Why We Shouldn’t Let Mental Health Stigma Control the Conversation About Aaron Bushnell

Andre Henry
7 min readFeb 29, 2024

The solution to stigma isn’t to pretend that mental anguish and political protest are separate.

Content Warning: Mention of suicide

There’s a darkness in the discourse surrounding the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell. Bushnell, a 25-year-old U.S. Airman, died after setting himself on fire in protest against the onslaught against Palestine, outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. on February 26, 2024.

The media has obfuscated Bushnell’s political message by stoking suspicions of “mental illness.” Activists and social justice advocates expected as much, as the media usually buries immolation stories or misrepresents them by depoliticizing them.

That explains why the mere mention of mental health, especially to call his protest a suicide (which I did in an unpublished blog), is enough to make social media social justice warriors try to run you out of town.

The strong aversion to talking about mental wellness after such an event demonstrates the power mental health stigma holds over our common sense. The tyranny of mental health stigma must be overthrown so that deaths like Bushnell’s can lead to more productive conversations about the content of political liberation.

Stigma erects a barrier between affect and politics, cutting off the possibility and revolutionary potential of knowing that our feelings are valid and political.

Aaron Bushnell and the Maladjusted

Aaron Bushnell’s political awakening evokes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. In a speech at Monmouth College (1966), King said,

“But I say to you, my friends, as I move to my conclusion, there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of goodwill will be maladjusted.” King even spoke — with some level of irony — of creating an “International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.”

To be maladjusted doesn’t necessarily mean your emotional life is bulldozed into perpetual melancholy. King’s own “maladjusted” life meant that he was a beacon of hope while wrestling constantly with grief and despair. We don’t need to gut such people of emotions that live in tension with one another.

Aaron Bushnell was among the maladjusted King spoke of. He, too, seemed to intimately know the intersection of radical hope (from his dreams of a post-scarcity future) and political despair.

An analysis of his social media usage connected Aaron Bushnell to a Reddit account, Acebush, whose feed, over years, shows a user turning to military service for relief from financial hardship. Acebush1’s admiration for the Air Force devolved into condemnation over time.

He reflects on his military contract as “a huge mistake” and a “regret I will carry the rest of my life.” In response to a veterans thread, he wrote,

“I have been complicit in the violent domination of the world, and I will never get the blood off my hands.”

He later wrote about “the moral necessity of getting out.”

Taken together, Bushnell seems to have experienced some level of moral injury while in the military, which produced a deep and enduring sense of shame. Moral injury — “a specific trauma that arises when people face situations that deeply violate their conscience or threaten their core values”—is often listed as a risk factor for suicide among people who have served.

But society is uninterested in the emotional content of Bushnell’s story.

They don’t care to connect the dots between the stress of financial hardship, the regret of enlistment, the remorse that burdened him during active duty, and the sense of feeling trapped by his contract, to the moral clarity we saw on display in the video of his final protest.

How Conservatives Weaponize Mental Health Stigma

Conservatives don’t want to connect all of those feelings to Bushnell’s protest because those feelings are tethered to the global system of oppression. If you tug at the lines that connect Bushnell’s burdens to the structural forces that laid them, they threaten to uproot the whole system. They dare us to see our feelings as symptoms of living under exploitation.

Mental health stigma is useful for conservatives to keep us from understanding that our stress, rage, depression, boredom, heart-wrenching compassion, burdened consciences, suicidal ideation, and acts of rebellion are all natural responses to the assaults of living under a destructive, unjust system. They expect us to be “well” in a sick society — to be adjusted, as though we don’t get sick from sickening conditions.

We’re not well.

We’re losing sleep because we’re watching a genocide unfold live on Instagram, amid a myriad of other more intimate crises.

Wellness shouldn’t be expected of us — not unconditionally.

These are hostile conditions for our minds and bodies. There should be no stigma around being maladjusted to these conditions.

How Social Justice Warriors Let Stigma Rule the Conversation

Social justice warriors are no more interested in connecting Bushnell’s feelings to his protest either.

Determined to have a politically pure hero, and averse to acknowledging the possible role of mental anguish for fear of pathologizing or stigma, they’ve dismissed Bushnell’s emotional life.

It was an act of protest — and solely an act of protest — they insist because they don’t care to know what he said about how he felt for years leading up to the event. They viciously defend an imaginary binary between personal anguish and political protest that has never existed in history.

The Exodus story is preceded by the “cry” of the Israelites in Egypt.

The Haitian Revolution is preceded by the hopeless resignation of the enslaved, who would sometimes kill themselves “to spite their masters,” C.L.R James writes.

Before the Algerian revolution is the “occupied breathing” of colonization described by Fanon.

In every story like these, an oppressor stands contrary to the oppressed, stigmatizing harm and pathologizing resistance. But we don’t dismiss the harm lamented and displayed by the oppressed, because it is always the prelude to and grounds for their resistance.

Those who want to utilize the image of Bushnell’s burning body without the inconvenience of his story are in denial.

They insist on semantics — as though suicides are never acts of protest, erasing what the Igbo did on St. Simons Island in 1803, in what is known as the first freedom march in U.S. History and a mass suicide. They drowned themselves rather than live as fugitives in the so-called New World, believing they’d return to Africa after their deaths.

They claim no one imitates self-immolators, even though Hosni Kalaya, whose self-immolation shortly after Mohamed Bouazizi’s helped spark the Arab Spring, regrets it to this day, partly because it inspired his younger brother to die imitating him.

Kalaya recalls the “terror and regret” that engulfed him as the flames overtook his body. He told NPR:

“If anyone really knew the pain they were going to experience, they would never have done it.”

They want to make Bushnell into a Buddhist monk who only acted out of compassion and resolve — that the only legitimate feeling in response is admiration.

This kind of dishonesty isn’t necessary.

The fact of the matter is Aaron Bushnell wasn’t Thich Nhat Hanh (who, btw, said some pretty ableist things while trying to differentiate self-immolation from suicide).

He was a white, American male. He didn’t just walk up to the Israeli embassy with a gas canister, moral outrage, and mindfulness. He also lugged a mind heavy with regrets he couldn’t imagine ever being free from.

There should be no qualms about considering that he may have also been suffering from a type of despair, that the prospect of dying in protest could also have meant some form of relief and redemption through the most emphatic defection from the armed forces imaginable.

Why We Should Let Mental Anguish Be Part of the Conversation

All revolutions emerge from the despair of the maladjusted.

When we deny the possibility that mental anguish is both rational, reasonable, and revolutionary, we empower the stigma our opponents weaponize against us. We also make it harder for more people to connect the dots between their personal suffering, the systems that produce and maintain their suffering, and the means to mitigate that misery — all because we’re afraid of some bad-faith actor calling us “ill.”

Aaron Bushnell gave voice to a pain we all feel to some degree if we are awake to the injustices of the world. We don’t yet have adequate language for it because our common sense about society and wellness is dominated by all kinds of medical language with problematic baggage. That common sense includes a partition between personal affect and political reality.

The solution to stigma isn’t to pretend that mental anguish and political protest are separate, but to embrace the relationship between oppression, emotional stress, and revolutionary action, all at the risk of being called maladjusted.

With a more robust framework of liberation, we can admire Aaron Bushnell’s strength of conviction and grieve the loss of his presence in the world at all of the intersections that meet in his story.

We can talk about his decision in a nuanced and responsible way.

We can understand why he chose to immolate himself, let it inspire us to do more to fight oppression, without pretending we’d be fine if more people did it.

We can hear his message and wish we lived in a world where no one felt the need to set themselves on fire.

If you are thinking of harming yourself, even for good cause, I want you to know something.

If you’re the type of person who would set yourself on fire to communicate the severity and urgency of the cause, please know that we need you here.

If you’re in the U.S. please text 988.

If you’d rather not risk talking with someone at the suicide hotline, please consider reaching out to someone you trust. The scripts below from the International Association for Suicide Prevention may be helpful if you can’t find the words:

I am deeply indebted to the work of Ann Cvetkovich, whose book Depression: A Public Feeling has helped me find language to articulate the intersection between “affect and politics,” as she says.

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Andre Henry

Best-selling author, award-winning musician, and activist writing about resilience and revolution.