politics for the anxious, depressed, and other mentally unhealthy citizens who believe in democracy

September 27, 2022

Being someone who cares about American democracy and its survival, and being someone stricken with debilitating anxiety and depression, it’s hard for me to be as politically active as I’d like to be. Not impossible; just hard.

Which means there is something I can do despite my mental health challenges. Tackling the hard parts …

First and foremost, set aside any feelings of guilt about all I haven’t done. Guilt-tripping is a complete waste of time. For someone with my kind of anxiety, it’s a massive symptom and it continues the patterns that have kept me unhealthy. Just accept the facts for what they are: I have mental health challneges that make living my life according to my values and intentions very difficult. But in the end, it’s no different than a person who can’t run a 10k race because they have a broken leg or sprained back.

Most mental health issues find healing in large part through an acknowledgement of the state of reality in the brain. This isn’t surrender to the anxiety or hopelessness or impulses; it’s just a refusal to deny their presence and to fight against what is true and real. So: I have anxieties that generate fears about political involvement. So be it.


The next step is probably the most difficult of all: getting professional medical help. No one can self-heal from mental health issues. It’s like trying to “walk off” a broken leg. I was able to get the help I needed a few years ago through the VA, and it changed my life. For starters, despite knowing I was suffering from depression and having a lot of strong, accurate insights into my life and mental health, the possibility that anxiety was at the root of it all never once entered my mind.

My counsellor pointed it out to me in our second or third session. Boom. Suddenly my entire life began to come into focus. I needed someone who had the training and the experience to hear what I was saying and cut straight to the heart of the matter. As soon as I heard the word “anxiety” in that context, my healing had begun.

The other massive thing my counsellor did for me was vital for my recovery from a lifetime of self-denial and self-loathing. He praised me repeatedly for my efforts in working towards my health. He insisted I give myself credit for how I was helping myself. On the flip side, he also told me that the bad things I had gone through were unfair and no one should have to suffer like that. In other words, my pain was justified. Here in the West, we pretend pain builds character and shit like that. It doesn’t.

Pain hurts. Physical pain is behind the opioid epidemic, and mental pain is causing vast damage to tens of millions of Americans each day. The pain we each suffer is wrong, it’s unfair, and we all deserve a chance to have the pain ended and to experience relief, healing, and peace.

Having a compassionate, educated, and experienced mental health care professional work with me for a year-and-a-half was the health care I needed. Sadly, it took until I was in my sixties to get it, and many people will never get the care they need. Without that care, I would have disappeared further into my own life, the idea of political activity becoming more and more impossible.

The moral of this story isn’t to insist you get professional mental health care. You should, of course, if you can. But if progressive politicians and advocacy groups want to expand their support base, working to build a meaningful mental health system in the United States is essential. It’s the morally correct thing to do, of course, from a progressive perspective, but it also makes political sense. Not everyone who finds healing will become a backer of “your’ cause, but it is a way to enable people who do support you to do so actively – and from the foundation of a healthy mind and life.

My friend Kim Upham shared this on Facebook this morning:

Novelist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn departed this life in 1998, but she articulated a message that I think is important for us to hear.

She wrote, "People often say, with pride, 'I’m not interested in politics.' They might as well say, 'I’m not interested in my standard of living, my health, my job, my rights, my freedoms, my future or any future.'"

Gelhorn added, "If we mean to keep control over our world and lives, we must be interested in politics."

Authoritarians do not care about the health and well-being of most of their citizens. Power, wealth, and privilege are what matter to them. Democracy is a messy way for a people to self-govern, but it works better than anything else humans have developed so far. If you want your life to be one that enables you to live according to your values and where you can fulfill your dreams, supporting and protecting democracy is a smart choice.

And if you live with mental health issues, then democracy is probably the only way you’ll get the support needed to build the care systems your health requires. It’s a bit of a Catch-22: you need health to work for democracy, and you need democracy to build health care systems. True enough.