May We Politicize Our Mental Health

Updated: May 27, 2019

Spring is finally here, time to flirt, try out new glitter and drink bubbly. All this sun and rebirth of spring got me feeling so much better than a couple of weeks ago when I was dragging myself to work. I feel so much more energized. Maybe that is why May has become mental health awareness month, to give the energy of bloom to the awareness that we all need wellness and mental illness is real.

As someone who studies mental health policy, laws and, services, I know how important it is to speak out about our own mental illness and support the people in our communities with mental illness. Yet, as a femme of color, I have to foregrown that trauma has historically been used as a tool of domination, and it continues to be used to this day in our communities. Which is why, for communities of color, mental health is political. Politicizing our mental health is putting wellbeing in conversation with our histories and our communities, that practice is called: critical mental health awareness.

Critical mental health awareness is a concept created by Salvadoran psychologist Martin-Baró. He was influenced by Paul Freire’s theory of critical pedagogy. Freire believed that reflecting on our everyday lives will allow us to become aware of the patterns of oppression that are affecting us but have become so routinized that we can’t see them anymore. These patterns are oppression working to dominate us and they are important to highlight because in US society, most issues are individualized. When we individualize an issue, we render it apolitical, we normalize it, it becomes the “way things are.” The ability to see beyond our individual reality and notice we are all coping with similar issues, is the act to identify structural oppression. This is the first step toward developing concientizacao, or critical consciousness. For Freire, changing the world means liberating ourselves from oppression by working in a cycle of reflection, critical consciousness and action.

Martin-Baró uses this same concept of “critical consciousness” and applied it to mental health calling it “critical mental health awareness”. Martin-Baro developed this concept after conducting a survey on the mental health of Salvadoran people. He conducted this survey in the mist of the civil war in the 1980’s, which made him realize that US psychology was not good enough to account for the mental health of Latinx American peoples, because the experiences we face as Latinx are defined by violence.

His findings highlighted that people’s environments make the human experience different, and thus, a one-size fits all framework of mental health cannot account for the terror used during the war, or the violence people of color face to this day. Similarly, we cannot ignore our current political climate when we talk about mental health. People of color are actively being persecuted, detained and killed with impunity.

Which is why, critical mental health awareness is the ability to discern if we are suffering from a mental illness or, we are having a normal reaction of distress to an abnormal (or violent) context. For communities of color it is imperative that we ask ourselves what aspects of our suffering are due to biological needs (mental illness) and what aspects are human reactions to structural oppression.

Politicizing our mental health means understanding that for people of color mental health is tied to social justice. These are easy steps to work on our critical mental health awareness:

1. Let’s learn about what mental health is and what it means to communities of color. You can take my webinar here and learn how psychiatry became a field of medicine and how categories of mental illness were created.

2. Learn our history: understanding issues from a historical perspective will allow us the power to break cycles and disrupt oppression. For example, children being separated and detained is not a new trend, it has been used as a tactic of genocide.

3. Let’s talk about what brings us down! The more we share the more we can see patterns in our lives. Realizing we are not affected by something individually makes us realize we don’t have to change ourselves but the system. A good way to focus on patterns is to keep a diary, or to take pictures of when we feel sad, angry, anxious. By having these pictures, or journal entries we are documented our lives and creating the evidence to look back for patterns! You can tag me on Instagram @chantalfigueroaphd so we can look for patterns of oppression together.

4. Let’s rest! We need rest to be able to imagine a better system. We need the time to imagine what a world that nurtures mental health looks like, so rest as much as you can.

5. Let’s work together for that world! A mental health project cannot fear change, it must embrace it!

Becoming conscious of the ways in which oppression sips into every tiny little crack of our lives and how it affects us, is critical mental health awareness. Let us not normalize that shit any longer. Let’s share those stories so that immensity of that system is known, we can name it, and together liberate ourselves from that hold oppression has on our mental health. Let us know what mental health means to us, and use that as a blueprint for another system, one centered on our wellness.

For this Mental Health Awareness month, I urge you to politicize mental health and remember that knowing that a system makes us miserable, is mental health awareness. Overthrowing an oppressive system, is mental health. Let us rest and imagine better together.

Martin-Baro (1989). Writings for liberation psychology. Harvard University Press.

Paulo Freire (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition / Edition 3. Bloomsbury Academic

Take my webinar here.

A website in progress here:

Follow me on instagram: @chantalfigueroaphd

Chantal Figueroa Ph.D. is a Guatemalan femme specialized in researching mental health climates and designs programs to support the wellbeing of the Latinx community. Currently, she is a professor at Colorado College where she teaches courses in anthropology, education, and sociology. She leads a qualitative evaluation of the culture of mental health in higher education institutions to provide educational recommendations. In Guatemala, Dr. Figueroa is a consultant for the Ministry of Education providing gender violence prevention training to middle school teachers.

Photo credit Paula Morales @paulaillustrates

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