The state of “mental health advocacy” is dangerously out of touch

There’s a lot more that needs to be done. pxfuel

When we neglect to connect racism and police violence to the issues of mental illness and suicide, it puts more and more lives at risk.

Content notice: this article contains discussion of suicide and racist police violence, including the murder of people with mental illness by police.

As a mentally ill person who has been in the system for now over ten years, I always write about mental healthcare with a mixture of grief and fury, and this month that is more true than ever. I feel obliged to mention that recently Jason Demerey, the head of a Regina-based mental health nonprofit (UnderstandUs) which served high school and university students, resigned after a host of young women and eyewitnesses came forward about sexual harassment they experienced from him as teenagers. I know very little about UnderstandUs or what they do – I understand they partnered with Tim Hortons and sold a lot of merch, but I have to confess none of that spoke to me or made me feel particularly protected – I only know that it leaves me bitter and hopeless to think that a “mental health advocate” very likely did lasting psychological harm to those he claimed to help. As is all too common, young people who struggle with their mental health cannot even trust the institutions literally created to keep them safe. 

I wish I could see this event as an outlier in the otherwise uplifting world of “mental health advocacy,” but to me it is merely more of the same. In fact, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way our “conversations” about mental wellness obscure the violence that really goes on even at the hands of trained professionals. I have spoken before about how “mental health” initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk Day and UnderstandUs merely scratch the surface of reality, but there is yet another layer to this which is even more insidious: the way racism, particularly anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, makes it completely irresponsible to centre the perspectives of white people’s mental health amidst healthcare that is quite literally deadly to those both racism and ableism (or “saneism,” as some call it) affects.

This past Friday, on July 30, Tristen Durocher and supporters of Walking with our Angels – a walk from La Ronge to Regina in support of suicide prevention legislation started by he and Chris Merasty – arrived at the Legislative building and constructed a tipi across the road. Tristen then began a hunger strike in protest of the unanymous Sask. Party rejection of Bill 613, a bill that proposed to address suicide in Saskatchewan by making it a health and safety priority in the province. At the time of writing this article, that strike has continued for five days. 

The same day the tipi went up, however, no less than six police officers arrived at the camp to deliver a single piece of paper, ordering that Walking with our Angels remove their tipi as they were violating Wascana Park bylaws. In four days, as reported by Walking with our Angels (@walkingwithour1) on twitter, no Sask Party politicians have come to speak with anyone at the camp, yet police have been dispatched to the location several times.

This is just another example of a narrative that has been repeated with maddening consistency in Saskatchewan and across Canada: people suffer and die because of systematic neglect, they or their families speak out in anger, and instead of showing any change or remorse the government sends in cops to do more harm.

It happened before just weeks ago when, after a public outcry across the city, the Saskatchewan Health Association apologized to the family of Samwel Uko and finally revealed the disturbing details of his ER visit before his death. Samwel was a student at our own university, an athlete who brought joy to the lives of his friends and family, and he was ejected from Emergency twice after clearly stating that he was in crisis and needed medical attention. His name joined hundreds of others in the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Regina, but he should still be here. Would a white boy struggling with the same depression have been escorted out of the hospital by police while seeking treatment for himself? Why were police dispatched to an ER when Samwel was a danger only to himself? Why did Samwel die after that, with no one seeing that he got to safety?

Outside of Saskatchewan, “wellness checks” by police – another deadly intersection between mental health “care” and law enforcement – have killed at least four people in the past few months: Ejaz Choudry, an elderly Muslim man who lived with schizophrenia. Chantel Moore, an Indigenous mother from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation who was in danger from abuse. Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman, and D’Andre Campbell, a Black man, both young and in crisis. I would like readers to really think about what this means: police arrived in response to a medical emergency and killed the person who asked for help. For this to happen even once is monstrous. For it to happen four times in such a short period, during a pandemic, defies words. None of these people were white, and I as well as any white person with mental illness knows that whiteness deeply changes the way we would be treated in situations just like this.

Yet, most “mental health advocates” and politicians who speak about suicide or mental health do not even mention this phenomenon of violent racism, much less make it the priority it needs to be in discussions about mental healthcare. Make no mistake: being an advocate for mental health must involve deep concern with the injustices above. This is the ultimate result of the discrimination, dehumanization and lack of compassion that mentally ill people face. We can talk about social stigma anytime, we can bring as many service dogs to our universities as we like, we can list the symptoms of depression and anxiety until we’re blue in the face – but until we acknowledge that racialized people with mental health problems are literally murdered in their homes for being in crisis, we are not talking about mental health advocacy at all. We must start there, and we must realize that caring about mental healthcare means opposing the involvement of police in crisis situations.

Since the pandemic began I have seen thousands of infographics on instagram about how to engage in self-care, support friends with depression and the like. These things are good, fine and necessary, but support of mentally ill people in our communities must also acknowledge that: a) there is an enormous difference between the way different people experience mental illness according to factors of race, class, and the vilification of their particular diagnoses, and b) supporting the mentally ill in our lives also means staunchly refusing to involve the police in their crisis interventions. Calling the police or calling for a carceral response to mental health issues or advocacy can kill. 

Lastly, anti-racist action constitutes action for mental healthcare. If you are passionate about reversing the stigma surrounding mental illness, you should also be passionate about Tristen’s hunger strike and the goals of Walking with our Angels. You cannot talk about suicide and depression without acknowledging that 29 out of the 30 girls who die by suicide in Saskatchewan are estimated to be Indigenous. We must quickly address the racist gaps that exist in “mental health conversations,” or risk losing even more lives. There has been enough death for a lifetime.

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