5Q with sociology professor Ardath Whynacht
3/18/2015 1:51:11 PM

Ardath_main1- What is your area of research?

At a really basic sense, I work at the intersection between culture, mental health, and institutions. 

I am really interested in trauma. I think that a lot of those ‘invisible traumas’ happen in our interactions with institutions like the school system, hospitals, or the criminal justice system.

 Much of the violence that happens in our society has its roots in really mundane, invisible interactions in day-to-day life. I’m interested in tracing those everyday traumas to broader issues of mental health, especially self-harm, suicide, and personality disorders.


 2- You are also a poet. What attracts you to poetry and what attracts you to the spoken word form in particular?

I am really interested in how artistic and creative spaces can be a good format for public engagement in scientific knowledge. So being a spoken word poet for me was a really deliberate choice in making art a conversation and an event; making it feel casual and participatory. That is really important to me and I try to bring this into the classroom. I try to treat a lecture like a performance, but I also want to make it casual enough that other folks can jump up and share the stage. That is also the approach I bring to thinking through public engagement in science.

3- What are you currently working on?

We do a lot of our learning through digital interfaces, so I am trying to build a digital installation that will allow for learning and community engagement on difficult issues like suicide and cutting. 

I have worked with a live performance format with a great group of young people and that has been going really well, but with a travelling digital installation we can engage people in ways that we cannot with live performance. In a live show, youth with lived experience of the psychiatric system are able to get up and talk, sing a song, even laugh, and reflect on their experiences. This is both de-stigmatizing and an educational experience for the audience. However, a digital interface can often be less intimidating, especially when exploring taboo topics. I am trying to create public engagement spaces that are curated by youth with lived experiences of self-harm. I think that people’s experiences within the medical system often get left out of mental health education and very complex issues are presented in very narrow ways that alienate people and create more stigma. 

4- Talk about your work in prisons and how this influences your research.

My PhD project was inspired by a poetry class I had been running in the maximum security unit of a Federal Women’s prison for many years. I came to see that the women in max were all experiencing similar symptoms of self-harm and impulsive behaviours. They all met the criteria for borderline personality disorder — every one of them.  I came to wonder how, and in what ways, institutional practices (including the use of segregation) caused trauma, which can cause many of these symptoms. Prisons and hospitals can be incredibly invalidating environments and this, coupled with feelings of isolation and loneliness, can make mental health outcomes drastically worse. I was touched by the death of Ashley Smith and my PhD research into personality disorders and institutional environments is dedicated to her — and the many women like her who are still suffering in the ways that ultimately led to her death. I believe the Canadian prison system is getting worse every year—I hope that my research helps us think through alternatives to these very harmful practices of incarceration.


5- What are some of the barriers and pressure students and young professionals face entering the workforce and what advice would you give from what you have learned?

I have been lucky to work with so many brilliant young people in my research, but it is hard to see them get burnt-out and become disillusioned after a few years in the workforce. It seems to be getting worse every year. This has really shifted my approach to working with third and fourth-year students because I am really firm on making them set boundaries and sticking to them. This is a survival skill in today’s world. 

There is a great conversation happening on campus around perfectionism. We tend to really reward and privilege those students who always go above and beyond. I think what that translates into, in a time of high youth unemployment and unpaid internships, is young professionals who feel like an eight-hour workday is not good enough and so end up working constantly. This leads to burnout and feeling pressures that they should not have to face, restricting them from developing relationships and having families. That is a sociological issue, but it is also a very practical issue. I try to reward students for setting boundaries.