Why Racial Justice Needs to Include Mental Health

by Oliver Glass


indexI was watching the second season of Empire when my evening turned sour. My date, a white PhD student, made comments that focused on Cookie and her sons, the representations of Black bodies most often abused, consumed, and discarded by white gay men. His reductive comments about Blackness reached an all time low when he said, “why doesn’t Andre ever manage his health? I want to see him take control of it.”


There are many reasons why Andre and the real Andres of the world “don’t manage” their health better. But my date was completely oblivious to how Bipolar Disorder I and its interaction with Blackness contributed to Andre’s behavior.


Many people talk about managing mental health as if it is a simple process of self-control and individualized care. In reality, there are many factors that influence how a person interacts with mental illness, such as elements of shame, religion, fear and trauma. There are also many barriers to access mental health care, especially for queer Black folks, who are impacted by intersecting systems of classism, sexism and racism.


In some ways, Andre’s character reminds me of myself. As a Black gay Southerner raised in a rural trailer park with a single mother, I grapple with mental health concerns. I’ve been diagnosed with comorbid PTSD-Bipolar 2 disorder. Like Andre Lyon, I am the oldest of three sons and the first in my family to go to college. Unlike Andre, however, I don’t have family record labels to fall back on. If that were the case, I would at least be in a comfortable home instead of writing this from transitional housing.


The recent, deathly decline of my health is not related to a flaw in my ability to ‘manage’ myself, but rather has resulted from a lack of compassion and empathy from other people. Last year, a Black male mental health worker called me a “faggot” and threatened to “beat” my “gay ass” after I tried to use a patient phone to contact hospital administrators to report his abuse. This hospital, which mainly serves poor Blacks, many of whom are formerly or currently incarcerated, is not equipped to deal with the population they claim to serve.


Another time I was dismissed from a private mental health clinic because my white female therapists reported me as “combative” and “aggressive.” They did this because I questioned why the white clients were allowed to discuss their concerns freely in group therapy while patients of so-called ‘troubled’ backgrounds were told not to because it could ‘trigger’ white patients, clearly privileging some patients over others.


Everywhere I turn in these systems, I am invalidated and dismissed. What hurts Black persons with mental health conditions is the fact that we cannot find the validation we need anywhere. That lack of validation from mental health systems, like Lucious not recognizing Andre’s needs, continues the cycle of violence and suffering.


Part of the issue is that we are not all treated as human by these health services. And those of us treated poorly by hospitals are also the most likely to be murdered by police officers. We need to be more honest in both the mainstream media and within the Black community about the intersections of extreme poverty, race, sexuality, and mental health.

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I see mental health, suicide and police violence as very connected. When sister Natasha McKenna was murdered after a psychotic episode, she received substantially less social media attention than Sandra, Trayvon and Michael. Natasha’s psychiatric crisis and the resulting force were not valued as the same severity of state violence as Michael Brown because we have difficulty admitting that severe mental health crises affect our community. Kalief Browder, a young man who committed suicide after state violence, does not receive the same attention from our community as those shot by the police.


When Sandra Bland was murdered, people talking around me did not include her history of severe PTSD and depression, only citing her as “too strong” and having “too much going for her” to commit suicide. People with mental concerns are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police. Young Black folks are between 10 and 40 times more likely to be killed by the police. We need to talk about how Black Americans with mental health concerns are extremely vulnerable to police murder.


Laquan McDonald’s mental health disorder has been largely excluded from the mainstream narrative of his last days and hours. Like Laquan, I was beaten with drop cords at home and was referred to as “nigger” and “fag” by students at my predominantly white working class Tea Party grade school. The isolation from not having safety at home, nor outside of the home increases the physical isolation we already experience in an extremely anti-Black world. These dynamics lead to excess stress on young minds that causes or increases the severity of many mental health concerns. I say concerns rather than disorders because there is nothing disordered about having your brain react in a 24/7 war zone.


We need to demand justice in a way that is more holistic, recognizing the ways that mental health is connected to our lives and deaths. Addressing that would help open the conversation as to why many people in our community do not go to mental hospitals in the first place. It also would progress our understanding of education and poverty, since many of our poorest kids already have some form of PTSD.


Envisioning what mental health care would look like for poor and disenfranchised Blacks is the necessary start. Working to get more Black bodies into these spaces as critically informed practitioners is a good first step. We need poor QTPoC from places that are not seen as ‘good areas’ informing our mental health-care. This entails working on Black matriculation into medical schools, PhD psychology programs, and social work.


We cannot dismantle racism without being honest about the effects of sustained trauma on our mental health. All Black Lives Matter, especially those of us who are thought of as mentally unwell.

A first generation student from the rural South, Oliver is a recent research student at the University of Cambridge. Having faced the brutality of homelessness, exploitation and family estrangement he embraces trauma therapy. The next year will see him serving in a capacity as a teacher or social work student.

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