acitivist, advocacy, Advocate, bipolar, creative nonfiction, derogatory words, mental health, mental illness, mentally ill, prison, psychiatry, psychology, psychosis, racism, schizophrenia, stereotypes, stigma
Nine people are dead in South Carolina. The cause of their deaths was racism. Racism is a national problem, but we only seem to discuss it when there is a crisis. The same is true of mental illness. Mental illness is a national problem that is only discussed when there is a crisis.
This current crisis (act of terrorism) was a cross section where both of these national problems collided. There was talk of white supremacy, hatred, racism, and at the same time, the media was quick to speculate that there was a possibility that the shooter (do we need to name him?) was mentally ill. Because of course, every time there is a mass shooting, we claim the shooter is mentally ill.
I can’t truly understand what it feels like to experience racism, because I am not a person of color. I am white, but in certain circumstances, like at the hospital, pharmacy, clinic, or when I am actively psychotic, people don’t see my whiteness, they see my schizophrenia. And people with schizophrenia do understand a lot about what it is like to be a part of a marginalized population.
We understand what it is like to be referred to in a derogatory manner. We don’t have the N word, but we have the words, crazy, psycho, lunatic, nut-job, wacko, cray cray, etc. We know what it is like to turn on social media and be met with hatred, ignorance, and a constant barrage of jokes. I see memes posted on Facebook and Twitter that are joke about hearing voices. The same people posting those jokes and memes consider me a friend. I guess those people aren’t hostile towards the mentally ill though, because after all, they do have one mentally ill friend.
Prison is something else those of us with a mental illness share with black Americans. According to the CDC in 2013 the percentage of black Americans was 15.2%. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons 37.6% of those in prison are black. Those numbers seem disproportionate don’t they? A huge percentage of people who are black are in prison. This is also true for the mentally ill. According to an article in the April 7th, 2015 issue of the Atlantic it states that half of all prisoners in jails and state prisons have some form of mental illness.
Of course there is the history of this country. The mentally ill were never slaves, and no one, but the people who live it, can know what having your ancestors live as the property of others is like. I wouldn’t pretend to know the impact or magnitude of that reality. I also cannot pretend to know what it is like to live with organizations like the KKK, or the threat of being hung. No, the experiences are not exactly the same.
The mentally ill do have a painful history in this country though. Those who came before us were sterilized, lobotomized, given ice baths, given insulin therapy, and electric shock therapy, they were contained in straightjackets, and many spent their whole lives in institutions.
There is also the issue of police killings. Since the 1980’s the incidents where the mentally ill were/are killed by police continues to increase. In the December 9, 2012 issue of the Portland Press Herald it was estimated that up to half of all fatal police shootings that year, involved a mentally ill person.
In a few weeks the news outlets will rarely mention South Carolina. We may get updates about the perpetrator and his trial. The victims will lose their air time. I hope the conversation continues though. I hope this for all of us, because a society that marginalizes people shouldn’t be setting itself up as an example for the rest of the world to follow. Not everyone here feels all the benefits of equality. I can think of two groups of people that have never tasted the full measure of a just and equal system.