Disconnecting for the sake of reconnecting

The other day I was listening to a seminar about suicide ideation and mental health in the Queer community, particularly men living with HIV. Obviously it’s a vulnerable population for many intersecting reasons. The presentation highlighted some statistics that compared HIV positive men to HIV negative men and as expected, the frequency of suicide ideation and attempts were higher in the positive guys. Sound bleak? I know…but there was a glimmer of hope in the presentation when the presenter told us about a project, the goal of which is to break the silence around suicide and start us on a path towards targeted interventions.

It seems to have worked for me.

The Still Here Project features powerful photos and narratives from men who have either attempted or considered suicide. Men were asked to take a photo, or a few, of something that shines a light on the emotions or factors surrounding their suicide ideation. I find this so powerful because when it comes to mental health, men are often asked to “Man-up” and align themselves with absurd expectations of masculinity (click for a more humorous perspective)” forced onto them by the patriarchal culture we all exist in. These standards breed a culture of stigma and avoidance when it comes to mental health. The result? A lack acknowledgement from people in places of power, fewer resources available to those in need and of course, a lack of people reaching out for support.  Projects like this aim to raise the profile of the realities of mental health and suicide in a way that any human can relate. Here are men defying the “norm”, making themselves vulnerable and saying “Yes, I have feelings. Yes, I think about suicide. This is what is happening in my life to make me feel this way.”

If this isn’t bravery, I don’t know what is.

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Still Here Project

In the photo series, I came across a simple photo of a phone with the time reading 5:00. Most people at this time are probably wrapping up work thinking about what they’ll be doing with the rest of their day, what they’ll eat, who they’ll see. In a city like mine, Vancouver, many are heading out for Happy Hour with friends. The caption on the photo reads:

Is this working?

No one phones me. Do people care about me or am I alone in the world?

When I read that, 5:00 took on a different meaning. Imagine how difficult 5:00’s would be if you felt like you had nobody. This one man’s experience isn’t far from that of many of us today, especially young people. Over the last 20-30 years, we’ve experienced technological advancement at an unprecedented rate, especially in the world of communication. It wasn’t even 15 years ago when I got a letter at boarding school from my father telling me about his new “GSM” (that’s what mobile phones were called when they were fairly new in Nigeria). And here we are in 2017 and 22% of little humans in the US have their first cellphone by the age of 9. This number jumps to 60% by 14.

I haven’t even gotten to the multitude of ways we can connect through these devices. You had your AIM, your MySpace, your Yahoo messenger, your MSN, Hi5 (don’t lie, you had one too), and then came Facebook and smartphones that changed the game. At the time of their inception, they were a great idea. An innovative way for us to instantly share what’s going on in our lives, meet people we previously couldn’t fathom knowing, connecting with others around shared interests and ideas and, of course, sharing photos of our babies, cats and food. I don’t think many foresaw the potentially damaging side effects. We are more “connected” than ever before but in reality we are chronically isolated. We’ve developed habits and rituals that revolve around our devices and social media. You don’t even need statistics to tell you. I was thinking about this issue on the train today and I looked around and saw literally everyone staring at their phones. In that moment, I also realized that on another day, that could be me. I thought about trying to start a conversation with one of them but I decided not to because they’d probably think I’m strange for talking to someone I don’t know. The first and last thing many of us do on any given day is look at our phones, and they go everywhere with us. And heaven forbid we run out of charge and don’t have our charger with us.

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Steve Cutts – Social Media Zombie

Anyway my point is we’ve become so attached and distracted by all the new ways to interact that we haven’t noticed the creeping signs of social isolation and an inability to truly connect with those around us. And I haven’t even mentioned the polarizing nature of social media and the freedom it seems to give us to other and dehumanize people we disagree with. Status updates have replaced thoughtful letters and phone calls. Our sense of worth relies on the amount of likes we get on our posts (you can even buy likes now). We live for the beep and ding of new notifications but clam up when the phone rings. We’ve become more cynical and less critical all at the same time. We project into the nether sphere, the version of ourselves we want others to see. A version we think they will love, accept, and perhaps envy a little bit. Often times the things we want to say about how we are feeling, we can’t. Not to the people closest to us and not to our “friends” online. Those who take the brave step to uncover their vulnerability on social media, much like the men in the Still Here Project, are far too often viewed as “weird” or “too much”.

Aside from the brutally obvious fact that we need to realize that emotional wellbeing is as much a part of health as a broken bone, we also need to critically examine our relationship with social media and technology and how it affects our wellbeing. We need to disconnect sometimes for the sake of reconnecting with reality and all the beautiful messy things that make us human. We need to balance our online connection with our human connection. It’s quite possible to make small steps to wean yourself off technological dependency. I’ve started trying some of this and I encourage you to join me.

  • On your morning commute, take a book with you and put your phone on silent and slip it into your bag.
  • Turn your phone data off to restrict your time browsing the internet to when you’re connected to WiFi. You might even save some money this way.
  • When you’re hanging out with friends, put your phone away, or at the very least have it on silent facedown on the table. I read about a fun game with friends when you’re eating; you pile your phones on the table and the first person to touch their phone before the bill comes pays the collective tip (or if you’re feeling adventurous, the whole bill).
  • Send one handwritten letter/note to a friend or family member once a month.
  • Call at least one friend a week just to say hello or to have a great conversation. Improve those communication skills. You can even try calling that new love interest that you just watched with on Tinder after you exchange numbers. The way a person communicates by text isn’t always how they are in person.
  • For heaven’s sake, turn off your phone or put it on silent when you go to bed unless it’s absolutely necessary. Yes your alarm will still go off when your phone is on silent. Those messages can wait till you wake up. Enjoy your sleep and wean yourself off this artificial sense of urgency and immediacy that we all seem to be living in these days.

I am well aware of the irony as I type this post and will share it on Facebook, but taking even the smallest of steps to being more mindful about our use can make a huge difference. Technology is supposed to make life more efficient and generally better but that’s only when we are in control of it. Don’t be a slave to it. Spend less time looking down and look up.

TL;DR? This music video by Stromae, one of my favourite artists sums it up quite nicely.

Between Fear and Reality

For many who know me, I’m a pretty confident guy. When I walk into a room, whether consciously or not, I attract attention. It could be the way I carry myself with a self-assured swagger, or the fact that I’m a tall black man who interacts with a predominantly white world (at least in Canada anyway). What many of the same people don’t know is that I struggle with fear. This would be where they would say…

 what surprised how i met your mother unexpected barney stinson GIF

…much in the same way they would react when I confess that I’m really an introvert despite the fact I can command a stage when I sing or host an event for 5000 with apparent ease.

The thing is, there is a difference between a lack of confidence and fear. I am one of the most self-confident people I know (did my stage comment not tip you off?), but also one of the most fearful. I believe in my abilities, I trust myself to the point of obsession and have zero doubts about my worth as a human being. The problem arises when you throw other humans into the mix, Continue reading

HIV Stigma and Developing Countries

Post-Publication Note: I wrote this before I got my job working in HIV/AIDS research! Who would have known that I would end up working in one of the places I referenced. Interesting how things work. This is mostly an opinion piece, so for my colleagues, grain of salt please.


A couple weeks ago, I read this article that chronicled the realities of being a black straight millennial woman who is HIV Positive in Toronto. It was a well written article that delved into a reality that many do not seem to typically share or acknowledge (at least publicly). Since the initial emergence of HIV/AIDS in the public eye circa 1981, the prevalence of the infection has been skewed toward the LGBT population, particularly gay men. While there are many reasons for this, such as the most common mode of transmission, many other populations have been somewhat overlooked, leading to a lack of awareness and support services. From my understanding of this woman’s experience and prior knowledge, support for those living with HIV (at least in Toronto) seems to exist in a niche for gay men. I quote:

“To this day, she is the only other Black female with HIV in my age range that I’ve met. She’s navigating dating, her health and getting on with her life, just like me.”

In my opinion, a huge factor is likely stigma due to the pre-existing narrative of HIV/AIDS being  a “gay” disease. Continue reading

Social media and Fear were the true winners of the US Election

In such a a strange time, it’s important to listen to each other. Especially when we don’t agree. Now is not the time to go on your unfriending spree on your social media platforms. There is a greater problem with society here.
 
There is the fact that there were people who would never publicly say they supported Trump because of the dangerous rhetoric that most of his supporters seemed to be comfortable sharing, but still ended up voting for him when nobody was looking. Something must be seriously wrong with the government and status quo (don’t read this as Obama) for them to look past all that and still vote for Trump. Many of them are part of the very groups that the dangerous rhetoric oppresses and yet they still supported him. You need to pause and ask why before calling them names in disbelief.
 
There is also the reality that many people are incapable of thinking holistically enough to realize the side effects of this election on people who are not like them because they have never been taught to think outside their bubble. Their passion for breaking the status quo and bringing down the establishment overtook their ability to reason clearly.
 
There is also the issue that many, if not the majority, of the people who voted associate their government wholly with the presidential figurehead. Add personal beliefs/convictions and fear of anything that is different to a poor understanding of how the government really works and has worked throughout history, is a recipe for an election like we’ve seen.
 
We should have been trying to listen and engaging in intellectual conversation about the system with these people rather than letting our initial disdain for Trump and what he represents get the better of us. All your unfriending and deleting will do based on the way social media works will be to further create the silos that allowed fear, hatred and misunderstanding win an election that will definitely affect the world. We let the media get the better (or worse) of us.
 
There are larger systemic issues at play here and they are all connected. Don’t be fooled into thinking a change in the presidency is either the change you need or the end of everything. Despite everything, there is still hope because this election has opened everybody’s eyes, even just a crack, to the realities around us.
It’s what you do next that is critical.
 
So don’t let fear or anger win. Think and reflect. Educate yourselves and others. Engage with people and not just the character they appear to represent. “Othering” is not the way to go. Balance perspectives. Be angry, be disappointed, mourn, grieve, take care of your mental health and WORK to contribute to truly sustainable change. So many more thoughts on the events of last night, but I’ll leave it at that.
 
Sending love to everyone who is genuinely terrified of what this election means for them because love is truly what we need.

Is freedom of speech and expression really free?

In countries like the US and Canada, Halloween just passed and in recent years, there has been one argument that has dominated all social media feeds in the months leading up to and during Halloween. It usually goes something like this:

Person 1: *Posts picture of Halloween costume that is a play on a culture or cultural stereotype. For example:

indian

Person 2: “You shouldn’t wear that. It’s offensive to people of [insert culture here]”

Person 1: “I’m not wearing it to offend anyone. I don’t know why you’re getting offended. I think it’s showing my appreciation of the culture. People are too sensitive these days.”

Person 2: “It’s based on stereotypes so you shouldn’t wear it. You’re going to offend someone”

Person 1: “I have a right to wear what I want. If someone is offended, that has nothing to do with me.”

I’m sure we’ve all seen these conversations of Facebook before and typically the argument is split two ways. It’s either people are too sensitive or people are being racist. I personally think both sides of the argument are wrong but there is some truth to what they say.

In today’s growing PC culture, I’ve watched people’s ability to have disagreements in a civil way diminish to nothingness. Never has there been a time in history where the rediscovery of human connection and the art of conversation was desperately needed. Social media has so much to do with this but I also believe the failing education system is the root cause (I’ll save that for another post). I recently got into one of these conversations about halloween costumes and cultural appropriation with a Facebook friend. He was of the belief that costumes like the one pictured above are harmless, and that people blow it way out of proportion when they voice their opposition.

He shared a picture and asked people for their opinion. I think this was great because it opened up the floor to conversation in a way that I typically don’t see. A contrast to the typical inflammatory or reactionary post on the topic, it was a genuine curiosity about others perspectives. As a lover of intelligent discourse, I shared my perspective. Continue reading

The Cultural Awakening We All Need

When you meet someone what’s the first thing you notice about them? Their clothes? Their eyes? The colour of their skin?

The things we notice vary from person to person and are subjective based on our perceptions and historical and social experiences. While it’s not wrong to notice these things, there is something that’s often missing in that interaction. We miss a step.

Before I tell you what it is, it’s time for a history lesson. Let’s go back to the Renaissance. I have a love hate relationship with this time period. I love it because it marked a massive stride in civilization and the start of the modern age. Unfortunately it came with its downside. I’m not talking about the obvious (colonization, genocide of Indigenous peoples and the beginning of race-based slave trade). I’m more referring to a new way of thinking that transformed the world.

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Descartes

This is René Descartes. Frenchman. Founder of Cartesianism. Writer. Influencer of Western Philosophy. Famous Skeptic. Perhaps the most famous thing he wrote was this phrase:

“Je pense, donc je suis”

“I think, therefore I am”

While it might not have been his intention, this simple phrase in an essay has become the hallmark of western philosophy and civilization and began what I consider a revolution in human thinking.

Continue reading

On the Orlando Shooting: Centering Intersectional Identities and “Calling In”

The events that occurred in Orlando almost a week ago were so tragic on so many levels. It is horrible that 49 people were murdered. It’s even worse that 49 LGBT+ people were murdered in their place of refuge. It’s worse still that 49 LGBT+ people, many of whom were Black, Indigenous Persons of Colour (BIPOC), were murdered on a Latin night in their place of refuge.

And the hardest pill to swallow is that 49 BIPOC (especially Latinx) LGBT+ folks were murdered by a person of colour who may have had internalized homophobia and racism, on a Latin night in their place of refuge.

That is the definition of a tragedy brought on by a system that was well crafted to oppress non-white, non-cis, non-straight non-male folk. Continue reading