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What It Means to #BuildABlackVision for Mental Health

Depressed While Black and BEAM (The Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective) are partnering to #BuildABlackVision for mental health. #BuildABlackVision includes a national convening to envision a radical future for Black mental health, and a month-long advocacy campaign that highlights the experiences of Black people and mental health, specifically highlighting the violence we experience in psychiatric institutions. The following discussion is between Imade Borha, founder of Depressed While Black and Yolo Akili Robinson, Founder and Executive Director of BEAM.

Yolo: Imade, why do you feel this campaign to highlight Black people’s experiences in psych wards and institutions is important?

Imade: I know personally how punitive mental hospitals treat Black people. I have been hospitalized twice, and my first hospitalization was far more traumatic than the suicide attempt that preceded it. I thought I would be given therapeutic care, but instead, I witnessed Black patients get physically and chemically restrained, including myself. I was tackled by three-plus nurses and carried into an isolation room after complaining that the hospital’s chaotic atmosphere was making patients worse, not better. The psychiatrist that I had was so incompetent at her job she thought I was bipolar because I wrote in my journal and laughed with my friends who visited me. I was placed on a harsh anti-psychotic drug cocktail though I showed no psychotic symptoms. When I petitioned the court to be released from this hospital, the psychiatrist lied on the witness stand to the State Supreme Court judge that if my mom drove me home, I would jump out of the car. This all happened at a “respected” New York mental hospital and sadly, I know this medical racism is happening across the country.

Yolo: Exactly, and the voices of Black people who experience violence and harm in psychiatric institutions are rarely uplifted or documented, and if they are — they are often dismissed as only being about the person’s mental state and not held as viable concerns about care.

This makes me think of the many times in our work at BEAM (The Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective), where we have asked our community what comes to mind when someone says “mental health” and more often than not someone has said it makes them think of a time a relative or sibling was “taken away” by the state, or a time when someone they knew or they themselves were locked away after experiencing a moment of distress brought on by mania or psychosis. In our country, mental health is often in league with the criminal legal system. But sadly, with the exception of the work of people like Patrisse Khan Cullors and a select few others, the experiences of Black folks with mental illness are not seen as racial justice issues. The deep fear of symptoms of distress or psychosis in our communities has helped hold a divide in organizing and awareness campaigns. But your work has helped bridge that.

The voices of Black people who experience violence and harm in psychiatric institutions are rarely uplifted or documented, and if they are — they are often dismissed

Yolo: Months ago, you started buying supplies for individuals in mental health institutions. What did you buy and why did you feel these things were important?

Imade: Beginning in January, I bought all the Black-affirming personal care items I didn’t have when I felt too much of a burden to ask my mom to visit me during my second stint in a mental hospital. I purchased satin bonnets, wave caps, wide-tooth combs, brushes, hair oils, and many other supplies like Chapstick, tampons, bras, boxers and t-shirts. This became my Mental Hospital Wish List program where I drop off monthly supplies requested by mental health patients. These items may seem trivial on the surface, but they can be essential for Black patients to live in dignity. When I was admitted to a mental hospital for the second time, I came with the dirty clothes I attempted in. I felt like I was literally wearing my trauma. I had to wear clothes from the hospital’s lost and found. And on top of that, I had to wear uncomfortable hospital underwear and pads. I always felt ashy because the hospital didn’t provide Chapstick, hair oils or moisturizer suitable for my dry, African skin. My hairstyle was a wreck by the time I left the hospital.

Yolo: Do you think your presentation, specifically as a Black woman, had an impact on your treatment?

Imade: Presentation in mental hospitals is important because it can determine the kind of treatment you receive from the hospital staff. In certain cases, you’re denied access. I couldn’t go downstairs to the cafeteria because I had unsuitable clothing. In other cases, perceptions about your presentation can mean being ignored, chemically restrained on harsh medicine and denied needed treatment. I was forced to wear a hospital gown and enter the court building on a stretcher when I faced that State Supreme Court judge. I know my appearance put me on a lower hierarchy than the psychiatrist who wore work clothes. I think that was a major reason why I lost the case. Giving Black patients personal items and clothes can help them self-soothe, present in a way that is true to their identity and realize people deeply care about them. That’s why I do what I do.

These items may seem trivial on the surface, but they can be essential for Black patients to live in dignity.

Imade: In your work Yolo, how do you help Black folks heal from the trauma of being systemically harmed in spaces such as mental hospitals? What does healing look like? 

Yolo: Everyone’s healing is unique. But my hope is for BEAM to be a container and a vehicle for us on our collective healing journey. My hope is that BEAM can give people nourishment; through tools, strategies, spaces, resources and dialogue that help us strengthen our capacity to heal ourselves and each other. My hope is that BEAM can connect more and more of us doing healing work, like Depressed While Black, because we need us all to #BuildABlackVision for mental health. And a new vision is desperately needed. And so with our colleagues, a new vision, and a new world, is what we will create.

Want to #BuildABlackVision? Go to beam.community/blackvision to learn more and to support Depressed While Black’s Mental Hospital Wish List program that provides Black-affirming personal care items.

Getty image via nadia_bormotova