Micro-solidarity: mental health in unkind systems

Today, a person close to me had a mental health emergency. I was at work, trying to draft important papers for important people. I was told to relax and get back to work. The deadlines could not be extended. Dead-lines: what a word!

The whole ‘they’re-fine-get-back-to-work’ thing didn’t impress me, especially since I’ve just returned from three weeks stress leave (unpaid). The person who gave the command is, I think, basically a good person. But this person (and the two above them) are all careerists, and careerists keep the callous systems running. By trying to thrive in the systems, they uphold them. When careerists choose work over people because they want a more prestigious job title, vulnerable people are crushed.

We live in a world of systems that reduce us to job titles. These roles isolate us and break down human relationships. This alienates people with mental health concerns (i.e., an awful lot of us).

The market system works best when we work to maximise profit. Bureaucratic systems (like government departments or schools) want us to follow The Processes and deliver our Outputs and Deliverables. In a sense, it’s worse in bureaucratic systems because they’ve drunk the market kool-aid and try to run like businesses. We sometimes forget these systems are made up by people (Habermas talked about this).

These systems surround us and try to turn us into cogs. We even compete to be jammed into these roles! We don’t interact as people, we interact as people performing roles. When I line up at the checkout, I don’t interact with the cashier as a person, I interact as a customer. We make appropriately shallow chit-chat.

These roles isolate us and block meaningful human relationships that can help us when we’re in trouble. Human communities are inefficient, isolation keeps the systems running. If someone is struggling, our systems don’t stop. We keep playing our roles and we suffer quietly. When we break, we are put aside to be repaired. If we can’t be repaired, we are replaced.

I am one of the repaired cogs. I returned from stress leave dosed to the eyeballs. But here’s the thing: when people heard about my health issues, they confided in me. A disturbing amount of people around me have been through the same thing. They also quietly medicate themselves to make it through the day.

Sanity is a form of hegemony. The deeply unwell are quarantined and the moderately unwell are dosed. If you are one of the dosed, you probably keep it quiet and reap the benefits of a system that privileges the healthy while alienating the rest. I want the benefits that come from being mentally healthy so I ‘play it sane’, even though the system hurts me. Heterosexuality and masculinity are similar. I want the benefits that come from looking like a regular straight guy, so I keep my preferences private. I have that privilege.

Destroying hegemonic structures is tough. Doing something about the isolation and absence of human community is easy. Community is the answer. When my mental health deteriorated and I could no longer work, my union representative negotiated on my behalf. I could trust her to represent my interests because we are part of a community based on values, and values can be trusted. A community based on values is the enemy of isolating destructive systems.

Join a union, if only for the fact that they will defend you if you break down. Speak past your role when you’re next at the checkout, if you feel comfortable. Ask how the cashier’s shift is going. Make excuses to get to know your neighbours. They might have different political views, but when times get tough they will be more likely to help you. Don’t take part in tribal groupthink politics; it only divides people. Get closer to your family, if you can. Blood is thicker than water, which makes it great for clogging up a callous system. Interact as humans, not roles prescribed by whatever system you‘re in. Practice micro-solidarity.

Which reminds me, I need to text my friend to make sure they are ok.

EDIT: My friend was not ok. Get well soon, buddy.


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