One of the most horrifying thing about Coronavirus, aside from the deaths (in excess of 100,000 people that needlessly died), is the underpinning mental health crisis we were actually in the vice of before March 2020. UK universities, for example, saw 95 students commit suicide in the 2016/17 academic year with ten deaths also in the space of eighteen months being at Bristol (Kwakye and Ogunbiyi, 2019: 109). For those of us that have any experience of institutional life, very much so in education, I know most will have experience with mental illness. We are told that we need to get used to it and we are made into the problems rather than putting the onus on institutions to change how they operate, and as Sara Ahmed (2018) writes “how feminist complaint becomes a form of institutional disloyalty. You are not being affected in the right way. Not be happy and positive is to become difficult; to become a problem” (p337). Still today, I am told mental health is “all in your head.” Whilst in the literal meaning, that may be true, the crux of it is how society has normalised things like inequalities that in-part create these issues. Those making those assumptions, do they ever ask why so many people have mental health problems? We are made to feel that we are broken for simply having a mental illness. Honestly, if I could be so bold, I would ask why all people don’t feel mental ill-health. I think there is something wrong when a person has normalised the goings-on of an evidently sick world. When you think about the nature of our environment in a matter-of-fact manner, you begin to realise that your pain makes sense.
“If you’re depressed and anxious, you’re not a machine with broken parts. You’re a human being with unmet needs. You need food, … water, [and] clean air. You need warmth. If I took those things away from you, you would go haywire really quickly.” – Johann Hari
Many months ago I watched the above video constructed by Double Down News (please subscribe) presented by Johann Hari. It really changed my outlook on my own mental health. He articulates something I have thought for over a decade but really struggled to articulate. As someone that is neurodivergent, I am not sure I know anyone with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia or other neurodiverse conditions that also do not suffer from mental health problems, maybe because we also don’t necessarily see the world in the ways neurotypical people do. Simply, rather than see the world (which we do), I’m more inclined to say that we feel the world. Many of us are also Highly Sensitive People [HSPs] which is that we feel emotions much more deeply than our non-HSP and / or in some cases neurotypical friends and colleagues. We feel things everyone does, simply those feelings are amplified tenfold than non-HSPs.
As humans we are encouraged to live in destructive ways, simply that are incompatible for us to function and that is violence, since many of us are also dying early because of it (i.e the Windrush Scandal). I have been told countless times that mental health issues, (especially depression) are about a chemical imbalances (debunked) in the brain and the people telling me this turn it into an isolated academic matter, often completely detached from what that “science” does to people. Poor mental health is a response to psychological needs not being met by our lived environment. The Coronavirus pandemic is awful for all of us. However, the pre-COVID world was not great nor should it have been normal. Hari states that “our ancestors were really good at one thing … banding together and cooperating. Often they were not bigger or stronger than the kind of beasts they took down and ate. What they were was incredibly good at was cooperating compared to other species.” Today, this culture of neoliberalism promotes individualistic thinking over community organising and family-centric cohesion. There is a reason why in Northamptonshire, community groups have a better trackrecord than local authorities and big institutions when engaging communities, because these community-focused groups are about banding together and cooperating. Other institutions are not.
During the pandemic, many of us have had to rely on the kindness of our neighbours who in some cases were also strangers. I was quite fortunate that my neighbourhood is quite pleasant and we have a good relationship with our neighbours. Not everyone is so lucky. Charities like Happy Hood have been doing this sort of work for a while (check out their Instagram @thehappyhood), along with Creating Equalz, NorFAMtoN, Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council, Eve and others. Speaking with friends and colleagues, I think there are many out there now that would sooner call local charities and their friends to solve problems, rather than engage with local authorities or even the judgement of local police departments. Since the invention of capitalism in the days of colonial expansions, and the eventual versions of this since, “we are the first human beings to ever try to disband our tribes and live alone where the high priestess of neoliberalism Margaret Thatcher told us, ‘there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families'” (Johann Hari). Should the British public (not the Government) have followed Thatcher’s ethos in response to Coronavirus, we would be staring into a greater abyss, and many more hundreds of thousands of corpses than we already are. At the start, communities came out for each other helping each other in accordance to human need. But you know “your pain is just some unexplainable chemical imbalance in the brain, right?”
I’m no medical doctor, however, my academic experience / writing does delve into the social sciences. Whilst myths of debunked chemical imbalances float around, if you are not asking questions about what is happening in peoples’ lives, are you really asking the right questions? For many of us, we have been victims of institutions and structures: economic violence, racial capitalism, hate crimes, poverty, domestic abuse and others. Plus, through COVID under a government that used a pandemic for profit and practicing forms of neocolonial eugenics in its herd immunity tactics to throw swathes of the British public under the bus. A lot of the things causing mental health problems were in full force before Coronavirus arrived. Hari states “a lot of the factors that are causing depression and anxiety had already been rising before the internet came along, we were becoming much lonelier.” My parents tell me stories about when they were growing up, that although neoliberalism was a thing, they still knew who their neighbours were and it was still possible to make real human physical connections with people in your vicinity.
My parents were teenagers in the 1980s where despite that decade’s woes, this was a world before Facebook and TikTok, and before the internet. My father now works in IT and knows his way round computers – from coding to website-building and lots in between. He taught it to himself when computers were in their infancy, yet in knowing that, he also sees their flaws and how they’re not a replacement for humans. I did not get a Facebook account until I was 16 and schoolchildren bullied me for it. However, now I know what he was protecting me from … the need to fill an emotional hole. The want for human contact … and in the pandemic now, people are now feeling the blight of this hole in the image of constant calls on Zoom, Microsoft Teams and social media, where people just want to see their friends again; a hug from grandma and granddad; a conversation with their cousins they have not seen in over 18 months. Bosnian writer Alexander Haman said that “home is where people notice when you’re not there.” For those of us with mental health problems, many just want to feel that we belong somewhere and what is happening with this mental health crisis, is a wider symptom of a society that has normalised suffering, everything including and in between the overworked educators in schools and HE to settler colonialism in the illegal occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state.
Looking back on my life now, it never occured to me that I was depressed as a thirteen year-old from not only the systematic racist and ableist bullying I experienced from other children, but that causes of my depression were not that something was wrong with me. I was a troubled child rejecting the social conditions of the society he lived in. Many of us have looked for and found solutions in medications, and there is nothing wrong with this. They have helped countless people I know. However, I don’t believe it can be the only solution to a problem that has its roots in violent social conditions. What made us ill in the first place? What caused those so-debunked imbalances in the brain? Whilst they are useful, there are other antidepressants that are also useful. Lots of my neurodivergent friends are creative and they have used different artforms including poetry, filmmaking, photography and fine art to find their tribe and somewhat give their lives meaning. Those of us that work in institutions, how many hours of the day do we have a boss looking over our shoulder, physically or virtually? It doesn’t always feel very nice, especially when you are being micro-managed. The biological weathering that happens in institutional workspaces impacts mental health too, very much so in the lives of POCs. That’s why I like to work with community-focused charities, in that language of collectivism.
When you talk to people in your community, you realise there are more like you than not. And struggling with mental health is not something to be ashamed of. This is what I take from the work I do in education, that people who don’t struggle with their mental health (or don’t think they do / never have struggled) are who I would like to ask questions to, since I feel it is a sign of ill mental health “to be well adjusted to a sick society.” When we follow the neoliberalist playbook verbatim, this is where the powers that be want us. Isolated. Confused. Disorientated. Medications may take the edge off (good). However, solving systemic issues really shakes those in power to the core. What’s more, when communities stick and stay together, making demands for the better, the powerful don’t actually look that powerful.
Ahmed, Sara (2018). ‘Rocking the Boat: Women of Colour as Diversity Workers’. Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Race, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy, eds. Jason Arday and Heidi Safia Mirza. London: Palgrave.
Kwakye, Chelsea and Ogunbiyi, Ore (2019). Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change. London: Merky