By Addie Harris
Director of Capacity Building at Blue Ridge Hope
“Suck it up,” they say on the other end of the line just before it goes dead. Silence, as you lay alone in your bed, surrounded by darkness and the wrappings of what food you have actually eaten for the past few weeks. It’s been like this for a while now; everyday blending into the next. You can’t seem to find the willpower to get up for work, let alone get up to go to the bathroom. That was your boss who just called, wondering if you’d show up today. You told them about your mental illness and how you can’t find any treatment because of a number of limiting factors. They tell you to “Suck it up”. You don’t know if you have a job anymore, and you don’t think you really care. You don’t really care about anything anymore.
This scenario is reflects a similar reality for many individuals who struggle with their mental health or a mental illness. The hardship and strain many folks endure because of the effects of a mental illness or poor mental hygiene is only heightened by the social stigma surrounding mental health and care.
"We are at a breaking point of grief, anxiety, exhaustion from overworking, and heartbreak from the past year, contrasted alongside of the profound lack of accessible resources for American’s mental health."
The idea that one’s harmful mental health condition is a reflection of laziness or weakness is a common banner society lifts when confronted with the reality of our current mental health crisis. Another solution has been to write off certain individuals as “crazy” or “insane” , otherwise translated as untreatable, unworthy.
Not only those we write off, but your everyday working Joe or Janet are silently suffering too with 1 in 4 Americans experiencing at least one major mental health crisis in any given year. More along, the pandemic has exponentially exasperated the mental health concerns of many. We are at a breaking point of grief, anxiety, exhaustion from overworking, and heartbreak from the past year, contrasted alongside of the profound lack of accessible resources for American’s mental health.
Mental health and illness are not one size-fits-all. In fact, poor mental health is made systematically worse for some people and groups of people.
Let’s visualize the same scenario from the beginning of this post: now, what if this person is also a Black, LGBTQIA+, disabled, and uninsured woman.
Her mental health concerns may be inflated because of generational trauma passed to her from her predecessors. Generational trauma is as it sounds: trauma symptoms passed from generation to generation within one’s genetics. The current host of generational trauma may not have experienced the traumatic event themselves, but they have inherited the negative emotional and physical effects of said event(s). Effects can include, but are not limited to, high anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even a shortened lifespan do to potential immune conditions. Generational trauma tends to appear in folks who’ve had ancestors suffer oppression and continual abuse, such as slavery, racism, and poverty.
In addition to generational trauma, this woman’s mental health may take a toll when she experiences negativity and maltreatment due to her race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexuality. Discrimination is the fuel of stress; this abuse can contribute to a poorer state of mind and lower self-confidence.
Because of her disability, she may have physical pain or stipulations which take a toll on her mental health. Additionally, she may have limited accessibility to gain the tools to she needs to improve her emotional state.
Being uninsured in this country is an immediate strike against any attempt to better your health: behavioral or physical. The gargantuan private health sector capitalizes on billing insurance, and the private insurance sector capitalizes on ensuring you remain a paying customer. There is no incentive to provide no-strings-attached healthcare to uninsured people as there is no money in that game. Sorry to break it to you so harshly, but equitable and accessible health does not lie at the core of healthcare in this country ---- not for the billionaires sitting at the top, at least. There is a reason why they are billionaires.
So, being a woman of color, LGBTQIA+, disabled, and uninsured in the U.S. while struggling with a mental health crisis and being told to “suck it up” is outright unconscionable and retroactive to her health and the fight for better mental health in this country.
"These layers of identity have varying social ties, which can often determine an individual’s ability to thrive in the society we have created and currently exist within."
Again, the balance of our mental health is not one-size-fits-all. We all live under different intersections, or layers, of social categorization; including but not limited to, our gender identity, sexuality, ability or disability, socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, and culture. These layers of identity have varying social ties, which can often determine an individual’s ability to thrive in the society we have created and currently exist within. This concept of layers of identity which determine one’s place in our constructed social categorization is referred to as intersectionality. Think of it as each individual sitting at an intersection of many winding roads, each one being a separate layer of identity. The social ties which correlate to one’s ability to thrive has direct impact on mental health and one’s access to treatment and resources to improve their state of mind.
This intersectional approach to mental health is a social justice oriented lens to examine mental health issues and solutions from— and, I believe it is the only way forward to achieve mental health justice.
In order to assert that mental health is a social justice issue, we must change the way we speak and think about mental health. Rather than picturing mental health as an issue restricted to the brain and the emotions, we must see it as a whole person issue. After all, it is proven that trauma, especially, is a full body phenomenon. 80% of our nerve fibers send information from our bodies to our brain, while 20% send information from our brain to our bodies. It is not possible to think yourself out of trauma. Therefore, there must be treatment for the whole body and soul. A holistic and personal approach to each individual is the most advantageous solution to a mental health concern.
When we speak about mental health, we must do so with the upmost of compassion and humanity for the individual. People with mental health issues are people. When we create degrees of separation between “normal” humans and folks who suffer from a mental health issue, or even just folks who go to therapy, we create a dangerous hierarchy of human value. Know and avoid words, phrases, or connotations which are micro-aggressions, harm others, and sustain the mental health stigma.
"Because mental health is social justice, social justice needs the support of mental health advocates"
Support the little guys out there in the community doing the work. From your grassroots organizers, to your non-profits, to your therapists and mental health physicians and professionals.
Lastly, support social justice initiatives which liberate people from oppression, violence, poverty, and inhumanity. Because good and equitable mental health is social justice, social justice needs the support of mental health advocates. In order to achieve total wholeness, care must be taken for the health of the individual mind, body, and soul and that of the collective mind, body, and soul. Intersectional mental health care is social justice, and it is the way forward.