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'Real' Mental Health Advocacy Needs to Grapple With Political and Racial Trauma

The vigor of World Mental Health Day often comes and goes so fleetingly, and far too predictably. Across social media, scores of people post crisis line numbers and encourage networks to reach out if necessary. And yet, the next day, most default right back to complicitly upholding cultural, institutional, and political conditions that criminalize, disenfranchise, and immobilize certain groups. To combat this widespread tendency, the discourse around mental health advocacy must become increasingly centered in a clear starting point.

To me, that baseline is an understanding that neglecting active citizenship and civic engagement perpetuates the disparities we claim we want to eradicate. When we neglect to operationalize this vision into concrete political strategy, however, nothing changes. Dominant ideologies and institutions continue inflicting chronic and compounded trauma on stigmatized and victim-blamed groups. Not only that, but political apathy reproduces, by default, social hierarchies of disparate privilege and power, furthering the elusive myth of a meritocratic American dream, when, in actuality, America is arguably the most inequitable developed nation.

In the 1970s, partly in response to the anti-war movement, The Radical Therapist emerged. One particular issue of the journal posited:

“… As powerful as therapy can be, it is seldom enough to offset the weight of the culture. If the political environment of the nation and the immediate subculture of the client is moving rightward, then the radical therapist’s job will be a tough one indeed…

All of this (radical therapy) presumes a long, gradual building of a larger movement…”

Put differently, what makes mental health advocacy sustainable, if mental health advocates continue bypassing the realities of inequity and injustice, and neglecting the actionable, politicized advocacy required to secure collective, intergenerational liberation? As Nelson Mandela once proclaimed, “We need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

So let’s take a look at how we can broaden and deepen conventional notions of “mental health advocacy” so that its outcomes better align with democratic and humanitarian values, instead of adapting to oppressive conditions.

Real mental health advocacy is a courageous and ethical worldview that centers community welfare and human dignity — individually, institutionally, and societally — even in the face of relentless exploitation and injustice.

Real mental health advocacy is applying a lens of intersectionality to our discourses on identity and oppression, committing to working through the tensions inherent in building coalitions and hashing out intracommunity conflict, as well as checking our entitlement when we expect other oppressed groups to care about our oppression, as we dismiss or invalidate theirs.

Real mental health advocacy is taking the time to understand the concepts and frameworks that explain and illustrate how societal welfare is inextricably linked to how invested we are in ending a colonial legacy of capitalist-driven, hetero-patriarchal white nationalism and fundamentalism.

Real mental health advocacy is denouncing authoritarian, neofascist, white supremacist terrorist groups that weaponize eugenics and religious fundamentalism, as well as media outlets that fabricate conspiracies that scapegoat minoritized folks who are Black, Indigenous, POC, disabled, LGBTQIA+, immigrants, non-Christian, and/or women.

Real mental health advocacy is not shirking active citizenship because we may not benefit directly, or because liberation probably may not come to fruition in our lifetime, or because we can rationalize our apathy by victim-blaming others — until, of course, the problem hits home. Our fate and struggles are linked.

Real mental health advocacy is a Congressional budget that spends less on imperialism and warmongering, than initiatives that prioritize legislating inflation-proof livable wages, universal healthcare, childcare, and eldercare, and affordable/universal housing; abolishing the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline with rehabilitation over-incarceration and mass education about institutional white supremacy; and dismantling every structural barrier to wellness, from medical racism to voter suppression — and checking local and national officials who obstruct this safety net.

Real mental health advocacy is a “big-picture” understanding that cynicism does not excuse defeatism, or neglecting to contribute what one can offer to better their community and resist the corporatocracy and ruling class that obstructs social change. Every bit of effort matters — the greater our solidarity, the greater chance of survival for everyone.

Real mental health advocacy is a lifelong commitment to [un]learning, listening and receiving feedback as much as lecturing, understanding how impact can trump good intention, and minding that you do not trample over others in pursuit of your own liberation — and, most importantly, when we have misspoken or misstepped, remembering to remain humble, receptive, and focused on constructive solutions toward personal and social change.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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