On Mental Health: Keeping your Brain in the Fight.

Before I start the full piece today I wanted to offer some quick resources right away for anyone experiencing mental health distress.

For Canada:

  1. https://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/en/ Number: 1.833.456.4566
  2. https://www.ccmhs-ccsms.ca/mental-health-resources-1 (Links to useful numbers/organizations for adults and youth in need)
  3. https://cmha.ca/ (Canadian Mental Health Association has brochures, resource links, and news)

For USA:

  1. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/talk-to-someone-now/ Number: 1-800-273-8255
  2. https://www.mhanational.org/ (Mental Health America has resource links, toolkits, crisis numbers, tests, and facts related to conditions/symptoms)
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/

I know it’s not a lot, but please make use of these links/numbers if you ever need a hand. Take care of yourself out there, my friend.

My 5th grade teacher Ms. Rowland used to always say “be kind to your brain” whenever she saw me getting stressed in class. I was, and still am, a perfectionist so I considered every piece of work a failure even if it was just something mundane like colouring. It seemed like a simple request at the time, but it meant a lot to hear someone give a damn about my mental health at age 11. I have not been kind to my brain despite that (sorry Ms. Rowland) so I have spent the last 3 decades going back and forth between “calm blue ocean” and “OH SHIT the fuck’s goin’ on now!?” That ain’t a good way to live and I sincerely hope none of you have/are dealing with the same mental loop de loops. The sad fact is that plenty of you probably are (approximately 1 in 4 people will be affected by a mental health disorder in their lifetime) and honestly how could anyone blame you? Just look around for a minute. The world isn’t a fun place to be. The economy’s crumbling. There’s still a pandemic going on. Capitalism keeps the rich alive and uses us for cheap labour during said pandemic. Everything costs too much and we’re paid too little for necessities. Most of us are in debt that we’ll probably have until we die and then pass onto our kids. Our faux progressive society is filled to the brim with racists, bigots, charlatans, and combinations of all three who preach oppression with every word vomited from their gaping maws. The news is owned by billionaires, corporations, and political groups and all they do is cover divisive propaganda meant to maintain the status quo. Nazis are coming back into fashion and we’re not supposed to punch them anymore. We’re constantly on the brink of poverty, sickness, war, becoming victims of State terrorism, drug addiction, and just name any number of worst case scenarios. It’s enough to make anyone feel hopeless and that’s why I’m here. It’s about time we had a serious chat about maintaining your mental health in a chaotic world. You can’t fight injustice with an empty tank and I need all of you in tip-top shape.

Image Source: Yahoo Life, 2015.

This won’t be a comprehensive list of reasons/problems nor can I offer you a magic pill or twelve step plan for mental health. You probably shouldn’t rely on me for that anyway. I’m a goddamn wreck half the time. I cried the other month because my mid-term was over the word count (that’s how strained I feel). I only made this post as a reminder to “be kind to your brain” because we need it more than ever. As revolutionary thinkers, we have to maintain our composure in order to confront everything awful I listed in the previous paragraph. It’s not an easy task because we’re tired of dealing with the same bullshit over and over again. I’ve asked myself hundreds of times why nothing is changing despite constant rallies, grassroots movements, community outreach, phone zaps, and zines exposing the clear corruption and inequality that thrives in an apathetic society. It’s exhausting and has sapped the mental fortitude of many would-be activists. Beyond crushing disappointment, there’s a major reason why we’re mentally exhausted and it’s a simpler explanation than you’d expect. We’re deliberately worn out and tired because it makes us easier to control.

I know what some of you are saying. “Oh here he goes blaming capitalism again. I love making millions for my boss, getting screamed at by anti-mask Karens just cause I’m doing my job, and then going home and crashing after not going paid overtime” Okay maybe not word for word, but yes I am saying much of our mental health problems can be traced back to us working ourselves into an early grave, being too tired to protest injustice, and struggling to make ends meet every month with meager paycheques. We’ve become used to the status quo and that’s what the shitheads in charge want. It’s a regular ritual for many of us to be stressed, angry, tired, depressed, anxious, and scared for the future because we can’t depend on anything. Homes, water, food, safety, and fulfilling work aren’t guaranteed so we’re supposed to strain our minds on the daily in preparation for us to lose it all. You can’t tear down the foundations of corruption if your water bill is due and your boss “forgot” to give you a raise again. Best get a third job and hope they’ll give you time off to attend that Indigenous rights rally. The odds aren’t in your favour, but hey it’s nice to dream sometimes.

So where does all of this lead us? Simply put, the state of our collective mental health is worse than it’s ever been. As I stated in the opening of this piece, approximately 1 in 4 people will be affected by a mental health disorder and, as of 2019, 450 million people (likely more) suffer from mental health issues around the globe. This has only been worsened by several of the factors I listed above, but especially right now with COVID-19 taking away jobs. killing family members and friends, and shutting down countries. Don’t get me wrong here. I ain’t some anti-mask, flag waver demanding more jobs, more “freedom” (for white people), and more haircuts. I want things shut down for public safety and to protect our vulnerable family and friends, but no income or safety nets will make people feel helpless and unstable. Nearly half of Americans polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation said that they were experiencing mental health issues due to the pandemic and the effects of it (social isolation, joblessness, illness, fear etc). No surprise that healthcare workers are getting hit the hardest by mental fatigue. BMJ data from China and Italy, for example, reported cases of depression for around 50% of its health care workers, anxiety in around 45%, and around 34% for insomnia. These aren’t great numbers for any group, but frontline medical workers are (I dunno) kinda important during a pandemic.

Photo Source: Vox, 2020

Continuing protests and government inaction to curb State violence against racialized groups, LGBTQ2+ and other vulnerable populations are also leading to mental health crises among many folks. I admit I am writing this from a place of privilege as a lower-middle class white guy who is just watching these events online and during protests. I am not the one being assaulted, killed, or discriminated against so my mental health distress comes solely from a place of anger/compassion for my fellow human beings. I do not intend to occupy a racialized or LGBTQ2+ space or speak for their struggle because it’s not my place to. I only talk mental health stats, polls, and discussions. Vulture released a piece in June of this year which discussed the effect of watching State violence on our screens. People can suffer from vicarious traumatization and, if some have PTSD or past experiences of trauma, these images can naturally exacerbate their symptoms. Therapists are comparing this vicarious trauma to the same burnout that professionals experience after speaking to victims of violence and abuse day in and day out. We give a shit and watching others suffer is unbearable and enough to break down anyone with a functioning heart. In January 2020, the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry released a study directly related to mental health and protests. The study found that major depression rates increased by 7% following major protests. That may not seem like much, but that number also includes people not actively involved in the protest itself which suggests significant community spillover. The paper also found that PTSD rates ranged from 4% to a staggering 41% depending on the place and nature of the protest. The rates were also influenced by a person’s socioeconomic status, race, sex, and the extent of the action itself. Closer to home means closer to heart.

I understand that I’ve just been ranting this whole time and providing no clear way forward. Let’s talk about how to cope, heal, and pick ourselves up despite everything being on fire. I want to emphasize the personal and cooperative mental health strategies that could benefit all of us as activists and accomplices. Some have helped me a lot, some have helped friends, and some are just general resources if you ever need a hand. I am a person who cares about your sanity and well-being in these shitty times. We all gotta be kind to our brains right now and help our brothers, sisters, and non-binary comrades do the same. I ain’t about to disappoint my 5th grade teacher and ruin her retirement by not trying to help you out.

Photo Source: LA Times, 2020

Let’s start with ways you can help others. The previously mentioned study from the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry had something good to note about our collective actions. Two studies listed in the piece suggested that collective actions may actually reduce depression and suicide rates (for some) through cohesion and cooperation among protesters. Actions can provide many of us with a sense of self-worth and solidarity in times of distress. We’re definitely stronger mentally when united and working towards a common goal. Cooperation may seem like common sense, but the lone wolf mindset is still prevalent among many leftists who continue to view themselves as incompatible with others. I have felt this when I was new to activism and I’ve known plenty of other people who’ve intentionally isolated themselves for fear of rejection or embarrassment. In her book Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad describes the fear that keeps people from getting involved especially using the excuse of perfection keeping people scared until “[they] know everything perfectly and can avoid making any mistakes”. Keep those folks close and show them that vulnerability isn’t a weakness. They are part of the same fight we are and their active involvement is all that matters.

Photo Source: Kingston Whig Standard, 2013

At the Royal Military College, they were all about looking after your brothers and sisters in arms. Gotta keep that military machine greased up, ya know? I mean they dropped the fucking ball with me since I came out of that place an anarchist with a myriad of mental health issues, but military cohesion (without becoming robots) is something we can at least learn from. It’s not only about including your comrades, but also checking on them regularly both physically and mentally. I’ve put up a tough front plenty of times to save face in front of the fascists and their toadies, but it’s wise to remember that we’re involved in a lot of tough situations and facing cruel realities. That’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be. Regular wellness checks with our comrades is essential before, during, and after actions. This is especially important with our BIPOC, LGBTQ2+, and vulnerable (houseless, those with addictions etc) friends who have greater stakes in this fight and will be subjected to more violence and abuse if left without aid. This ain’t some white saviour nonsense, but rather a realization that we need to acknowledge just how much mental well-being is affected by social justice hitting close to home. LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC individuals will always experience mental strain harder than a cis or white accomplice during these actions. Check in often, don’t belittle emotions or reactions, and be prepared to step in as a friend and an accomplice in times of need.

Give your personal mental health some special attention right now. You can’t support others without taking care of yourself first. It seems selfish I know, but there’s also a certain selfishness associated with attaining satisfaction through sacrifice. It took me a long time to realize that I was simply using others as a reason to avoid taking care of my myself. “Others are suffering out there so what reason do I have to be upset?” Let go of this self-depreciation and really consider what YOU need right now. Your fellow accomplices and activists will thank you for fighting beside them with a clear mind and a full heart.

My therapist always suggested grounding techniques when I felt overwhelmed. A few years back, I was afraid of having flashbacks when I had to travel alone without my partner so she asked me to try mindfulness and grounding myself whenever I was feeling anxious. The picture above illustrates several of the grounding exercises, but there’s also the 5, 4, 3, 2 ,1 strategy which is quick and simple. In your general vicinity, focus on 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Grounding might be difficult in the heat of the moment, but it’s worth it even if you can just manage to get a second in. This might seem obvious, but you also need to take time to enjoy things. Read, write, hike, play video games, workout, order cheap takeout, and anything else that gives you a small amount of pleasure in this world. You can always remain mindful of your activism, but no one can be ON every second of the day. You can be there for your friends, family, and comrades while not sacrificing your own will to live. Focus on what matters and ground yourself in the present.

2020 has been a psychological roller coaster to put it lightly. We seem to wake up every day to a new atrocity, abuse, or disappointment and it hasn’t let up since January. Human rights abuses, environmental destruction, and financial strain are burning us out at a rate that I’ve never experienced before. We have to take care of one another and ourselves in order to keep fighting. This is by no means a comprehensive list of strategies or even all of the issues that are plaguing us these days. I just wanted to make this post as a reminder to be kind and supportive right now as we keep fighting the good fight. Be kind to your brain, be mindful of your comrades’ mental health, and remember that you don’t have to suffer through crises alone. We’ll get through this together like we always have. Stay safe. Thanks for reading and hope to see you again soon. Solidarity, my friends.

X.S

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