Expanding the Conversation about Mental health conditions and activism

By Kathy Labriola

I am a nurse, counselor, and hypnotherapist as well as an anarchist and political activist in Berkeley, California. Not surprisingly, most of my clients are anarchists, political activists, and community organizers. Many of them have sought counseling because they are struggling with some kind of mental health condition or challenge. Many have been coping with these conditions for years and even decades, and have tried many different approaches to minimize their painful symptoms and maximize their happiness. Quite a few have confided to me that they have been criticized and shamed by other activists for going to counseling , for prioritizing self-care, or for utilizing medications to manage their most disabling symptoms. Many describe how they have suffered in silence for many years with mental health conditions, before finally seeking help from a doctor, therapist, or other medical practitioner.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to mental health, and I want to support our friends and comrades in choosing the path they feel is best for them. It is not up to me or anyone else to tell anyone how to handle a mental health challenge. However, I would like to express some ideas I believe can add to this conversation in our anarchist community.

Whether or not you have a mental health conditions yourself, learn as much as you can about mental health conditions. This will empower you to take care of yourself if you have such a condition, or help you to be a useful ally to any friend, family member, or loved one who may need support during a mental health crisis. You can educate yourself through a variety of books, articles, websites, podcasts, and other resources from a variety of different points of view. Engage in respectful conversations with people you know who have experienced depression, anxiety, a manic state, hearing voices or having hallucinations, or a state where they felt impaired in decision-making or taking care of themselves. If they are willing to discuss their experiences with you, learn about what this was like for them and what strategies or treatments they have found to be helpful. They may or may not already have a support system of friends and/or family members set up to be there for them either during a crisis or on an ongoing basis. If you feel you can commit time and energy to be part of their support team, offer to be available to them in times of distress, being as clear as you can about what you can provide and any boundaries you need. They may want help with practical things like cooking meals or doing laundry, rides to appointments, or help with paperwork or finding counseling or a support group. Or they may be feeling so distressed that they need to take time off work and may need people to loan them a little money or give them a temporary place to stay. Or they may need someone to listen and give them emotional support as they try to make decisions and plans for their recovery.

Our comrades deserve autonomy, privacy, and control over their bodies, minds, and spirits, and it is important that we respect their choices with acceptance and love. They may choose to take medications such as anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, mood stabilizers, or anti-psychotic drugs to reduce their symptoms. Many people with mental health conditions have said they have felt unfairly judged by other activists who believe these medications are harmful and unnecessary.

In fact, these medications are grossly over-prescribed by doctors and are given out like candy to anyone who mentions to a doctor that they are a little anxious or depressed, and they do have potential dangers and side effects. However, for some people, severe depression can be so disabling that they are unable to work, they cannot safely take care of their children, and they feel in danger of self-harm. For people in so much pain, taking one or more of these drugs can make the difference between living in a horrible hell of despair and actually feeling well enough to do the things they want and need to do in their lives.

Similarly, people who are experiencing a manic episode are often experiencing intense panic, and their mind feels so frenzied that they cannot sleep, eat, or focus on any task or activity. And people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia often hear voices and see visions and hallucinations, and many feel convinced that they are being pursued by dangerous people who intend to harm them. This can be so terrifying and painful that if drives many people to suicide attempts. As a result, many of them choose to take anti-psychotic medications, which significantly reduce or even eliminate the hallucinations and the voices. This can allow someone to feel safer and calmer, and be able to focus on work, school, art, friends and family, and/or activism, rather than being exhausted and distraught from coping with unwanted voices and visions.

No one should be forced to take drugs against their will, but people deserve to have agency over these decisions and they need accurate information and support from their loved ones and comrades in order to make an informed choice. Some people with mental health conditions may choose not to take medications, and they need a support system to help them develop healthy strategies to reduce their symptoms and enhance their wellbeing. Some people focus on self-care, making sure to get enough exercise, eat healthy meals, do regular journaling, spend time in nature, and have quality time with friends and lovers . Others find counseling, support groups, and classes to be nurturing and restorative. Creating art or music is very healing for many people. For some, pursuing a spiritual path through meditation or some other form of spiritual practice is central to sustaining their mental health.

None of these options are mutually exclusive. Many people take medication, either for a few months while they are experiencing a mental health crisis, or for a much longer period, sometimes for many years, to relieve their symptoms. However, they may also concurrently utilize many of the other strategies of self-care, counseling, creating art, or a spiritual practice, both to help them recover and then to prevent the symptoms from recurring.

Rather than judging anyone for the tools they choose to use to survive, radical movements can support our comrades and respect their choices. Many activists struggle with these conditions and need as much support and love as we can offer them.

Doing radical political activism is very hard work, and many people become exhausted and experience burn-out, frustration, sadness, self-doubt, and a deep feeling of hopelessness at certain points in their lives. Capitalism is stubbornly resistant to change, and many people feel angry and discouraged after spending years working so hard and seeing only incremental progress. This can lead to many of our comrades experiencing periods of depression, anxiety, and feeling incapacitated.

Many anarchists have told me that they weathered these periods alone, because they were reluctant to talk to others for fear of being seen as weak or wrong, and they did not think anyone would care about their struggles. In fact, many activists have said that when they reached out for help, they were told they were “self-centered” or “entitled” and attacked for “not pulling their weight” in a political organization or collective. Or they were told that other people are more oppressed than they are so they shouldn’t complain about their problems, or that mental health problems are a “first world problem.” Many people drop out of our organizations and even give up on political activism when they are ridiculed instead of supported.

On a positive note, I have seen some people in crisis who have had a very tight community of friends and loved ones who provided emotional and practical support to help them through it. This is our anarchist community at its best: providing mutual aid that can include anything from keeping someone fed and housed to taking turns staying up all night with them during a suicidal crisis. We can sustain ourselves, our loved ones, and our movements over time by being compassionate and providing support.