The Left and Mental Health

Before anyone makes a crack or attempts to be sarcastic, I would ask you — to borrow the words of a friend — to pause.

By and large the Left has no idea how to handle mental health and substance abuse issues that unfold within the Left itself. Yet these issues continue to raise their ugly heads, often destroying organizations, projects, and, yes, people’s lives.

I first encountered the devastating impact of mental health issues within the Left, and the manner in which they can be manipulated, back in 1980 in the Boston Black United Front. An older and prominent member of the organization was deeply disturbed and, depending on the day of the week, was prone to go off. In the middle of a meeting she would stand up and start yelling, accusing various people of a list of crimes, including not being serious about Black liberation. Despite the fact that most people knew that she was disturbed, nothing positive was done. In fact, her ravings were tolerated and some opportunistic elements would utilize such ravings in order to advance their own agendas. Along with some provocateurs, this insanity destroyed a very important effort to unite Black radicals during a critical political moment.

When it comes to mental health and substance abuse issues, there seem to be three basic approaches taken within the Left: (1) denial, (2) walking — or running — away, (3) attempting to confront (often unsuccessfully and with very little support). Denial is evident everywhere. Individuals who are clearly disturbed are treated as if they have a personal problem, sort of like granddad putting on a mismatched tie on Sunday morning. Rather than recognize that something disconcerting is unfolding, many of us would rather pretend that, to the extent to which there is any sort of problem, it will disappear in time. To this I would add that when substance abuse emerges, whether alcohol or drugs, the extent of the problem is all too often denied or downplayed, particularly if the individual seems to be able to function normally at times. If and when someone raises questions concerning the behavior, the questioner is often confronted with an assertion that they are unsupportive.

Walking away is another tried and true course, though, I must say, this seems to happen irrespective of whether there are mental health issues at stake. In both the Boston Black United Front, as well as a separate project in which I was involved some years ago, walking away was the course most often taken. Individuals, in this case keenly aware of the problem, choose to just leave, often claiming that they “do not have time for this,” as if anyone has time for mental health and substance abuse issues. Thus, the terrain is abandoned to the ill and to those who increasingly feel like they are stuck in this purgatory.

This leaves us with those who attempt to fight it out. More often than not, they are in a minority and are subject to various attacks for being insufficiently supportive of the person who is ill. In some cases, class, race or gender is introduced as a way of saying that one cannot criticize a mentally ill or substance-abusing comrade — i.e., that any such allegation reflects a bias against an oppressed group. Rather than resolving the problem, the resolution moves further away.

Some years ago I proposed that in union organizing training there ought to be a mental health professional brought in to speak with organizers about issues of mental health and substance abuse. I was laughed at. My proposal was quite serious. Oppressed people manifest oppression in many ways, a fact that the noted revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon pointed out so many years ago. Oppressed people self-medicate. They feel alienated. And they look for a supportive environment.

Enter the Left. We are alienated, by definition. We think that this society stinks. We are not in sync with this society and form organizations and communities that reinforce that the problem is not us, but that it is capitalism (with all of its various oppressions). This often makes it difficult for us to recognize that some of those who are attracted to the Left are not necessarily attracted due to politics, but due to alienation. The source of their alienation, however, may be the result of mental health and/or substance abuse issues.

Marx, as a friend of mine reminded me very long ago, did not develop a theory of the personality. In fact, he never set out to. He never thought that his theories of materialist dialectics and the materialist conception of history would answer each and every question. Thus, it is ridiculous for us to think that our interpretation of Marxism can address each manifestation of the toxicity of this society, not to mention physiological processes that operate within humans.

To the extent to which we do fail to come out of our caves of denial and/or cowardice, we make it that much more difficult to build a movement for a socialist society, not to mention, to borrow from Che Guevara, the task of building a new socialist man and woman.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time leftist writer and activist, involved in labor and international issues. The opinions voiced here are his own.
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