Living to fight another day – mental health and the activist

I read a bit of research recently that suggested that depression, mental illness and emotional stress are very common among libertarian political activists. As I am enduring bit of a slump again, and I tend to turn to reading and writing to help me regain some persecutive, I am going to have a bit of a closer look at this phenomenon.

As I think about the people I have met through campaigning and activism over the years, I can certainly recognise a loose correlation between those that are more committed to their activism and mental health issues of one kind or another, broadly ranging from depressive disorders to delusional complexes. Sometimes the activist community is very supportive and helpful. On other occasions it can feel alienating and harmful.

If I offer any advice at all, it is purely based on my own experiences and learning (often the the hard way). My first bit of advice is therefore not to consider anything read in blogs as a substitute for professional medical advice. That I would not have said this 10 years ago is, in part at least, because I have found that the understanding of mental health problems among GPs, in particular (as most people’s entry point into the medical support system), is hugely better than it once was – while recognising that there is a bit of a lottery in just how competent (in this regard) your particular GP may be. I do, however, think that it is highly likely that at least one GP in any practice is likely to be good in this respect, so it may be worth asking to see whoever is regarded as strong with mental health issues in a practice, rather than, perhaps, seeing your usual GP if you suspect that they are not so hot on mental health issues. I remain very critical of certain aspects of mental health Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 13.27.11treatment, especially an over-reliance on medications (while acknowledging that they usually have a part to play in managing some conditions), but if you are suffering from severe depression or considering harming yourself, then there really is a need to speak to someone straight away.

Living with depression is not easy. All too often mental health issues are overlooked and/or ignored – by everyone from the sufferer themselves, by people around us (that don’t understand what is going on), through to workplaces and wider society. Sufferers are too seen seen as weak or overreacting. Beside the personal sense of alienation that often goes with mental illness, the institutions of capitalist society offer sufferers very little control over their treatment. Typically, mental health treatment is fragmented and commodified, complete with hierarchies to negotiate, elements of coercion and the pressures of budgets, profits and bureaucracy.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 13.29.10Mental health facilities in schools (for both staff and pupils) are woefully lacking (although some recent attempts to introduce mindfulness to the curriculum and INSET programmes is to be welcomed). There’s generally no problem ringing in sick at work with physical ailments, but very few employers have any provision for for mental health leave. In my experience, short-term absences for mental health issues are regarded as highly suspicious – if you are going to be off with mental health problems, then at least make if a full-scale meltdown and have three months off!

In this context, it really ought to be a given that the class struggle community, in particular, should take issues of mental health seriously. It should be discussed and there ought to networks where sufferers can turn when they need support. This happens informally at best, but given the high incidence of sufferers as already pointed out, there is usually someone nearby that can at least offer genuine empathy. It is important for sufferers to realise that they are by no means alone. Talk to someone. They will understand and often be able to point you in the direction of further help. Don’t forget that the very essence of class politics is all about solidarity and helping each other.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 13.30.26I would always encourage people to try to find someone in person if you can, and I am far from alone with that advice. Telephone helplines, medical ones and the Samaritans in particular, can be valuable too. But be careful about relying on online forums and web advice. Self-diagnosis is full of pitfalls. Self-help after professional diagnosis and initial guidance is fine – and the way I have learned to cope.

As blokes in particular, we often resist reaching out and/or talking about ‘girly’ things like feelings and emotions. We need to recognise that these are symptoms of the divisive culture and false identities imposed on us by a ruthless and uncaring capitalist system. Whether we suffer from depression or not, as social animals, we all need to discuss our feelings and emotions. It not only helps us as individuals, but strengthens us a movement when we develop a healthy culture of discussion and support.

Part of the reason we get involved in politics is because we want to make the world a better place. That means most activists are happy to support comrades in need of a bit of emotional support. There are not enough of us to allow comrades to fall by the wayside. Sharing a sense of solidarity and common purpose makes comrades potentially solid pillars of support. We get great satisfaction from looking out for each other, as if we cannot look after our own, how could we ever expect to extend similar values to a wider society?

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 13.32.38Being realistic also means recognising that being involved in politics can bring more stress than enjoyment. We therefore also need to recognise that we, ourselves and every comrade, need to be able to take a step back from time to time. A few months off from any given group or project can help recharge the batteries, gain fresh perspective and help avoid things getting in ruts and stagnating. Similarly, we must all be wary of over-extending ourselves or expecting too much from others. It is never about people pulling their weight – it is about being comfortable with what you are contributing and being grateful for everybody else’s contribution, no matter how great or small. It is not good anarchist or socialist practice to have one person carrying too much responsibility within a group – and not conducive to good mental health either.

Be realistic about how much time you dedicate to a project and be open with others when you need help. If you are not getting the assistance you need, speak to others involved, let them know and give opportunity for others to step up. Ultimately, do not feel the burden is on you to make things work.

Despite our commitment to the cause, it’s always important to have other interests, preferably without any overtly political dimension. I would say that it is also important to maintain those friendships with people that do not share your political perspectives and involvement. This is achieved in no small part by avoiding political discussions and judgements. If nothing else, it will help maintain some broader perspective in your life. Hobbies and sports are great ways of keeping body and mind healthy – which again will benefit your political activities as well. We all need a break from contemplating the ills of global capitalism, lest it overwhelm us.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 13.34.01In essence, it boils down to being good, kind and respectful to each other. But sadly, far too often that proves beyond us. I read an interesting short essay recently entitled: Be Good to Your Comrdaes: Why Being a Prick is Counterrevolutionary. It made the point, that any of us familiar with party politics in particular will recognise, that political activism tends to attract a bunch of egotistical pricks, at least disproportionately. Many of the nicest people I know are leftie political activists that are caring altruistic, generous and giving. But I can also real off a list of people that are harsh, condescending and sometimes downright bullies. Politics shares a tendency with religion for people to take entrenched positions, even over small matters with people supposedly on the ‘same side’. When we have our own ideas and beliefs attacked, we tend to lash out in defence of our position, even if it is an untenable one.

Many of us have developed very thick skins over the years, but that can make us prone to using words or tones that can hurt our thinner skinned comrades. When we become so full of bitterness about the state of the world around us, we can tend to take out on those around us, even when those nearest, ought to be our dearest allies.

What happens, of course, is that people quit. It also make people reluctant to get involved. I quit the Green Party and I am reluctant join Plaid Cymru. Anarchist groups Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 13.37.04seem to have a better handle on this sort of nonsense, perhaps because it truly part of the core values of everyone therein. Party politics is inherently competitive and confrontational.

Even anarchist groups will attract their share of strident revolutionaries who can overstep the mark. Whatever the organisation, however, if has to be recognised that interpersonal meanness will always be counteractive to the greater cause. It sabotages the change, the revolution, that we want to see. When people act like pricks, they end up driving people away. Nobody wants to share the company of people that make them feel like crap. If they are not driven away completely, they can be tipped into a downward depressive cycle, lose their self-confidence and withdraw. They stop sharing their ideas or volunteering for activities. Meanness and bullying causes our numbers to be fewer and our remaining comrades to be less effective. This has to be intolerable for a group whose ultimate raison d’être has to be persuading the majority of the population to our way of thinking. If we think we can achieve this by humiliation and intimidation, or by ostracising critics, we may as well go straight to taking up arms and ‘persuading’ people at the end of a rifle.

We need to be comfortable with expressing criticism and disagreement. This is the only way we truly change minds. Being forthright should not prevent us from remaining friendly and respectful. It requires collective responsibility to deal with individual transgressors. Various tools can be used to structure debates, and training in effective chairing is worth considering. One suggestion that I have rarely seen implemented is that someone is assigned the task of monitoring the level of respect in meetings (a kind of behaviour referee if you like), someone other than the chair. Some sort of ‘three strikes‘ rule can then be implemented. But hey – it is down to each group and organisation to find some arrangement that works for them – so long as that is what they do.

The bottom line is that if someone’s pattern of intimidating or humiliating others doesn’t stop after ongoing intervention, then this person has to go – expelled or at least suspended – because whatever assets they bring to the group, they will be doing more harm than good.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 13.38.52To conclude – the number one thing we can all do to advance the causes we hold so dear is to value our comrades and be good to each other. In terms of looking after each other’s mental health, let’s pledge to stop giving our comrades yet another reason to be depressed!

(Draws heavily on an anonymous booklet entitled Class Struggle and Mental Health, published by Freedom Press, 2015)

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