#BellLetsTalk about Gender-Based Violence and Mental Health

On Bell Let’s Talk Day, we shatter the silencing effect of stigma and open up the dialogue about mental health. YWCA Toronto’s mental health programs for women were enriched last year with a community grant from Bell Canada, which helps us offer more programming for women at our Elm Centre who are coping with mental health challenges.

For Bell Let’s Talk Day, we spoke with Carol Barrett, a program worker in YWCA Toronto’s Breakthrough expressive arts program for women who have survived gender-based violence. Read on for Carol’s insights on the intersections of gender-based violence and mental health, and how expressive arts can support women on their healing journeys.

What common themes do you see in the women who come to Breakthrough?

In the pre-group meetings with women entering the Breakthrough program, women share common themes such as: feelings of isolation; low self-worth; lack of trust in self and others; disconnection from feelings and/or sensations in their body; loss of identity; feelings of restriction; anxiety; depression; symptoms of PTSD including flashbacks; and many women hold hope that they can be something more, and have the courage to step into the healing journey.

What impacts can gender-based violence have on women’s mental health?

Women report that the degrading, demeaning messages they received from their abuser(s) become internalized so that even if they are no longer in an abusive relationship, those messages are still with them. Flashbacks of traumatic events can be triggered by sounds, images, fragrances, or other seemingly innocent everyday occurrences that may flood a survivor’s mind and/or body with memories, images, or sensations of the abuse and or violence that can create a “fight, flight or freeze” response in the present. Women report that the effects of violence and abuse impact their relationships, their connection with community, their employment possibilities and consequently their housing and financial stability.

There is a stigma attached to both mental illness and being a survivor of gender-based violence. Do you see any ways in which these two types of stigma interact and compound one another? How does the stigma impact a woman’s daily life?

The effects of gender-based violence and mental health are inextricably intertwined. Women coming to the Breakthrough program report that sometimes friends and family don’t believe their experiences and therefore see them as “crazy”. This creates confusion, frustration, doubt and what some women describe as being invisible. Even when friends and families are supportive, women often find that they don’t really understand. This lack of acknowledgement and validation of someone’s experience of violence compounds the effects of trauma and further isolates a woman from her community, friends and family. Isolation contributes to feelings of anxiety and depression, which creates more alienation and the sense of being “other”.

How do programs like YWCA Toronto’s Breakthrough support the mental health of survivors of gender-based violence?

The Breakthrough program provides expressive arts-based groups that are facilitated with a trauma-informed, client-centered practice. The Breakthrough program is a place where women who have had similar experiences of abuse and/or violence come together to find a sense of belonging. Women report feeling safe in the groups, that it is a place of non-judgment, a place where they can experience intense feelings and where they can discover their creativity and find their voices through visual arts, movement, and poetry. Through the sensory materials of the arts and body-based awareness practices, women reconnect with their bodies. Breakthrough is a place that acknowledges and affirms women’s experiences of abuse and/or violence, provides psycho-education that informs women about the effects of trauma, and provides opportunities to re-discover their resources and creative capacity.

What advice would you share with someone who wants to support the mental health of a survivor of gender-based violence?

Listen, affirm, keep an open mind, and support your friend or loved one in reconnecting with the activities, skills, and values that have been life-giving to them in the past.