and seek something else. The other thing is there are other kinds of supports, friends, and community members. I do think that you know, being able to tell people what’s going on for you and reaching out in different ways is really– it’s really important. Isolation is an additional challenge that folks experience. And so, especially during the pandemic, if there are ways to reach out to folks in your own community, even if it’s not a counsellor or mental health professional, I think it’s important to really acknowledge the value of that.
Rebecca Gagan: Cindy, I think what is so interesting about your own journey is that as you were really coping with your own traumas and trying to access supportive mental health, one of the things that you did, as you’ve shared, was to really start working in your company, and you’ve talked about how that move into community and social justice work, really, was this– it sounds to me like a really crucial piece of your own journey and your own healing. Can you just say a little bit more about that?
Cindy Holmes: Yeah, I think it’s been a central part of my own mental health strategy that I wasn’t always aware that it was work – that it was that as a strategy, but I think that, you know, early on being involved in feminist anti-violence organizing work, and everything from the frontline advocacy and support work that I did, but also being a part of organizing rallies, organizing workshops, working for systemic change, to policies and legislation… You know, everything from grassroots activism to some of the work I did in paid organizations or in paid positions in community organizations. I think that this really does shift the focus to how we can make a difference in our communities at all different levels, and it does help shift the focus from myself to what’s happening more broadly.
It also does break your isolation and helps you feel connected to others who share your views. For me also, having friends who have had mental health challenges has also been really helpful—so being able to talk to people who have their own mental health struggles, who’ve experienced mental health distress, and who’ve had the ups and downs of accessing support. That’s also been very validating and helps to not feel that it’s an individual problem and it’s a community who care for one another.
Rebecca Gagan: And realizing that you’re not alone in so many different ways and that you can gain support from those around you as you are actively working to change those structures that have been harmful. And you mentioned that all the while that you were doing this work, you were– the idea of continuing on in academia was still in the background, and so you were still thinking about going back. So, what happens next in your story?
Cindy Holmes: I was really yearning to go back to school because I actually wanted to think more and learn more about the very things I was doing in the community and the issues that I saw in the community. So, for example, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, violence against women… I wanted to actually go back to school to help me understand more and reflect more on the community work that I had been doing. I started to explore what would I need to do to get into a master’s program; I knew I needed to strengthen my application, so I decided to take a year to do additional coursework– what was called a qualifying year, and I did undergraduate and graduate courses in women’s studies and education at UBC, strengthened my application for grad school, and this really made a huge difference. It increased my skills my confidence, and I had a much stronger application because my grades also had improved.
So, then I was accepted both to UBC and U of T. I decided to go to U of T to the Ontario Institute for Studies and Education, and I did my masters in sociology and equity studies and education and went there because of their anti-racist feminist scholarship, and that was really what I wanted to study at the time, and I focused on the anti-violence work I’d been doing in the community. So, my master’s was about violence and queer women’s relationships, and I looked at educational strategies, but also how white supremacy was impacting how we were doing our work and how we could approach it from an anti-racist and decolonial approach.
So that beginning of doing my masters was pretty exciting, but I also found it challenging at times to do the writing of the thesis. I returned to counselling and sought a lot of support from friends and community members. And then, after the masters, I took about six years where I worked in the community again. I worked for a provincial anti-violence organization, and then that same desire to go back to school, I really so much being in academia– I love the engagement with ideas, the critical theorizing around social justice issues. I have a deep love of learning, and the universities have provided a space to engage with new ideas, expand my worldviews, deepen my commitments… so I returned to do a PhD at UBC. And it was also a long journey, took longer than most people– it was about seven years, although maybe what is most– even just that challenging, that idea that there is one way, this is so important for us all to remember.
Rebecca Gagan: Right. It’s how you can see how deeply we internalize those ideas of what is normal– you know, how long the degree should take– and I know so many students in, you know, their undergraduate degrees really feel so much pressure that there is a magic number of years in which they should complete the degree, and if they don’t, that there’s something wrong with them.
Cindy Holmes: Exactly. And that is something that I try and share with my own students now is just that it’s okay to take more time. It’s okay to go part-time. It’s okay to take longer. I think that focusing on your own well-being is really important, and for some of us, that has meant a longer time in the programs. I think that you know, there was also a long time after I finished my PhD before getting this academic position at UVic, and I think that for anyone who is thinking about becoming a professor, that’s also really important to acknowledge that that can be a long journey as well, and there isn’t just one path to doing that.
Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. And I think that one of the things that is to me, hearing your story, Cindy like a thread throughout, is the way in which you were always really challenging norms, like through your own journey, but also then actively challenging them by talking back to them and resisting them. So that– I really see that as a consistent piece, that everything you did, you were really trying to prioritize what you needed, what was right for you, what you needed to do to care for yourself, and then in your own work, in your academic work and in your community work, you found a kind of– a friend of mine, he uses the term– he talks about the university as “sanctuary.” Not as a retreat from the world, but as a place where you go to actually work on all of the issues that you’ve talked about, like what about making the world and even just making the university, this place, in which health and well-being of the faculty staff and the community are privileged above all else.
But working on all of those issues that you’ve talked about like you said, you wanted to be there, and you wanted to be in the community because you could find, in those spaces, room to consider the issues that had so affected your own life and to advocate for change, and that, as you say, became part of this– of your own mental health strategy and all the while your own journey, as I say, was really reflecting that work of challenging the norms as you were actively writing and thinking about advocacy in this way.
Cindy Holmes: It’s true. And that’s not something I really always been aware of, but I think it’s true. And I guess, you know, one of the things that I think about for students, hearing this is really the importance of self-compassion, to have a non-judgmental approach to your own path and your own journey, that you don’t have to know where you’re going. You don’t have to– it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to take time to change direction. So many of the folks that you’ve interviewed in the podcast have talked about changing directions and how much pressure we feel that we’re supposed to have it figured out, and the other thing I wanted to share is that for students to know that faculty continue to have mental health challenges that it’s not just something that happened when you’re younger, maybe as a student, and then you became a professor and then you no longer have mental health challenges. And to just acknowledge that many of us– many faculty have learning disabilities, mental health challenges, different kinds of disabilities, including mental health, and that you’re not alone. And that’s part of what I love about the UVic Bounce podcast, and the program is really challenging the idea that faculty don’t have these challenges and really breaking the silence about mental health and struggles.
Rebecca Gagan: And this is, I think really, speaking to something you said earlier, Cindy, about the stigmatization around mental health that existed in the eighties, but that we’re still actively trying to break down and that there has been so much silence. And I think that absolutely, I don’t want students to feel as if they look at their professors and think, “oh okay, sure, maybe they had challenges, but they’ve overcome all of them and look at them now.” I mean, that is completely false. It’s completely and entirely the case that so many of us continue to work on our mental health every day, and you know, we continue to have obstacles; we continue to have difficulties in our own lives, and that’s really part of what it is to be human, and that, UVic Bounce is really focused on trying to validate that experience as one and really normalize it. That it’s okay, so thank you for saying that, Cindy; I’m glad that you are hearing that in UVic Bounce and thank you for sharing your own experience today. So, Cindy, if you were to leave students with some– you’ve already offered so much in terms of supportive words to our listeners– but if you were to leave students with some, I guess, final thoughts, final words of support, what might you want to share?
Cindy Holmes: I think that probably, I want to end with just encouraging self-compassion and that there are times when you might feel like you are not sure what the next step is, or what direction you need to take, but to have a non-judgemental approach to thinking about your life and who you are and where you’re going to have self-compassion, and also to keep reaching out to break your isolation. And to know that if you haven’t found the right community, the right friends, the right mental health supports that they do exist and that I just encourage people to keep reaching out.
Rebecca Gagan: I think that self-compassion is also something that we have to keep learning about and to keep practicing. Hearing your story today, Cindy, and I think about my own as well, and I feel like I was so hard on myself. You know, we often– you probably have heard this and read this that, you know, practicing self-compassion is really thinking about, “would you talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself?” But what you’ve also really shared today is how as individuals, we can be really hard on ourselves, but it’s also that we need to reflect on and shine light on the ways in which we are part of systems that also are hard on us and that put such pressure on us and that we move through our undergraduate or graduate experience, and maybe aren’t even aware of the ways in which those systems are acting on us right in ways that are harmful. And that even if we can pause to be able to separate some of that out, but also to see how it’s not all, as you’ve said, it’s not all on us that we are part of these larger systems, that can cause pain and make things hard, and so then to be gentle with ourselves.
Cindy Holmes: Yeah, it really is this gentleness, self-compassion, and also, as you’re saying, for me, the activism and working for change has actually been a huge part of helping me feel be able to help have the self-compassion, to know that there’s these, as you say, these wider systems that are acting on us, that we can actually in community work to change and feel empowered through that process, it’s a really important part of connecting for our own well-being.
Rebecca Gagan: And absolutely, breaking the isolation– and I think we both understand how difficult it is to say those words today when we’re being told to pretty much isolate ourselves, but trying to think then about ways that we can connect in community so that we are not feeling alone because, of course, we are not alone in these challenges.
Cindy Holmes: Yeah, there are some great online support groups and online ways that you can connect. I’ve also seen some really creative things students are doing right now with joining together for study sessions on Zoom, with others in their class, and so maybe they’re not even talking for a lot of the time. They might just be working on this on their assignments together. And then they’ll take a break and have tea, or if somebody is struggling, they’ll have a little check-in time and be able to provide support to one another and then go back to their assignments all the while on Zoom, I think, that there’s some really creative things people are doing and tapping into what other students are doing on campus, even in the midst of the isolation and the restrictions, is inspiring.
Rebecca Gagan: Yes. I feel that too. You know, hopefully, we will soon be back together again, face to face, but in the meantime, there are, as you say, ways in which people can connect, and I will put in the links for the episode notes. I’ll put the links to some of the organizations that you have mentioned today, Cindy.
Cindy Holmes: Thanks so much, Rebecca, for the chance to participate in this; and thanks for all that you’re doing with this great podcast and program.
Rebecca Gagan: Oh, thanks, Cindy. It’s been such a pleasure being able to talk with you today, and I’m so grateful that you were able to share your story. Take care.
Cindy Holmes: Thank you.
Rebecca Gagan: Bye.
In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Louise Chim, an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Victoria. In our conversation, Louis shares with me some of her experience of being a Chinese-Canadian undergraduate student at Harvard. We talk about anti-racist education, how to find a mentor who understands your experience, and finally, what a professor looks like. I really hope that you’ll tune in for this immensely thought-provoking episode. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcasts. We’d love it if you would give us a like and a follow on Instagram @uvicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.