Letter from the South: On mental illness and movement unity

This is a statement about what it is like to be mentally ill in a time when all of your “progressive” Democrat friends keep writing the “fascist president” off as being mentally ill, instead of confronting his white supremacist, right-wing extremist views and actions.

I was 22 years old when I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I say “finally” because I had known for years. But due to living in a capitalist society, I often have to prioritize rent and electricity over my own health — both mental and physical. I could not afford to see a professional for long enough to be diagnosed.

The diagnosis came after ten years of battling depression as a result of trauma I faced as an adolescent. These days, my depression is not as bad. I take medication for it, though I still have my days.

Being an organizer, there are many intersections and oppressions I must and do recognize, and one of those intersections is mental illness. I am a mentally ill, queer, transgender, working-class communist and Southerner. I am not ambiguous about these intersections because I cannot afford to be.

All of these things that I am are facing new threats of violence every day with the rising tide of hatred unleashed by the election of Donald Trump and his reactionary administration.

At this point, we are out in the streets disrupting, organizing and struggling together almost every day, as we should be. Communities are striving for the necessity of unity. Each day, solidarity across all oppressed communities grows more and more.

And there is nothing quite as dangerous as the power of the united people.

But in our communities there seems to be a unity-breaking trend in activist discussion. (I say “our” as I see this in all of my own communities.)

Instead of continuing to confront the right-wing extremism and white-supremacist views of the Trump administration, people are quick to write Trump and his cronies off as being “crazy” or “having some kind of mental illness.”

People seem to not want to say Donald Trump is, for instance, a stone-cold racist bigot. Rather they find solace in saying: “He is mentally ill! He is crazy!” And then come the multiple diagnoses: “He’s schizophrenic!” “He has narcissistic personality disorder!” and “He is bipolar!”

That last one hits me personally, especially when comrades and friends who keep saying it also know I also have bipolar disorder.

When Trump’s reactionary views are reduced down to a mental illness, it perpetuates a stigma against me and every other neurodivergent person that our mental illnesses are synonymous with awful, reactionary views and behavior. And they are not.

Neurodivergent people lead!

Neurodivergent people are in the leadership of the movement. But due to our intersecting identities, we have often had to put our own illnesses on the backburner.

If Donald Trump or any of his administration do have a mental illness, that is not the reason they are Nazi sympathizers or hate LGBTQ people. That does not absolve them of their reactionary views. It is dangerous to assume that mental illness is the reason why they are the way they are.

This is like saying white-supremacist Dylan Roof was “crazy” because he murdered nine Black people in cold blood while they worshipped in their Charleston church. People who use this horrid rhetoric are not acknowledging and confronting their own place in white supremacy either. This is a practice all white people, myself included, must self-criticize and work on changing if we truly wish to dismantle and destroy white supremacy once and for all.

Accusing Trump and his ilk of being mentally ill comes off as either trying to absolve them of their bigoted actions or as demonizing mentally ill people. Even neurotypical people who are calling for an end to ableism perpetuate ableism themselves when they deem Trump “crazy.”

If you cut mentally ill people out of our movements, then that is counterrevolutionary, and there is no real progress made.

In order for any revolution to occur, ableism must truly be crushed, and stigmas must be done away with. This means those who call themselves revolutionaries or communists, or dedicate themselves to a path of freedom and liberation, must also dedicate themselves to crushing all forms of oppression.

Smash ableism! Call Trump what he is — a far-right-wing extremist, a racist and white supremacist, an Islamophobe and anti-Semite, a woman-hater, a vile bigot against LGBTQ people, a fascistic friend of the KKK, an authoritarian xenophobe.

But do not call Donald Trump mentally ill.

Devin Cole, a trans organizer and organizer of the Pensacola Airport protest, is president of Pensacola STRIVE (Social Trans Initiative) and director of operations for the Florida Transgender Alliance.