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Friday, September 3, 2010

Collectively addressing mental health - it's not all in your head (2007)

From Slingshot Issue 94

Lunacy

"You are not alone", is a popular saying that can be found all over the radical scene, in punk band lyrics, the Icarus Project propaganda (Icarus is a radical mental health support web site and group made for and by people with bi-polar) and DIY drawings/patches etc. I believe this slogan reminds one to draw friends and loved ones close as you seek to find people you can relate to. People that you relate to through politics, art, etc. Those who have an anarchist ideology and/or lifestyle, people who understand deep ecology and believe that right now the stakes are high and the progress slow for reshaping the current political trends that are destroying the planet and all its abundant life forms.

I am pleased and excited to find that many young collectives and organizations are putting mental health on the table as an important part of sustainable political work. Its been all too often that projects, campaigns and organizations collapse or become stagnant due to poor communication among members or underdeveloped skills for dealing with personal and group mental strain. If someone you knew was home sick with the flu, you would understand that they need certain things to get better -- but what if someone is home depressed or anxious, then what? It is more difficult to determine how much hot tea and sleep to suggest for various mental influxes. The fact is that we just don't know. There are very few models that are available for people to support each other with out the involvement of a "professional." However, here are some helpful tips that I can share which I have compiled over the last 6 years that I have been interested in radicals and our relationship to mental health.

So let's say your friend, housemate, lover, etc. is exhibiting behaviors or feelings that begin to concern you. As an ally of someone dealing with a mental health issue, it's a great first step to ask them about their medical and mental health history. Ask them if they have noticed a shift in their behavior, get a feel for the situation. What are things you should look out for? Often times people who struggle with mental health issues will know what early warning signs are for them, i.e. lack of sleep, no interest in things they used to like to do, too much sleep, isolation, over or under eating, etc. Find out who their main support people are. Do they have a parent, friend or doctor that they trust? What is helpful/harmful in their healing process? Avoid belittling the problem, making fun of them, telling them everything will be ok or adding pressure.

I suggest finding other people who can help you support your friend so that you do not get drained in the process. I also suggest helping your friend find a therapist or counselor who they can see weekly just to have that extra outlet to talk. I am biased here because I do believe that many talk therapists, life coaches, counselors, peer counselors, or somatherapists will be very helpful for most people looking to broaden their understanding of themselves. When getting involved with someone who is coming from a past which may include trauma, abuse, or mental "illness" it is your responsibility to educate yourself about the issues. It's important because it will allow you to be a better friend and support person, even if you have not had the same experiences and can't understand their emotional reactions. It may feel like a huge leap to ask someone to disclose their most vulnerable parts and stories, but doing so may deepen your bond and lead to that person being more directive in receiving the care and support they need and want. It may also allow for you to start building support for yourself in the likely case that you will need it in the future.

If you are the person who is dealing with mental distress may I suggest making a list of all that has worked in the past and what has not worked. Look at your own medical and mental health history. What are your patterns, your family patterns, what triggers you and what calms you down? Set some goals for your self and monitor your feelings. If you use the internet, there are many helpful sites including the Icarus site -- a radical site created by bi-polar folks where you can post and dialogue with other "crazy" people about what's going on for you (www.icarusproject.net). Write about your experience and read about other people's experiences. Find support behind every door you can, look for a therapist or healer you can relate to. Finding someone who has interest in helping you discover and change the behavior and thought patterns that you're finding destructive or disabling while be most beneficiary. Many towns have sliding scale centers for counseling services (you can always stop if you don't like it). You can order, download and submit Radical Zines and other literature at www.radicalmentalhealth.net. There is nothing more soothing and satisfying for me than to sit down with some good reading that I can relate to.

Healthy group dynamics

What about if you're in a collective house or working on a collective project and you're finding aggressive, depressive, explosive, unbalanced behaviors and emotions? This is probably the hardest topic to tackle. Along with addressing everything mentioned above, I would suggest having a check-in at the beginning and ending of every meeting or gathering just to start getting the juices flowing and building trust. I have also participated in and observed feelings/process meetings. These feelings meetings can be a bi-monthly mental health check-in meeting, where each member is not under the stress of getting through a collective task agenda but can just share what is helping or hindering them and the collective in working smoothly. It is here that you can talk about power dynamics, what each member needs to feel comfortable, how to distribute the work load, and a space where you can learn and share more of the complex parts of you. Although it will take up more of your time initially, I do believe that in the long run with the collective working with better understanding your work will get done faster and there will be better group dynamics.

I believe that by building better communication skills and support systems we will be more effective and have greater longevity in not only our personal relationships but our political work as well. The hope being that we will lift each other up through knowing ourselves and taking the time to build thriving personal, community and political structures.

These suggestions are just the tip of the melting iceberg. There are many ways to tackle the overwhelm, shame, disappointment and fear that comes along with emotional, spiritual and physical stress.

One last thing I would like to address is somewhat of a current pet peeve. Attention folks: Being "crazy" is not "cool" or chic.

As radicals have begun addressing mental health issues more, I've seen a rise in people who get excited about being insane or nuts or crazy and are ready to use those "dangerous gifts". Having chronic, long term or acute battles with mental health is nothing to speak lightly of. It is very easy to glamorize the idea that people with mental unrest are "special" and more in tune with the out of balance universe. Really it's just extra hard to make it through the day and nothing feels good or glamorous about that. So while it is important to debunk the straight jacket stereotypes of crazy people, I think it is more important to seek stability, support and balance for radicals so we can continue to swim within and ride against the currents so that we may play our role in altering the course of history . Building the support that we need in our communities will take time and a grand effort on our parts. We can not expect to scrape the pieces of our bulldozed souls off the ground and hop right on the good time train to mental health and wellbeing. That said, I do believe that only when we have created systems within our own counter-cultures to provide respite and support will one have the capacity to maintain in their work standing up next to the trees, the oppressed peoples, the brutalized animals and each other as we enter new battles for the earth and a new dawn. www.radicalmentalhealth.net

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