Sometimes, looking at things from a sideways angle is helpful...

Monday, 10 September 2012

Mental Health and 'the Left'

Trigger warnings for mental health issues and suicide

It's World Suicide Prevention Day today, something I only realised yesterday. I've been wrestling this week with concerns about whether or not I should share, or be open about, my mental health problems. Realising it was World Suicide Prevention Day made me decide that it was time to be more open about them. I feel to some extent it's my responsibility as an activist to be open. I want to be open because I want other people to feel able to be open. I want to show that I can be an effective activist, and a mentally ill adult. Even typing that feels like a challenge, but it is the case, and I shouldn't let my problems be seen as some kind of character judgement, either by myself or others. I see a risk in this, and it's a risk others see as well, that people will start to discount my word, and just label me as unstable, and leave it at that, sidelining me out of activist projects. However, that would tell me more about the person doing it than it would myself. I wouldn't be an activist if I didn't trust my judgement, and I do. I've spent the last ten years unwell, and I can't identify a single activist judgement that I've made that I now see as incorrect as a result of my being ill. I know I can be a good activist, and I know that there are times when my judgement, like anyone else's, might not be perfect. I can identify those times, and not make judgements during them. Sometimes this means me going outside during a conference session or workshop - I feel that I've become overwhelmed and need to get some space before I can contribute in an unimpaired fashion. Being mentally ill doesn't affect my ability to do activism, only the ways in which I can do it, and the impact it might have on me.

I treat my physical health and my mental health very differently. My physical health, well, to some extent, it's visible, because I use a wheelchair, but I'm still open about it. I don't feel shame when people ask me about it, I tell them freely if we get on and make a joke if we don't. I don't try to hide how I feel about it. My mental health problems I'm ashamed of. Part of this, I'm sure, is due to the endemic problems in the activist left - I feel constantly like I'm going to be seen as a weaker, less committed, less valid activist, and this has contributed to the severity of them at times. I feel like there's an attitude of hypermasculinity on the left that expects you to be able to have a stiff upper lip, keep coping, and not be affected by personal attacks. The fact is, that for people with mental health problems this is a lot harder, at least coming from my own experience. This is me attacking back at that. There is nothing weak or uncommitted about struggling with things. None of this makes you an ineffective activist, and the atmosphere of hypermasculinity and expectation to always be on the frontlines is dangerous, because it leads us to ignore issues such as burnout, and not be there for each other when we should be.

I'm not well, and I'm not stable. That cost me a lot to admit on this blog, where I want to be analysing problems, not whining about mine. I'm not asking for pity, or special treatment, I'm being honest. My mental health is poor. I've tried to kill myself in the past week, and not for the first time this year either. Until I decided to write this, two people knew that. Most days getting out of bed is a struggle. I'm terrified of everything. I live my life with a video-reel of me being raped constantly playing. That's a good day. I'm ill, and that's alright. It doesn't make my work ineffective, any more than not being able to run away from cops on a demo makes me a liability in activist circles. It just means I have limits, my health is poor, and I have to respect that. None of this impacts on my ability to make a judgement on how I should vote, or speak, or act. It doesn't affect these things. It affects my entire life, and at times the amount I can participate and the way in which I can do that. It doesn't however have any specific impact on my ability to work within an organisation.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, and today's the first time in many months that I had to get stitches for a self-inflicted injury. That's because a day means nothing. A one day general strike will not cause capitalism to collapse. One day of gay pride will not eradicate homophobia. One day of people wearing yellow to show that they stand for suicide prevention will not prevent (many) suicides. Challenging oppressive attitudes in society, and showing support for a cause isn't something you can do when you have time for it in your calendar. These things are part of a process, they're a way we have to live. Cutting any fight down to a one day issue trivialises it. If we say this matters today, what about the rest of the year. We need to look after ourselves and each other, on an interpersonal level and in terms of the liberation and anti-capitalist work that we do, and that needs to be a constant process, not something we pick up for a day, and drop again.

That's why here I've been honest about the way my mental illness affects me - because one more activist being open can only be a good thing.

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