Navigating Privilege, Mental Illness, and the Trump Administration


navigation.jpgIn my endless perusal of mental health blogs, articles, and resources on the Internet, I noticed a new theme emerge over the past week: Stop watching the news! The crux of this is that one can still be compassionate about political issues without getting immersed in them, and, well, that sounds like advice given by someone who definitely isn’t taking said advice.

It was difficult enough for me to ignore the implications of a Trump presidency before he took office, but as of his first official week as president, it is impossible to suppress my outrage even if it’s to the detriment of my mental health.

Maybe this is an issue unique to me. I’ve always been passionate about political topics independent of what side of the aisle I was on. Though my views have done a 180-degree turn, my attitude toward economic, social, and political issues has not.

In the context of that worldview shift, however, I do spend a lot more time contemplating my privilege as a middle-class, straight, white woman than I did. Sure, I’m a woman, but on some level, the privilege afforded to me by my other identifying qualities cancels that out. Do I feel guilty? No. Do I think it’s absolutely crucial to take a look at how circumstances affect outcomes? Yes.

There isn’t space in intersectional circles for my musings over where I fit in the dialogue. This is obviously understandable. No one should be devoting any more time to helping me figure out when and how to speak about these issues. People of color are being affected by the Trump administration in very real ways, and my frustration and anger toward his actions is not so much enlightenment as it is a realization that marginalized people have felt like this for centuries. Now is the time to step back and listen. I shouldn’t expect applause or gratitude for suddenly caring in the face of such blatant discrimination. I shouldn’t overwhelm the marginalized community with apologies either. Both responses detract from mobilization and organization against the Trump administration. I can contemplate how I fit into the movement on my own time.

So I do that.

I don’t necessarily find myself being emotionally overwhelmed by Muslim bans and border walls. I have emotional responses, but the burn out I experience is almost always physical. In fact, the sheer weight of my emotions is what keeps me writing, dialing, and protesting in the face of what would otherwise be exhaustion.

Over the past week, I’ve read countless articles about self-care for activists and heard loved ones say not to be part of efforts to resist Trump if it will negatively affect my mental health. But it always makes me laugh because mental illness’ ability to make me feel worthless 99.8% of the time is exponentially more detrimental than staying up-to-date on the ever-increasing number of political and humanitarian tragedies going on today. Do I think everything is ultimately futile? Yes, but I can temporarily quell that feeling if I operate on a big-picture level as opposed to my usual, individual level.

Sure, I could die tomorrow, and the movement would continue. But in the same way raising awareness for mental illness gives me more of a sense of purpose than I could derive from anything else, mobilizing against discrimination helps get rid of my solipsistic delusions.

Do I participate in activism just to give myself a sense of purpose? No. I’m human. I feel empathy and compassion. Purpose is just a positive externality – ha – of acting on a natural response to such flagrant acts of discrimination as a ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries.

The self-care “advice” that says to crawl back into my uninformed bubble is ultimately the same type of self-isolation that helped get me into this mess in the first place. Such platitudes are a waste of space in the netosphere. For those who are mentally ill but also enjoy political engagement and even – gasp – watching the nightly news, it can be disheartening to see that the only way people think we can take care of ourselves is to step outside of the world-at-large.

All this, of course, is barring the fact that I’m more likely to hear that I need to step back from the political realm from people who disagree with my politics. Suddenly all those people who called me selfish and unconcerned with people who are less fortunate than me completely change their tune when I start putting effort into causes they don’t like. This kills two misconceptions about mental illness: 1) that it makes people selfish and/or is borne of selfishness and 2) that getting out of the self-centered guilt complex created by mental illness is a cure-all. God knows I’m not selfish. God really knows that I’m not cured.

There is an element of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of suffering in the world, but by no means do I think that this exclusively tugs at mentally ill people’s heartstrings. To say we should take a step back when we want to help is to rob us of our agency. To say we should take a step back when we work toward causes you disagree with is to rob us of our ability to think for ourselves. To say we are selfish when we genuinely do need to step back from the world is to rob us of our complexity. To imply in any way that you know what’s best for us more than we do is to rob us of our humanity.

We can help. We want to help. Even though I have my fair share of privileges, I know what it’s like to be on the fringes of society in regards to my mental health. If anything, my drive to make sure know one else ever feels that way makes me well equipped to help others who do feel that way. I might not always have the physical capital to act, but I do have the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to stay engaged in and informed about global politics. That way, I can act when I’m ready.

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