How Do We Fight For Mental Well-Being (While Preserving Our Own)? [Reader Forum]

The community discusses how to work towards real mental health -- both for communities of color, and for the activists who fight.

By Channing Kennedy Jun 04, 2012

On Tuesday, Jamilah King dug into the long and unpleasant history of the mental health establishment’s relationship with implicit (and not-so-implicit) racism. Today, it manifests in disproportionate punishments in schools and misdiagnoses in hospitals. As Jamilah writes, it’s better than it used to be — though that’s not saying much:

[…] in the 1850s, American psychiatrists believed that runaway slaves suffered from an acute mental illness called "drapetomania." The era was also littered with references to "dysaesthesia aethiopis", a form of madness characterized by disrespect for the slave owners’ property and best treated with extensive whipping.

In the early twentieth century, American psychiatrists thought that schizophrenia patients were largely white, middle class and harmless to society. […] It wasn’t until the 1960s that societal attitudes toward the disease dramatically shifted. Schizophrenia was no longer seen as harmless, but was instead a dangerous disease defined by rage and associated with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Here’s what you fine folks in the community had to say.

Lee Hurter:

Peter Breggin’s "The War on Children of Color" is one great resource that goes into depth about the racism in the mental health system. He discusses how not only is there a history of using the so-called "mental health system" to kill, institutionalize, or pathologize people of color, but also there are increasingly new policies being developed that are blurring the line between the prison system and the mental health system. For example, there is a push to computerize mental health records so they can be used in a similar way criminal records are used. There is also a push for forced outpatient drugging and for mental health screenings of children.

Sana Siddiqui:

In the UK, Suman Fernando does great research in this area, and in Canada, Kwami McKenzie does. But Canada still refuses to collect race statistics on school discipline, and in the criminal justice system that is a huge barrier to recognizing the true extent of inequity and working to challenge it.


Not a surprise at all. In a somewhat related manner, growing up, my teachers attempted to put me in special education classes, despite there being nothing wrong with me.

If it weren’t for me having a mother that was a strong advocate for her children, I would have been another African-American caught up in the system.


I was also put into a special education classroom because of my foreign accent and other obscure "differences." Thank goodness for strong parents who cut through the bullcrap!

Hazumu Osaragi:

It’s a problem that doesn’t just affect those of color, though affecting those of color is a symptom of something larger.

Growing up, I was a bully magnet. This reached a peak between 5th and 7th grades, when I was involved in fights with bullies at school about once a month. They started the fight, threw the first punches. When ‘the authorities’ broke up the fight and marched us to the school office, the perpetrators were given a stern talking to (complete with finger-wagging by the principal,) and sent back to their classrooms. I was escorted into the principal’s inner office and given 4 to 15 whacks from the principal’s ping-pong paddle while he berated me for starting the fights.

What had I done to attract that kind of attention? Try as I might, I didn’t behave like a ‘normal’ boy. (Full disclosure: I’m transgender.)

As the authorities favored my tormentors, I started giving my all when I found myself inescapably involved in a fight. My attackers didn’t see the end of the fight unscathed. Even if I lost, they still had bloody noses, fat lips, teeth marks or other stigmata from me. That was the only thing that turned the tide for me, as their ‘friends’ wouldn’t let them live down the fact that a pussy kid had marked them so.

It’s not JUST people of color who receive unfair and disproportionate treatment. Look at disproportionate punishment, and at ALL the groups who are being punished disproportionately. Perhaps you’ll notice that problem isn’t the disproportionate severity of punishment towards one group (there are several groups out there that receive disproportionate punishment,) but the disproportionate LENIENCY towards one group.

Shreya ?. Mandal

Thank you for writing this important article and for educating the public about the insidious nature of mental health and the pathology of black men. Most developing studies and research of mental health already contain racial bias within the studies of those disorders, so the pathology is often a fear-based one that perpetuates racial stereotypes of the angry black male. I’m glad schizophrenia is mentioned here because it is a disorder that is indeed more prevalent among whites than blacks. It is of great concern on my end that black men consistently get misdiagnosed with a range of psychotic or character disorders rather than taking trauma or PTSD into account. We as a society are so quick to label a black man as angry that we are blinded from culturally identifying most black people to experience a high degree of anxiety, not anger. This is why the field really needs more conscious mental health professionals who are culturally competent and know what they are talking about.

Carolina Guzmán:

This is so disconcerting. I have been aware of the role of the drug industry in creating and defining mental health diagnoses, but to learn about the historical antecedent of this misuse of diagnosing and medicating is simply an outrage. As a society, we treat our mental health population like disposable human beings and deny them dignified, independent and integrated living. We must all rally against this and create change now!

And on Wednesday, Mónica Novoa brought some real talk for folks doing the work to create justice: take care of yourself, or you won’t be able to take care of anyone else. In the second of our two-part series on mental health, she speaks with community organizers and leaders about what they do to make their work and their workplaces emotionally sustainable. The community has tips as well — not least of which is for organizations to be held accountable.

Gregory A. Butler:

Yoga mats and mediation are nice; however, I don’t think that addresses the real cause of burnout of professional activists. I think a lot of the problems faced by professional activists come from long work days and excessive workload.

It would probably be more productive if organizations that claim to be for social change started changing the working conditions of their staff to match their stated principles. That is, no more overworking of staff – if there isn’t enough staff to carry out the mission, reduce the scope of the mission instead of expecting the staff to work unpaid overtime or take work home to get things done. Also, live up to basic labor movement principles like an eight-hour day with a non-working lunch break and non-working rest breaks. Also, it should go without saying, pay your staff a living wage, and if they have to work through lunch, stay late, come in early, work on a weekend or take work home, pay them overtime for that work.

That would cost money, and asking for more money for the funders just to improve working conditions and raise wages for program staff might ruffle feathers, so better just to go with the new age talk circles and meditation instead.

radical desi:

THANK YOU for posting this. I had to stop working as a full time activist because my well-being took the back seat and really affected my life and my health. Because of that, I can’t imagine myself working as a full-time activist again (which is very sad). I wish more people would realise this is important and take their employees’ well-being (even outside the activist world) seriously. The way things work now is totally unsustainable and I hope that more employers pay attention to this!


I think the biggest lesson I have learned is not to allow your work become your identity, especially any particular organization, even if you are the founder or head of it. When we don’t have a support network that we can turn to outside of work, people who care about us as people regardless of where we work, then it is easy for us to be taken advantage of at work. This is particularly hard on us when we are already inclined to put ourselves last in the service of the organization or movement.

In the end, a job or an organization is not who we are. When we buy into that, it doesn’t just cause stress; it can lead to profound disillusionment and take a huge toll on our mental health. Taking care of ourselves includes looking out for yourself as an employee, and for your own career and development as an organizer, advocate, or social change professional of any sort. There is a reason some of my friends jokingly call it the ‘non-profit industrial complex.’ Ultimately we cannot expect our workplace will always have our best interests at heart, no matter where we work.

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