Features | Organizing our way through mental illness

Lots of activists live with mental illness – so why is social justice organizing still so ableist?

Two days after Philando Castile was murdered, I took my first antidepressant.

I’d struggled with depression and anxiety for years, mostly silently, and always unmedicated. I’d never considered that my mental illness could be linked to politics, because my depression started long before I developed any significant political consciousness. But, last summer, while obsessively refreshing Twitter for hours while crying, I started to suspect that my social justice work and my declining mental health had somehow gotten entangled.

Now, as I write this, my social media is filling up with the news of six Muslim men murdered at a mosque in Quebec City. In the last two weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the accompanying onslaught of Islamophobia, racism, and misogyny, I’ve felt hopeless, numb, terrified, and overwhelmed. I don’t know if this is proportional shock to the state of the world, or if it’s my depression. I can’t tell the difference – maybe because they’ve started to bleed into one another.

I explain to myself and others over and over that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. I’ve been told that I’m just “too sensitive,” that I should “snap out of it,” that my depression can be cured by doing yoga or eating kale or smiling more. Those messages are dangerous and invalidating, tossed out casually by well-intentioned people who insinuate that I’m just “weak” or even making it up for attention. I cling to that chemical imbalance, to tell myself that I’m not just delicate, or self-centered, but that my mental illness is as valid and real and deserving of medication as any physical illness.

And yet, I’ve begun to wonder if that’s the whole story.

Mental illness is political

I’ve often thought about the heavy overlap between activists and people living with mental illness. For a long time, I assumed that this was because social justice spaces, with their commitment to fighting ableism, were simply environments in which people felt safe being honest about their mental health. This is true in many ways – at The Daily, for example, we check-in with each other before every meeting, and editors often remind each other to take their meds or ask for help during a difficult week. Often, people who have mental illness that stems from trauma from sexual assault, or racist or imperialist violence, become activists to fight for a world where people don’t have to live through what they experienced. Many of us are racialized, women, queer, trans, physically disabled, or poor.

More recently, though, I’ve started to believe that mentally ill people don’t just self-select or feel comfortable outing themselves in social justice spaces. Maybe the high prevalence of mental illness is caused – or at least contributed to – by the nature of our work. Our work is to stare straight at injustice, to document violence, to analyze both the political and the personal through a lens of unequal distributions of power. Working in social justice spaces is intense because your work follows you home – you can never justify not thinking about systemic oppression. There’s no conversation that’s safe from an analysis of hierarchies of power.

Our work is to stare straight at injustice, to document violence, to analyze both the political and the personal through a lens of unequal distributions of power.

In February 2016, MarShawn McCarrel, a 23-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, committed suicide on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse. It opened a conversation about depression and trauma amongst Black Lives Matter activists under the hashtag #BLMhealing. “In the movement you’re just constantly engaging in Black death, seeing the communal impact,” said Jonathan Butler, the University of Missouri graduate student who went on a hunger strike for seven days in protest of a series of racist incidents at his university, in an interview with the Washington Post. “You’re being faced with the reality that I’m more likely to be killed by the police, that I’m being discriminated against. You start to see all of the microaggressions.”

“White supremacy often feels vast and hopeless. I believe suicide is what happens to some of us when our minds are in a place of, ‘We need freedom, but we can never be free here,’” Angel Carter, a St. Louis-based organizer, told the Pacific Standard. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Black people are 20 per cent more likely to have a severe mental health condition than the general population, and women of all races are nearly twice as likely to have clinical depression than men.

As Laurie Penny writes in her incredible essay on wellbeing ideology, “The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.” It’s even worse when you decide that you’re going to be an activist, to dedicate yourself to fighting the worst and most violent instances of oppression, to field harassment or hate-mail or shouting at your parents over the dinner table about Ferguson. For me, that’s grounds for depression and anxiety.

“In the movement you’re just constantly engaging in Black death, seeing the communal impact.”

Maddie, who worked at Planned Parenthood on queer and trans allyship, and has worked with QPIRG-McGill on various social justice initiatives, agrees that systemic oppression is a factor in mental illness. They have dealt with an eating disorder and depression for five years, alongside lifelong anxiety, and they identify as queer, non-binary, and a person of colour. “Maybe some people are genetically more predisposed to mental illness – but I think that living under this fascist system is a huge contributor to people’s illness,” they told me. “I don’t see how it could be otherwise, if the world isn’t built for you to exist, and you are constantly having to struggle to survive in it. Some people don’t have to struggle so hard. There’s a huge strain, all the time, just trying to exist.”

We need to think about mental illness as the product of social and economic situations. Reducing mental illness to brain chemistry implies that the only way to manage or cure it is by taking pharmaceuticals. Medication is crucial to many people for managing their mental illness – but at the same time, it’s undeniable that the medical-industrial complex makes a staggering amount of money off (over)medicating people. Reducing mental illness to brain chemistry also feeds the idea that we’re all responsible for only ourselves, an individualist ethic that’s the result of neoliberalist capitalism, which relies on the idea of a meritocracy to foster competition and self-interest. It works to isolate us from the broader injustices that are implicated in how shitty we feel – and prevent us from dismantling them together.

Trauma, psychosis, healing, and exhaustion

“Even when we do try to make room for people who are mentally ill in organizing, we usually do it in the easiest possible way, by focusing on depression and anxiety,” Sonia Ionescu, the coordinating editor at The Daily, told me. “It’s easy to identify with depression and anxiety because everyone’s nervous, everyone’s sad. But not everyone feels the urge to hurt themselves, or not eat, or experiences mania – that’s a really hard thing to grasp even a symptom of.”

“I’ve been self-harming since I was twelve,” she continued. Sonia has been diagnosed with anorexia, chronic depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety, with a possibility of bipolar II disorder.

“Of mental illness, depression and anxiety are the most common, and so it makes sense, in a way, to give them the most attention. But also it’s really easy to just ignore everything else if we do that, and to just pat ourselves on the back and be like ‘we’re being inclusive!’” I have depression and anxiety, and I don’t lack the space to talk about them, so for this piece I turned to activists I know who have more severe or different mental illness from me, and who work more directly on specific struggles.

Hannah* is a member of the #ConsentMcGill campaign and has worked on sexual assault awareness and prevention. “Two and a half years ago I was raped, and that has led to me having PTSD,” she told me. “I think one of the ways that I tried to deal with that was by really immersing myself in fighting the cultures that contribute to [rape].”

“There’s not a day that goes by when it doesn’t come to me in any shape or form as a reminder that it happened to me. But I realized why [Trump’s] election and the subsequent actions have impacted me so much,” she explained. “It was the single biggest reminder I’ve had since it happened to me that nobody gives a shit about sexual assault. When a man has twelve [alleged] counts of sexual assault against him, and he gets elected as President of the United States, with almost half of Americans voting for him – it was just the biggest reminder that no-one cares.”

During Trump’s campaign, and especially the last month, Hannah’s had to have more discussions about rape culture. “It’s really hard having conversations with friends where they’re saying something that’s really offensive, especially when it’s surrounding sexual assault, but I don’t have the energy or the strength at that time to talk about a subject that’s so personal to me,” she said. “In those situations it becomes a big moral dilemma, because I can’t justify staying silent, but I also don’t feel strong enough to defend what I believe at that time.”

“When a man has twelve [alleged] counts of sexual assault against him, and he gets elected as President of the United States, with almost half of Americans voting for him – it was just the biggest reminder that no-one cares.”

The last week has been characterized by a widespread sense of helplessness – a feeling familiar to many mentally ill people. I’ve heard from many who feel like they don’t know what they can do – and even when they do act, it’s never enough. “I feel very hopeless in terms of not being able to do anything tangible that will help – and for that reason, I feel less functional. A lot of my self-worth is tied to [social justice work],” Maddie told me.

“A lot of the time I feel bad for not being a functional mentally ill person, which is fucked up,” they explained. “I know so many people who also struggle with mental health, but they’re still able to do things, they’re still able to go to protests and demos that matter. And then I question, am I really putting in effort, am I really trying? I think that’s really contributed to me feeling even worse.”

CJ* has been organizing around Palestinian human rights and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement for three years. She’s had severe depression for five years. “Yesterday I worked for twelve hours, and then came home and cried, because I was so tired,” she said as we began our interview.

“Sometimes I feel like there’s a never-ending amount of organizing one could do. This is something I feel I’m quite bad about, in terms of regulating how much I do,” she told me. “I guess I really struggle because everything is pressing and urgent. Palestine, which is what I usually organize around, is just so important – and it feels more important than me. And so I’ll often sacrifice my mental and physical health because I just know I’m contributing to an important struggle.”

“This past month or so I’ve been in a manic state,” explained Sonia. “I feel like I can do so much more organizing and [attend more] actions, and the validation I get from contributing to those things – not just from other people, but from myself – kind of feeds into not wanting the mania to end, which is dangerous in that mania is not sustainable. It’s just not a healthy way to live – I need more sleep than I’m getting, I need more food than I’m getting, I can’t keep going at this rate, but it feels good to, and it feels good because I’m making a change.”

“I’ll often sacrifice my mental and physical health because I just know I’m contributing to an important struggle.”

For the mentally ill, social justice work feels like a constant coin-toss, where the two faces are being either exhausted, demoralized, and triggered, or galvanized, motivated, and hopeful.

“Social justice is one of the ways that I self-care,” Hannah told me. “I was really lucky in that sense, because that helped my recovery and finding a really healthy thing to pour my energy into, and my anger into – because there’s so much anger. Obviously you don’t want that anger directed at yourself, and I don’t know who it was [that raped me] or how many people there were, so I can’t direct it at a specific person. So I kind of directed it at the system that would be oppressing me and anyone else who experiences [sexual assault].”

CJ told me that even when her depression made it impossible for her to go to class or do schoolwork, she was still able to organize. “I feel like organizing is maybe one of the best things that I can do for my mental health. If one of the problems I have is that everything I do is pointless and meaningless and empty, this feels like something that is clearly meaningful, and has a point.”

On identity and interconnectedness

Over the summer, when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed, I was working in the News and Features editorial team at a high-profile women’s magazine in Toronto. The team met every morning to pitch stories and discuss breaking news that was relevant to Canadian women. The morning after Philando Castile’s murder, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I felt a mixture of deep rage and sorrow. But when I got to the morning meeting, visibly shaking, no one said a word about the shootings. I returned to my desk in tears.

Part of my rage was because during the course of that job, even as an intern, I felt unfairly burdened with the responsibility of advocating for coverage that acknowledged issues of race. I was one of the very few women of colour on the editorial team, and there were no Black women working at the magazine at all. At a magazine mostly run by – and marketed to – white women, I felt that if I didn’t talk about race, no one would.

The next day, I didn’t go to work, because I woke up and immediately started having back-to-back panic attacks that made it impossible for me to even get dressed. Instead, after years of refusing medication, I went to my doctor and got a prescription for an antidepressant.

I’m not a Black man living in the U.S. under the increasing militarization of the police. I’m not a refugee, or a Muslim person, or an undocumented immigrant facing deportation under the Trump administration. I’m not one of the women or other people living in the Global South who will be condemned to death by his global abortion gag order. So why is my mental health so deeply affected by these atrocities?

I worry that it’s a performative mourning: that I’m participating in an economy of horror and outrage that’s not sincere, and focuses attention on myself rather than on the affected communities. This is the voice that tells me that my mental illness is a ploy for attention – a self-indulgent wallowing in misery or angst. I worry that my anger and sadness is only contributing to a voyeuristic culture that loves to spectate, consume, and commodify the suffering of marginalized people. This is the voice that tells me that my activism and commitment to social justice is in bad faith. All these voices insist that I should care less – that the pain I feel is insincere or exaggerated. Against these voices, how can I justify feeling affected?

So why is my mental health so deeply affected by these atrocities?

Some of these concerns are valid – there’s a way that the privileged can (and do) appropriate the pain of marginalized people, and turn the attention back on themselves. There’s a way that support floods in for affected communities in the days after a well-publicized mass murder, but dies out as soon as the topic disappears from the mainstream media. In a couple weeks from now, non-Muslim people expressing outrage following the terrorist attack at the Quebec City mosque will move on, and we’ll go back to not talking about Quebec’s long history of state-sanctioned Islamophobia.

And yet, while I’m a proponent of staying in one’s lane and not speaking over those with lived experiences of a certain form of oppression, I also believe that there must be a way for us to feel the pain of another community without it being self-serving. In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler writes: “No one person suffers a lack of shelter without there being a social failure to organize shelter in such a way that it’s accessible to each and every person. […] This means that in some of our most vulnerable experiences of social and economic deprivation, what is revealed is not only our precariousness as individual persons – though that may well be revealed – but also the failures and inequalities of socioeconomic and political institutions.”

This is not a new idea – that one’s life is not lived in isolation, but is always already a social life. The injustice levied against a single body is always indicative of systems of injustice that we are all implicated in. By no means do I pretend to feel or understand the pain of those directly affected by Trump’s agenda. But I understand that my life does not exist separate from the lives of other marginalized people facing more direct violence. That I, a brown woman in Canada, am engaged in a common fight with the same systems of white supremacy, misogyny, and border imperialism that threaten Black people and trans femmes and Syrian refugees. That the systemic oppression that undergirds my mental illness also works to uphold police violence and fascism.

“Bodies in the streets” and the ableism in organizing

Our worth as activists is measured by our ability to throw down in the street, to stand at vigils or strikes for hours in the cold without food, our willingness to risk being arrested or pepper sprayed or kettled. We’re expected to be constantly active on social media, constantly debating and educating our less-political friends and family, constantly up to date on the news, constantly offering emotional support to affected communities. Physical, emotional, and mental exertion are used as yardsticks of commitment to the cause – without taking into account our differing abilities and skills. It ends up replicating structures of capitalism, where our bodies are juiced for labour and then disposed of when they can no longer work – the workers become what Marx, in Capital, calls the “conscious organs of the automaton.”

“There’s a hierarchy in mental illness, where the people who are the most productive are at the top, and the people who are the least productive are at the bottom, which is ingrained in us by capitalism,” said Sonia. As a result of all of this, a lot of the discussion around activism and organizing is incredibly ableist. It’s coming from seasoned organizers as well as the recent influx of new activists that perhaps haven’t done the work to interrogate their ableism.

The rhetoric of “bodies in the streets” activism most strongly excludes people with physical disabilities and mobility restrictions, as well as many undocumented, racialized, and trans folks who simply cannot risk arrest in the way a white dude can. But ableist activism also affects those of us with mental illness. People with anxiety are excluded from protests. People with PTSD are side-eyed for not shutting down a sexist comment at a dinner party. People with bipolar disorder are judged for not showing up for the vigil, when in reality they couldn’t get out of bed that day.

Our bodies are juiced for labour and then disposed of when they can no longer work.

“I feel like there’s no room for people who can’t make those protests for various reasons. And even if people say that they don’t have that mentality, I think it’s very ingrained,” Maddie told me. It’s the mentality that creates the idea of the Platonic form of the activist: a young white man who’s necessarily able-bodied and infinitely resilient, who can scream at the cops without risking being beaten or deported. “That’s definitely internalized in many activist communities: that you need to put your body on the street, you need to be out there, and be ready to face violence,” Maddie continued.

For those who organize in communities or alongside friends, withdrawing from high-intensity work means not only feeling like a bad activist, but a bad person overall. “We have to keep loving people when they’re not able to organize, and not able to do as much,” CJ told me. “And I think that’s hard because I definitely idolize or deeply respect and admire people who spend their life organizing, and really do a lot – but that’s also just not possible for so many people, for so many reasons.”

Part of this ableist rhetoric of activism is the idea of “slacktivism”: posting, sharing, liking, or donating via social media, which is considered ‘lazy’ or ‘shallow’ activism. But creating a hierarchy of activism, where violent protest is at the top, not only excludes those who cannot attend protests or smash windows, but also underestimates social media’s value as a tool for organizing and community-building.

“We have to keep loving people when they’re not able to organize.”

“During high school I isolated a lot from my physical community because of my depression, but I did a lot of online community stuff; I had this screen and I felt more comfortable behind it, and I didn’t have to move out of my bed, also,” Maddie told me. “I created a community through Twitter and Tumblr – that was my initial introduction into social justice spaces.”

Protests and vigils are wonderful and necessary forms of political action. But we also need to value other forms of resistance, and make space for people to resist in whatever ways their bodies and brains allow – lest our work become anti-oppressive in name alone. This has never been more important to understand than now, when mass protests are erupting in Montreal twice a week, when we’re inundated with calls to “step up,” and “show up,” when tapping out of visible, high-intensity, or physical activism is seen as inexcusable. When Trump has a history of mocking disabled reporters, his possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act will strip many disabled people of healthcare, and his federal hiring freeze is going to make it even harder to appeal for Social Security Disability Insurance, activists need to make sure that we’re not excluding the very people whose rights we should be fighting for.

Staying sane in the time of Trump

I have a lot of friends who have never been politically engaged before who are coming to me and asking how to attend a protest for the first time, or which grassroots organizations to volunteer with. I’m really excited about this wave of popular resistance, but I also know that this intensity of fear and rage amongst activists is not sustainable. I know that this work erodes your sanity. If we don’t start talking about mental illness in activism – and not just as a throwaway acknowledgement, not just as an afterthought – then we’re facing mass burnout in the near future.

This chunk of writing is how I’m staying sane in harrowing times. I’m writing to try and open a more honest conversation about mental illness amongst activists, but I’m also writing to help myself untangle my complicated relationship with the politics of mental illness. I’m writing because I feel helpless and sad, and journalism is my activism and my catharsis. This is my act of resistance – against Trump, against ableism, against burnout and desensitization, against my own creeping depression.

CJ told me, “it would be good for me to prioritize my own mental and physical health. I should do that for my own sake. But also to actually do the most good, my organizing has to be sustainable, and I have to find ways that it doesn’t kill me.” Four years is a long time to keep up a fight, and it’s imperative that our work survives – but to do so, the activists have to survive too.

*names have been changed


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