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Da’Shaun Harrison

Queering Mental Health: An Analysis on the Criminalization of Black People and Mental Health

Sept 6, 2018 at 3:20pm


Content warning Discussion of suicide & police brutality / murder

DA’SHAUN HARRISON: My name's Da'Shaun, and I'm gonna be talking about the criminality of blackness and queerness in mental health institutions. And before I start talking about that, I wanna ask a question. You can respond with waving your hand, by responding verbally, however your body allows you to respond, but I do want everyone to respond. And I'm gonna ask the question again at the end, and we’re gonna see how far we journeyed along in this conversation. So the question is, how many of you have, already, or feel that you would call police on a Black and/or visibly queer person having a mental health episode?

AUDIENCE: Hell no!

AUDIENCE: Never. Never.

DA’SHAUN: Beautiful. So there's no yeses in the room. My job's done. [all laugh]

That's wonderful. [laughs] So before I can really start talking about like how Black folks and queer folks are criminalized in mental health, I have to first tell my own story ‘cause that’s how I connect to it, right? When I was nine years old, I had my very first suicide attempt, and this led me to my very first interaction with mental health institutions, with my first therapist, who was an older white woman. And she was a wonderful therapist, a great therapist. I had a great time with her. She helped me through a lot, but she was my first interaction with a therapist. And as a 9-year-old boy who was dealing with familial abuse, who was dealing with bullying in school, who was dealing with a lot of other issues, the very first person I wanted to see when I was talking about my own issues would have been another Black person, right? Specifically somebody who was a Black youth. So this adds to the criminality of Blackness within mental health institutions because while I was comfortable with talking with her, a lot of other Black folks are not comfortable with doing so, right? Because we connect to people who look like us, who are like us, right? Which goes into Mallory’s conversation earlier with representation.

So because of this, as you can see here, there’s 13% of Black folks in the US, which I think is less now. Of those, 16% have been diagnosed with mental health illnesses, and that’s just those who actually go in to see a professional. That is over 6 million people in the country who have been diagnosed with mental health institutions, or who have had interactions with them, rather. This becomes a problem when we start talking about generational trauma, when we start talking about the ways in which folks who interact with mental health professionals have to deal with navigating the lack of representation within our institutions.

So then, when I turned 17, my senior year of high school, I had a lot of things going for me. I was the drum major of my high school marching band. I had an upcoming interview with Harvard, a lot of great things, right? And then I got diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, and that is a heart condition that causes your heart to be out of rhythm and is usually found in older white men, which I am not. [chuckles] It was an interesting process to understand where that came from, why that came from. And this led me, again, to having my second therapist. This therapist was also a white woman. Again, wonderful therapist; she's now my friend. But it goes back into how folks are not being represented within mental health institutions and why they choose to then not go. And that oftentimes leads to people being homeless. It leads to folks dealing with drug and alcohol abuse. It leads to people dealing with other substance abuses, which also leads them to prisons, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

And then I had this last time I had an interaction with a mental health institution, and that was at a psych ward, back in North Carolina, which is where I'm originally from. I live in Atlanta now, but it was from North Carolina. I went back home to have a heart surgery, and for two months, I had three panic attacks a day. And on this last time I had one, my mom came downstairs, and she saw me sitting on the floor. And I mentioned to her that I felt as if I was going to kill myself that night. So I went to the psych ward in my home town, and the very first person I saw when I walked through the door was a police officer. So my immediate thought went from wanting to kill myself to now wanting to protect myself from police killing me, right? This is the first interaction that I’m having as someone who was suicidal, who was trying to deal with their own suicidal ideations and am now having to worry about protecting myself. The police officer patted me down to see if I had anything on me. I didn't, of course. I left from there, changed out of my clothes, and went into a gown. They put me into a room that had a bed with no sheets, no blankets, that had no windows. And this quote up here is what I felt like. I felt like I didn't have a right to my health of mind because I was being imprisoned. Right? And it felt as if I was being put into a place where I didn't have any right to deal with my own mental health because I was having to protect myself from issues that only Black folks, only queer folks can be familiar with.

So that was my psych ward experience. I was told that I couldn't take my medicines in the psych ward while I was there as well. I have a heart condition, right? I have daily meds I have to take, and I couldn't take those while I was sitting in there. So I was being criminalized in different ways that, again, only folks with disabilities who are Black, who are queer could understand. When my psychologist came into the room, and I told her that I was queer, she asked me what that meant. So then I spent time explaining my own identity to this person who should’ve been readily available to understand who I was to help me through this process and not me help her, right? But that’s just my own experience. That's not talking about folks who are actually in prison. So now we're gonna talk about prisoners.

In prisons, there are some prisons who have psych wards, but there are very few. For those who do, most times, prisoners do not end up going to the psych wards. They end up spending time in what we would call the hole or solitary confinement. This means that for prisoners who have bipolar disorder, prisoners who have psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and so forth and so on, are taken away from any meds they may have been allowed to have take before. They are taken away from any counselors they may have interacted with. They’re taken away from any friends they may have made in prison, and they’re put into a place by themselves with no one to talk to, for however long the warden chooses to leave them there. This is anti-Black violence. This is anti-queer violence. This is anti-trans violence. This is ableist violence. And it’s something that we have to focus on if we are gonna concern ourselves with the mental health of people in the world, right, not just with those of us who are on the outside, but also those on the inside.

So while that is a case, another case is that for the few folks who do have mental health practices in prisons, the folks who are in charge of them are privately-funded, or they're privately-contracted, rather. And so they're usually nurses who have minimal understanding of mental health, or they're social workers who also have minimal understanding of mental health and don’t understand how to interact with folks who are both mentally ill and imprisoned. This also leads a lot of people to having time added to their sentences or are led to death. So then you have city police, state police, and campus police, who all are sectors playing a role in school-to prison-pipeline, playing a role in leading folks to prison and so forth and so on. So I'm gonna give a couple of examples of things that I've found and then read some of these stats on the board.

So in Atlanta, there was a Black man named Anthony Hill who is—who was, rather, a US military veteran. He was having his very first bipolar disorder episode. He stripped naked in his apartment complex, ran outside naked, and one of his neighbors called the police on him. The police came, and while this unarmed, naked Black man ran towards the police, they shot and killed him. That was the Cobb County Police Department.

In 2015, my friends and I, eight other people and myself, who are all Black and queer, we disrupted Hillary Clinton while she came to our school, talking about how she was going to win over the Black vote, how she had already gotten the Black vote, how she’d already gotten the HBCU vote. But for those who don’t know, Hillary has a very violent history with Black folks in America and abroad. And so we chose, as student organizers, to disrupt her. When doing so, her Secret Service came up to us, grabbed us, threatened to slam us on national television if we had not removed ourselves from the venue. We didn't, and they chose to do so anyway. On campus, Clark Atlanta’s police and the AUC, which is in Atlanta, Georgia, grabbed and tackled two Black queer students who were protesting institutional repression, slammed them. One of them got a concussion. The other was badly physically injured.

All these things matter because in each case, there is an example of a Black and/or queer person or persons who also are mentally ill—which means that they are also disabled—who have had terrible interactions with the police. And their bodies then become criminalized, they become institutionalized, and are oftentimes led to serious injury or to death. This becomes exacerbated when you are a young queer person, especially if you are a young queer person of color. 12-20% of the incarcerated youth in America are LGBT, while only 7-9% of LGBT youth are, rather, while only 7-9% of youth in America are LGBTQ-identified. To make matters worse, 85% of those who are incarcerated are Black and/or brown.

And LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to be detained for truancy, warrants, probation violations, running away from home. LGBTQ youth are criminalized for running away from home, which most times, are the most violent places we can be in, right, and are also arrested for prostitution, which is most times, the only way a lot of us can make money. So I want us to be mindful of that. And connecting homelessness, drug abuse, prostitution, alcohol abuse, all of that to our mental health and our mental state and how much a lot of us don't have access to the resources necessary to take care of our mental state, to take care of our mental health. And a lot of times, those matters are made worse when you are a Black and queer person living in America.

So since we’ve covered that, I wanna talk about what it means to organize against all of it. So the very first thing we can do is get active and learn about prison abolition movements in America. A lot of times, people think of that as a very radical expectation, as a very radical thought, and it really isn't. [chuckles] Prison abolition is a necessary step to bettering the mental health of those living in America. Because again, if we care about folks with mental illnesses, then we must care about folks who are imprisoned. Because putting people behind cages, just like putting dogs or cats or any other animal in a cage, is abuse. It doesn't help them. It doesn’t help with restitution. It doesn’t help with reform. It doesn’t help with restoration. All it does is worsens people's mental health and puts them back out into a world that says that they are unjust, that they are unworthy, and that they don't deserve our respect or our love, right?

Beyond that, you can share this information with folks who have institutional power to create reform. A lot of folks who are white, who are rich, who are able-bodied or non-disabled, as I like to say, don't have, or rather, they have access to people who hold power to make sure that these things are changed and don't utilize it. When I first got here to Portland, I met a woman who first started talking to me about her—she was a cis white woman—and she was talking about her job and things that she loved to do and what not. And she asked about this conference, actually, and I told her what I was gonna go talk about. And when I did, her response was, “Oh, wow. I'm just so sorry to hear about that.” [chuckle in the audience]

And I'm like, well, your sorrys are cool, but also, you just talked about your job and the amount of money you have and the amount of access you have. And while you're talking about your sorryness, and while you’re talking about being upset that these things are happening, you have the power and the resources and the access, right, to make a difference.


DA’SHAUN: So I think that if we're talking about making differences, if we're talking about access and stuff like that, that should be our main concern is organizing around that. Get educated on reformation in mental health institutions. There needs to be specific access to resources for those of us who deal with generational trauma. There are no spaces in mental health institutions for Black folks who are dealing with what it means to have a lineage of dealing with coming from slavery, coming from Jim Crow, coming from the now-mass incarceration. There’s no space for us to really reckon with that, right? For student organizers who are making noise around the country, around the world, have no direct access to resources that help us learn from and benefit from and deal with our mental illnesses while we’re fighting against systemic oppression. So that's one thing we can fight to reform.

Pushing for resources that speak directly to, again, generational trauma for Black and brown folks, that speak directly to not privatizing psych wards. When we start to talk about the privatization of mental health and how people benefit from not helping those of us with mental illnesses, it becomes really a much larger conversation. There are tons of companies around the country—around the world really—whose sole purpose is to make sure that we don't get help for our mental illness so that they continue to make money off of us not having healthcare, us not having access, and us not having resources. So if we're fighting against all of that, that must be one of our main concerns, as well.

But then, there's a big one that we can work on right now in this moment, and that's what I'm gonna talk about next. And that is the current prison strike happening in the US right now, as we speak. On August 21st, there were in 17 states, prisoners around the country chose that they were going to protest the injust and inhumane situation that they were living in. And they're doing that until September 9th. These are their 10 demands. I won't read them all, but I will say that I'm gonna have them like, I'll be around. So we can talk about it afterwards if you want to. But the important part about this is especially numbers 4 and numbers 5. A lot of folks have been ignoring those because they don’t know what those Acts are. I encourage you to look up the Truth In Sentencing Act and Sentencing Reform Act and also look up what it means to end racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole. I mentioned overcharging earlier because again, folks who deal with mental illnesses in prison are oftentimes having their charges stacked. They're having their charges over-stacked, and are oftentimes are not allowed to come out of prison because they are dealing with mental health issues, meaning that they have mental health episodes. And that leads them to being put into the hole. So these are all really important because it is a way for folks to get involved on the outside to make sure that folks on the inside are having their mental health prioritized until we work towards full abolition.

So in the country right now, there are folks who are doing Twitter talk-ins, they’re doing chats around their communities, they’re doing protests, whatever it is that you can do within your own respective spaces, I encourage you to do so. You can Google it online. There are folks who are working directly with the prisoners, like Jailhouse Lawyers Speaks and other organizers and other community folks around the country who are working specifically to make sure that prisoners are being treated humanely and treated justly in this country.

And so, I think that when talking about mental health and talking about the criminalization of Blackness and queerness in America, we have to be mindful of prisoners. We have to be mindful of what it means to navigate this world as a young Black boy, young Black girl, young Black person. We have to be mindful of what it means to maneuver the world as a young Black person who is doing sex work, as a young Black queer person who is doing sex work, as a young Black queer person who has left their home because they don’t have, they don’t feel like they can be them full selves in that space. I've been all of those things. I've been a young Black person who has done sex work. I've been a young Black person who's left home. I've been a young Black queer person who has felt like I didn't have a right to deal with my mental health because I’d been taught, especially as a young Black queer fat person, that my only concern can be to take care of other people and not myself. And so if we are worried about, and if we are prioritizing those of us who exist furthest on the margins, we must be focused on those who are most marginalized in our communities. And those folks being prisoners. And then focusing also on Black queer folks who are seriously trying to navigate this world and understand what it means to exist freely and taking care of our mental health and our mental health issues.

Thank you.

[applause and cheers]

Da’Shaun Harrison

Photo of Da’Shaun Harrison outdoors in a leafy area

Da’Shaun Harrison is an undergraduate student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. He is an abolitionist and organizer who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the newly-founded digital publication, Queer Black Millennial. His portfolio and other work can be found on his website,