Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spreading the word on mental illness

Something I love about writing is the opportunity it gives me to learn more about things I feel strongly about and raise awareness of them. It's something I particularly enjoyed as a freelancer. Working in communications, these types of opportunities don't always present themselves in traditional ways, but they still happen now and then.

Before I left Douglas College, I volunteered to be an extra playing a patient in the Women's Chronic Unit at Riverview Hospital circa 1940-something for a reenactment scene being shot for a documentary called Bedlam. Above is a shot of me on set, shot by Mikki Herbold.

The film is a project by Heidi Currie, a criminology prof I met while working at Douglas, and filmmaker Lisa G (Lisa's the one with the camera). It's a continuation of their project Asylum. Heidi teaches a course on working with offenders with mental disorders.

I knew about Asylum as it had been part of a larger series of events at the college I had publicized last spring. Last fall, I posted a story on the employee blog that Heidi needed extras for her new project and figured, "Why not?"

The new documentary focuses on Kay, who took a job at Riverview during WWII at age 16 – she tells the story of her first day at work as Bedlam’s narrator.

The treatment of people with mental illness has improved markedly since then, when the patients at the Women's Chronic Unit were unmedicated and wards were understaffed. We wore drab tunics and grey wool socks and were essentially stripped of any identity we had outside of our characters' respective illnesses.

At one point, a nurse on set who had worked at Riverview years ago said we looked the part but were much too quiet. For a relatively short period of time, we were told to pump up the volume. For me, playing a depressive, this meant sobbing. Hard. I only had to do it for 10 minutes or so. I experienced postpartum depression a few years back and I simply thought of how alone I felt in order to pull what I needed to from my guts and do a good job. It made me sad to think that if I had been born in the wrong era, I could have been in a ward at Riverview, rather than feeling a heck of a lot better within a few months with the right medication and counselling. And it made me angry.

Provincial dollars for healthcare, including support and services for people with mental illness, have been decimated in BC. Well, redirected, says Heidi - there is limited access to mental health services until someone with ends up in the prison system. Then the province deems it important. Talk about too little, too late. Heidi also told me that there is very little documented history of Riverview so Bedlam will be an important educational piece on BC's mental health system.

Sadly, underfunding and poor access to mental health services isn't limited to BC or adults. Through a remarkable Twitter campaign sparked by TheNextMartha, I discovered No Points for Style, a blog by Adrienne Jones, whose son has bipolar disorder. Her story gave me the much-needed kick in the ass to put this entry together as the film shoot was in January. Not helping kids is just plain wrong and makes me much angrier than I think I can possibly express.

My thinking is the more people understand the history, they more they will see the danger in backtracking to having little government support for people with mental illness. I know it's a cliche, but hey, knowledge is power. And if I can play a small part in getting that knowledge out there by spending a Saturday playing a Riverview patient from back in the day, I'll gladly do it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Low pay = cheap boss

So my clever headline is a play on the Globe and Mail headline that caught my interest today.

Does low pay = high passion?

It's a conundrum that writers and other creatives are often forced to face - must I live on slave wages for the rest of my life in order to do something I love?

Let me give you some context here. The Globe and Mail's Dave McGinn features an employer - internet entrepreneur Ben Huh - up top. Huh weeds out job applicants by posting entry-level jobs at low-paying wages. His rationale is that way, he'll find people who are passionate about the work, not the paycheque, and noted that those who focus on the $ tend to be the worst candidates. Huh blogged about this last month - read it benhuh!com.

Now, let's emphasize that Huh's talking about entry-level jobs here and I'm going to go on a bit of a tangent straight off. My issue is that way too many employers of creatives are using the same argument when filling positions that require experience. I know - until recently, I had been looking for writing work on and off for about a decade while freelancing. And I'm not alone - I hang out with other writers, along with a number of photographers, graphic designers and artistes. I now have a writing job I enjoy with a decent wage and other perks, so it is possible, folks!

There seems to be an assumption that anyone can do creative jobs, so we don't deserve a decent living wage but should be grateful to have someone to pay us pennies for our efforts. I've done a few 'writing tests' that resulted in nothing (one did, however, land me my last job featuring relatively low pay balanced by kick-ass benefits). Forget the fact that many of us are educated in our fields and have continued our education in order to stay on top of technical demands. Forget the years upon years of experience we have.

It's not necessarily better for freelancers. For years, PWAC (the Professional Writers' Association of Canada) has been lobbying for better freelance rates for writers. Bad Writing Contracts is a coalition of Canadian writers fighting for better contracts (read 'better pay') too. Writers' rates, particularly in Canada, have remained frozen for about 30 years.

Whether you're looking at staff positions or freelance jobs, the problem is the same. We're too often undervalued for what we do because we are artists. We are supposed to be flakey, fluffy, hippies who don't care about things like paying rent or frivolous purchases like groceries for our kids. We're supposed to be grateful for that ever-elusive byline. We should explode like KITH's chicken lady upon seeing our words in print. I call bullshit.

When you, my fellow creatives, don't stand your ground and accept less than you are truly worth, you devalue the work of every other creative out there. You give the man (sorry, slipping into that flakey hippie jargon), a reason to continue to devalue the work of other creatives too. And then this ridiculous cycle never ends.