Tag Archives: women

Black, female, poor, mentally ill — and incredibly strong



Introducing Marissa

My friend Marissa is one of my heroes. She constantly demonstrates her strength of character, courage and intelligence, in the face of a very severe mental illness. She is an interesting person whose life experiences have matured and deepened her character. Mental illnesses often steal people’s lives, but Marissa fights back every day.

Having a severe mental illness means taking heavy medications with side effects. Among other things, her medications give her seizures so she doesn’t sleep well – and if she doesn’t sleep well, she is very vulnerable to a relapse.

Despite all her challenges, Marissa is an excellent mother who is raising her child in a very conscious and reflexive manner. She also is going to college, one or two courses at a time, and hopes it will be a good role model for her child.


Intersectionality: Race, gender, social class, and mental illness

In addition to having a severe mental illness, Marissa is a black woman, a single mother, and lives on government assistance. All these elements of social location interact with each other.

Lets look at some school-related issues as an example.

Her medications make it impossible for her to get out of bed in enough time to get her 6 year old daughter to school on time, which has caused many problems. And let me note that Marissa is sending her child to a school that — despite the diverse student population– only has white teachers.

In December, the teacher had the children write a letter to Santa  with their gift requests. Marissa was angry. This activity was a real set-up for a parent on social assistance. How could she live up to the expectations this teacher was setting up regarding Christmas gifts? But if she had gone to the school to complain, she would be an “angry black woman”. And remember, she’s already in trouble because her daughter is always late for school (although her daughter is at the top of her class).

Marissa, as a black single mother with a mental illness, is also very vulnerable to having her child taken away from her. It is no secret that child welfare systems are systemically racist and that black families are over-represented in these systems.


What happens if she has a relapse?

She recently had her first relapse in five years – a severe and paralyzing depression. Because it was over Christmas, she was unable to get hold of her doctor when she felt it coming on. By the time everyone got back to work, she was too depressed to reach out for any more help. Luckily her mother visited her, sensing she wasn’t doing well, and admitted her into the hospital. Although she is out of the hospital, she has lost custody of her daughter. We hope that as she stabilizes, she will be able to get her daughter back. The little girl misses her mommy and cries for her, even though grandma is very good to her.

Something is really wrong with this picture.


The need for community support

Marissa is not  a victim. She is an independent woman and proud of it. She has worked very hard to get to this place. But if she just had some better community support – not even an intensive support – a hospitalization could have probably been averted. If someone could help her solve everyday problems, like how to get her daughter to school on time, her stress would be greatly reduced. A month-long hospitalization is very expensive. An ongoing community support worker who would meet with her once every week or every other week is not expensive.

Does the system expect Marissa to do it on her own? Do they not care that a child’s welfare is also part of the picture – if mom stays well, the child stays well. It’s just easier to yank the child away from the single black mother when she is sick, than to make a small amount of effort to keep things on an even keel.

I’ve got practice experience and research knowledge about mental health.

But nothing makes a social problem come alive as listening to the experiences of people who go through it.


Additional reading:

Mothers with Mental Illness by the Canadian Mental Health Association

Parenting, special issue of Visions (BC’s mental health and addictions journal)

Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (book)

Depression and Black Women from The Best of Dr. Marvin (blog)


© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009



The plight of immigrant women from eastern Europe


I live in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities the world. Almost half of Toronto’s population is foreign-born. While most immigrants are visible minorities, there are still a substantial number coming from eastern Europe. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research on this group.

In recent months, I have met a number of women immigrants from eastern Europe. Their stories have deeply affected me.

These women came here with hope and the expectation of a better life. But instead, they are worse off. They bitterly regret their choice to immigrate. Encountering barriers to decent employment, they have become impoverished, exhausted, and depressed. And they have lost the hope  that brought them here.

Their despair is such that they pour out their stories to a sympathetic stranger. What strikes me is their profound sense of betrayal.

Most of the women I’ve met are well-educated professionals in low skilled jobs. According to a recent Statistics Canada report, immigrants are university-educated at double the rate of native-born Canadians. Yet among recent university-educated immigrants, 28% of men and 40% of women held low skilled jobs in 2006, compared to 10% and 12% of native-born Canadians. Even among immigrants who have been here 11 to 15 years, 12% of men and 24% of women held low paying jobs in 2006, according to the report‘s authors Galarneau and Morisette. So there is not only a gap between university-educated immigrants and native-born Canadians, but also between males and females.

The women I talked with all said that if they could, they would go back. But each of them faces major obstacles.For example, one woman’s husband had a heart attack while visiting the U.S. and the medical bills mean she now has to work two jobs. He is unable to travel.  Another woman and her husband immigrated with a young child, now a teenager, who no longer speaks the language. They feel that their child’s needs require them to stay here.

Language is an issue for many of these women. When they immigrated, they were unaware that their credentials would not be recognized. They had to immediately take low-paying jobs to survive. There was no time or money for English language courses. Although their English has greatly improved over the years, they still have major limitations that prevent them from getting better jobs.

I’m not sure what aspects of this situation I want to study. In part, it depends on what has already been studied and what is still unknown. But I do know I’m very moved by the plight of these women.

There is one aspect that intrigues me. All the women I spoke with expressed overtly racist ideas. They blamed visible minorities, particularly blacks, for the crime and poor living conditions in their neighbourhood. In their view, blacks are “animals” and “garbage”. They also are very angry with people on welfare, who are “lazy” and “getting a free ride”, whereas these immigrants are working themselves into exhaustion at any jobs they can find in order to survive.

I believe that exploring these women’s attitudes would contribute to intersectionality theory on racism. The intersection of race, immigration status, downward social mobility, gender, language skills, health, age, all seem to play a role. However, I’m not sure how much it might contribute to expanding their options for a better future.

I know these women feel that they are invisible and that their voices don’t count. What do they have to teach us about their experiences that might help their own lives to improve as well as the lives of other kinds of immigrants? I plan to explore this question in this blog in the weeks to come.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008