Ghost Stories of Capitalism: Mental Health is a Class Issue
We can't fight capitalism or imperialism without confronting the psychic suffering that these systems have spread far and wide among us
In addition to producing socialist and anti-imperialist independent media, I’ve been in social work for nine years. Before this, I moved from childhood to adulthood within a household that struggled with mental illness. Memories from this period aren’t all “bad” or negative. However, for those who struggle with any number of mental health disorders, it is not uncommon for the brain to place intense focus on those memories associated with the stuff made of ghost and horror stories. Unlike movies, the suffering embedded in humanity’s traumatic memories rarely gets the collective attention it deserves.
Here are just a few of mine. I remember pleading to my mother to stop running the sink so that I could get some rest in our tiny apartment the night before my SAT exams. I remember the nausea that I felt before each and every high school basketball game, feeling as though the weight of the world was sitting on my chest and stomach. Equally vivid is the memory of the hoarding neighbor in the apartment below threatening my mother with violence when I was a pre-teen, and my father coming home with visible bruises and cuts after being jumped by gangsters on the block years before that.
Memories such as these are rooted in a family history of mental illness. My father bore depressive scars of trauma from being raised by a mother who struggled with an addiction to alcohol throughout his childhood. Economic insecurity and being drafted to invade Vietnam on behalf of genocidal U.S. imperialists didn’t help matters, either. My mother’s mental health conditions were even more severe than my father’s. Undiagnosed bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder created innumerable barriers to a stereotypical mother-child relationship under capitalism and fueled toxic stress in the home.
Being a child of mental illness is confusing. The alienation is profound. There are often more questions than answers. As children, the stigma associated with mental health conditions keeps us hiding. We don’t want help. We don’t want to talk about it. We just want to be “normal” and hope that over time any obstacles will be surpassed on the way to a “normal” life.
It wasn’t until I entered adulthood that I mastered intellectualization and channeled this into the struggle against imperialism and capitalism. By the time I was twenty-three, I firmly believed that mental health conditions were a byproduct of exploitation. Class rule, white supremacy, and the violence of imperialist society formed the roots of so-called psychic “pathology.” I still believe this. Indeed, the evidence is profound.
One in five people in the United States have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and many more live with undiagnosed conditions. The United States leads the world in the number of people taking anti-depressant medications. SSRI medications are prescribed for a variety of mental health disorders, from major depressive disorder to generalized anxiety. The prevalence in mental illness in the U.S. has been going up by at least one percent annually. Rates of depression and anxiety in the U.S. have gone up between 50-60 percent over the decade of 2005-2017.
The reasons for this are many. Economic insecurity in the age of neoliberalism has been coupled with the eradication of public and collective institutions of any kind. Steady increases in homelessness, healthcare debt, student loan debt, inflation, low wage employment, and long-term unemployment are all major risk factors for toxic stress and a decline in mental health. The U.S. is also a racist and repressive society that incarcerates more than two million people (twenty-five percent of the world’s total) and regularly targets Black Americans and other oppressed nations for police brutality and discrimination. Endless war, individualism, and corporate media propaganda only add to the stress of living in an empire in decline that is rotting from within.
These conditions create widespread isolation, fear, anger, and confusion. Communities are dismembered. Despair is commonplace. The ruling class stigmatizes mental anguish and suffering because it reflects understandable reactions to the pain that its system has imposed on the majority of people. Media portrayals of “crazy” people committing heinous anti-social acts ingrain in our minds that mental illness is synonymous with violence and danger.
Social control is paramount for an increasingly unstable system of exploitation. This is why the U.S. punishes mental illness far more than it invests in treatment. U.S. prisons are stuffed to the brim with poor people suffering from serious mental health conditions. Police regularly gun down and murder people suffering from acute mental distress. State violence and mass incarceration not only increases mental health risks but also sends a powerful message to the suffering that punishment is far more likely to be meted out than compassion.
Social movements are not immune from the U.S.’s punitive and stigmatizing approach to mental health. Decades of government infiltration has spread sectarianism, stifled collective organization, divided the Left, and brought countless organizations and leaders to fight amongst themselves rather than against the class enemy. The truth is that we come into movement activism for a reason. Many times, it’s the weight of oppression and exploitation that drives us into seeking out collective action. And in too many instances, it’s the disappointment and the hurt that we experience from others engaged in the same cause that risks discouragement to the point of isolation.
Isolation among the people has increased exponentially due COVID-19 pandemic and all of the economic and social dislocation caused by the capitalist class’s prioritization of profits over human need. With isolation comes a heightened sense of danger. When this heightened sense of danger has nowhere to go, it comes out in ways that can go unnoticed to the naked eye. Political and emotional discontent has been channeled into deep divides over COVID-19 and partisan politics, leaving as little room as possible for workers and oppressed people to collectively experience their suffering and come together to fight the ruling class responsible for it.
We can’t run from mental health any more than we can run from the class struggle. The two are inextricably bound together. The mind needs nourishment just as much we need food, water, housing, living wage employment, healthcare, education and peace. Any kind of collective action for liberation must include attention to the mental condition of those engaged in it. Unfortunately, neoliberal models of self-care that focus primarily on corporate consumption and individual uplift are woefully inadequate at best or reproduce relations of exploitation at worst.
Building a revolutionary movement isn’t therapy but it can be therapeutic. Movements that shy away from the realities of the people they seek to lead are not sustainable. Mental anguish is easily weaponized by our corporate overlords when it is drowned in obscurity. People join movements and seek mental health treatment for similar reasons: to end suffering and to improve their lives in tangible ways. Ignoring the mental health of the movement is just as damaging as whistling past key issues such as race and class in the struggle for peace, justice, and socialism.
Building movements and ending centuries-long systems of oppression is hard on the mind and the body. It wouldn’t be called a struggle if it were easy. The only way we can sustain this work and give ourselves to the cause of liberation is to actively care for each other and confront the stigma preventing far too many from asking for help. While therapy and the broad mental health system is woefully inadequate and often oppressive, treatment should not be discouraged and discussion about mental health should be open. It is imperative that we develop institutions of community care within our movements to sustain activity and the people engaged in it
It won’t be perfect. There will be hiccups and errors. After all, mental illness is a symptom of the much broader disease of capitalism. Only a socialist revolution can begin to provide a true cure for the stamps of suffering imposed upon the workers and oppressed of the world. Few will want to fight for a revolution that renders key parts of the class experience under imperialism invisible. This makes the development of relationships that sustain the organization required for such a revolution imperative, and addressing the mental health crises produced by our class enemy’s ceaseless exploitation and violence, a must.
We can begin by checking in on how our “strong friends” and comrades are doing today. And we can make a concerted effort to balance our striving to understand, analyze, and combat the existing capitalist system of exploitation with the development of relationships and institutions, however rudimentary, that help us truly get to know those who we stand with and for in the arduous struggle for a socialist world.