Mental Health Champions: Why & How Jennifer Fraser of The Bullied Brain Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness
I had to learn to disobey. We are trained early in childhood and throughout the school system to obey and respect adults. This sets children up for a great deal of confusion and cognitive dissonance when confronted with an abusive adult. I trained myself to unlearn learned behavior. In taking on the whistleblower role, I went against the school system and the enabling government agencies to fight for children’s rights to an abuse free education. I was being told to look the other way when child abuse was taking place, and I refused.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jennifer Fraser.
Jennifer Fraser has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She’s an award-winning educator and best-selling author. Her new book The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health uses research to debunk myths around the role of bullying and abuse in our lives.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up on the west coast of Canada with my parents, siblings, and many pets. Both parents worked outside the home and we were taught the value of work early on. That said, work was never allowed to get in the way of extended vacation time. Every summer we went sailing for at least three weeks, and then would spent the other month at our cabin in the forest. As we got older, we explored other cities and countries of the world as a family. Our parents were big believers in travel as education. I have an older brother and younger sister who are both in film. They have always been cooler than me.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address? I am an educator at heart and my goal is to change the conversation on mental health by focusing more on the brain. In Comparative Literature at University of Toronto, we were trained to take different discourses out of their silos and put them into an arena. In this way, you have literature in dialogue with psychology or law speaking to health. When I was pulled into a bullying crisis at a school I was teaching at, I found the system addressing it to be totally broken and hypocritical. This sent me on a journey to find a new way to understand the impact of bullying and abuse on our lives. What I learned was that all forms of bullying and abuse harm the brain. They damage the brain in serious, invisible ways. That said, what I also discovered in reading the research is that our brains are remarkably adept at repair and recovery when we pursue evidence-based practices.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
A parent contacted me at the school I was teaching at to say her son — — who was away on a school trip — — had texted to report he “couldn’t take it anymore”. He said ‘they’re calling us f*cking pathetic, f*cking retards” and far worse, as I ultimately learned. There were scenes of public shaming, berating, yelling in the face, threatening, punishing those who spoke up, ostracizing, and homophobic slurs. It wasn’t students doing this bullying to their peers. It was teachers. I heard directly from multiple students that one student was targeted in particular. The students reported the teacher’s conduct occurred many times and it was “vicious.” Turns out, that targeted boy was my son. That is when the line was crossed for me. It is when the fire was ignited to eradicate this kind of normalized behavior. My son wasn’t the only victim. There were many students reporting the abuse. It’s just that there was no looking back for me from that moment, no matter what they did. My passion originates in a teacher’s protective care for her students and a mother’s love for her son. This passion is fueled by a belief that when people are normalizing destructive behavior, the best antidote is research. The best way to debunk the prevailing myths about bullying and abuse is with a dose of science.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
My “Aha Moment” occurred when I went to my doctor and said I wanted to go on stress leave. I told her the story of how the students were being abused; the school administrators and board had been informed a year previously and did nothing effective to protect the students; that they’d hired a lawyer to write a whitewashing report that maligned and humiliated the many students who reported the abuse. The Headmaster published it widely. I was publicly positioned as a problem parent who was overly protective of my child. I couldn’t go back and teach for another year while my son finished school and graduated. My doctor looked me in the eye and asked: “Those students who reported the abuse have to go back for a year and have been positioned as liars by their own Headmaster?” I nodded my head. She said “You are the only thing standing between them and the abusers. Hold your head high and get back to work. You will not be taking a stress leave.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I am a well-trained researcher, but I am not a scientist. I could read endless conclusions from medical, psychiatric, and neuroscientific experiments, but I didn’t have the science credentials to be one hundred percent sure I was presenting the results accurately and insightfully. I reached out the one of the world’s most esteemed and awarded neuroscientists to see if he could read my book, give it a stamp of scientific approval, and write the foreword. I had a zoom meeting with brilliant Dr. Michael Merzenich who is one of my heroes. After I explained to him the traumatizing story of my son and the students and how I wanted to use neuroscience to change the world’s understanding of what abuse does to brains, his response was: “how can I help?” Four transformative words from not only a certifiable genius, but also a very generous man who is as passionate about changing the mental health conversation as I am. After he read “The Bullied Brain” he said it is “scientifically the most thorough treatment of the subject on planet earth.”
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I am blessed with a community of individuals who care about teaching, coaching, and parenting. They were cheerleaders and challengers, supporters and guides. Yet, the way my mind works best is through reading. What helped me succeed are the hardworking individuals who fill the pages of my book. I was truly astounded at the research going on across the world in neuroscience labs, the profound insights revealed in psychological studies, the brain power seen in mindfulness research, the analysis of trauma through award-winning films, the integrity displayed in journalism investigating abuse. These were my mentors over the years of sitting alone writing my book. I am also blessed with a husband who fought by my side and two warrior sons who refused to let abuse break them.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I explain in my book that we remain stuck in an outdated framework or paradigm. We still assess the mental world with moral terms, when medical ones would be more accurate. When someone is aggressive, is it a character flaw or do they have trauma being triggered in their brain that is designed by evolution for survival? When someone avoids confrontations or commitments, is it that they are lazy or is their brain choosing “flight” — part of the sympathetic stress response system — to protect them? When you read about mental health, you sometimes do not hear the word “brain” even mentioned. That is like reading a study by cardiologists who do not mention the “heart.” I believe the stigma on mental health will disappear the moment we educate ourselves that behavior, emotion, thought, reactions, stress response, and everything else is governed by our brains. Our brains are organs that can be strengthened by what we practice and can be weakened by toxic environments. The health of our brain cannot be seen by the naked eye, but the health of our lungs can’t either. The x-ray that debunked the myth that smoking made you tough and sophisticated is now the brain scan that can debunk the myth that bullying and abuse are a necessary evil in the path toward greatness and power. My goal with the book is to make the brain top of mind, even though we cannot see it.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals and society must begin by ousting all forms of child abuse. The foundation of a great deal of mental illness and physical illness is bullying and abuse as documented in the late 90s in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. All forms of abuse — -emotional, physical, sexual, emotional neglect, physical neglect — -were shown to be connected to midlife chronic disease and mental health issues. Governments could change society by intervening and investing upstream in the wellbeing and safety of children. Billions of dollars are funneled into downstream responses such as treating substance abuse, caring for health and mental health issues, funding the criminal justice system, paying into welfare. It’s well documented in research that if this money was invested in ensuring healthy, safe childhoods, enormous amounts of social and financial capital could be saved. This requires educating individuals and society about the ways in which bullying and abuse harm brains. This requires having much more stringent laws to deter institutions from covering up and enabling child abuse. As I outline in the book, we have to work together in order to break the cycle of abuse because it operates like an infectious disease. Hurt brains hurt. They are in pain; they hurt themselves and they hurt others. Hurt brains are suffering from mental illness and the incredibly exciting news is that we can change our brains. We have neuroplasticity. We can repair harm done. We can break the cycle. It’s hard work and it takes time. It’s comparable to getting in shape. It’s immensely challenging and requires daily commitment, but it can be done and it would usher in a whole new era of mental health and wellbeing.
What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each? As I describe in the Ten Action Steps in my book, I have had to work hard to repair my own brain and I’ll offer five of my evidence based strategies.
- I had to learn to disobey. We are trained early in childhood and throughout the school system to obey and respect adults. This sets children up for a great deal of confusion and cognitive dissonance when confronted with an abusive adult. I trained myself to unlearn learned behavior. In taking on the whistleblower role, I went against the school system and the enabling government agencies to fight for children’s rights to an abuse free education. I was being told to look the other way when child abuse was taking place, and I refused.
- Exercise is critical for me. The brain science shows that daily aerobic exercise is not only good for the body, it’s excellent for the brain. It helps reduce toxic stress, repairs harm done, and makes the brain more resilient. It is a medically documented cure for depression.
- I adapted mindfulness to be a practice where I spent time talking to my brain. Instead of ignoring my brain, I began to think about it and tell it things. For example, when I begin to feel anxious, or that my stress levels are rising, I tell my brain to relax. I breathe slowly and purposefully which communicates to my brain I am not at risk. I tell it I’m not in danger and am only thinking about a worry. I tell it that my mind is in control of the situation and it can go back to focusing on creativity, problem-solving, learning, connecting and stop fretting about my survival.
- I committed to being a writer of culture. Instead of letting my society tell me what to feel and think, I charted my own path grounded in research. When the school and government tried to tell me that abuse was in fact “old school coaching” or that the students were at fault for listening to the teacher’s “obscenities,” I rejected their version of reality and established my own based on evidence. I saw firsthand the negative impact on students’ mental health who were being fed false information by the esteemed and powerful adults in their world. It was awful to witness.
- I learned key neuroscientific principles that I use as my daily mantras such as ‘the brain has limited cortical real estate.’ In other words, if I behave in bullying ways day in day out, it leaves no space in my brain for compassion. However, if I daily commit to the practice of empathy — -walking a mile in someone else’s shoes — -my brain doesn’t have room for callous, thoughtless conduct towards others. What the brain does a lot of, the brain gets good at. What fires together, wires together. These key phrases are reminders that until our last breath, we have neuroplasticity. We can shape, sculpt, and change our brains.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
My favorite books are Dr. Michael Merzenich’s Soft-Wired, Dr. Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Helen Reiss’ The Empathy Effect to name a few. Resources that I think are worth watching out for are conferences where individuals come together on an issue. For instance, I’m speaking at an international Whistleblowers event with others who have spoken up when faced with wrongdoing. These events can be educational and challenging. The online world has now made them easily accessible. I am a big fan of Dr. Martin Teicher’s work and watch his video lectures on the impact of abuse on developing brains. I also love TED and TEDx Talks which was how I learned about Dr. Brené Brown and Dr. Amy Cuddy’s fabulous work and have followed them ever since.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
As I learned in Dr. Shawn Achor’s work, we are trained to believe that if we attain success then happiness will follow. Research has shown that the reverse is true. So I would tell people to pursue with your whole heart positivity for yourself, for others, for the planet because in choosing the path of happiness and positivity, success follows.
How can our readers follow you online?
My website is www.bulliedbrain.com. My Twitter is @TeachingBullies. My Facebook is @BulliedBrain. My Instagram is @JenniferFraserPhD.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Mental Health Champions: Why & How Jennifer Fraser of The Bullied Brain Is Helping To Champion… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.