Political division straining mental health and relationships

In August, a user posted on Pantip, Thailand’s most popular online forum with the topic: “When you’re following politics so much it makes you stressed, what can I do?” She added: “I’ve already been depressed for a year. Reading political news everyday and seeing all the news about conflict makes me so anxious.” 

She’s likely not the only one who has been experiencing anxiety and mental fatigue from Thai politics in 2020. A study in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry recently found that “mental health outcomes following collective actions can be comparable to natural disasters, terrorist attacks or armed conflicts.”

Politics is a stressful business. 

On one level, it is simply the effect of living through a time of turmoil. Anxiety occurs for a myriad of reasons even in the best of times, and now is decidedly not the best of times. Indeed, in the wake of the escalating situation over the past week — the royal motorcade incident, state of emergency declaration, and dissolution of the Pathumwan protest — mental health has become an increasingly pertinent issue. 

For one, social media has now made the news inescapable. Even the most politically apathetic user of Twitter or Facebook will have found it impossible not to see the news. Instagram stories has recently been transformed into a space for activism. Tuning out is now more and more difficult. How does one resist the urge to “doom-scroll?”

Even worse, it’s now a lot easier to send — and to receive — hate speech. Sitting behind a screen empowers people to say things they would hardly dare say in person.

Take the example of rightwing Facebook groups. After the police forcibly dissolved the peaceful demonstration at Pathumwan on October 16th, many in these groups cheered the act, with some even saying it was not harsh enough. When activist Francis Bunkueanun Paothong tweeted, “To everyone who cursed me: I want to let you know I’m still fine, thank you!”, I shudder to think of what people had lobbed at him. 

The current political conflict has also affected real life relationships at all levels. A political generational gap is nothing new, but while I do not have statistical evidence to back this up, it is likely that the gap is more stark and exacerbated given the current wedge issues in society. 

As such, this gap has been ripping apart families; as the BBC recently documented, parents and their children are falling out over issues such as reverence for the monarchy. There are several screenshots on Twitter of acrimonious arguments in family LINE groups, with parents threatening to disown their sons and daughters over intense political disagreements. 

Outside the family, friendships are under strain.

It is not an uncommon phenomenon for people to be “unfriending” others on Facebook after seeing political views that do not align with their own. “Rub mai dai,” goes the Thai saying — I can’t stand that! It occurs all the time. Some people rub mai dai that others are okay with criticism of the monarchy, while some feel rub mai dai when they find out a friend is a salim

The corollary of rub mai dai is the pressure to try to get friends to conform. A friend told me about how she was being pressured by other friends to post about the protests on Instagram, even though she wasn’t comfortable doing so. Another explained on Twitter that while she really wants to attend the protests, she cannot out of fear of friction with her parents — a plea of understanding to other friends who would otherwise shame her for being ignorant.

With a society so polarized, a nation so divided, relationships broken, threats made and received: it is not surprising at all that stress has risen during this period. 

I’m not a mental health expert, and dealing with mental health issues must be done with a qualified psychiatrist. But I do believe that there are a couple of things that we can all keep in mind in this difficult period. 

Firstly, for a country that prides itself on being a Buddhist nation, values such as kwarm metta (benevolence) and kwarm karuna (compassion) are often sharply in short supply — as those who applauded the police crackdown demonstrated. Perhaps that is why the Dalai Lama once said that “compassion is the radicalism of our time.” 

We can all try to cultivate a positive and compassionate mindset towards others — even those that we virulently disagree with — and see our common humanity. Anger and hate, after all, does nothing good for our own mental wellbeing. 

Secondly, blocking or unfollowing people are normal things. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve blocked on social media in my entire life, but I’ve recently found myself unfollowing people on Facebook who regularly share hate speech. It’s one thing to be open minded towards constructive ideas, but there’s no reason any of us should tolerate utterly abhorrent language. 

Third, friendships can and should transcend politics. We are inherently social animals and it’s natural to feel stressed when relationships are broken. This was recognized when Thai author Roundfinger recently wrote an article entitled “We can still be friends.” His suggestions included a steadfast belief in freedom of expression and finding common values. He’s right! A diversity of political opinions among friends is to be expected, but in the end there is more that bind us than divide us. 

Respecting friends must also include respecting what they choose to, or choose not to, express. The more politically expressive among us — yours truly included — may find it baffling that some do not have political views or choose not to express them publicly. But trying to shame people into posting a certain view online, whether that be pro-reform or anti-reform, can only lead to more bitterness. 

And in the end, we must remember that it’s okay to tune out. There’s immense pressure to keep updated and to raise your own awareness level, especially if you’re not already familiar with Thai politics. But in the end, mental health comes first. Too many hesitate to turn off television or close Twitter even when they feel overwhelmed. 

Discussing mental health has slowly but surely become less and less of a taboo in societies worldwide, and this is something that I believe we must normalize and discuss more. It’s okay to not be okay. And as we move forward together into increasingly uncertain political terrain, we must act with compassion, kindness, and respect.

Or, to put it more simply: take care of yourself, and take care of each other. 

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