Why Critical Social Justice Activism Could Increase Suicide Risk

No death impacts others in the way a suicide does. With a death by suicide come shame, guilt and many questions—the most prominent of which is why? But sometimes we can put the pieces together. Several plausible theories may help us conceptualize the key factors that may lead someone to attempt or complete suicide. Being cognizant of these factors allows therapists to provide optimal psychological treatment for those at risk. Unfortunately, the best theories operate in ways that directly contradict the methodologies of critical social justice advocates. Worse yet, discussion of this among mental health clinicians and scholars has been almost nonexistent. The west may see a large increase in suicides if woke ideology is allowed to continue to fester. It will be the most vulnerable who will suffer first and worst.

The idea of resilience has been absent from the current discourse surrounding mental health. There has been, instead, an uptick in trauma-informed policies. Many of these are well-intentioned but end up harming those they claim to help. Often, the first thing trauma-informed care attempts to do is erase any possibility of struggle from a person’s environment for the sake of avoiding re-traumatizing her. Some of these policies make sense. For example, a good trauma-informed policy might be to advise caution when TSA agents or police officers execute a body search, especially if the person being searched has previously experienced physical or sexual assault. However, the words trauma, harm and violence have been subject to concept creep, and this has had serious negative mental impacts, especially on children. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out in The Coddling of the American Mind, trauma and harm are now often said to be caused by speech with which we disagree. Examples abound, especially on college campuses, where speakers with heterodox ideas have often been first invited to speak and then swiftly uninvited, for fear that what they have to say could literally harm those who hear it. Likewise, colleges often provide safe spaces, where students can go to avoid hearing things that they don’t like. This is the result of what in cognitive behavioral therapy is known as catastrophizing. A CBT therapist would work to change these potentially incapacitating thoughts, as they can lead to hopelessness, anxiety and depression. The words that have fallen victim to concept creep have been picked up by woke ideologues and other proponents of Critical Theory, in order to advance their agenda of diversity, equity and inclusivity. The ideology behind this movement is legitimately harmful to people’s mental health.

Among the fundamental problems with diversity, equity and inclusivity ideology is the valorization and reinforcement of victimhood. Empowerment is thought to come from aligning one’s identity with that of a historically marginalized or victimized group and using this victimhood status to gain support and influence. Identifying as a perpetual victim as a consequence of one’s group identity also necessitates a view that others who do not suffer similar victimhood are perpetual oppressors. This reinforces the Great Untruth pointed out by Lukianoff and Haidt: “life is a battle between good people and evil people.” Cognitive behavioral therapists call this black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking—a tendency that should be corrected in order to improve one’s mental health.

But the most devastating problem with woke ideology is what it can do to interpersonal relationships. The theory of intersectionality plays no small part in this. The way intersectionality plays out in the real world results in a minimization of our commonalities and an emphasis on what drives us apart. Emphasizing our common humanity is seen as ignoring the pain of marginalized groups—when, in fact, we can use what unites us to fix that which divides us. Things are made worse by standpoint epistemology: the idea that the more privilege one has, the less of the world one can see and understand. Thus, the more victimhood one can find in oneself, the better off one is (according to this backwards worldview) and the more one can perceive. Standpoint theory allows one to critique the world without having to take into account feedback from those of a more privileged status. This makes it nearly impossible to communicate with each other and work together to solve problems. It is my way or the highway thinking with pseudo-intellectual backing. This is likely to be especially harmful to cross-racial friendships and partnerships. Critical race theory does not improve race relations, as we can see from the company-wide anti-racism and diversity trainings at many organizations across the US. Some are told that they are racist and uphold white supremacy, while others are told that they are oppressed and that the only solution is to tear down the very structures that have improved everyone’s lives. Guilt and shame are thrust upon participants, making many once strong cross-racial relationships awkward and unnatural—all under the guise of helping improve race relations and helping minorities.

What happens when we let fester an ideology that advocates cognitive distortions and logical fallacies, emphasizes victimhood, harms our relationships and rejects the idea of cultivating resilience? Surely, nothing good. This ideology will make the mental health of those who follow it worse, and, in some cases, may very well lead to suicide.

Interpersonal psychological theory suggests that two key perceptions lead to the desire for suicide. The first is thwarted belongingness, resulting from the weakening or loss of formerly strong relationships and an absence of meaningful connections with others. Woke ideology can exacerbate this in numerous ways: such as when someone looks at the world through an intersectional lens and realizes that the group of which he was once a core part is actually fractured in ways that he had never realized before. He then begins to analyze the power dynamics of the group and may isolate himself from others because he perceives them to be privileged or thinks of himself as oppressed (or vice versa). Similarly, a person who decides to become actively anti-racist may remove herself from the presence of family or friends who are not anti-racist in the belief that they are complicit in white supremacy. This may result in the cancellation of friends and family. If the goal is isolation from others, becoming woke is a great way to accomplish this.

The second perception that can lead to suicide, according to interpersonal psychological theory, is perceived burdensomeness: a feeling that one is a burden to those around one and is unable to make meaningful contributions to society—or that one obstructs those who can. Consider the idea that your privilege is a burden to those without privilege—or that you are actively upholding white supremacy, that your silence is complicity, and that any negative feelings you experience as a result are caused by your racial fragility, which itself perpetuates white supremacy. This could do real damage to your mental health. This doesn’t only affect white people. Accusations of brown fragility and explanations of how people of all races, ethnicities and genders are part of the problem are propped up by social media platforms and shared by a well-intentioned but often ill-informed populace.

According to Edwin Shneidman’s theory, the primary reason for suicide is to stop “psychache”: incessant psychological pain or anguish, resulting from four unmet needs—for love, self-esteem, agency and connection. Psychache can be the result of thwarted love, acceptance and belonging; helplessness and feelings of loss of control; a damaged self-image and shame, defeat or humiliation; and damaged relationships that result in feelings of grief and loss. Feeling as though one belongs and having a sound support system are both immensely important protective factors. Woke ideologies threaten these.

Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioral therapy, viewed hopelessness as the key driver of suicide. Robin DiAngelo suggests that anti-racism is a “lifelong commitment to an ongoing process” of self-criticism, reflection and social activism and that it is impossible to be a good enough ally—one will always fall short, no matter how hard one tries. This is a recipe for despair.

Roy Baumeister’s escape theory describes suicide as a six-step process. First, one falls short of certain standards—by, for example, not doing anti-racist work correctly, not calling out racism at every turn or not being a good enough ally. The second step is internalized blame—all failures are seen as the individual’s fault alone—which results in low self-esteem. Third, an aversive sense of self forms, wherein the individual views herself as consistently bad, while others are consistently good. Here, again, black-and-white thinking worsens mental well-being, and therapy can help people see that reality contains shades of grey. The fourth stage is a consequence of the previous one, wherein the person experiences constant negative affect and/or negative consequences because of the anger and depression she feels as a result of her poor self-image. If these feelings persist for long enough, the person may eventually progress to stage five, known as cognitive constriction. Here, the person experiences tunnel vision, such that day-to-day needs are prioritized over long-term needs, and meaningful thought is rejected. Cognitive constriction has serious ramifications. Step six involves reckless behaviors such as substance abuse, self-harm or social withdrawal. These behaviors are attempts to escape, and, the theory posits, sometimes suicide is seen as the best form of escape.

Antoon Leenaars’ multidimensional model of suicide draws on ecological models and systems theory. After analyzing suicide notes, interviews with loved ones, personal and government documents and other resources, Leenaars concluded that both intrapsychic and interpersonal factors play a role in suicide. Intrapsychic factors include intolerable psychological pain, cognitive constriction and rigid thinking, ambivalence towards life and an inability to adjust to circumstances and cope with problems. Interpersonal factors include strained relationships with others and rejection or abandonment aggression (in suicide, the aggression is directed towards oneself).

All these theories identify certain common factors implicated in suicide. For mental well-being, then, we need strong relationships with others and a sense of belonging and purpose. Critical theory not only does not help with this, but may actually make social isolation and feelings of burdensomeness and hopelessness more likely.

Equating wokeism and the potential for suicide may itself seem like catastrophizing, but there is ample evidence that mental health is legitimately impacted by this ideology. Consider the Maoist-like struggle sessions that are constantly playing out on social media and in office and Zoom meetings. For an example, see Benjamin Boyce’s recent interview with Tom Wrocklage, who was taken to task by fellow council members for allowing a friend’s black nephew to sit on his own white knee. Tom’s accusers shout at him and quickly becoming very emotional. If this behavior is any indication of their general mental states, it is reasonable to feel concerned about their mental health.

Woke ideology trains one to see racism, sexism, ableism, classism, transphobia, fatphobia and other prejudices in every situation—even when they do not exist. The rationale is that if you can find it, it’sthere. However, as we all know, if you want to find something badly enough, you are bound to find it. Our brains are wildly proficient at mental gymnastics: twisting narratives, statistics and reality to fit our worldview. If what happened to Tom Wrocklage happens to someone psychologically vulnerable and without a good social support network—the likelihood of which has increased exponentially due to social distancing—the results could be catastrophic.

Any ideology that causes a person to restrict himself to an echo chamber is harmful, but one that might leave him completely isolated is especially dangerous. Life is difficult enough. An ideology that sets impossible goals sets people up to fail. It’s hard enough to meet our own self-defined goals, let alone the unreasonable, untenable goals of critical social justice activism. There must be a better way forward, one that improves mental health and social relationships. Disparities in health outcomes are a serious problem but our methods for fixing the problem should not themselves endanger people’s mental health. Instead, we must come together to create real change for those who need it most.

If you are feeling despair right now, contact the Samaritans for free on 116 123 in the UK or 1 (800) 273-TALK in the US or reach out to a friend. You are valuable: please stay. 

Published August 10, 2020

Steve Dreesman is a temporary licensed mental health counselor who has worked closely with individuals with concerns of anxiety, depression, suicidality, stress, men’s issues, perinatal mental health, and relationship issues. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveDreesman

One comment

  1. Thanks for writing this! I liked the differing theories and seeing them converge on the potential follies of wokeism.

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