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Dr. Marnie Wedlake, Psychotherapist

Dr. Marnie Wedlake, Psychotherapist

Dr. Marnie Wedlake, PhD, RP, Assistant Professor & Registered Psychotherapist is a full-time faculty member in the School of Health Studies at The University of Western Ontario, and a Registered Psychotherapist. Her area of interest includes mental health and wellbeing. Dr. Wedlake believes most people share a fundamental desire to experience a greater sense of overall well being. Outside of her work, Dr. Wedlake is most content in spaces where nature and creativity meet, especially when it’s cold and snowy. Dr. Wedlake enjoys photography, strategy board games, movies, and potato chips.

In your article last April about how to help students facing traumatic loss as a result of COVID-19, you mention concerns around normal feelings being pathologized. Could you talk about why this can be a problem?

Over the last several decades, it has become common practice to view and describe natural and expected responses to trauma, adversity, oppression, hardship, etc, as symptoms of disordered mental health. For example, the feeling states that used to be known as fear and despair have come to be known as anxiety and depression. Some might argue that semantics don’t really matter, but language is powerful. And the words we use say a lot about the perspectives we hold.

Our human condition includes a broad and full range of emotions and feelings. All of these are ‘normal’, and all of these say something important about how we’re experiencing our lives. Too often, the most accessible options are ones that emphasize diagnoses and medically oriented treatments. When people seek help for the states of distress they’re experiencing, and they are (as is often the case) told a psych drug can or should be used to treat the thoughts and feelings they’re having, their experience is being medicalized and/or pathologized.

There’s an exceptional group of critical scholars, clinicians and service users in the UK who, for many years, have been saying, “instead of asking people what’s wrong with them, we should be asking what happened to them”.

Can you explain a bit about why a history of childhood trauma might make a student more susceptible to experiencing the pandemic, and the lockdowns that followed, as a traumatic loss?

We know from many research studies, that trauma and adversity in childhood and adolescence are the primary precursors to compromised emotional wellbeing in adulthood. Many students come to their post-secondary education carrying the effects of childhood trauma and/or adversity.

Campus cultures and post-secondary school lifestyles create something of a façade that can enable some students to (temporarily) step aside from some of the emotional burdens of their histories. As a place of familiarity and community, with less feeling of aloneness, college and university can provide an escape. But the escape doesn’t tend to last. Post-secondary students face a lot of pressures. Many students rely on their peers, their sense of community, and their routines and structures to help them maintain their emotional wellbeing. The lockdowns and restrictions brought on by the pandemic took away some of the really important ‘emotional girders and beams’ that many students rely on to help them cope. When coping strategies are either compromised or gone, people tend to be more vulnerable to feeling the impact of their difficult histories. Pressures stack up. The more challenges we experience, the more difficult it can become to defend against the wounds of our past.

21+ months into the pandemic, a lot of students who have histories of trauma and/or adversity, will likely be feeling the cumulative impact of the current pressures, along with the weight of their history. The result for many will be feelings of despair, fear, and an overall sense of loss.

You mention a lot of insightful tips for students who are struggling with all that this pandemic has brought on. What would you say are your top two tips?

I’m going to go with my top 3: #1 - Good eating, sleeping and exercise – every day – are essential, always, and even more so when times are as challenging as they are now. #2 - Structure and routine are almost always our pals. They help us to feel like we’re on more solid ground. #3 - Don’t go it alone. ‘A problem shared, is a problem halved’, so if you need help, get help.

What are some ways universities could better support mental health practices?

This is a really big question, and it doesn’t have any easy answer. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to our emotional wellbeing. I’d say the #1 thing all support systems, whether these are in universities and colleges or in the broader community, could do to better support the emotional wellbeing of those in need, is to move entirely away from offering services and supports that medicalize and pathologize states of emotional distress. When bad things happen to people they will feel bad, and they may behave in ways that are challenging for them and those around them. But this does not mean there is anything wrong with them. Providing students with services and supports that are appropriate to their needs is key. As a larger system of care providers (in post-secondary and community environments) we need to accept that some people need less support and some will need more. And providing these supports in ways that do not medicalize thoughts and feelings is essential.

One of your research interests is practices that enable safe withdrawal from psychiatric drugs. Could you expand more on what these safe practices look like?

Another big question, and one that is too big to answer here. What I can say is that safe withdrawal from psych drugs is rare. Too often, people are prescribed psych drugs without being given the opportunity to provide fully informed consent to treatment. Fully informed consent would include being told what the drugs do and do not do, what the possible short- and long-term side effects are, and what would be needed to enable a safe withdrawal. I’m an Associate with The International Institute for Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal (iipdw.org). The IIPDW is an organization that is based in the UK, and we provide a lot of excellent information for people who are looking to expand their understanding of psych drug withdrawal. As well, Mad in America, has an exceptional collection of resources on psych drugs (madinamerica.com).

On your website you state: WELLBEING IS NOT PRESCRIBED. How do you define well being as opposed to mental health?

Defining wellbeing is challenging. In a first year and a second year course I teach, we look at the concept of wellbeing. Most scholars will agree that coming up with a single definition isn’t really possible. I see well being as an overall state of being that includes our physical, emotional and spiritual selves. For many years my personal tagline has been: “Wellbeing is not prescribed. It is created. With ownership and intention.” The message I’m trying to convey with this is that our overall well being is not something that can be given to us (prescribed to us) by an outside source (another person, a drug, etc). Rather, our wellbeing is something we need to choose to create. To create and maintain an overall sense of wellbeing I believe we need to make the choice to commit ourselves to doing what we can to achieve this state, to maintain it, and to restore it when life circumstances get in the way of our efforts.

Language is powerful, and the words we use say a lot about the perspectives we hold. In my communications I try to avoid using words that imply a medicalized perspective. That said, there are occasions when I feel it’s necessary to use terms like ‘mental health’ or (more reluctantly) ‘mental illness’ because these are terms that are most familiar to some audiences. With this in mind, I prefer the term ‘emotional wellbeing’ to ‘mental health’ because the first one (emotional wellbeing) is non-medical – it’s about our humanness. Whereas the second one (mental health) has, for many years, been attached to a medicalizing narrative. Our thoughts and feelings (no matter how difficult they are) are not symptoms of a disorder they are our humanness.

You have a website called MADNESS Talks. Can you expand on the purpose of these talks?

My MADNESS Talks are for anyone who has any interest in the broader field of ‘mental health’ and who might be curious about looking at this field from a non-medical perspective. You will see on my MADNESS Talks website that I use terms like ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ because my MADNESS Talks are intended to appeal to those who have not found satisfaction in the more commonly accessible systems and supports (that tend to be biomedically oriented) but who may still find that language to be most familiar. MADNESS Talks are for those who are questioning the biomedical narrative, may not be sure where to start, and are looking for some easy to understand and engaging learning experiences.

On your website ‘Marnie Wedlake Arts’ you showcase a variety of artworks from poetry to photography with the title/subtitle, FROM THE SPACE THAT EXISTS BEYOND WORDS. What is the significance here or why did you think it was important to add this?

Art and artistic expression have always been important features in my life. Creative projects that combine art, nature and technology are central to my own artistic life. For me personally, art and creative expression are inspired, and they are inspired by tuning in to realms that are non-verbal. So, my photography and my poetry are works of inspiration that come to me when I tune into non-verbal realms.

Why did you choose to focus on the ‘existential despair across the life span, particularly in post-secondary students, as a research interest?

There is a strong relationship between academic success and emotional wellbeing. Most institutions do a pretty good job helping students to transition into post-secondary education. On the other end though, when students are getting ready to leave, there isn’t much in the way of structured programs that are about the oftentimes conflicted thoughts and feelings students experience when they’re getting ready to graduate.

My interest in existential despair in post-secondary students is about recognizing the need to acknowledge and validate this time that is one of both celebration and loss. Students who are graduating from college or university are celebrating their achievements at the same time that they are living with the anticipatory grief of leaving their friends, community, and student identity. As they are preparing to leave their familiar post-secondary homes and move into a world that is, for many, uncertain and unfamiliar, many students experience despair and fear. I believe this is a form of existential despair, and that it is a natural and expected response to pending change and anticipated loss. I also believe post-secondary institutions need to provide more in the way of acknowledgement and support for students who are transitioning out of post-secondary school.