Ms. Kathy English, Public Editor, Toronto Star.
Dear Ms. English,
I am writing this open letter to you to outline my concerns about a column published by your newspaper on Monday, 2 March, 2020, written by Heather Mallick, titled, “Post-traumatic stress isn’t a disorder, it’s life.”
I first came across this in the early morning, and normally something of this nature would go out on my daily e-mail to contacts in Canada and the US, but, this one gave me pause. I honestly had to read it through multiple times, and then again while making notes.
When I was still writing regularly for a certain magazine based in the US, had I ever submitted something like this to my editors, they would have laughed me out of the building. If I delivered a lecture at Ryerson (Criminology) or Humber (Police Foundations) or University of Toronto Medical School (transition to residency), based on the “facts” of this opinion piece, I would not be asked back ever again.
So, I am then left with the mystery of how this “opinion” piece ever was approved for publication in your newspaper?
Allow me to illustrate:
PTSD is not “supposedly rampant”, and it is not only “reserved for extreme cases”. Those of us who work in and around the mental health field have been hard at work on eradicating the stigma associated with mental health and mental illness. It is because of the tireless work of hundreds and thousands of activists and advocates that the conversations are even happening. Because it is more openly discussed – not like when I made my appearance in this world in the early 60s, where such things were not discussed in polite company, but in hushed tones behind multiple closed doors – it may appear to be increasing. It is not. It is simply more public and not hidden, or reserved only for veterans of war who returned home in severe distress.
Let me be crystal clear on this point, labels are useful for jars, tins, boxes, and bins, not for human beings. Labelling people or conditions, negates that person’s existence, and reduces them to a label only. Labels are distancing phenomena.
PTSD is a psychiatric or psychological diagnosis. Both professionals are equally capable of correctly diagnosing the condition, according to the standards set out by the World Health Organization (see ICD-11 published in 2019 for the latest revisions) or in the DSM-V (current, albeit, dated volume, which will require updates from ICD-11). You can find statistics in various forms and reports, depending on which group, genre, subset, etc., that you are looking at. Instead of using “allegedly”, quote your source for the numbers, because frankly, they look like nothing I have seen or read in recent years.
The paragraph containing “according to Veterans Affairs Canada” is paraphrasing, not an exact quote. For the content being discussed, only a direct quote is appropriate, not the heavily biased opinion of the columnist.
Where Ms. Mallick parts company with established science, is her opinion that this is not a disorder, but a reaction. What she refers to in the previous paragraph is what is known as hyper-vigilance, not what she dismisses as something as simple as not being happy with the current president south of the 49th, or being in a large grocery store. This is highly dismissive of the experiences of those with PTSD, who have great difficulty functioning in crowded or noisy spaces. Whenever I am out with my most favourite human on the planet, I always have scoped out multiple ways to get us out of a space if it gets to be too much for either of us to handle. We both battle PTSD on a daily basis, caused by an array of traumas and work, and we still get up every day and do our damnedest to leave the world and the people on it, better than we found them. You could say that we have both been there, done that, and have a box full of t-shirts that neither of us ever wanted.
“Over-medicalization of life.” I find that phrase alone to be a complete fallacy. That, combined with that “suck it up, buttercup” attitude has caused more harm in recent years than is realized. Look, we have all experienced the office hypochondriac, who every time they get a case of the sniffles runs to google to look for their symptoms, and walk away convinced that they are about to die a horrible death from some rare disease that has not been seen in existence in over two millennia. Yes, we’ve all seen it, heard it, experienced it. It is why I begin lectures with a trigger warning (right after I show where the Naloxone kits are – CMHA’s Carry It Campaign) … and then have to define what a trigger is. Ms. Mallick reminds me of some of the “valley girls” I’ve had in class who come out with a typical “ermahgerd, I was like so trigger-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ed!” No sunshine, you were irked at something I said, or the topic matter was making you uncomfortable. You’d know the difference if you were triggered. Forget that walk a mile in my shoes stuff, that only gets you to every Starbucks within a mile of the starting point. No. Try spending 24 hours in my mind. I bet within 30 minutes you are on the floor, curled in a ball, whimpering to be let out. I tried describing it once for someone who had doubts… they couldn’t handle it after 4 sentences.
There are those out there who are self-diagnosed, they have not seen a doctor or mental health professional for a referral, they just had an off day, read some half-baked nonsense online, and decided that they have it too. They then proceed to tell anyone and everyone they encounter that they suffer from this. Wrong again sunshine, you don’t suffer from it, if you had it, you’d be battling for your very existence on a daily basis. This isn’t the movie of the week kind of thing, as Ms. Mallick hints at so heavily throughout this column. When people pull this nonsense, it lessens those of us who do battle it, in the eyes of anyone who bothers to look.
Ms. Mallick rails against psychiatry in a similar fashion to those who belong to one of the California-based cults. It leaves me to wonder what her experience has been that has caused such a dour outlook on life. Should she ever wish to meet a thoroughly amazing psychologist, send her a few blocks up and one block east of your offices at Number 1 Yonge, and I’ll introduce her to Dr. Vermani, who I have had the pleasure of meeting and having an extended conversation with. I consistently refer people to her for her expertise and assistance. Her knowledge is vast, and her experience covers a wide array of areas. I’m certain she could easily explain this much more succinctly than I can, I’m accustomed to breaking it down into bite-sized chunks for my students in class.
Again, major issues on Ms. Mallick’s part around language, the use of the word stigma or stigmatization. This reminds me of Jordan Peterson’s issues, and they are infinite, around pronoun usage and the modern world. Instead of producing a valid argument, this sounds instead like the petulant whine of the right wing fringe who have issues with everything in the modern world. They live for heteronormativity and a world in which mental illness was just not discussed in polite society. It is blatantly obvious that Ms. Mallick has never experienced the stigma associated with mental health, or any other item in that vein. I can quote chapter and verse from multiple scientific sources that members of the LGBTQ2S communities deal with multi-layered stigma on a daily basis, particularly when battling mental illness. Here’s my suggestion, that Ms. Mallick, in this case, should check her obvious privilege and sit the hell down, and for once just listen without opening mouth, while those who live it, explain it.
Coping with life is not a psychiatric condition, yes, but, PTSD is not caused by coping with life. This is where Ms. Mallick’s circular logic errors are apparent. She supports the damage caused by the work done by first responders, those who have experienced trauma due to war, crime, etc., but rubs suggestively up against “you should have known what you were signing up for” in her arguments, without saying the actual words. By the time I reached this portion of Ms. Mallick’s column, I had become convinced that she had no clue whatsoever of what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder actually was/is, what causes it, what the diagnostic standards are, and had most definitely never spoken to any kind of expert in the field before launching this load of twaddle upon your readers.
The Edmonton murder case is not the only one where a defendant or their counsellor had attempted multiple avenues until they found the one they thought they could pull the wool over the eyes of the jury with. I can promise you this though, that the first responders who were at that scene have had recurring nightmares about it since, and in at least one case, this was the last straw that broke them. In one well-known case, it was a paramedic arriving on the scene of a satanic cult double homicide, where two women were decapitated, and they had to treat the killer. A police Superintendent explained it to me after the Ontario PTSD bill passed, “I had one officer in my division, had been to, say, 20 blue baby calls in a row. Number 21 was the one that broke him, and he went home and swallowed his gun. You never know what the incident will be.” I have seen regularly, in news, in case files, etc., where someone is up on the carpet for some truly abhorrent antisocial behaviours, and the first claim they come up with is, it’s because of PTSD. They neither have the diagnosis, nor have any clue of what is actually involved. How about this, sunshine, you just admit that you’re a complete and total waste of skin whose antisocial behaviour affects all within reach, take your punishment and sit the hell down.
As for the airline example, I have seen consistently, people ordering the fake “service dog” harnesses, leashes, etc., to put on their dogs so that they can take them into any establishment they want to. And, without fail, those dogs are the most ill-tempered, misbehaving, dogs that I have seen. If you have to keep shoving treats in little FiFi’s mouth to keep her from biting other customers in line at Starbucks, then either pick the little monster up, or ditch the fake papers and the phoney “service dog” harness, and just admit you’re too cheap to hire a pet sitter while you go shopping. They have ruined it for those who actually have real medical service dogs, who need that assistance to be able to leave their homes and go out to function in society. Those dogs, while wearing their work vests are not distracted, but are focused on their handler, ensuring their handler’s well-being. I had coffee with a friend, and her service dog, as is typical, curled up under the table, napping on top of our feet, until needed, and then she was alert and doing what she was trained to do.
Whatever allowances are made for people, there will always be some jerk who will try to take advantage of it. Prime example, a good friend of mine, courts officer, Indigenous, and one day we’re sitting on a sunny patio after work, having an iced coffee and laughing about the typical sillybuggers from the 9 to 5. They are telling me about overhearing conversations in the cells, how to get out from under this charge by claiming this … if you’re up on something serious, claim you are native, say Métis, it’s the hardest to disprove, and rather than take the time, they’ll just ship you off to that system instead. For every allowance, there will be ten people looking to take advantage of it, it’s unfortunate, but it is how the world works these days.
The final piece of snark, PTS-19, was entirely uncalled for. Ms. Mallick has just spent an entire column dumping all over the experiences of those who have been handed the diagnosis of PTSD (not self-diagnosed, but by a professional), plus the laundry list of other conditions and issues that co-exist with it. If anything, she sits upon her throne of privilege while heaping endless amounts of stigma on top of those who are already battling to make it through the day. Here’s what stigma around mental health does – it reinforces that suck it up culture that has infected every part of first responder careers, especially policing … to the point where colleagues will stand by and watch someone struggling and yet do nothing, because of the stigma and they “don’t want the crazy to rub off” on them. Then they all comment anonymously in an article in another newspaper about watching this happen, after this person has died by suicide. That is what stigma does. Not the dripping with sarcasm sentence from Ms. Mallick.
This article was disgusting, pathetic, and I quite honestly expect better from those whose writing is published by the Toronto Star. This is more of the quality one would expect to see from the right wing press.
I would suggest, Ms. English, that you obtain a copy of Save-My-Life School by Natalie Harris, put it in Ms. Mallick’s hands, and do not allow one more word she writes to be published by the Toronto Star until she has read it cover to cover and can speak to the contents of that book. Perhaps, then, she would like to meet the author and hear just one woman’s experience of battling for her life, I’ll gladly arrange it for you. Perhaps a chat with one of many specialists in treatment of PTSD/Complex-PTSD and Trauma, Dr. Douglas, Dr. Bouffard, Dr. Lee, Dr. Kamkar, Dr. Abramovich, Dr. Vermani. Or the grandfathers of peer support, Syd Gravel and Brad McKay. How about Dilnaz Garda from Toronto Beyond The Blue? Goodness knows that we are not short of people who know this stuff like the backs of their own hands, and it was blatantly obvious to anyone who read Ms. Mallick’s column, that she has never bothered to speak to any of them, or do the slightest bit of research beyond a few recycled pull quotes.
It has been five years since we last had a chance to speak in person. Let’s plan on a coffee and a chat by the lake when the weather is nicer. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Let’s be honest, you’d never publish something I composed, titled “Heather Mallick is a Clueless Tosser” even if I slapped an Opinion label on top. Ms. Mallick’s column should have never been published in the form it was either – it is dangerous as written.
I expect better from you and your fellow editors and writers. Far better.
- Director and LGBTQ Liaison, National Women in Law Enforcement Association.
- Peer Supporter, WeNeverWalkAlone, for US law enforcement.
- LGBTQ2S Peer Support Advisor/Lived Experience Facilitator, Mood Disorders Society of Canada, Peer and Trauma Support Systems.
- Author, Educator, Public Speaker, 38 year activist and advocate.
- Mental Health Warrior.