When mental health becomes a political football
When mental health becomes a political football
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Major event organisers, and the politicians rooting for them, have had to dig deep to find justifications for proceeding in the time of a deadly pandemic. Whether it’s international cricket, the Olympic Games or the Australian Open, tens or hundreds of thousands of people coming together, sitting in close proximity for hours and spending much of the time shouting, is hard to sell as “safe”.

Rather than invoking the mountains of money they stand to make from going ahead with the events, the business-as-usual brigade frequently put forward the public’s mental health as the justification for risking a super spreader incident. 

Not being able to watch fully grown adults wearing leotards and jumping into sandpits at least every four years risks plunging us into a collective depression, according to these overnight mental health experts. Our spirits can be kept up only by tuning in to long-distance walking or whipping ourselves into a nationalist fervour over archery or rhythmic gymnastics.

Never mind the mental health effects of more people contracting a potentially deadly disease and passing it on to others or bringing it to countries that have so far managed to minimise cases. Never mind the toll that sickness and death will take on those surrounded by it. And never mind that these same people showed little interest in our mental welfare before public health measures threatened the cancellation of their lucrative events.

The truth—that forfeiting millions of dollars for the sake of public health is contrary to the profit-first religion of capitalism—is just not palatable, as the realities of capitalism so often aren’t. Instead, the powerful routinely win support for their agenda by obscuring the truth. Wars fought for political and economic dominance, and which kill and displace millions, are to advance democracy and women’s equality. Attacks on wages and conditions are to “create jobs” for the unemployed. Privatising public assets is about improving service delivery. By the time anyone notices the gap between spin and reality, the damage is done. 

Mental health can be invoked in this way in part because liberals and most of the left have helped naturalise its use as a weapon in public debate. It has become commonplace for social justice critiques of public policy to depend on the likely effect on mental health—from access to health services for transgender youth to Indigenous incarceration rates. 

During the 2017 marriage equality campaign, for example, it was frequently cited as reason to oppose the plebiscite (which was an initiative of the homophobic right) as well as to support the “yes” case. LGBTI people would suffer mentally and be at higher risk of suicide should the right prevail. But even if our side won, we were told, the ordeal of having a public vote would be just as bad.

Unlike the way mental health is being used as a battering ram by the right in the pandemic, in cases like these, the argument is not made hypocritically or in bad faith. It is undeniable that oppression takes an emotional toll on those subjected to it, and that is a compelling reason to oppose it. But to make this the foundation on which opposition to oppression rests is self-defeating and promotes and entrenches an identity based on suffering rather than strength. 

The case against oppression is not just that it causes harm to those affected, but that it undermines everyone’s rights when any group is persecuted or discriminated against, and that people affected by oppression can potentially lead a fight against it that inspires and rouses wider layers to challenge or become more conscious of this as well as other injustices. Creating an identity of fighters and political leaders does more to hit back against oppression than promoting one of suffering and victimhood. And in so doing, it brings us closer to ending that suffering for good. 

Ironically, the marriage equality plebiscite, with its 61.6 percent “yes” result, ultimately did more to demonstrate the huge amount of support that exists for LGBTI people, rather than emphasise their isolation. Presumably, this means it likely had a positive impact on the wellbeing of at least some LGBTI people. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong to oppose it. The reason to oppose had to be that it represented the last desperate attempt of the right to stymie reform, not that it was likely to cause emotional harm. Likewise, the most important reason to support equality is because it advances the cause of solidarity and is a blow to conservative values, regardless of the effect on mental health.

There is nothing intrinsic about the issue of mental health that makes it a more effective weapon for the left rather than the right. Just look at the way in which now ex-Attorney-General Christian Porter has been able to appeal to his mental anguish to win sympathy, or at least privacy, in the wake of rape allegations against him becoming public. On its own, mental wellbeing can provide no reliable basis for a political orientation. Instead, we need a political framework that explains how power works, what motivates resistance and how liberation can be won.

 

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