May 6, 2019

Getting loud to help those in silence

Text of article posted on Ontario Public Service workplace intranet during CMHA Mental Health Week.

The first person I told about my diagnosis was my college roommate. I remember him listening with interest and compassion, but what I remember most was his deep sigh and look of sadness after I told him before he despondently said:

You already have enough going against you, this is just one more thing you don’t need.”

He meant it well, and I completely understood what he meant. This was in early 2002, just months after the attacks of September 11, and we were living in Washington DC. Tensions were high, Islamophobic sentiment was growing, and people of color were being targeted by those looking to lash out against things and people they did not understand.

Not only was my skin brown, and not only was I an active member of the Muslim community, but my name was Sameer, a common Arabic name. My roommate knew that these things already made navigating the world harder for me at that time and place; he didn’t want my diagnosis to make it any harder.

What I didn’t tell many people back then, but speak openly about now, is that I’m not just a person of color and a Muslim, but also someone who has lived with bipolar disorder and acute anxiety disorder for almost twenty years. This diagnosis, this facet of my mental health, is an integral part of who I am, just like my skin color, my cultural community, and my religious affiliation.

Our identities are multi-faceted and intersectional; it’s at those intersections that our perspectives and interactions with the world are shaped.

I’ve learned a lot about how to live with my mental illness through the way I approach my ethnicity, culture, and religion. I take pride in my heritage and how my ancestry, my faith, and my community has shaped me into who I am today; over the past two decades, I’ve learned to be proud of how my mental health has shaped me, too.

I’m lucky to be a part of a workplace here in the Ontario Public Service, and in the Ontario Digital Service (ODS) specifically, that not only embraces me for who I am, but allows me to be my full self and supports me through my ups and downs that come with this illness. I know that not everyone is so lucky to have a workplace that is so welcoming and accommodating of people being their whole, authentic selves like I do.

We are in the middle of CMHA Mental Health Week (May 6-12) and the theme this year is #GetLoud. My manifestation of this loudness is to be open about my mental illness in the workplace, and to use my loudness to create a safe space for others who may struggle with their mental health—and with the intersectionality of mental health and culture—but may not feel comfortable being loud, themselves.

For various reasons—each one of them valid—not everyone can be loud and open about their struggles. Those of us that can, however, have a responsibility to create spaces where those that can’t still feel included, heard, and supported. That’s why I’m so happy I get to work on Employee Experience in the ODS; I’m helping to grow a nurturing, safe, and welcoming environment as my way of expressing gratitude for the safety, warmth, and belonging that this workplace has already shown me

I want to send my deep thanks to everyone at the ODS, that has made me, with all my intersections, feel like I belong here. I know we have so much work to do, so I’m committing myself to get loud and share my story, and to encourage anyone that wants to talk—to understand, to share, to find community—to reach out, in confidence or out loud, as well. I’m here. So many of us are.