In our previous works on the topics: Is Mental Health Political? and Mental Health Is Political: Therapists Answer Questions!, we have discussed how society plays a role in affecting an individual’s mental health. These previous articles talk about the various categories of the society i.e., class, caste, religion, gender and sexuality, and trying to understand and address the layers of problems that are faced by people, especially marginalised individuals, may become a little difficult. So, our therapists Varsha Vemula and Pooja Gupta sat down together to discuss and answer more questions on mental health and how it can be political.
When we hear the statement ‘Mental health is political’, what does it mean?
Pooja Gupta says that the statement ‘Mental health is political’ refers to how mental health is contextual. That talking about it being political refers to how the environment that we live in, that it always impacts the way we respond to it, the way we feel, the way we think, we are always responding to our environment, so being aware of the environment and how it’s impacting our mental health is what it means when we say mental health is political.
However, it is important to include here, when we are talking about the environment, that there are a lot of systems, a lot of structures in place that have been instituted, that have been present in our daily lives that creates such an intangible yet very present power privilege between groups and how that power imbalance can impact the mental health of the person, whether it is casteism or patriarchy or classism or gender or sexuality.
Varsha agrees and says that the systems that we live in, the environment, how there are so many structures in place, for instance when talking about caste or gender, how there is discrimination present between men, women, trans and all other sexualities, how heterosexuals or cis/het individuals are at privilege than homosexuals and how these structutres and these privileges impact an individual’s mental health. It’s not just about the individual but the systems that we are located in and the structures that are in place around us, which have an impact on their mental health.
Do I have to vote or support some kind of political party when I am saying that mental health is political?
Pooja Gupta strongly disagrees with this question. She says that one does not need to support or vote for a certain political party when saying that mental health is political. She goes on to saying that, although we don’t need to support a political party, we do have a certain political system in our country and a political party which may have a hand, a very important hand, in marginalizing or in perpetuating the power imbalance, whether it is about a certain religion or whether it is about a certain group of individuals.
When we are talking about mental health being political, it does not necessarily mean that one needs to vote or be supportive of some kind of political party but in fact it becomes more about being aware of the power of privilege that exists between individuals, between groups of people, in order to work towards equality, towards quality of human life that is based on a more justice based, equal foundation.
Varsha says, “Definitely a political party might have a hand in the structures that are in place or the systems that are in place. How your identity location plays a part in where you are at and what privileges you have. It doesn’t mean that we have to vote for a certain party or align with a political party’s views when we are saying that mental health is political”.
The purview is so much broader than just being about a political party. It has more to do about how everyday we are responding to these things. How we are located in the system or where we fall into the structures, which group do we belong to. For instance, when talking about caste, be it brahmins or dalits, how they are marginalized and how that possibly will have an impact on their mental health and that is where intersectionality also comes in.
“Intersectionality is about how one’s identity is multi-fold. I may have a certain privilege in a certain location, like my caste, but at the same time being a woman, I may be in a space that is marginalised. But again when it comes to my sexualilty, being a cis woman, I am in a palce of privilege. So, intersectionality is about how my location is or my identity is composed of a lot of different structures and my location in this places my position in a space of privilege or of oppression based on the structures that exist”.
Hence, identity is complex and diversified, and it varies from one identity to another. While in one place an individual might be in a space of privilege and in another identity that the individual might hold, they may be marginalized. That, in turn, impacts their mental health. This is not just about the individual themselves, it’s about how and where they are placed in the system and how the structures are at play. This goes to show how identity is not very individualistic, in turn showing that mental health is not individualistic either.
When we look at traditional psychology, it places a lot of emphasis or burden on the individual, that there is something wrong with the individual. But these topics don’t talk about the context we are in. The courses and programs talk about how an individual’s thoughts and emotions are impacting their mental health, but don’t put much emphasis on the larger world view. For instance, Sigmund Freud spoke about Hysteria and why is it that just women are the ones who experience it. It is not like they chose to experience hysteria. It is highly impossible to talk about someone’s mental health without including the structures, the environment that they are living in which is impacting their thoughts and their emotions. Similarly, someone who identifies themselves as queer, the amout of invisibility they have to experience due to their identity location in itself, forces them to go through erasure of who they are.
This is because we live in a world that is primarily cis/het and binary, and if anything goes beyond that or does not fit the ‘standards’ of the society, it is not even considered visible. So, if someone is feeling overwhelmed because of their erasure, it is not that the problem exists within them but rather around them. It is about the system and how a certain person who is in a place of privilege does not need to hold these issues as important as, most of the time, they are unaware about them. This is what the statement “Mental Health Is Political” means. We are simply responding to the situations which positions us in a place of oppression.
Therefore, at Pause for Perspective, our approach is to locate the issues and problems around the individual rather than looking inside the individual, We believe that it is important to notice these things and be aware of one’s environment. As mental health professionals we strive to flatten the curve and hopefully bring about changes in the structures of society where the minorities and marginalized groups are oppressed. Because we live in a world which has a huge impact on us, the way we live everyday, the way we appear, the way we are placed in society, that it impacts us, it impacts our mental health. Hence, mental health is not devoid of all these things and that is why it is political.
Our article is edited by our writer Insha Fatima.