Feminist Gloria Steinheim coined the phrase “the personal is political” to talk about how our personal issues often reflect deep systemic problems within society. For instance, racial discrimination, which can be felt on an intimate personal level has profound roots in one group of people dominating another often for economic gain. Thus, one may feel the sting of racism on an individual day-to-day basis and also see the long term impact on an entire ethnic/cultural group.
When I was a freshman in women’s studies courses this concept really struck me. I thought much about my own experiences as a woman and how patriarchy, which is a societal issue pierced me to the core, impacting my self-esteem and even life choices. The personal was definitely political. One man’s act of dominance reflected a microcosm of misogyny that still existed at large.
This week while teaching in the D.C. area, I had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial which has not officially opened yet. It was magnificent and reminded me of King’s amazing courage and conviction that justice was not just a personal issue. It was also political. If we care about justice, we need to reach out on both levels. We have to change the system if people are to gain long term freedoms.
This concept doesn’t just apply to racism and sexism. It also applies to mental illness. My mother suffered from alcoholism. This is a personal issue. She also ended up having to serve time in jail for felony DUIs. This also is personal. She drank and drove and had to pay the consequences. But this issue was also political. True, she had to take responsibility for her actions. However, being sentenced to jail did not help her heal from her addiction. Instead, it drove her into a deeper depression and caused her to take her life.
The personal is political…. If our system had more support for those suffering from mental illness and did not criminalize those diagnosed with depression and alcoholism, she might still be alive. If along with a jail sentence, she had also been required to go to rehab, she might still be here.
The personal is political. I teach Mental Health First Aid for many reasons but one of them is because the personal is political.
Last night I dreamt that I was invited to a special dinner at the white house because of something affiliated with Mental Health First Aid, which is sponsored by the National Council for Behavioral Health in Washington, D.C. In the dream, I was able to go to the dinner because hurricane Irene kept me grounded in D.C. and thus I scrambled around shopping for an appropriate dress and shoes to wear to Obama’s house. (Yes, I am an Obama fan). I understand why I dreamt this dream. I’m currently in Washington, D.C. and the hurricane is interfering with my travel plans to get home. And it turns out that the hotel I just checked into this evening is only a few blocks from the capitol. Okay. So, I’m not having dinner with the President but I am pretty close to his house. I get the connections. But on a deeper level, I believe I had the dream because I know that deep personal change comes from systemic change. Likewise, deep personal and spiritual healing creates systemic change.
So I teach Mental Health First Aid because I believe the personal is political.