Genevieve, 33, was sexually abused by men when she was between the ages of 2 and 16 in New South Wales. Bred by her father specifically to be abused, she has suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dissociation, flashbacks, and an eating disorder. Many times she wanted to end her life. Last year she almost succeeded.
Charlotte, 27, has also suffered for years as a result of childhood abuse for more than ten years, beginning when she was 2, at the hands of her father, uncle, family friend and strangers in Queensland. She has endured PTSD, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. More than once she has made attempts on her life.
Ally Marie, 44, was sexually abused throughout her childhood by men in her adoptive parent’s church. She has spent years in and out of mental hospitals in New Zealand and Western Australia; she abused drugs and alcohol to numb her pain and also struggled with suicidal thoughts.
What these three women have in common – in addition to histories of sexual abuse – is a deep grief and profound horror that another victim of abuse, a 20-year-old Belgian woman, was killed by lethal injection after medical professionals determined this was a suitable treatment to end her suffering. (Her death took place last year, but the Dutch Euthanasia Commission has only recently released its report.)
The young woman had been sexually abused between the ages of 5 and 15. She suffered PTSD, severe anorexia, chronic depression, hallucinations, suicidal mood swings, self-harming tendencies and obsessive compulsive behaviours. Her psychiatrist declared that there was no prospect of recovery. Doctors believed the woman to be “fully competent with no major depression or mood disorders affecting her thinking” that she wanted death – which makes no sense, given her many diagnoses.
“I’m horrified,” says the mother-of-one Genevieve from Queensland, who I met recently.
“It’s abominable. She was only 20! No 20-year-old with sound mind says ‘I choose euthanasia over living’. Yes, it’s a failure of the medical profession. It’s also a failure of humanity. The decision to kill her says to the rest of us: there is no hope, your life doesn’t matter! You are beyond repair, we have nothing to offer you. It tells us we are leeches who should be eradicated.”
A nursing graduate hoping to work in acute mental health care for young adults, Genevieve has first-hand experience of how difficult it is for survivors to get the specialist trauma care they need. She pays $200 a fortnight to access the specialist medical help she needs through the private health system, which she can’t get through public services. She says survivors are made to feel like burdens:
“Instead of finding alternatives and offering real hope, this decision says ‘let’s just eradicate this person, it will cost less’. Doctors don’t have to deal with what caused this person to become like this in the first place. If society says ‘This is OK’, it becomes acceptable. There is no longer a deterrent to ending your life. Our suffering makes us feel isolated and lonely. It’s taboo to talk about what happened to you. We are made to feel we are too hard. But we need to hear there is hope, keep going, things will get better. We need people who will come alongside and say ‘We can do life together’. We need a community, a network, so we don’t feel like an island.”
Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie feel strongly that the 20-year-old lacked these necessary supports. And like many others on the long journey of recover from abuse, they know that if euthanasia – the medicalised killing of another person – had been legally available, they themselves may not have been with us today to stand as survivors. If their community and the medical profession had offered death as a compassionate resolution to their suffering, they may well have stepped from suicidal ideation into death.
I know Charlotte as a contributor to Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade – so many child abuse survivors end up in the prostitution industry. She was distressed when reading about the end of life of another abuse victim. While the intensity of suffering echoed her own wounds, she says she has been encouraged to live, not die, helped through regular therapy, the support of loving friends, her teaching studies and her dog. As she writes about overcoming a desire to end it all:
“the knowledge that I came so close to dying fills me with sorrow. I am very lucky and grateful to still be here today. There are so many beautiful and wonderful things in life that I would have missed out on, and it is those moments which make recovery that little bit easier … No one should ever be made to feel as though suicide is an option.”
Ally Marie also recalls a childhood destroyed by sexual, physical and emotional abuse. She has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals much of her life. “Had someone given me a needle back then to end it all I would have gratefully accepted,” says Ally Marie, who now has nine children as well as running her own business helping women reach their goals.
“Thank God they didn’t. Thank God I am alive to share my story. Because now I am grateful as I look at my beautiful family I created, as I look around at the lives I can change with my story … What happened to this girl is murderous. Who are you to anticipate what her future holds? I was this young girl but I found my way and pulled through.”
The Belgian woman is not an isolated case. Among psychiatric patients receiving euthanasia in the Netherlands, most are women. A study published this year showed that PTSD and anxiety were prominent in such cases between 2011 and 2014. Four women were cognitively impaired, some had eating disorders, others prolonged grief. More than half were lonely and isolated. In one case, the report says, “The patient indicated that she had had a life without love and therefore had no right to exist.”
Sydney academic Katrina George has analysed criminological data from around the world to show that euthanasia of women is overwhelmingly at the hands of men. Patterns of assisted death in women reflect that of violence against women. The data simply doesn’t support the tidy theory of autonomy, choice and control put forward by euthanasia advocates.
Two of the most heartbreaking cases reveal how the cause of euthanasia becomes more important than the lives of women. A young Indian woman, Aruna Shanbaug, was brutally sexually assaulted 40 years ago and died last year. She became the inspiration for euthanasia laws, rather than for a campaign to fight violence against women, “a cause much more bitter than passive euthanasia.”
Nathan Verhelst was born as Nancy, a Belgian girl unwanted by her mother (“If only you had been a boy”) and sexually abused by her brothers from the age of twelve. Later in life, as a transsexual, Nathan underwent hormone therapy, a mastectomy, and failed surgery to construct a penis. He was euthanised at his own request in 2013. “I did not want to be a monster … I had happy times, but the balance is on the wrong side,” he said in an interview hours before his death. “I was the girl that nobody wanted.” His close friend Marisol later said, “If his family didn’t hurt him so much, he wouldn’t have wanted [euthanasia]. I don’t like the idea that you give your life because other people broke your life.”
If death is sought/offered to escape the pain of sexual abuse, incest, rejection, loneliness, what kind of choice is that?
Reforms to allow euthanasia in Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria are likely to be debated this year, and Senator Leyonhjelm and the Greens want to give the Territories the power to legalise euthanasia. While suicide itself has long been legal throughout Australia – attempted suicide attracts no penalty or consequence – they want medical killing legalised.
Troubled teenagers will not be eligible (though Philip Nitschke continues to promote his suicide bag for them) but patients with “intolerable” psychological conditions might be. Already, Australian teens and young adults are increasingly taking their own lives with the drug recommended by Nitschke’s euthanasia groups.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, the laws were originally very strict and limiting. But over time they have relaxed to include those people without a terminally ill condition: teens; children; babies; abused, lonely, isolated women.
It is no stretch to imagine that a young woman with PTSD, a survivor of sexual abuse, might qualify for euthanasia in Australia in the future especially in an environment of over-stretched and under-funded mental health systems.
Aside from system failures, we need to look more closely at our own attitudes. There is a subtle discrimination in favour of able-bodied people – ableism – so well described by Shakira Hussein. The able-bodied cannot imagine living with a permanent physical or psychological disability.
The response from the online blogs and forums of people recovering from abuse and PTSD challenge these attitudes. Most have condemning the killing of this young woman. Like Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie, they have shared how glad they are not to have been tempted with a death-inducing injection:
“I’m still alive and I can think and feel and love and do all the things I thought I’d never be able to.” (Jenn Selby)
“As someone who suffered severe depression throughout almost two decades (on and off), but who is now free from it through learned insights and changes to core beliefs, and has the tools to prevent myself ever getting to that place of no hope again, I find it very alarming that people are condoning assisted suicide for sufferers of mental illness. I believe it is an illness that is curable, therefore helping someone end their life before they may have found the tools, insight, help they need to help themselves out of the hole, is tragic. While it may have taken me 17 years to get to where I am today, and while I used to believe I would continue to suffer through, and have to manage my depression, for the rest of my life, I am now in a very different place. There were a number of times that I got so low, for so long, that I wanted to end things, but taking the next step to actually do that yourself is a big step. If society’s perception was that it’s normal to end the suffering, and they could assist me in doing so, easily and painlessly, then I probably would have taken that option and wouldn’t be here today. Which would mean I would have missed out on another 50 – 60 years (hopefully) of life, free from that level of debilitating depression. That would be a tragedy.” (Alison – posted privately on Facebook; quoted with permission)
“In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I could recover from a significant PTSD diagnosis. It took years and a chance meeting with a psychiatrist who was able to offer me the therapy I needed but had been unable to access before that time. In my 20s, any option was a good option to break free of the exhausting battle. I remember feeling deflated that I woke up in ICU, a failure even in trying to end my life. In my 40s, I thank God for not having been offered help to end my life and always encouragement that others depended on me to live and live well. Now, I have beautiful children, an incredibly patient and loving husband and LIFE. Once, I never thought I could say that. I have life and am more than my damaged mind. I am terribly sad that this young woman, whose living hell I am not trying to minimise, did not have the opportunity to know that there was more.” (Gabrielle – on the Women’s Bioethics Alliance Facebook page)
“At my worst, I remember feeling an almost ‘logical’ desire to commit suicide … Now I see that thinking as one of the tricks that PTSD plays on you, that you start to think suffering is the only path and death doesn’t seem so bad … For three decades this option would have been a gift to me, not a punishment. I’m immensely grateful that this was not an option because I’m starting to enjoy living.” (“RuthieJujube”)
“PTSD is not a ‘mental illness’ we are born with. You take a perfectly healthy person/child and expose them to unspeakable horror and they develop PTSD. We were each born healthy and we owe it to ourselves to find the way back to our core self – before we were hurt. Call me whatever but I still have hope for each and every one of us. We deserve it. Suicide lets them win … What heals PTSD sufferers is connection, safety, and community.
“The world needs PTSD survivors. Yes, I contend that it needs us. Think about a world where people could be traumatized and then get help to end their lives as a solution to the deep wounds and costs of that trauma. That’s not good for society as a whole … Many movements to end traumatic things on this planet were started, if not led, by people who had survived trauma and were forever changed by it … But by making it legal for doctors to help we would be sanctioning it as a society and saying ‘this is ok’ and we can’t afford the deep cost of sending that message. It’s not just about adults who have been traumatized, but kids too. They need to grow up in a world where we will fight to protect them, not send the unintentional message that their life is not worth living if they are shaken to the core by trauma. We need to send the message that their life matters, period.” (“Justmehere“)
The suffering of women and children is perpetrated in a culture which too often overlooks the violence against them. The State, rather than dealing with the offences, properly punishing abuses, providing every care for survivors, instead may offer them an individual way out of a problem it has helped tacitly to facilitate. It becomes a personal rather than a collective problem. How is it that so many men can continue to abuse so many little girls in a global avalanche of sexual abuse? How is this not everyone’s problem?
Is death the best we can offer? Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie and the many others like them need to hear: Stay here with us. We will help you, not with a needle, but with everything you need to become well.
‘The glamorising and approval of teen girl audiences of the captioned desire to depart from life is surely one of the most dangerous digital conversations unfolding today’
These postings provide a snapshot of the Instagram dialogue trending amongst Australian adolescent girls. It is a virtual battleground of life and death on the popular image-sharing platform, as girls bombard one another’s feeds with image representations explicitly captioned with suicidal yearnings.
Suicide-themed captions crafted by girls are attracting hundreds of teen and tween girls. However there are almost no responses encouraging the distressed and possibly at-risk girl to call ‘000’, a kids’ help hotline or even asking ‘RUOK?’
Instead, adoring fans applaud with ‘likes’, approving comments and a shower of emoticon hearts before following suit and posting their own suicide-inspired image and caption.
As director of a company, Inspire Creative Arts, working to strengthen positive social media engagement among young people, I am given an insight into the online life of young girls. From cyberbullying to drunken evenings, sex, gossip, body shaming, the ‘thinspiration’ and ‘fitspo’ re-posts, and semi-naked images: I thought I’d scrolled through it all. That was until I stumbled across Instagram’s suicide genre.
Instagram has become the diary of choice as a girl publicly pens her relationship breakdowns, friendship backstabs, family angst, bikini ‘body goals’, and the whimsical longings for physical touch and affection. All this, accompanying filtered images of an ocean, flowers, a sunset, a social gathering, her bedroom, laying on her bed, kneeling on her bed, an upper-body selfie with clothes intact or clothes removed, zoomed in on her lips, shoulders, side cleavage, abdominal definition, upper thighs.
But this public broadcast of death-pondering takes young people’s social media usage to a whole new level. The glamorising and approval of teen girl audiences of the desire to depart from life is surely one of the most dangerous digital conversations unfolding today.
Where did girls learn the idea that offering to cut one another is a demonstration of friendship and loyalty?
A distressed girl’s image can attract the attention of thousands, yet her virtual cry for help is not met with real assistance. It is a sinister paradox that begs us to ask: is the past stigma associated with youth suicide under reconstruction?
Of course we welcome real and honest conversation about the subject, made possible thanks to the work of mental health services leading the way including RUOK campaign, Kids Helpline , Headspace and ReachOut.
However this particular Insta-fad; this troubling collective of emoticon guns, knives and bombs, of applauding girls for the most insightful suicidal thought, and the aspirational connotations of being a suicidal teen, mirrors a detrimental trend.
It is a trend that normalises suicidal ideations as fashionable, deceiving girls as they embark on their rollercoaster quest for belonging, that presenting oneself as suicidal is hot, desirable, and an image deserving of approval.
In a 2014 report by the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, ‘Help-seeking Behaviour and Adolescent Self-harm’, it was found that only about 50 per cent of youth aged 11-19 sought help when engaging in suicide ideation or thought. Of this figure, it was the ‘informal support systems’, friends and family, who were most commonly accessed for assistance.
But what happens when an online platform becomes a dominant informal system of self-disclosure and, due to the contagion effect of admiration and copycat behaviour, this system keeps those in need trapped in a cycle of posting harm-themed messages and receiving approval for doing so?
Furthermore – what happens when the dialogue throughout this support system, Instagram, transforms a young person’s belief of suicide ideation from being an issue that requires help, to being a normal and trendy thought-pattern?
In the latest report by the Australian Government’s Department of Health, it was reported that 1 in 4 girls aged between 16 and 17 have deliberately injured themselves, with 1 in 5 meeting the diagnostic criteria for a depressive disorder.
It is encouraging to those of us working with young people to see a broader societal discussion of this tragedy at last taking place out in the open. Of course the factors leading to suicidal thoughts and the act itself are complex and multi-layered. And of course I’m not laying all the blame on a social media platform. However if we are going to understand the social/psycho influences and drivers, we need to start including these Instagram postings in the discussion. And perhaps it is time for the platforms themselves to question their own social responsibility in hosting and even enabling the spread of suicidal thinking and contagion among those most vulnerable.
This week marked the International Day For the Elimination of Violence Against Women. If any voices should be heard at this time, it is those of survivors. Here are two, addressing the physical, mental, emotional, and financial costs of the harm done to them by male abusers.
Sexual assault has robbed me of my confidence and my self-esteem. My dignity, my autonomy and my self-respect. My faith in myself and my faith in the world have been decimated
On Wednesday, the 21st of May, the man who raped me was sentenced. Four years, four months and four days after the assault took place. In the end, he did not face charges of rape – the two charges of rape were dropped and the Prosecution accepted a plea deal from the Defense for the accused to plead guilty to one charge of “indecent assault”.
At the plea hearing, I read a Victim Impact Statement to the court. I have posted my statement below.
A Victim Impact Statement is the sole space where the criminal justice system allows the victim of a crime – or the Crown Witness in Victoria’s criminal justice system – to speak of how the crime has affected them. Victims can choose to read their statement to the court themselves or have it read for them by the Prosecutor.
I chose to attend the court and read my statement myself. My family came with me for support and my mum also read a victim impact statement to the court – reflecting on the impacts she had noticed in me and also on the impacts the crime had on our entire family.
It was a distressing experience. Also present in the court were the accused, his legal team, the prosecution, the judge and her staff, journalists and my entire family. To stand up and speak of how my life has been ruined, how I have been crushed, by sexual assault before this group of people was one of the most intimidating and vulnerable things I have ever done. It is not often that we reveal our suffering plainly, explicitly before an audience. To do so publicly, and before the very person who caused that suffering, was distressing and somewhat humiliating.
However, I chose to speak my statement myself because I wanted my words to be my own. I didn’t want them coming out of someone else’s mouth. I didn’t want them spoken by someone who has not lived what I have, who has not been subject to sexual assault, who could not know what I am trying to convey. I wanted to claim this one paltry opportunity provided in the criminal justice system to be heard as a victim and to speak for myself.
It’s hard to know what the value of a Victim Impact Statement is, whether it makes any difference. But when the system has so little time or care for victims this is our one chance and I was grateful for the opportunity it provided, even if I am still reeling from the experience of delivering it.
The impacts of sexual assault for me have been devastating, profound and far-reaching. They have impacted every area of my life and every part of my self.
Almost immediately after the sexual assault, the losses started and to this day I continue to be held back and limited in my life because of the impacts of sexual assault.
First of all I lost my home. Rae Street, my home, was also the place that the sexual assault took place and, to this day, that area remains a place of terror and distress to me. I managed to return to that house only a few times after the assault. Within days of the assault I knew that I would have to move out, leaving my friends, my housemates and an area I loved. My family had to move my belongings from the house because I could not manage even that, the associations were so negative and fearsome.
I lost my career. At first, I took 5 weeks off work. Then I tried to return part time. But it quickly became clear that I was in no state of mind to manage even that. The impacts of trauma were so invasive and so omnipresent that I could no longer carry out my job. As a manager my role entailed responsibility and high-level decision-making. It was a stressful and demanding position, full of challenges. I had thrived on those challenges. But now, trauma prevented me from accomplishing even the most basic tasks. I would jump if the phone rang. I would try to work but flashbacks and intrusive thoughts prevented me from concentrating. As a result, I felt I had no choice but to resign from my position while I sought help to heal my mind and my body.
That was only the beginning of my professional losses, however. About a month before the sexual assault I had applied for a scholarship with the French government for a teaching position in France. A few months after the assault I received notification that I had been awarded a scholarship. A teaching position in Paris. Had I not been assaulted this would have been a dream come true. Something I had long wanted to do. However, I was no longer in a position to take up such an exciting opportunity. I had to turn it down. All because I no longer believed I could be safe. All because, with the traumatised condition I was in, I knew I couldn’t survive without the constant loving support of my family. I needed the familiarity of my childhood home, the security of my family’s unwavering assistance and the relative safety of a country in which my extensive support networks could be constantly about me. There was no longer any way I could move to the other side of the world. Losing this opportunity still devastates me today and will remain a life-long disappointment for me.
To this day – nearly four and a half years since the assault – I have not been able to work full-time. The physical and psychological impacts of the assault continue to interfere in my daily life and prevent me from achieving what used to come so easily. I do not know when I will be in a position to return to full-time work.
Not being able to work full-time for over four years now has had a significant financial impact – severely restricting my earning capacity and costing me tens of thousands of dollars in lost income. It has meant that at different times during the past four and a half years since the assault I have been dependent on family or on welfare to support me. However, it has also exacted a huge personal cost. Not being able to work full-time is humiliating and distressing. Full-time employment is not just a way to make a living, it is a way to participate in and contribute to the world.
I see a psychiatrist every month for support with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The hyper-vigilance, the repetitive and intrusive thoughts, the flashbacks, sleeplessness, insomnia, nightmares, difficulties in concentration, memory problems – all of these are things I struggle with on a daily basis. I continue to rely on psychiatric medications to support me to manage these symptoms. The persistence and invasiveness of post-traumatic stress wears me down and consumes so much of my energy that full-time work is not a possibility.
However, my career is not the only thing I have lost as a consequence of sexual assault and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I have also lost my social life. Before the assault I had an active and vibrant social life. Spending time with friends, going out, socialising – these were things I took completely for granted. They were a normal and completely unremarkable part of life. This is no longer the case. Since the assault, I have lost my social life and the inability to socialise freely and regularly has meant that in many ways I have lost my social networks.
So much of my life revolves around negotiating the impacts of sexual assault, of coping with post-traumatic stress and of trying to keep myself safe and well. All this takes up time and energy – time and energy which, prior to the assault, would have gone to work and to my social life.
But it’s also more complicated than that. Sexual assault has robbed me of my confidence and my self-esteem. My dignity, my autonomy and my self-respect have all been compromised as a result of the crime carried out against me. My faith in myself and my faith in the world have been decimated.
I struggle to believe I have anything to offer my friends anymore. I am not the person I was before the assault and I will never be the same as a result of what has been done to me. I struggle to remember what life was like when things like safety could be taken for granted. I am afraid I cannot live up to the expectations of those who knew me before. I struggle to connect to people in good faith and to trust them. I constantly wonder if the people around me mean well or mean me harm. I struggle to find the energy, on so many days, to fight through the difficulties sexual assault has created for me and reach out to others. Solitude and isolation too often seem like the safe option, the safest option and so, social isolation has become yet another reality of life for me since the assault.
It has not all been bleak. I have found ways to cope and I have had the extraordinary good fortune to have a supportive and loving family who have unwaveringly stood by me. I have had excellent professional support, too. However, the impacts of sexual assault continue to affect me, years after the assault, on a daily basis. Not a day goes by when what was done to me does not interfere with my life or limit the life I lead in some way. Sexual assault has cost me profoundly, in many ways, and has set my life on a completely different course from the one it would have taken, had I not been assaulted. I have lost so much and many of those losses cut right to the core of who I am and can never be undone.
For information about Victim Impact Statements and services for victims of crime in Victoria you can go here.
Consider the huge financial burden of putting women back together
An estimated 198,000 sexual assaults [occurred in 2011 in Australia], the vast majority of which were against women. The average medical cost for those injured was $950 per incident. The estimated total cost of sexual assault, including those not reported to police was $775 million.
As a survivor of sexual violence, I read with great interest. One line in particular stood out to me:
‘The average medical cost for those injured was $950 per incident.’
I recalled my own personal history and the lengthy process of working towards healing, and the costs associated with recovery, $950 seemed low. (Of course, the financial costs for victims of rape and sexual assault are often far greater than merely medical as the account above shows).
In the process of obtaining a restraining order against the man who had abused me for almost a year, I incurred legal bills totaling almost $4000. My parents came up with the money somehow, as I was a traumatized nineteen year old university student and my few shifts a week in a fast food chain didn’t cover much more than petrol money.
Therapy, extending over twelve years and three psychologists totalled about $6000.
I spent hundreds on a variety of antidepressant medications, including Zoloft, Pritiq, Escitalopram that GPs offered me as I struggled with depression.
At one point, my husband resigned from his job in a leadership role to stay home and care for our children because I could no longer function. This was around the time when I had finally reported my abuser. After months of going back and forth with police, they concluded that because the perpetrator was exercising his legal right to remain silent, they did not have enough evidence to charge him.
Our family survived on a carer’s pension during this period while my husband played the roles of both father and mother and I just slept and slept. I recall one day her came into our room, gently woke me and said,”It’s 4pm, maybe you should get up?”
We had hoped to spend more time on my recovery, on slowly building my strength back up and taking on some of my regular tasks again. However, circumstances necessitated my husband get back into the workforce sooner than we had anticipated, when our landlord significantly raised the rent and we could no longer afford it. After applying for ten different properties and being rejected from all, it was clear we could not keep a roof over our heads without my husband resuming full time employment, which he did. By this point, of course, we were in a pretty desperate situation and my husband had to accept a job with a $20000 pay cut. We didn’t have the luxury of being picky.
There were appointments with the psychiatrist, ten years later, who finally diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I had been living with ever since the abuse without knowing there was a name for it. Throw in a few hundred dollars for those appointments.
I was fortunate to be accepted into a clinical study where researchers at a hospital in the city had been awarded a substantial government funding to study different treatments for PTSD. I was one of nineteen people who participated in the study and received treatment. Six weeks of intensive treatment, including PET scans and MRI scans to record any changes to the brain throughout and after the process was competed.
Hospital appointments and follow up appointments every three months. How many thousands of dollars were spent there?
At the time, I lived in a regional area, hours from the city. My petrol costs driving to and from the city each week came to around $2000.
Then there was the day when I couldn’t bear it any longer and I overdosed on pills, landing myself in the hospital attached to a cardiac monitor. Who knows how much that cost?
That year of sexual abuse has taken a massive toll on myself and my family, emotionally and financially. While I wasn’t personally covering every cost outlined above, someone was – whether it was Medicare, government grants, my parents.
We cannot underestimate the cost of rape, sexual assault and violence against women. Consider the huge financial burden of putting women back together. I can’t help but wonder what the world might look like if we hadn’t been broken in the first place.
Young women make short films to address youth concerns about body image.
Local young women launch new ABC body image program for Mental Illness Education ACT at the National Gallery of Australia, Monday 7th April, 10.30am to 12.00pm.
Young filmmaker Mary Quinlan and ACT’s Youth Ambassador, Molly Hodge-Meli together cut the ribbon to officially launch the new films and Any Body’s Cool program that works to prevent poor body image becoming a risk factor in the development of eating disorders in young women. They were joined by Dr Vivienne Lewis from the University of Canberra and event host, writer and advocate Melinda Tankard Reist.
“Eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness for young women” says Dr Vivienne Lewis body image specialist from the University of Canberra, “We know that body image is one of the top personal concerns reported by young people; supporting positive body image for young women is important work considering today’s cultural and social complexities”
The University of Canberra, key academic partners for the program’s redevelopment, will work with Mental Illness Education ACT to deliver the school program that works directly with young people and their teachers. The program shows how to role-model healthy behaviours and use body image friendly language to create safe and not stigmatising environments to encourage attitudes that support body diversity and reduce stigma based on a person’s body shape and size.
During the launch community members, teachers and students viewed local young filmmaker, Mary Quinlan’s, short film about her own struggle with body image – one of five films made by local young women for the new Any Body’s Cool Program. The program underwent significant redevelopment from a two-week-only theatrical season to permanent school-based program that is centred on real stories from local young women.
Location: National Gallery of Australia – Gandel Hall
Time: 10.30 am to 12.00 pm (official event 10.40 am to 11.15 followed by morning tea)
Media: All welcome. Interview and Image access: young filmmakers, guest speakers
‘The ultimate guide to being yourself’ is about self-acceptance. It offers girls three lessons in how to be themselves: Fall in love with you; Quit Faking It and Get inspired, not obsessed. The first encourages girls to recognise and love themselves for their unique traits. This is well and good. But I don’t think we can ‘fall in love’ with ourselves. We can value our innate dignity and worth, and work to resist pressure to conform to an idealised norm, but ‘falling in love’ is a bit over the top. I don’t think we are meant to be ‘head over heels’ with ourselves – telling girls they should be setting up impossible expectations. I do like the advice to girls to start a gratitude journal and list five things they are grateful for every day, as expressing gratitude is a proven way to improve mental health. ‘Be your own therapist’ also advises girls to organise their thoughts, reflect, be more positive and relieve stress by keeping a journal. I don’t quite agree with the conclusion though: “There’s nothing more empowering than knowing that no matter what life throws at you, you can cope with it.” This puts too much pressure on an individual girl. As I move around the country speaking in schools, I hear shocking stories, including from girls who have suffered sexual abuse and other forms of violence, depression, anxiety, cutting – which has increased by 90 percent in 10 years in older adolescent girls and 60% in girls 12-14 – and eating disorders. Sometimes they won’t get through without significant professional intervention and other support. Read full article.
The two most important articles in this issue are on anxiety and the importance of sleep.
Anxiety appears to be a plague on our girls right now. ‘Feeling anxious? How to deal when your worries take over your life’ looks at the symptoms of anxiety and how to recognise when it is impacting on your ability to function on a day-to-day basis at school, home, work or socialising with friends. Different forms of anxiety include social anxiety, panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Girls are encouraged to seek professional help if their anxiety is spiralling out of control. Maise, 16, shares her story of developing a nervous disorder which made her physically ill, with vomiting, panic attacks, crying and shaking. After treatment with a psychologist, her anxiety attacks have ceased. “For anyone out there who is a sufferer, one thing I can say is don’t deny you have a problem, because chances are someone you know is going through the exact same thing. And, most importantly, there is help out there,” says Maise. A related piece is on dealing with stress.
‘Next stop ZZZ Town’ stresses the importance of sleep at a time when all the indicators are that girls just don’t get enough of it – which of course exacerbates anxiety. Teens need nine hours of sleep a night to function well. Says sleep specialist Dr Chris Seton: “If you’re too tired, your mood goes downwards and it affects your learning and ability to remember stuff – lack of sleep is linked to issues like depression, anxiety and suicide”. Sleep shortage is also linked to increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Girls are advised to: go to bed and wake up at the same time, avoid caffeine from the afternoon onwards, exercise, turn off electronics 45 minutes before going to bed, do something relaxing 45 minutes before bed, open the blinds and be exposed to sunlight as soon as they wake up, have a cool, dark, quiet room and not to sit on their bed to do homework or watch TV – their brain needs to learn that this is a place to sleep. Read more
As is often the case, I find the most helpful offering for girls in teen girl magazines can be found in the shared experiences of the girls themselves.
A passion of mine is opening up safe spaces for girls to talk about issues which are often surrounded by shame, meaning girls don’t get the help they need. One of these issues is self-harm, which has increased 90 percent in older adolescents and 60 percent in younger adolescents, in a mere ten years. So I was pleased to see Dolly again giving space to this issue (I commended the magazine for exploring cutting in its June issue also).
Danielle, who began harming in 2010, tells her story in ‘Reality Reads’. “I was home alone and all the negative thoughts were taking over my mind: that I wasn’t good enough, that I was too ugly. I thought I deserved pain so I inflicted it on myself,” she says. It was seeing an interview with Demi Lovato, who had just come out of rehab for depression and self-harm, that helped Danielle turn things around. “…after I heard Demi, I thought I could get through this,” she says. With the help of medical treatment, she has been free of self-harm for two years. She tweets via @ForeverWithJoeJ about recovery and fundraises for BeyondBlue and Headspace “because they helped me a lot”. She recommends an online session at headpace.org.au where young people can talk to a professional through a chat screen. Read more here
After writing the multi-million best-selling Raising Boys in 2003, psychologist Steve Biddulph thought his life work was done.
But the parenting guru and father of two kept hearing sad stories of friend’s daughters and coming into contact with parents in despair about how unhappy their girls were. They were plagued by eating disorders, self-harm, and depression.
“When I was writing on boys, girls were doing fine,” says Biddulph. “Then about five years ago that started to change. We began noticing a sudden and marked plunge in girls’ mental health.
“The average girl, every girl, was stressed and depressed in a way we hadn’t seen before. Nearly one in five has a serious mental health issue during her growing up years. You can’t ignore that”.
So he didn’t, writing a guidebook - Raising Girls: From babyhood to womanhood – helping your daughter to grow up wise, warm and strong (Finch Publishing) – which shot to no.2 on UK Amazon’s charts this week (until it was knocked off by a diet book recommended by Posh Spice).
Biddulph argues that girls have to be proactively launched into healthy womanhood.
“We haven’t loved girls well enough, understood them deeply enough, or stood alongside them to face the hyenas of this world that wanted to tear them down,” he says.
Biddulph gives parents a map for how to build strength and connectedness through the five stages of girlhood: being secure, learning to explore, relating to other people, finding your soul, and taking charge of your life.
What surprised him most in the writing of the book, he tells me, was the way the world comes at them.
“It reminds me of those images of the tsunami, all that junk surging into the streets and houses. That’s what our media is like now – flooding junk into children’s heads – that your looks are all that matter, that sex is just something you trade, that you can’t be loved for yourself,” he says.
“Girls are affected by that. Everyone has heard their daughter saying ‘I hate my body, ‘I hate my life’.
“Girls weren’t born hating their own bodies. They weren’t born hating life. Something was happening in the culture that was poisoning girls’ spirits”.
Biddulph says girls have lost four years of childhood peace and development, forced out of childhood before they’ve completed or fully enjoyed it.
He identifies four prime harms to girls – sexualisation, body image, alcohol abuse, and bullying.
“Being evaluated in terms of how you look, how you please others, how you are seen as a ‘product’ has taken girls back fifty years,” Biddulph says.
“Girls are in enormous pain and confusion. They are filling up the mental health clinics, the police stations and emergency rooms, the alcohol and drug treatment programs in numbers never seen before.
“Girlhood dramas should be dramas of learning and growing, not being battered and damaged”.
I ask him what he thinks is the best thing parents can do to help raise strong, resilient daughters (I have a vested interest in the answer, with three daughters of my own).
“Once you have a clear idea of the stages, it’s all about giving it the time, he says.
“Hurry is the enemy of love, because we start to not connect and our kids feel unimportant. That feeling is very common. We need to recognise parenthood is another full time activity.
“Not just to manage our children, but to actually talk them through their life’s struggles, and actively teach and encourage them. If your daughter is close to you, she will know how to be close to others.”
Girls need to be nourished physically, spiritually and emotionally, to help build resilience and be able to navigate their way through a tough world.
Biddulph says: “A girl who knows her own soul may be a gentle girl but with an iron in her that is not easily manipulated by careless boys or false friends. She will be loyal, tough, and protective of those around her. And of herself.”
Regulatory bodies have failed to help parents raise happy kids. “We need to stop marketing aimed at kids. We need to control the alcohol, junk food, fashion, and porn industries so that they don’t target children. It’s unethical,” he says.
“It’s time to stop the trashing of girlhood, equip parents to deal with the modern world and get the media off the backs of our daughters.”
Despite the extent of the problem, Biddulph remains a man of hope. He is encouraged by the growing worldwide movement to free our girls.
“There’s a great movement rising up all over the world to improve things for girls. People everywhere are waking up to the exploitation of our girls and taking action to address it.”
Dolly commended for helpful features on anxiety and safety on-line
Not sure if I’m getting too relaxed with the soon arrival of a desperately needed break, but I am about to surprise you and commend Dolly on a few things this issue, primarily features on anxiety and cyber dangers.
A two page article on anxiety, ‘Anxiety Anonymous’, covers one of the major issues for tweens and teens today, an underlying factor in some of the most serious mental health illnesses including depression, eating disorders and self-harm. Some have argued this is the most anxious generation of girls ever. Teachers at every school I’ve visited in the last month have observed that rates of anxiety seem to have skyrocketed in the last 12 months. “Sadly, many adolescents are dealing with these paralysing feelings on a daily basis,” says Dolly.
The piece explains how the body reacts to anxiety, what triggers it, different types of anxiety (Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Phobia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Panic Disorder) and symptoms. It helps girls recognise the difference between anxiety and being stressed out. Tips for calming down are given: breathe, exercise, sleep, treat yourself and keep a journal. Youth Beyond Blue and Reach Out are listed as places girls can find help.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
“Intelligent, passionate, brilliant, fearless… I could not recommend her more highly”
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
“You continue to reset my shock meter…”
“As a teacher and parent I recommend all parents, in fact all people, to attend a talk by Melinda- it will open your eyes and awaken your subconscious.”
Heather Douglas – Parent – Pembroke School
“Melinda’s presentations to our parents, staff and full day workshops to students was inspirational, transforming the attitudes and thinking of all involved”
Paul Teys – Principal – Hunter Valley Grammar
“Melinda Tankard Reist’s presentation to Middle and Upper School students at Pymble Ladies’ College was absolutely brilliant!”
Justine Hodgson – English Faculty, Pymble Ladies’ College
“Melinda Tankard Reist has had a transformational affect on our school.”
Ms Stephanie McConnell, Principal – Turramurra High School
“As you read, be prepared to feel both grief and rage.” Robert Jensen
“These accounts are among the most unsettling you will ever read.” Steve Biddulph
“This powerful and humane book is a breakthrough…Big Porn Inc shows us we are poisoning our own spirits.” – Steve Biddulph
“A landmark publication” – Clive Hamilton
Purchase Big Porn Inc, Getting Real, Faking It, Men of Honour, Sexts Texts & Selfies, Raising Girls, Raising Boys, MTR DVD, Ruby Who? DVD & book, Girl Wise guide to friends, Girl Wise guide to being you, Girl Wise guide to life and Girl Wise guide to taking care of your body, and the new Wise Guys for the combined discounted price of $250.
‘The foremost authority in Australia cyber safety lays it on the line and challenges parents to find their digital spine.’ – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
Whether it is problems with friends, worrying about how you look or just feeling a bit down in the dumps – these books are written especially for you – to help you in your journey. Purchase all four together and save $18.50 on postage! Author: Sharon Witt
In this DVD, Melinda takes us on a visual tour of popular culture. “Melinda’s presentation leaves audiences reeling. She delivers her message with a clarity and commonsense without peer.” – Steve Biddulph, author, Raising Boys, Raising Girls
In this easy-to-read updated book, Steve Biddulph shares powerful stories and give practical advice about every aspect of boyhood.
“Overflowing with incisive understandings…a comprehensive and in-depth guide.” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychologist
Men of Honour -written by Glen Gerreyn- encourages and inspires young men to take up the challenge to be honourable. Whether at school, in sport, at work or in relationships, we must develp our character to achieve success and experience the thrills life has on offer.
Purchase the Ruby Who? DVD and book together for only $35 saving 10% off the individual price.
“Getting Real contains a treasure trove of information and should be mandatory reading for all workers with young people in health, education and welfare” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Adolescent Psychologist
Do you read women’s lifestyle magazines? Have you thought about how magazines might affect you when you read them? Faking It reflects the body of academic research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women.
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Defiant Birth challenges widespread medical, and often social aversion to less than perfect pregnancies or genetically different babies. It also features women with disabilities who were discouraged from becoming pregnant at all.