Accelerant for the fire: a #lismentalhealth reflection on psychological abuse and mental health

Author’s note: #listmentalhealth focuses on raising awareness about mental health issues surrounding LIS as well as sharing resources in educating and assisting yourself and/or others in all things mental health.

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The last time I wrote for #lismentalhealth week in 2017, I wrote about T.B.D. – Trauma, Burnout, and Depression – in GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums). Folks in the library world still to this day write about their various experiences with T.B.D. Even with support services and networks in place, T.B.D. is still prevalent in our jobs as library workers. In this public conversation, however, there is something that is missing from the conversation when we talk about T.B.D. That missing layer has a major influence over T.B.D.’s effects on the individual person and the greater library community. It’s time to talk about psychological abuse.

Psychological abuse, also referred to as emotional or mental abuse, has several definitions depending on the organization or agency. The varied definitions tend to center around the psychological tactics and methods of the abuser to maintain their power and control over the abused. Some of the more general methods and tactics are:

  • Gaslighting
  • Bullying and intimidation
  • Tearing down the abused person’s self-worth or sense of self
  • Threats of self-harm or harm to others if the abused person leaves the abuser
  • Isolating the abused person from friends, family, and other support/social network
  • Shifting the blame about the abusive behavior onto the abused person

Psychological abuse follows the same cycle of violence as physical and sexual abuse. Like its counterparts, the effect on mental health by psychological abuse is considerable. Psychological abuse can lead to depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, loss of self, addiction, and a plethora of stress-related health issues. In summary, it can both cause mental health issues as well as amplify or complicate existing conditions; hence, the “accelerant for the fire” metaphor in the title.

It’s important to take psychological abuse into consideration because in professional environments, both individuals and groups can be psychologically abusive or enable such abuse through their culture or structure. From anecdotes from friends and personal experiences, GLAM workplaces seem to have similar patterns of psychological abuse found in other workplaces. Folks have stories of abusive bosses or coworkers and how managers or HR mishandles or ignores reports of abuse. Sometimes the abuse is addressed by HR or administration, sometimes it’s addressed by gaining enough peer support to make the abuser to change their behavior, and sometimes the abused or the abuser leaves that workplace. Nonetheless, psychological abuse compounds health issues caused by underemployment, low pay, under-resourced, poor to no job benefits, overwork, and other issues wrapped up in GLAM employment.

Communities themselves can enable abusive behavior, just like workplaces. While one can move to a different department or workplace all together to escape an abusive situation, it’s harder to escape abusive situations in GLAM communities, particularly specialized or niche communities.  For example, even though we did not work at the same workplace, I still suffered psychological abuse from another library technology community member. The effects from her abuse were just as real as the abuse I’ve experienced from staff at toxic workplaces, and had similar effects on my mental health. GLAM communities serve in part as support networks to cope with the workplace issues mentioned above; nonetheless, I am unaware of a GLAM community that are effectively set up to manage abusive situations in all their main physical and online community spaces. Codes of Conduct are in place in many GLAM communities, but not many are readily enforceable due to lack of response and enforcement infrastructures or the scope of the enforcement. [1] This is more challenging when communities use platforms, such as Slack, that do not have community moderation tools that exist in IRC, email lists, and more traditional forums. The abused person finds themselves with very limited options when the abuse happens in a professional community, and, from my example above, it’s a very isolating experience.

It’s near impossible to have a space where one won’t encounter psychological abuse from an individual, organization, or community. Psychological abuse has such an immense effect on mental health that the GLAM community should not ignore it when talking about mental health. But, there’s no magic solution to addressing abusive behavior in GLAM workplaces or communities. Most of the burden is on the person experiencing the abuse to identify and report said abuse, much like workplaces put the burden on the worker to prevent and address their own burnout. Publicly naming psychological abusers comes with its own risks, similar to naming sexual harassers. Whisper networks hold some of this information, but the shame inherent in admitting that one was psychologically abused means that even the safer whisper network environment is not comprehensive in its knowledge of abusers. Leaving the workplace or community is not an option when one has limited job prospects elsewhere, or where one needs the income to survive.

Unlike my other #lismentalhealth posts, there is no set of recommendations or solutions about addressing psychological abuse, and its effects on GLAM workers’ mental health. Instead, this post is an effort to raise awareness. Below are some resources for learning more about psychological abuse, its relationship to mental health, and, if you need it, information as to where you can get help.

Resources

Abuse Defined – https://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/

Ask a Manager Posts About Workplace Bullying – https://www.askamanager.org/search-results?q=workplace%20bullying

Captain Awkward Posts About Emotional Abuse – https://captainawkward.com/category/emotional-abuse/

Emotional Abuse (Types of Abuse) – http://www.stopabuse.umich.edu/about/types.html

Emotional and Verbal Abuse – https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/emotional-and-verbal-abuse

The Insidious Effects of Verbal Abuse in the Workplace – https://www.thecut.com/2018/05/the-insidious-effects-of-verbal-abuse-in-the-workplace.html  

Looking for Emotional Abuse Survivor Stories  – https://ask.metafilter.com/326721/Looking-for-emotional-abuse-survivor-stories

What About Emotional Abuse?  – https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/what-about-emotional-abuse-0

What is Gaslighting?  – https://www.thehotline.org/2014/05/29/what-is-gaslighting/

Workplace Emotional Abuse – https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/8745_KellowayCh6.pdf

The Obligatory Wikipedia Pages

Psychological Abuse – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_abuse

Workplace Bullying – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workplace_bullying  


[1] An example of this type of limited enforcement is Code4Lib. The community has a CoC and an incident response procedure, but the response procedure is largely focused on the physical annual conference.

#lismentalhealth – T.B.D.

This week, January 30 – February 3, is LIS Mental Health Week 2017 or ‪#‎lismentalhealth‬ if you are on various social media platforms. This week focuses on raising awareness about mental health issues surrounding LIS as well as sharing resources in educating and assisting yourself and/or others in all things mental health. More information can be found at http://lismentalhealth.tumblr.com/.


When I presented on #libtech burnout in 2016, I mentioned that there is an overlap between the symptoms of burnout and depression. In her 2016 #lismentalhealth post, Maria Accardi wrote about this problematic overlap in detail, where what she thought was burnout was in fact major depression. I recommend reading her post before moving on. I’ll be here waiting for you while you do so.

For your reference, the phases of burnout:

  • The compulsion to prove oneself
  • Working harder
  • Neglecting their needs
  • Displacement of conflicts
  • Revision of values
  • Denial of emerging problems
  • Withdrawal
  • Obvious behavioral changes
  • Depersonalization
  • Inner emptiness
  • Depression
  • Burnout syndrome

Compare the above with some common symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment

The overlap is quite large. Trying to figure out which one is affecting you on your own is daunting, and almost impossible if your symptoms fall solely in the overlap area. Unfortunately, I’m going to complicate matters even more in the next section.

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You might have noticed the title of the blog post: T.B.D. This is an acronym for “To Be Determined”.  For the purpose of this post, the acronym has a double meaning. The “B” and “D” stand for Burnout and Depression, respectively. The “T” stands for trauma.

Trauma in the GLAM professions can take form in both firsthand and secondary traumas. Usually, when we discuss trauma we focus on trauma experienced in the first person. Examples include verbal and physical attacks by other staff or patrons. Given recent events, the increase in hate crimes in libraries will only increase the instances of primary trauma among staff.

Nonetheless, it is equally important that we pay attention to secondary trauma, sometimes referred to vicarious trauma. This is trauma that is common for those who work with traumatized people and their experiences: social workers, health care workers, law enforcement, teachers, journalists, and so on. Gallery, Library, Archives, and Museum (GLAM) workers too are susceptible to secondary trauma in various ways. We work with patrons who otherwise have no other support network, we work with collections that have firsthand accounts of atrocities. We as GLAM workers are exposed to trauma on a regular basis, so what is the consequence of constant exposure?

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, in her book Trauma Stewardship, talks about the effects of trauma for the workers above in the context of “trauma exposure response”. Trauma exposure response refers to the transformation of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings when one is exposed to trauma. Laura focuses on how transformations can harm not only oneself, but those who one is supposed to be helping. She proposes 16 warning signs of trauma exposure response:

  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • A sense that one can never do enough
  • Hypervigilance
  • Diminished creativity
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Minimizing
  • Chronic exhaustion/physical ailments
  • Inability to listen/deliberate avoidance
  • Dissociative moments
  • Sense of persecution
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Anger and Cynicism
  • Inability to empathize/numbing
  • Addictions
  • Grandiosity: an inflated sense of the importance of one’s work

Here again, we have a sizable overlap of symptoms. If you’re experiencing symptoms that are in all three areas– trauma, burnout, and depression – you might find yourself in a “TBD” situation as you figure out what exactly is going on…

*******

Where do we go from here?

If you are struggling and not sure if you are dealing with trauma, burnout, and/or depression, your best bet is to enlist help, be it through talking to friends or coworkers, or, better yet, a licensed mental health worker. The overlap in symptoms makes it hard for an individual to correctly determine what the symptoms are pointing to, and, as Maria and others found out, an incorrect conclusion can lead to potentially dangerous results.

I can go into the various self-care and other individual actions one can take after they have a sense of which of the TBD they are dealing with, but in all honesty, I would only repeat what has already been said, and is currently being said, in other #lismentalhealth posts.

The one area which I do want to focus on is the importance of recognizing that GLAM workers can and do experience trauma, be it firsthand or secondary. This is especially important for managers and supervisors to grasp, since we share a bulk of the responsibility of making sure that our staff feel safe at work.  What can GLAM managers and supervisors do?

  • At minimum, recognize the signs of trauma exposure response (see above). Bonus points for reading Trauma Stewardship or attending a training.
  • Get familiar with your place of work’s employee assistance program. These programs usually offer a limited free number of sessions with a mental health professional, which is important for workers who might otherwise skip treatment due to health care costs.
  • Pay attention to the climate in your workplace. If you find that your staff morale is low and cynicism is high, for example, you might be dealing with a climate shaped by the collective staff’s trauma exposure response.
  • Provide staff time to process traumatic events. If your staff member was involved in a physical or verbal assault by another staff person or patron, do not require them to go right back into the environment after the traumatic event. In the same vein, if a staff person is processing a collection of primary sources surrounding a particularly traumatic event in history, give them space to work on other collections. This would seem like common sense advice to some of you, but there’s nothing wrong in re-stating the obvious once in a while.
  • Let your staff know about the resources available to them: EAP, training, flextime, leave policies, accommodations, etc. Have this information about these resources available in places where staff can discreetly access them (specifically not right outside your office entrance).
  • Provide venues and opportunities for staff to learn about trauma and trauma stewardship. Leave a few copies of Trauma Stewardship or articles about trauma in the staff room, advertise workshops that cover trauma work, and so on.

Trauma, like burnout and depression, affects a larger number of GLAM workers than we realize. Increasing awareness that GLAM workers can be and are traumatized by the very nature of their jobs, will hopefully lead to more discussion about the role trauma has at your places of work, alongside discussions of burnout and depression.

#lismentalhealth Guest Post – Which tools; why build

The following is a guest post for #lismentalhealth week 2016. The author wishes to remain anonymous. If you have a long-form text piece that you would like me to post either anonymously or with attribution, please contact me at b dot yoose [at] gmail. Another option is to post at http://lismentalhealth.tumblr.com/.

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“According to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health3, in the US there were 8.3m adults who had serious thoughts of committing suicide, and 2.3m who had actually made plans to commit to suicide. Of those, 1.1m actually attempted suicide, but only just over 33,000 succeeded. Which would make the ratio of failure to success 33 to 1.”  http://lostallhope.com/suicide-statistics

Statistics are why I’m alive, and why I will remain alive. When I’m in a particularly bad spot, I read and re-read those statistics. I am not a person who does something where the odds are so clearly stacked against me.

My high-school journals are filled with various iterations of “I want to die.” When I was in high school, depression in teens was mostly written off as hormonal adolescent angst.

When I was 18, I took an entire bottle of Nuprin. I’m showing my age here; these haven’t been sold in years. They were tiny – their tagline was “Little. Yellow. Different” – and I have a hard time swallowing pills. I’m still alive, so they were little, yellow, and not especially toxic in the quantity in which I took them; I passed out for a few hours of the blackest, most dreamless sleep I have ever had, and woke up with a headache.

I have not made another attempt since, unless occasionally gazing longingly at tall structures counts (best to be above 6 stories for lethality). The fencing alongside overpasses in NYC, with their tiny holes and their inward curves that make them impossible to climb, are probably there for people like me.

I have anxiety disorder, depressive episodes, a mother who shut herself into the apartment for years only leaving it to go into the nursing home in which she died and thus a family history of mental illness. I fight every day to not become my mother. I have a therapist and SSRIs. I have a good life that I’ve made for myself; good friends; a decent amount of professional success; moments of absolute delight amidst the “meh.”

And I still read the statistics.

#lismentalhealth – Employee Assistance Program Primer

This week, January 18 – 23, is LIS Mental Health Week 2016 or ‪#‎lismentalhealth‬ if you are on various social media platforms. This week, co-organized by Cecily Walker and Kelly McElroy, focuses on raising awareness about mental health issues surrounding LIS as well as sharing resources in educating and assisting yourself and/or others in all things mental health. More information can be found at http://cecily.info/2015/12/20/announcing-lis-mental-health-week-2016/ and http://kellymce.tumblr.com/post/137514229595/white-text-on-a-pink-background-reading-lis.

Early on the first day of the week, the mention of Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, came across the hashtag. Since many library workers might not be aware that their workplace has an EAP, or are hesitant or confused about what an EAP can do for them, I thought that a brief primer would be useful to put out there for this week.

Before I continue, a few disclaimers:

  • IANAT/IANYB – I am not a therapist or your boss; this is a high level informational look at EAPs.
  • YMMV – Your mileage might vary at your place of work. Each employer has different EAP benefits, or none at all.
  • The below primer is based off of my experiences with EAPs, including providing information to staff and as a user of an EAP.

What is an EAP?

An EAP (usually run by a third party company) provides a variety of services and resources for employees when they encounter issues affecting overall well-being and/or job performance.

What issues do EAPs provide services and support?

The range of issues can vary by program; nonetheless, the majority should at least cover issues surrounding stress, abuse, addiction, personal and professional relationship problems, and a number of mental health related issues. Some programs’ coverage also includes issues surrounding caregiving, financial, and legal matters, as well as consultation for managers in matters of employee relations and performance.

Who is covered under an EAP?

The employee, though it would be worthwhile to check with your supervisor or HR to see if you are covered if you are part-time or temporary assignment. Depending on the program, everyone in the employee household is covered regardless of if that particular person is covered under the employee’s health insurance. For example, an employee who has a college age child who needs assistance in dealing with a particular issue can contact the EAP to request resources for their child, even though that child is not covered under their insurance. This is a particularly useful benefit if you find yourself needing to find assistance for a family member who is struggling.

What type of services and support does an EAP provide?

Most EAPs provide referrals to mental health professionals, attorneys, financial advisers, and other professionals. Most also provide a limited number of free sessions for counseling and legal/financial appointments.

Another thing to note that these benefits are per issue, not by date. In addition, if you find that the referred counselor is not working for you, you can switch counselors and reset the free session count.

If you need immediate assistance, most EAPs have licensed counselors on call.

Are EAPs confidential?

Yes*. They will not report back to your boss or employer saying that you specifically used an EAP service. Your place of work will receive a total count of how many people used the service within a particular time period, but what you discuss with EAPs are confidential* (*with the exception of mandatory reporter laws).

What happens when you call an EAP?

The EAP will ask for your name and why you are calling. The staff person will ask if you are in immediate danger or if you are thinking of harming yourself or others. If you say yes to these questions, they will direct you to the appropriate resources for immediate help. If not, they will walk you through the referral and benefits process. Depending on your preference, you can request a list of referrals to make appointments on your end or you can have the EAP staff make the appointment with a referral for you.

They will also ask for your employer’s name to determine what benefits are available to you like referrals and free sessions, but again will not give your name to your employer when reporting the number of employees using the EAP for your place of work.

A special note to managers

For those of you who want to promote your work’s EAP outside of the standard spiel that HR gives during the benefits session, reminders never hurt. Most EAPs have brochures, flyers, magnets, etc. that you can give to your employees directly or leave somewhere in a “neutral” area, like the break room. Having this information available for employees to access outside the gaze of other employees or their supervisor is important due to the stigma that surrounds seeking help.

One way to lessen that stigma, if you are comfortable in doing so, is to talk about your experiences with EAPs. You do not need to go into detail about your experiences – as you can see above, I did not go into exact personal details about my experiences using EAP services. Nonetheless, as a manager you have some influence over how your employees cope with work and life stress and, to some extent, workplace culture. By promoting EAP services and in engaging in other actions in supporting your employees’ well-being, managers stand a better chance of building a healthier workplace culture.