The Faith Around Mental Health Is Bad And Getting Worse

The Faith Around Mental Health Is Bad And Getting Worse

I haven’t written in a while. Believe me, dear reader, it is not for a lack of trying.

Countless mornings have been spent staring at a blank piece of paper trying to make the words come out of me, like trying to squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out of an empty tube. I want to write. I enjoy it. I am grateful to the platform Bad Faith Times has provided me. Grateful for the opportunity to use the mostly useless thoughts in my head to contribute in some small way to the Bad Faith Times and the broader political project it is a part of.

I know writing is good for me. Good for my mental health, my confidence. I can’t convey how much the positive feedback I’ve received, from both online and real life friends, has meant to me. Yet still, I can’t make myself do it.

Even as I sit here writing this my brain is filled with self hate and doubt. “No one gives a shit, Tony,” that internal voice tells me. “You’re not good at this.” “You’re just complaining and oversharing." As the pen moves across this paper I find myself fighting the urge to stop. To give up. To believe that little part of my brain that tells me I’m not good enough, that I’m a failure and what I think isn’t worth the time someone will put into reading this.

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When my brain is thinking rationally, in those fleeting moments of lucidity, I can convince myself this isn't true. I tell myself that the people who have complimented my work actually mean it, the people in my life who love me actually love me, and that I am deserving of that love. I try to extend the empathy I have for others to myself. Unfortunately, my brain doesn't always think rationally. Like millions of Americans I suffer from a mental health disorder, bipolar disorder. I spend much of my time in a pit of self loathing, trying to claw my way out only to be kicked back in, undoing any progress I have made. I spend so much of my mental effort trying and failing to quiet that internal voice that is trying to kill me. It’s exhausting and leaves little mental energy for anything else.

I am not telling you this to garner sympathy – or simply to complain about a particularly vile case of writer’s block – but to convey, to those unfamiliar, how someone with mental illness thinks. Conservative politicians and elites, steeped in their particular brand of bad faith, use the U.S. mental health crisis as a cudgel, usually deployed when a right-wing terrorist commits mass murder and they need to obscure their responsibility for creating them and giving them the weapons that make mass shootings possible. “We have a mental health crisis,” assholes like Ted Cruz say in a craven, disgusting way to distract from necessary gun control legislation and to keep those sweet, sweet NRA dollars rolling in.

Every time there is a mass shooting, an almost daily occurrence in our society, Republican politicians go on TV and talk about how this is just a “mental health problem.” As a mentally ill person, the implication is fucking insulting. My whole life I have been more of a danger to myself than anyone else. This is the case with most mentally ill people I know. Even those who lash out at the people around them tend to do this during spontaneous mental episodes, not planned and organized acts of evil.

There are also acts of violence and evil committed that can in no way be attributed to mental illness. Were the nazis mentally ill when they murdered 20 million people, including 6 million Jews, or were they carrying out a well-organized fascist political project to its obvious conclusion? Were the members of the Ku Klux Klan mentally ill when they killed and terrorized Black people, or were they an insurgent Confederate militia hellbent on perpetuating white supremacy? Was George W. Bush mentally ill when he illegally invaded Iraq, resulting in a million dead Iraqis? I could go on and on with acts of malice perpetrated by people no one would describe as mentally ill. But whenever a white guy shoots up a public space filled with people of color of LGBTQ folks, those on the right suddenly want to have a conversation about mental illness. Why is that?

It's Your Fault, And Your Fault Alone

In a country steeped in individualism, mental illness provides a convenient scapegoat for acts of terrorism. It allows people to ignore the broader systemic factors that contribute to violence and puts the blame solely on the moral failings of the individual. It nurtures the idea that if that person had simply gotten help they would not have committed that violent act. Never mind that they consume media that stokes fear and hatred for people different from them. Never mind that they live in a country where buying an assault rifle is easier than renting a car. If they had just gone to therapy and practiced a little mindfulness they wouldn't be evil.

This type of hyper-individualism intersects with neoliberal capitalism in a way that fans the flame of our actual mental health crisis, not the fake one Republicans want you to focus on. Mental illness can destroy motivation. Even the things you want to do can seem like Herculean tasks. You find yourself feeling like a ghost, moving through the world doing what you have to do to survive and nothing more. It’s kind of hard to “stay on that grindset” when you’re in a bed unable to move for three days.

We live in a society that constantly reinforces the idea that your success, and failure, is only your fault. If you’re smart enough and work hard enough you’ll be financially successful, we tell ourselves. This false notion can be destructive for people with mental illness. You get into a self-fulfilling doom-loop where all your economic problems are only your fault, which makes you feel like shit about yourself, which makes you depressed and kills motivation, which leads to further economic immiseration. Bad faith conservatives want you to believe acts of ideologically motivated terrorism are downstream from mental illness but the likeliest outcome of untreated mental illness is poverty, homelessness, and destitution. There’s also the inconvenient fact that conservative policy makers – along with mainline Democrats beholden to the healthcare industry – have done everything in their power over the past half century to prevent Americans from getting the care they need. Stopping working Americans from accessing health care has become a kind of twisted sport for the country's right wing.

A lot has been made about “breaking the stigma” around mental health. We see media everyday that encourages people to go to therapy, to confront their trauma and commit to loving themselves. While this is good, the stigma around poverty and homelessness is the largest societal barrier to truly empathizing with the mentally ill. Too many people look at a homeless population with disdain, viewing them as criminals, rather than what they are: people in desperate need of help.

In a country that doesn’t have a universal healthcare system it is a farce to pretend the greatest barrier preventing people from getting help is some vague societal stigma rather than financial. There is no shortage of therapy resources.

I could download five apps on my phone right now that will get me in touch with a licensed therapist. A quick Google search will give me a dozen doctor’s offices within driving distance. Rather the greatest obstacle is the forces, both financial and bureaucratic, that gatekeep these options from people. As with most things in American society, if you are rich the resources at your disposal are high quality and bountiful. For everyone else, good luck affording the co-pay and finding a therapist who will take your insurance, if you even have insurance. A rich person can not only afford the therapist, but can also afford to take off work for an appointment, or take a vacation to work on themselves and relax. For a poor person, having the time to go to therapy and work on the skills you’ve learned seems like an almost impossible task between work and barely keeping the house together, and a vacation a distant, unattainable goal.  

For people who suffer from mental illness, particularly the kind driven by self hate, the hardest step is convincing yourself you’re deserving of help. Convincing yourself that you can get better, that you deserve to get better. When you take someone with that mindset and add these barriers, whether it be taking money away from your family or navigating a bureaucratic maze, it perpetuates the idea that seeking help just isn't worth it. You’re not worth it. It’s easier to just smoke pot or cigarettes or drink or take pills or whatever coping mechanism you’ve found to numb yourself. If we truly want to address the mental health crisis we have, we need to remove these systemic hurdles. Absent a path for Medicare For All, we need to heavily subsidize mental health therapy and medications so that treatment can be as close as possible to free regardless of insurance. We need more resources for the poor, more mental health treatment and addiction centers, more help for the homeless.

As with most solutions to the problems in our society, we need more empathy. More solidarity with the downtrodden, more empathy for people going through crisis. When you look at a homeless person talking to himself, what do you see? Do you see them as evidence of rising crime as some of the most liberal cities in America do? Do you see a systemic failure brought about by a combination of capitalism and decades of societal neglect? I’ll tell you what I see: I see me.

One or two left turns and I could be that person, desperately crying for help in a society telling them to go fuck themselves.

Follow Anthony Reimer on Twitter at @mrmeseeksff.