Struggling to change the world can take its toll on our mental health, especially if it brings us into contact with the police. Here are some ideas for incorporating (self-)care for our mental health into those struggles.
[NB – It must to be said that an internet article cannot replace personal advice. I implore you: ask for help. See the bottom of this article for emergency helplines. There is no shame in calling, and great strength in reaching out.]
1. Changing the world requires idealism, motivation and solidarity.
As politically-active people we rely on mutual support and optimism, and we can easily lose sight of both when we are at the blunt end of truncheons and handcuffs. Burnout is a common experience, especially with activist communities often being young – losing a lot of the shared experience and guidance which we need to deal with trauma.
2. Activism and protest are being criminalised and therefore punished.
Trying to change the world brings us into conflict with the ruling elites, who use the police to protect themselves. It’s important for us to realise that the police have power over us and will use it to trap and punish people with impunity, as they do around the world and in the UK in different ways. In the UK recent tactics have become overtly psychological: trap, terrorise and disempower. Examples include the kettling, arbitrary detention, violent dispersal and aggressive arrest, and mass-detention without trial. These strategies are a form of corporal punishment being used to violate, discipline and discourage us from continuing protest.
3. These two factors create the conditions for mental illness.
If we fail in our campaigns – if we are trapped, arrested, abused, imprisoned or otherwise hurt – we are likely to suffer mentally. The combined effects of powerlessness, vulnerability, stigmatisation from the media and loss of self-confidence against a backdrop of widespread societal fear of mental illness as an unknown – this is the perfect storm. Isolated and lost, crises in these circumstances are catastrophic. Idealism can turn to cynicism, self-assuredness turns to self-hate, righteous indignation to apathy. We have to readjust to a world in which change now seems impossible – or worse, terrifying. Everything we thought we knew has come apart.
4. The first step is recognising what’s going on inside you.
It’s tempting to look for a diagnosis, something which brings security to an unstable and frightening experience. A doctor or therapist may or may not provide one which satisfies you – and there is nothing wrong with this. I believe that what is most important is recognising that however you are responding makes sense given what has happened. You are trying to heal, responding defensively in the face of attack. Do not be afraid of yourself. Symptoms you may experience include but aren’t limited to:
- Low mood and little motivation.
- Debilitating anxiety.
- Inability to make decisions.
- Apathy towards your personal well-being.
- Flashbacks and panic attacks.
- Extreme vigilance and sensitivity, particularly towards the police and other people in authority.
- Nightmares and insomnia.
- Guilt, shame and feelings of worthlessness.
- Suicidal thoughts and desires.
These may take months to develop, and your experience will be different to everyone else’s. These feelings are not your fault. They are a signal that you have suffered and are changing in response.
5. Now is not the time to make important decisions in your life.
This is a very personal note: anti-establishment ideas can get in the way of your self-care. Get help and support from anyone willing to listen – whether that’s a teacher, doctor, internet acquaintance or stranger. If medication helps, take medication; if counselling helps, talk to therapists. Friends and family may be afraid of the change they see in you, they may feel afraid when you ask for help. This is sad, but it’s not your responsibility to explain what’s going on right now – that will come later.
It might be tempting to shun friends and significant others, but avoid making choices such as breaking up with someone or quitting your job at this time. Some people will want to help but won’t know how. Invite them to stay with you, in silence if necessary, and remind them that you are not broken and do not need fixing – just support, belief and time. Read literature, poetry, listen to music, find comfort in the shared suffering of humanity in all of its forms, the ways we have resisted.
There is no shame in being vulnerable, and much bravery in recognising the fact. Forgive yourself for being vulnerable, forgive yourself for being mortal, forgive yourself for having been wounded. Restoration will come with time if it is given the chance.
6. You are not alone – out of suffering, build empathy.
If you grew up in a culture which trusted in the police, the shock of witnessing and experiencing police violence can be enormous. This is natural, like feeling abandoned and betrayed by a parent, because society teaches us that police are there to protect us. Use this new awareness to tune-in empathically to the struggles of marginalised groups, for example in the LGBTQ, Black, Asian, and sex-worker communities. Intersectionality is the watchword – you are not the first to suffer at police hands, so find support groups and join resistance movements. ACAB, solidarity is strength – support each other, believe each other.
7. We need a different, political, narrative for mental health.
Often we see debates on mental health framed as an argument between whether it’s personality (i.e. your problem) or biochemistry (nature, or even fate) which causes mental illness. On the radical left we should acknowledge but resist both narratives: whatever truth they have, we as non-doctors/therapists do not care whether someone is predisposed genetically or has ‘brought it on themself’ through their life choices. We should construct narratives based on mental health as a social phenomena – the result of social relations which give some people power over others. It is humiliating and dehumanising to be powerless, to be in someone else’s control, and the only treatment is to put control of someone’s life back into their own hands.
Helplines and useful websites.