I recently attended a Mental Health Symposium at American University which discussed mental health as a social justice issue. The insights I heard inspired this follow-up to “OG, YG, Sick G.”
Mother, storyteller, survivor, and advocate Leah Harris describes how our society treats people with mental health illnesses as scapegoats for societal violence. Examples of this damaging scapegoating can be seen in our media and culture. We have developed an impulse to point fingers at mental illness, as if people are completely controlled by their disease and treatments. As if mental health exists without a person—as if a person is merely a host to their mental illness—and the disease is an autonomous being.
Furthermore, we assume mental illness is a surefire diagnosis for uncontrollable self-harm and violence towards others. We look at mental illness as a public safety hazard, rather than addressing it as a matter of public health. In treating mental health as the all-encompassing definition of someone’s identity, we neglect to look at the whole person. We neglect to acknowledge the other identities a person possesses—we ignore their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and culture. We ignore their personality.
Looking at mental health as just a medical topic prohibits recognizing mental health as a social justice issue. We are separating the person from their context, and depoliticizing mental health. In this stiflingly politically correct phase of American culture, we tend to pretend important sociological issues aren’t political. Mental illness is political, incarceration is political, and people of color’s experiences are political. Environment directly impacts mental health, so when people cannot get access to basic groceries, housing, or medical care—that is political. The trauma of racism, school to prison pipeline, and systematic oppression is deeply political.
People of color are underrepresented in community action around mental health, yet we are overrepresented in incarcerated communities. The urban black boys we so quickly dismiss as thugs and gangbangers are often being exposed to trauma, toxic stress, and adverse childhood experiences—a strong recipe for susceptibility to addiction and mental stress. Not acknowledging people of color and impoverished people’s complicated relationship with mental health is not healthy or productive. Blaming people with mental illnesses for societal violence is not healthy or productive, either. We blame the system for being broken, but are we giving it the resources it needs? It’s time to ask ourselves some tough questions. Are we contributing to the system’s ignoring of mental illness in the Black community by ignoring it within our own community? Are we contributing to the distorted image of mental health when we assume someone who shoots up a school is mentally ill? The answer is yes. So now what?
You can access Leah Harris’ website at http://www.madinamerica.com/author/lharris/
If you would like to access the well-respected Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) public health study, you can access the study here http://www.acestudy.org/ According to the CDC, the ACE study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.
For a start finding helpful resources for ACE scores, childhood trauma, and mental health, check out the Community Resilience Cookbook