It was one night in 2020. I was sleeping peacefully, in contrast to many restless nights in that first year of COVID-19. I should tell you that I was born in the same year Daniel Belanger’s first album, Les Insomniaques s’amusent, was released. I don’t know why, but around one or two in the morning I opened my eyes. I got up and looked at my cell phone, which was in silent mode.
At exactly that moment, a former co-worker whom I hadn’t spoken to in almost seven years, was writing to me frantically. I knew right away that he was in the midst of a suicidal crisis. So I did what you do when someone is at their lowest point: recognize their humanity. I don’t say this to make myself look good. Recognizing the humanity of another person is, frankly, quite basic. But it changes everything, because it is still so rare.
When someone goes to the trouble of asking for something, it’s because they need it. Period. It’s praiseworthy, even, as it means they’ve decided not to gaslight themselves, which is also rare.
Even though I was sad to see someone in this state, I said to myself, “Ah, finally some truth in this world of pretence.” We spoke for an hour at most. And when I felt he was out of the woods, I went back to bed. Today, he’s doing much better. He works out every day and he doesn’t give me updates as often anymore, because things are going well. I did what I had to do, simply and without fanfare. I was kind. Sadly, in our society being nice is sufficiently rare that it is regarded with suspicion — like the shady tactic of a careerist.
I wrote last week that I don’t understand the mores of Western society. I carry the ideals of Haitian revolutionaries with me every day of my life. I plead for a culture that humanizes human beings, as historian and political scientist Frantz Voltaire said on Radio-Canada. I dream of a humanity that humanizes itself. In fact, I’ll go even further: What Quebec needs is a Quiet Revolution for the digital age. A Quiet Revolution 2.0.
An unprecedented mental health crisis
In 2020, we saw the faces of too many people who died from suicide scroll past on our social media feeds. Those faces didn’t necessarily make headlines, but a recent Léger poll commissioned by the Quebec Student Union found that 81 per cent of university students are living with high levels of psychological distress, including suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
Whenever we say to someone we “don’t have the resources,” we’re basically saying, “Your pain reminds me too much of my own,” “I have an inferiority complex towards you” or “I’m sorry that capitalist society has robbed me of the time I’d like to spend with you.”
I cannot understand how we can hear of hospitals “offloading” (postponing and cancelling surgeries and care to keep resources available for COVID cases) and not think “human rights violations and using COVID-19 as an excuse.” A society where the dead pile up like numbers, without a story.
Health professionals and social workers, those in the community, whether in the public or private sector, say they don’t have the resources they need. This was already true well before the pandemic. I know of what I speak: I worked in that system. Many of us have been sounding the alarm, and we’ve been doing so for a long time. Notably, Aurélie Lanctôt’s 2015 book, Les libéraux n’aiment pas les femmes (The Liberals don’t like women), brilliantly explained how neoliberalism and austerity have been used to slash the social safety net of Quebecers.
Unsurprisingly, in the COVID-19 pandemic, women are once again the great losers, in part because they are overrepresented in the caregiving sector, rather than profiting at the centre of the capitalist economy. This is especially true for women of African descent and racialized women, who are numerous among the ranks of care workers.
Just as veterans are in need of psychological support after returning from war, so too will many health and social service workers who are at war with the pandemic need support.
These warriors have had to make difficult choices on a human level, something that should not be minimized or underestimated. No human is immune to compassion fatigue. We saw proof of this again recently with youth protection workers who took their own lives, worn to the bone by all the different realities of our system.
Adapting to a sick system
I will never forget my supervisor during a hospital internship, who implied I didn’t have what it takes to be a social worker. I’m a person who always wakes up on the right side of the bed and attacks the day. During this internship, I found myself falling further and further behind. I decided to change internships in the middle of the year, because I didn’t recognize myself anymore.
I see this as an act of self-preservation, even if I had to take a placement outside my normal interests in order to learn. The following year this supervisor put a classmate, whose father was dying, through a similar ordeal. A few months after this internship, the Ordre des travailleurs sociaux et des thérapeutes conjugaux et familiaux du Québec presented me with the Relève award. Today, I recognize that this supervisor had been broken by the system.
The same dynamic also exists in community settings. Mélanie Ederer, a master’s student in social work, courageously denounced these practices in an open letter last year. During a CEGEP internship in a women’s community organization, I saw about 15 employees drop like flies, taking sick leave one after the other, over the course of a single year. I clung to the walls to avoid getting involved in the emotional abuse that these women were inflicting upon each other. Seeing me overwhelmed by a deep discomfort in this environment, my supervisor at the time told me, “It’s normal for you to not feel well. You’re healthy. You aren’t running on toxicity.” I passed the internship with flying colours.
I also remember the workers who repeatedly expressed their hope to “die rather than grow old in Quebec” in front of me, a woman in her early 20s.
Rethinking the Quebec model
I am asking for us to rethink our sense of common identity and our collective utopias. The time to do so is now, or never.
There are no “victims of everything.” There are only people with the ability and comfort to put words to the problems of those who cannot. It is exposure to difference that leads to awareness of our own biases. This is how we become aware that what is normal for us is not the same as what is normal for others, even when the “other” is our neighbour. It is not being a victim to demand better — “victim,” another word co-opted by the far right, like the word “woke,” when the term is simply used to denounce an injustice — it is participating in the social project and being invested in one’s society.
While our premier gives himself perfect marks for one of the worst per-capita COVID-19 records in Canada, all I see in the depths of my heart is a land that cries. But between these nights of tears, the young and the old are building the Quebec of tomorrow. They are already transforming our sense of collective identity, in real time. I have full and complete confidence in Generation Z.
For psychological support for you or a loved one in Canada, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-833-456-4566 or visit https://www.crisisservicescanada.ca.
Born in Montreal and of Haitian origin, Kharoll-Ann Souffrant is a social worker, lecturer, doctoral student in social work at the University of Ottawa, and a Vanier scholar.