It’s not just personal, it’s policy

Rates of suicide have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and mental illness is more prevalent today than ever before. However, the societal causes of mental illness are still not widely recognized, so people who suffer mental illness are often treated as though the problem is entirely their own to solve. A new novel, released by Chicago publisher Heeler Books in April, aims to change that. 

A Revolution of the Mind by Chicago author MV Perry, is a striking work of autobiographical fiction that explores mental illness and its manifestations throughout the narrator’s life. The narrator, Ellen “Boo” Harvey, hopes to build a social movement like the civil rights struggle, but the goal of this movement would be to address mental illness and the societal structures that make it so widespread.

Perry is able to write with such insight into the problem of mental illness because he has spent basically his whole life with a disability, advocating on behalf of similarly situated people—first as a psychiatric unit volunteer, then as a master’s student in urban mental health studies, then as a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grantee organizing mental health consumers for political advocacy. Now, Perry is incorporating an Illinois organization called the Legislative Consumer Leadership Conference, which is dedicated to mental health policy and legislation for the consumer. Perry draws from this background when shaping the character of Boo Harvey, a mentally ill advocate for the mentally ill. 

Ultimately, A Revolution of the Mind is a book about the inherent inequality of capitalism and the hopelessness that causes so many of capitalism’s subjects to suffer from mental illness. Fans of the writer Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, will certainly connect with the book, as it opens with this essential quote from Fisher: “The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. Considering mental illness as an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.”

Boo Harvey hopes to do exactly that—repoliticize mental illness by building a social movement—and she takes enormous strides throughout the book, even as she struggles with her own mental health. Growing up in a wealthy white family in the North Shore suburbs, Boo is hyper-aware of the massive scale of injustice in her city. Perry describes it perfectly, writing that: “The story of Chicago, city of broad shoulders and underground abortions, is a story of adjacent inequality. This fact is both homicidal and suicidal, for the same core reasons, though these take on vastly different forms of social ills, none of which are desirable, all of which are potentially fatal.” Mental illness is one of those fatal consequences, but instead of addressing this crisis, Chicago’s politicians have spent a miniscule amount of their massive budget on the people’s mental health. 

A Revolution of the Mind by MV Perry
Heeler Books, paperback, 482 pp., $19.99, heelerbooks.com

A Revolution of the Mind follows Boo from her birthplace to California for college, and back to Chicago, where she works with Jude Freedman, a “suicidal advocate for the mentally ill.” Boo also struggles with her own mental illness, but she and Jude demonstrate that people with lived experience are the ones who have the most insight into the problem. However, as Jude points out, people with mental illness are often shut out of policymaking, so the system does not reflect their often revolutionary goals. People like Boo, Jude, and Mark Fisher understand, through experience, that mental illness is a lot more than one person’s issue. As Boo says to Jude, reminiscent of Fisher, “I don’t have a sophisticated understanding of suffering. They tell you it’s mainly in the brain, but that’s a matter of conjecture. Depression, mania, and schizophrenia do not exist in states of nature, and cannot be physically identified as body pathologies . . . I’d say it’s more about environment. About culture, politics, structures, ideas, and ways of life and how we engage with and against them. How it induces fear, harm, and safety in myriad combinations. Our body enables suffering by predisposing us to it, but the root lies not in the body. It’s in the world.”

This insight would lead one to question just about everything regarding how politicians treat mental health—or don’t treat it, because not many are willing to invest the necessary resources to match the scale of the problem. Fortunately however, there are some trying to change that—such as 33rd Ward alderperson Rossanna Rodriguez Sanchez, who has been an outspoken advocate for increasing public mental health funding. She has been a leading sponsor of the Treatment Not Trauma ordinance, which would send non-police mental health emergency workers to people in the midst of a mental health crisis, because around half of people killed by police suffer from one or more disabilities—something that Perry touches on throughout the book. Sanchez has also advocated for reopening and expanding the public mental health clinics that previous mayors closed—something that Mayor Lightfoot promised to do on the campaign trail, but quickly backed away from once in office. 

Boo discusses the protests around these mental health clinic closures several times in the book, which takes place throughout that same time period. Boo and Jude also travel to Springfield to advocate against former governor Bruce Rauner’s seven-figure mental health budget cuts throughout the book. Today, the lack of mental and physical health care in low-income communities plays a big part in many crises in Illinois, including suicide, substance abuse, and gun violence. 

Boo is forced to listen to fearmongering about Chicago crime from her family when they have political discussions at the dinner table throughout the book, including when her Aunt Mary says, “Oh, the crime in the city . . . That’s why we should stay on the North Shore.” However, Boo points out that these same family members’ conservative politics are a major factor driving the violence in the city, including both their budget cuts to mental health care, and their steadfast support for policing and incarceration, which hoards most of the public resources that could otherwise go to social programs that have been proven to reduce violence. As Boo points out in an argument with her brother: “There are blocks in Austin where we spend a million dollars on incarcerating people. If someone tells me we have the money to do that but don’t have the money for education, I call bullshit.”

Perry’s Boo Harvey is an enthralling character, and you can’t help but root for her and the movement that she hopes to build, especially if you also suffer from a mental illness or love someone who does. Boo writes and speaks in very relatable and accessible language, and the scenes that Perry paints are very impressive—including legislative visits and long nights working with the amazing character Jude, and college parties, classwork, and existential crises with a variety of likable people in California. 

As someone who shares a similar background as Perry, including growing up in a segregated, mostly white and wealthy area of Chicago and suffering from mental illness (“There were blunt, horrific truths about American history—even very recent history, even the present day—that had been dismissed from our upbringing. The psychic implications of these omissions were wide-reaching”), I connected on a personal level with the novel, and found in it great potential for solidarity. Even though the book discusses very difficult topics, like depression and suicide and racism and poverty, it does so in a way that is easy to connect with. I highly recommend the book to anyone in the city, whether you are from the north, south, east, or west side—and especially downtown in the center of the city, where there has been increased security measures put in place by Mayor Lightfoot, who seems intent on turning Chicago into even more of a police state than it already was. 

While Boo is certainly my favorite character in the book, Perry writes with insight through several characters, including Kamil, a Black boyfriend of a cousin who says, reminiscent of Baldwin, “You know, honestly, I wouldn’t want to be white. When you’re white, nobody tells you when you’re wrong, at least not in the ways that I’m told to check myself. You can go years being laughably incorrect and nobody tells you anything. Nobody tells you what’s in your blind spot. They teach you that you don’t have blind spots. It’s an identity of self-deception. If you want to go through life thinking people get what they deserve and the world is fair, you can do that. If you want to go through life thinking that you’re capable of extraordinary talent even as all signs point to your ordinariness, you can do that. If you want news and history that suits your biases, it’s all over the place. You can hold it up, call it the arrogant truth, and elect leaders around it. I don’t see that as a fulfilling life, and that’s why I don’t want it. It’s complacent and insecure at best. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be so distant from your fellow humans and have this vague fear surrounding your view of their existence. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of the line, no matter how big the house or how enormous the fortune.”

Ultimately, A Revolution of the Mind is a great Chicago novel, and it is something that every white Chicagoan should read. Boo’s journey reminds us of the root of many of society’s crises: some people have so little precisely because others have so much. Boo tells her dad,“The city is trying to spend 90 million dollars training new police officers, and therefore it is not strapped for money. There are large stocks of wealth that have been diverted from various authorities and tax districts and set aside for private developers. Chicago has the money. It’s only broke when it needs to allot one million to keep mental health clinics running. It’s racist, frankly.”

The only way to change things, Boo says, is through political struggle that attempts to change the structures that produce inequality in this city, state, country, and world. This can only be achieved through movements, not politicians. People like Boo and Jude, and others with lived experience of mental illness, poverty, housing and food insecurity, racism, and police brutality, should be at the center of policymaking around those issues. Until that happens, and until the necessary investments are made, people will keep dying from interpersonal violence, suicide, substance abuse, and more. Boo recognizes this, but ultimately she concludes that individual change is still possible, and through that collective change becomes more attainable. Perry writes, “A higher ground within this world is possible through the triumph of the mind. It is possible through the courage to recognize that one’s suffering is joined with the suffering of all, and to rearrange the terms of how one lives according to that recognition.”

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