Mental Health Is Not Your Problem, It’s Our Problem
I’m moving countries and my stomach has been in knots. My wife’s asthma is flaring up. We went to the doctor who listened to her lungs, kindly smiled, and told us she was suffering from anxiety. I didn’t even ask him. I just went back to our cousin’s house and threw up. Mental and physical health are obviously one interconnected system, one experience in one body, and we isolate them at our peril.
On the way out of Sri Lanka, I stopped at the Police Park bus stand where an old lady named Mrs. De Sozya, well, lives. It’s near my kid’s preschool. After I dropped my son off I’d get her some short eats and we’d have iced coffee together, letting the buses pass.
I guess you’d call her paranoid or schizophrenic or something. She always thought people nearby were listening, or that political figures were controlled by distant forces. Sounds crazy I guess, but the world really has gone mad. God knows what life is like on the streets, and I found her political opinions more astute than most people’s. I gave her some money on the way out, but I feel terrible. Jesus would have done so much more and as much as he loves me, God knows I fail him every day.
I think of her because my head is all fucked up by one uncomfortable flight. What would she feel like sleeping at the bus stand every day? Is Mrs. De Soyza having a mental health problem or a bad physical situation? Where does one start and the other begin? So many homeless people self-medicate with drugs, and I get it. I would too. If my life was uncomfortable and hard and I could get any sort of relief from a needle or pipe, I’d take it gladly.
We look down on homeless people as drug users, but most of them come from terrible situations or childhood abuse and then get abused and ignored by society as adults. When reality is so awful, when it’s made so willfully awful by other people, why wouldn’t you escape? And who are we to judge? We do alcohol (one of the most powerful drugs in the world) at fancy fundraisers, so we can tolerate talking to each other’s fake faces about these issues we pretend to care about. We are the issue.
Homeless people self-medicating with heroin is honestly not so different from society’s attitude to mental health at large. We give people drugs without changing their material conditions, and sometimes not even that. We try to get them back to work but not actually working. We try to get them to stop bothering us without really bothering about them. I’m not saying that drugs are not part of alleviating suffering, obviously for many cases they’re essential and I enjoy them myself. I’m just saying they’re not the whole thing. Not even close.
I’ve been in a mental institution (just visiting) after my wife had a psychotic episode herself. Sometimes she’d recognize me and sometimes she wouldn’t. She rarely made sense, but that was almost a blessing. When she realized what was actually going on, she was scared and hurting. The drugs worked in that they got her down to a manageable state, but the question then was how was that managed?
She had her husband wandering the grounds outside, her father nearby, and extended family that supported us all without question. She got sick in another country and me and her Appa just got on the next flight. We both took off work and just stayed with her for over a month. Then we brought her home and the entire family knitted around her — for years — until she got back to herself again. God knows the drugs helped (and hurt), but was it just the drugs? Obviously not. You can look around the same institution.
So many other people in that institution (which was a nice one) had terrible situations to go back to. Abusive homes, poverty, not to mention these new medical bills. I was the only person sleeping in the gazebo outside, worrying about my wife full time. It’s not that other people didn’t care, they simply couldn’t afford to. Everybody else’s family was working, they had no capacity to take such breaks and care for someone full-time.
Capitalism takes priority over caring, and even catastrophe gets fed into the capitalist system to make some rentier money. Which they don’t even enjoy. They’re taking drugs themselves to feel anything. It’s a system which produces and reproduces suffering endlessly, measures it, and calls it GDP.
My point is that a mental health system without changes to material conditions is just giving someone a shot to keep them working. To keep the system grinding. When the system itself is what grinds us into dust. So much of mental health is actually what an Asian grandmother would ask you. Have you eaten? Where are you staying? Do you want some tea? So much of mental health is the material conditions you’re actually feeling, not just how you feel about them. That is to say, when we ensure that every person has the right to food, safe shelter, and clothing we can talk about a mental health crisis. Until then we are the crisis. We’re not even doing the bare minimum to help as a society.
People say don’t give beggars money cause they’d spend it on drugs, but it’s the same logic. We give money to governments that maybe spend on drugs but mostly spend it on PR while cutting actual programs. We talk about mental health ‘awareness’ with no awareness that the brain does not live in a test tube and sometimes things are just materially shit. That maybe we need to change the material conditions that make people miserable and not try to drug or talk them out of their misery.
Again, my point is not that mental health does not exist. My point is that nothing exists. As the Buddha said, it is all illusion, just a stream of experience that we put labels on so that we can tread water for a few years. Sometimes our attachment to these labels also becomes a source of suffering. The Buddha said that even the Dhamma (his teachings) was a raft that you had to abandon at some point, when you actually reached land through meditation. The use of the label mental health is helpful sometimes, but within a deeply sick society, it also pathologizes the individual.
As the late Mark Fisher said in Capitalist Realism: