Founder of Talk2Me BC, Graeme Saruk discusses the stigmatization of emotions, the health consequences of loneliness and disconnection, and how seeing someone through tough life events should be cause for glory not shame. 

Tracy: You’re the founder of Talk2MeBC which is an incredible initiative. What led you to start it, and can you begin with a bit about your mission? 


Graeme: The concept of Talk2MeBC was born about two years ago now. The impetus for Talk2MeBC was actually conversations I would have on the steps of the art museum. I used to like going there for lunch; there’s no shortage of fascinating people to talk to there. And what I was struck by was that, although we live in a very private culture, on any individual level people love to talk to one another. And so you sit down next to somebody on the steps of the art museum and you say, “Hey. What do you do?” Or, “Where are you from?” And nine times out of ten people love talking. Or you get on an airplane, sit next to somebody, and they’ll usually happily, engage you in conversation. Usually not initiate it, but happily engage you.

It was that piece combined with what I observed as a clinician, which was that whether I’m working with a West Vancouver lawyer, or a Downtown Eastside binner, almost without exception the people I see are chronically lonely and isolated. So you have this fascinating combination of one of the densest urban populations in North America, chronically isolated, lonely people, who jump at the opportunity to talk to somebody. It’s a fascinating dynamic we have going on. Now, the idea for Talk2Me really came out of the notion that there’s an inherent value in connecting people. Whether that means connecting to your neighbour, to your barista, or connecting somebody with a counsellor or a therapist.

Officially, the goal behind Talk2Me is that working with a counsellor or therapist can be extremely important — if not essential — for a lot of people, and we want to connect them with one. Because unfortunately there are still significant barriers that get in the way of people actually doing so. A lot of those barriers include things like stigmatism, lack of education, or a really piss-poor job on the part of my industry to reach out to people. What we’re trying to do is create a safe, friendly platform that allows people —  with a certain degree of confidence — to get hooked up with somebody that they’re likely to have a good connection with. [Also important is] recognizing that those variables that facilitate connection go well beyond what initials come after somebody’s name, but go to things like their age, their gender, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs, all those things.

I have often had the conversation with people where they say, “You know, I first decided to see a counsellor five years ago, [had] a terrible experience, dropped 150 bucks, haven’t been back since.” That decision to actually reach out and ask for help is so difficult, that to have it fall flat because it wasn’t the right person is such a hugely missed opportunity.


You mentioned loneliness. [Cognitive and Social Neuroscientist at the University of Chicago] John Cacioppo wrote a book called Loneliness, which is a scathing account of the effects of feeling lonely. It affects your physical health as well as your mental health. From your perspective, how does loneliness affect us as humans?


Well, an easier question is how doesn’t loneliness affect us? Whether it is impacting your immune system, early mortality, response to cancer treatment, rates of depression, rates of anxiety — everything. And I think it really speaks to the fact that by our very nature, we are intended to be in relationship with people, and with each other. We are not wired to be solo acts. And when we don’t have that, we’re not healthy; we can’t be healthy.

But unfortunately, I think culturally we’ve bought into this idea that we need to be independent, we need to be self-sufficient, we need to have our own space, our privacy, our boundaries. And so there’s this tension between what we long for and what we are encouraged to pursue. We tend to use terms like ‘neediness’ or ‘dependency’ for that longing to be in relationship with people, and I think that’s really, really unfortunate. I also think it’s one of the reasons why we do see increased rates of mental health issues and addiction issues. We need people.

Combine that with the fact that it’s only over the past 40 or 50 years that we‘ve been so transient. We can decide on Monday that we want to live in Europe, and on Wednesday we’re renting an apartment in London. Or we can grow up in the Mid-West and the next thing you know, we’re living on the East Coast. So the idea of growing up in a community, raising your kids in that same community where Grandma lived down the street, and your parents are a block away, that’s not the norm anymore. And while it may come as a significant relief to some people to not have to live so close to Mom and Dad [laughter] there was something protective about having that.


Why do you think we’ve moved so far into a model of independence and disengaging from others’ problems?


I think part of it is just that post-modern shift; the idea of my reality vs. your reality, and, “Don’t let your reality dictate my reality”. We’ve all become consumers, so it’s [more] competitive. You see this playing out in the US right now, the idea of “your loss is my gain,” which comes with that consumption-based society. I’m sure there are a thousand other contributing reasons beyond this though [Laughter].


You also mentioned stigma, why are people so scared of talking to a professional about mental health? It happens in the brain, which is the body; we wouldn’t avoid going to the hospital with shoulder pain, but we ignore [seeing someone for] painful issues of the mind.


I think there are numerous reasons for it. There’s a historical reason, which is the term of the ‘invisible disability’ which is this longstanding idea of it being different than a physical health issue — you can’t see it, so “it doesn’t exist”. I think we’re gradually moving past that, but it still has some influence. Unfortunately, the mental health field has been tethered to the medical field from its modern birth, so we have tended to look at mental health as a medical sickness. I never use the term ‘mental illness’ in practice because it implies sickness: it implies something that is abnormal, or unnatural to our natural state. As a result of this history, we have tended to pathologize normal human experience and suffering. And when you pathologize normal human experience, all of a sudden what you’re experiencing is abhorrent or abnormal somehow. And nobody wants to be abnormal. There’s also that piece of our cultural values: be independent, be strong, be self-sufficient. So saying, “Okay, holy crap, I need to talk to somebody,” is not independent, strong, or self-sufficient.

In addition to this, my field is in some ways a bit of a back-alley industry. We don’t do a very good job of getting ourselves out there. For example, if you want to go buy hair conditioner, you can get online, read a bunch of reviews, learn about the products, sift through people’s testimonies, and boom, figure out what’s best for your hair. Then you can go right out and buy it. It is much harder to find that in my field. You get online, and you’ve got all these different clinicians offering all kinds of different things using all kinds of fancy language and mysterious suggestions about realizing your full potential or accessing suppressed memories. It’s a very confusing field to try to seek help from, and that’s our fault. We don’t do a good job of helping educate the consumer. And so when people try to do it, all of a sudden they’re left to wonder, “Do I need a psychodynamic therapist? Do I need a Gestalt therapist? Or a cognitive-behavioral therapist?” 


And asking someone else you know (like you would about a shampoo) isn’t really accepted yet. People don’t like to talk about their experience “seeing someone”, or even admit they do.


That goes back to the idea of illness versus normal human experience. Hearing someone say, “You need to get help,” is often akin to someone saying, “There’s something wrong with you. You’re sick.” as opposed to saying, “Wow, life is hard for you right now. I bet you could use some extra support.” Or, “You’ve gone through some stuff. I bet you are stressed out. This would be a helpful way to deal with it.” Those are two very different suggestions, and unfortunately whether it’s the family doctor or the boss, it tends to be from that place of shaming. Now if someone gets a cut, you’d say, “Oh no! Here’s a Band-Aid.” I’d say thank you, put the Band-Aid on, go my way, and you’d go yours. Now, if I’m sitting here crying in front of you, I’m not asking you for a Band-Aid. What I’m asking you is to be vulnerable and present with me, to empathize with me, but they think it requires some special skill set. I think historically we were probably much better at this piece — of saying, “Tell me what’s wrong. Let me sit and cry with you.” We don’t do that as well anymore.


You’re also introducing video counselling options on Talk2MeBC’s website. Why did you decide to do this? 


It’s definitely one of the growing edges in the mental health field right now. We have a significant shortage of clinicians in Canada, and in BC. Now, not so much in Vancouver. You throw a rock here and you’re going to hit a psychologist in Vancouver, but you go a hundred miles north, and there’s no one. I’ve flown up to Fort St. John because there aren’t any clinicians up there to do certain assessments, so video counselling provides support to people who wouldn’t otherwise have easy access. It also provides people with specialized types of service to offer them outside of their immediate geographic area. But also, the research is in and it says Telehealth and video counselling work. [They’re] an effective way of delivering good treatment. There are ethical guidelines so we know how to protect both the client and the clinician in doing that. Technologically we’re still working on [perfecting] it, but certainly, we’re aiming to help progress that a little bit more.


What do you think in regards to someone who assumes they’re covered because they’ve read about what they think is the reason for their suffering online, or in a book. What’s the difference between reading about it, and getting it out with the help of a professional? 


Yes, there’s difference between a good therapist and somebody who’s an expert in a field. For example all the articles or textbooks, or even lectures I’ve attended [in order] to get the initials after my name, you could find and read. There’s not some secret library of information out there. What makes a good therapist is not the quantity of knowledge about a certain issue or a certain approach — what makes a good therapist is not that different from what makes a really good friend. A good therapist is somebody who has the ability to shut up, listen, empathize, and create a safe place that then allows the person they’re with to be vulnerable and let themselves be known. Then, the clinician (on the basis of them having really known that person), can provide insights based on research, and based on theoretical orientations. I work with a lot of students doing a lot of supervision, and that’s the skill-set that is the marker of somebody who’s a good clinician versus somebody who is an academic.


I saw a class advertised once about ‘mindful listening’, which would be hard. As an interview host, it’s admittedly tough to avoid interjecting with your own thoughts. I can imagine it would take the right person to be able to listen as an emotionally present professional.


In some ways, as a therapist that’s what we get paid for — to set our self-interest aside. So yes, if you tell me a terrible experience you’ve had, I don’t feel inclined to match it with one of my own terrible experiences. Or I don’t feel inclined to make you empathize with me or care about me necessarily. I’m able to set my ego to the side for the sake of yours. And that is hard. That’s not natural for us. Well, it’s not natural for us anymore, as much as I think it may have been at one time. I mean at times I’m sure it has to do with trying to relate. We all want to be known, and it’s nice to be understood, but it’s best to check who’s the one upset, or who needs to be heard.


What’s the history of your own interest in this field? What drew you to it?


I’m afraid it’s somewhat disappointing [Laughter]. I did an undergraduate degree in journalism. But the summer before graduating, I worked at a camp for adults and kids with significant medical issues: cancer, developmental disorders, blood disorders — you name it — and was incredibly moved by the experience. So I wound up deciding to go into the field of what’s called ‘rehabilitation counselling’. Which is a field of counselling more around issues of disability, illness, adjustment, and the like. In the course of that, I met my wife who was doing a graduate degree in psychology, and so we both went on to do our doctorates in psychology together. So in some ways, I got swept into the current.


That’s lovely! Lastly, your on-camera "sidewalk" series where you were approaching folks on the street--What was the intent of that project?


Yes, the video project we were doing on the street was part of our initial marketing of Talk2Me. We officially launched in early December 2016, and so we were working on creating content that is consistent with our values: specifically in this case those values being the normalization of ‘mental health’ issues, for lack of a better word. What we wanted to do was get out on the street and demonstrate that the people you walk around with every day are all going through stuff; they’ve all been touched — either themselves or friends of theirs — by mental health struggles. Because we all [are]. One of the most debilitating aspects of something like depression or anxiety is this sense of feeling alone, or that no one understands what we’re going through. So we wanted to show that you’re not. In fact, chances are you’re within 20 feet of someone who knows exactly what you’re going through.


And you found people were willing to chat on camera about this? 


[Laughter] Yes, so it’s really interesting going out on the street like that. I mean, boy, you hold a microphone in front of some people and all of a sudden they’ll become these gymnasts and contortionists in their ability to avoid eye contact or walk around you. It’s amazing how athletic people become, it’s like suddenly they need to scale a tree and go up the side of a building in order to avoid you. That is, until you say, “We’re talking to people about mental health issues and their experience.” and all of a sudden people are like, “Oh! Well then let me tell you.” Once I was able to get in their line of sight and get a few words in, people were generally very receptive. I mean, often we’d have people do a u-turn once they actually heard what we were doing, because like I said, everybody thinks it’s just them. And when given the chance to share their story, people like doing that. We met people from all walks of life, and all kinds of experiences. So yes, what we wanted to do was show that.


Very inspiring, well great job Graeme, I’m excited for BC to have Talk2Me! Thanks for chatting today, and keep it up!

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