When Eileen Bonetti saw her child struggling, she knew she had to do something to help.
Eileen’s daughter, Ashley, was assigned male at birth. In 2016, at the age of 22, Ashley came out as transgender.
“But what we realized was that Ashley coming out was just the tip of the iceberg,” says Eileen, Director, Country Relationship, Chile, International Banking at Scotiabank. “Underneath, there was a lot of pain and anxiety, which led to severe depression.”
It’s well-documented that transgender youth face increased mental health challenges. A 2017 study by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) found that transgender youth had a higher risk of reporting psychological distress, self-harm, major depressive episodes, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. The 2015 Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey found that 1 in 3 trans youth had attempted suicide in the past year.
Seeing the pain that her daughter was in, Eileen was overwhelmed with worry.
“Being a parent of a child who struggles with depression is really paralyzing,” she says. “You don’t know what to do.”
To get some help for Ashley, Eileen looked to her employee benefits plan to fund therapy sessions. Ashley began therapy and was covered up to her twenty-fourth birthday, but after that, she was no longer eligible. After a call to her insurance company, Eileen discovered that her benefits only cover dependents for mental-health support if they are under twenty-five years of age and studying full-time. It was a heavy blow.
“I had all these benefits, but I couldn’t use them for the person in my family who really needed it,” she says.
Eileen reached out to her Scotiabank manager and he suggested she connect with Scotiabank’s Pride Employee Resource Group (ERG) for advice. Their mission is to help create an inclusive and supportive environment for LGBT+ employees, customers, their allies and friends. Eileen attended a meeting of the ERG to share her story.
“I remember that day. They all hugged me and they said, ‘You’re in the right place. We are going to work with you on this,’” Eileen says. “I felt very secure and very supported.”
The group asked Eileen to share her story and perspective as an LGBT+ parent through a series of panel discussions they were organizing throughout 2019. Through these panels, Eileen was able to relay the roadblock she encountered in trying to use her benefits for Ashley’s therapy.
Ayman Alvi, Director, Global Benefits, Scotiabank Total Rewards, was in the audience for one of Eileen’s talks, with other members of his team. Ayman says the issue she raised resonated with them.
“We are always incorporating employee feedback, and the experience Eileen shared was a powerful one,” Ayman says. “We want to provide flexibility in our benefits to try to meet a wide variety of needs, and this seemed to be a gap.”
Ayman says the team reached out to their benefits provider to understand how they could expand eligibility for their employees’ mental health benefits. They were told the federal Income Tax Act does not allow for increasing the age of children who can be covered by benefits (Scotiabank pays up to $3,000 per year, for a variety of mental health professionals) — so those benefits could not be changed.
“People think, I’m not going to say anything because nothing will happen. Or, I’m afraid to ask. And you know what? Things happen. You just need to speak up and ask.”
Undeterred, they found another way to address the gap. Scotiabank already offered a Wellbeing Account where employees could allocate benefit dollars towards mental health-related expenses. So the team updated that policy to allow for reimbursements for mental health-related expenses for any family members, such as adult children, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles.
“We assume that there are many in the bank who may be dealing with similar concerns, whether it be an adult child, an elderly parent for whom an employee has caregiving responsibilities, or another family member who needs support,” Ayman says. “We believe this is an important and valuable resource to provide our employees and therefore the right thing to do.”
The changes came into effect earlier this year. When Eileen found out, she was relieved and grateful that she would be able to access funds from the Wellbeing Account to pay for Ashley’s therapy.
“I thought, Oh my God, this is really life-changing,” she says. “I wrote an email to HR to say thank you and that I appreciate the bank for listening. Being listened to — that’s really touching.”
Eileen says Ashley is now doing well. She’s “building up her confidence,” working part-time and engaging with a writing coach to write a book. “The therapy has made a difference,” Eileen adds.
June is Pride Month and at Scotiabank, the company works to raise awareness for the inclusion of LGBT+ communities and build futures that are free of discrimination, where LGBT+ people feel safe and open to be their true selves. In 2019, Scotiabank was the first Canadian bank to sign the UN Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business to strengthen its work around human rights and in promoting equality for LGBT+ people.
For Eileen, Pride means visibility in the community. That’s why it’s important for LGBT+ people, their parents, and other allies to share their stories to open up hearts and minds.
“I think that listening to these personal stories can really make a difference. That’s when it clicks. There are so many stories out there and one will resonate with you and then you will be an ally with passion,” she says.
Through this experience, Eileen says she has learned a lot about herself.
“What I learned is that I’m stronger than I thought I was. As parents of LGBT+ children, we come out too. If I didn’t take part in that panel discussion at the bank, nobody would know. It’s a step for me too to say, ‘I’m the parent of a trans kid.’ So you find out how courageous you are,” she says. “I also learned that unconditional love is very empowering — that is what empowered me to fight for a good cause.”
Eileen says she’s also learned that the actions of one person can make a big difference. She encourages others to speak up in the workplace if they see something they think should be changed.
“People think, I’m not going to say anything because nothing will happen. Or, I’m afraid to ask,” she says. “And you know what? Things happen. You just need to speak up and ask.”