It was near the end of primary school that I first sat down with a therapist. At 9-years-old, I bore the weight of familial abuse, bullying, abandonment and trust issues, and life-threatening physical health problems. Combined, these led to the first of three suicide attempts. By 11-years-old, I was diagnosed with major chronic depression and anxiety. This has been my truth ever since. Until the Fall of 2013, I navigated these illnesses as best I could alone.
Toward the end of 12th grade, I developed a chronic heart condition. This forced me away from my work and placed me in the hospital. During this time my mental health declined, my grades suffered, and I again found myself seated in front of a therapist. It was not until I began attending Morehouse College that I redeveloped my zeal. That passion did not come before hardship, however. During my first semester at school, I fell into a deep depression. I would lock myself in my dorm room for days at a time and avoid a majority of my classes. However, in the second semester I joined a newly-developed on-campus organizing body named #AUCShutItDown. I found in them what I had not gotten from any therapy session: purpose and community. I was my happiest self and felt safest in this space.
Then came the summer of 2017. I took the risk of articulating my queerness to my family, but the fallout afterwards led me to experience heightened poverty and homelessness. This forced me into sex work. I was back in a place of discomfort and I felt alone. After several months, I decided that I had no choice but to return home and deal with my family’s microaggressive behavior. I did not imagine, though, that things would be as bad as they were. I was having at least three panic attacks every day for months. I visited the hospital just as often. For a while, I felt that I was knocking on death’s door. I was not sleeping, I was barely eating, and I was not happy. Poverty had snatched me away from my chosen family and plunged me into an environment that was neither productive nor healthy. When I noticed things were getting increasingly worse, I decided one night to check myself into a hospital’s psychiatric ward. I was not sure what to expect, but I knew that if I had not taken control of the situation I would have lost my life.
Once there, I knew immediately that this was not a place intended to hold and care for Black, queer, poor, disabled, and non-binary people like myself. I stepped into the building and the door slammed behind me. Inside, I was met by a white police officer preparing to strip search me. I instantly felt closed-in and alone; this place did not feel safe like the organizing spaces did. At one of the most vulnerable points in my life, I had to think of how I would defend myself had something gone awry. When the officer finished, I was given a gown and sent into a room with only a small window that looked out into the hallway. I was left to sit on a bed with no sheets, with zero access to anything other than my thoughts and the occasional nurse who checked in unenthusiastically. Eventually, a psychiatrist arrived; instead of talking about my mental health, however,I was forced to spend time explaining queerness to her.
I thought about how I could escape the building. I wondered if I could have taken care of myself at home instead of suffocating in this detrimental environment. I felt hopeless, realizing that I would always be forced to navigate this world as an organizer, and never as just a human — even in my most vulnerable state of being — because the structures of this world were not created to view or treat me as such. With this experience, I realized that mental health services are not yet prepared for those of us who exist on the margins.
For the most vulnerable people in our society to find solace in mental health institutions, services must: include our unique concerns in how they perform evaluations, determine the care we need in relation to that information, and ultimately provide the care our communities deserve without erasing our humanity in the process.
The push for marginalized people to seek mental healthcare has not always considered the very issues that lead us to these services. We so often face a lack of appropriate resources, police presence, and under-educated physicians: all contribute to violences and exclusions that shape our resistance to seeking help. Our experiences are different, the sources of our trauma are different. Even the language we use to describe our emotions and pain can be different. Then we struggle to be believed as our physical pain is often dismissed or devalued. Because of this, I can only believe that if marginalized people are to find mental health services more impactful, there must be a complete restructuring of these interconnected institutions and social structures.
Only then will we be truly free to heal.
You've been part of the work so far, and you can be part of so much more in the coming year. So, let's build.