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    Dior Vargas

    Dior Vargas: My Experience in the Psychiatric Hospital

    Dior Vargas is a Latina feminist mental health activist. She is also an ally to the #BuildABlackVision campaign. Vargas founded the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project to fill the void of BIPOC representation in mental health images. This project turned into “ The Color of My Mind ,” a photo essay book published in 2018. Before her mental health activism, Vargas was once a patient at a mental hospital in an upper-class Manhattan neighborhood in 2006. She chronicles her experience and her demand for dignity. TW: mention of suicidal ideation and suicide attempt I started college in 2005. And it was the first time I was away from my family. I went to Northampton which is a really tiny ass white town. So it was a culture change for me. Going to a predominantly white college meant being around all of these really privileged, ignorant white girls. And my estranged father found out he had colon cancer or some kind of cancer. I also had problems with my roommate. On Facebook her friend posted: oh you should make your roommate want to kill herself. So that was a hot mess. I ended up getting a single room. I wasn’t doing well in school. I was depressed, sleeping all the time. I came home [for the summer in 2006]. I had been miserable for years but particularly that year. I felt when I came home I would be in a better place and be back to normal. But I got in a fight with my mom and my sister and was like “I’m miserable everywhere.” I was suicidal since I was 8 years old but didn’t attempt until I was 11. I decided I was gonna end my life because I was like, “OK, there is no place I can go where I feel happy so I’m done with this.” They took me to the hospital. I had to drink charcoal to take the toxins out. That was scary. I was in the main hospital for three days or so. There was a nurse sitting by my bed 24/7 and there were no locks on the bathroom doors. I felt I was being punished and I couldn’t be trusted. I felt horrible. Then they moved me to the psychiatric ward. I was there for a week, maybe more. I was really, really scared. There were a lot of white people there. There weren’t a lot of people of color. I felt different, like no one could understand me. I was really pissed because I didn’t want to be there. They had a lock on the door and a buzzer. They wanted me to be cooperative and I didn’t want to be cooperative. I just wanted to go into my room and stay there by myself. So for a few days, I just stayed in my room. After a while, I felt like if I didn’t play their game then I wasn’t going to be able to get out. So I just decided I was going to act like I was getting better. Another thing that really bothered me is that they took all my stuff. I felt I was again being punished. Like robbed of my freedom. That was very overwhelming and I wanted to get out. My mom tried to get me out but they were like, “no, your daughter is just manipulating you,” stuff like that. After a while, I started going to the main room and the group sessions like OK, I’m just going to fake whatever I need to do. I noticed people were wearing their regular clothes instead of their hospital gowns. I was like wait if they’re cooperating they get to wear clothes which probably means they’ll leave soon. OK, let’s do this. So then I was eventually able to leave. I don’t remember them following up with a therapist. [Being at a mental hospital] should be a more humane experience. You shouldn’t be in something that feels like jail. What if you’re someone who doesn’t speak English? Do you have people there who are able to speak your language? And even for someone who does speak English, do they understand where you’re coming from? I would have loved to look back on my mental hospital experience thinking that I felt loved, affirmed and heard. And that I truly got better and felt better about myself. Instead, my main thought was I gotta do whatever I can to get the hell out of here. I feel like that contributes to people not wanting to get involved in the mental health system because of experiences like that. And I was very lucky with my experience. Other people have gone through worse, so imagine that part. When you are a [mental hospital patient] in the community and place where you grew up and feel safe and understood, that makes a difference. I feel that representation is something that impacts people’s experiences. 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 to patients.

    Ashley Jaye

    My Experience in Two Different Psychiatric Hospitals

    When I got hospitalized in 2018, I remember I left my job around that time, earlier that year. And I was in a really deep depression. I already had multiple attempts, but I never went to the hospital because I hid a lot of my attempts. I was struggling to find another job and my parents at the time were being very overbearing. I felt unworthy. How will I ever be independent and live independently? There was a lot going on mentally. My boyfriend now was actually my friend in 2018. He was the one who offered to take me to the hospital. He was just like, “You should go to the hospital.” I was like, “No, no, no, don’t take me there! My parents are going to be mad, they’re probably going to disown me, I don’t want to get hurt over there, I heard it was really bad.” And he was like, “No it will be fine. It will be fine.” The emergency room I went to was pretty much empty and quiet, which is really weird for me. When I got there they took me in and they pretty much told me we don’t have a mental ward here, so you have to wait for an ambulance transfer. I had to wait in a room for two hours. I was transferred to a county mental hospital. My experience at county was somewhat correlated to what I thought a mental hospital would be like. First of all, there weren’t really any beds. You know those hospital chairs that recline? That’s where everybody slept. It was not inviting at all or comfortable. And they only had two big rooms and one room was all the males and another room was for all the females. And they also had a couple of solitary confinement rooms and those actually had beds in them, but people would get handcuffed to those beds. They only had one shower there and there weren’t any activities. It looked like not everyone got to shower. There was a range of people who were there. There were people who were chronically suicidal or in the middle of mania, and there were people who had very high psychosis and were thrown into solitary confinement. This all happened in this one room. It was very overwhelming and uncomfortable. I don’t think I went to the bathroom at all and I stayed the night there. I was scared to move around and do anything. I held my bladder and didn’t take a shower. So I just stayed there in my stank scrubs. And even the meals were horrible. It was kind of like the leftovers from the hospital cafeteria. It took forever for the doctors to get to you because I think [the mental hospital] was more of a transfer point for people. So I guess everybody that has a mental health crisis gets thrown there and the doctors and social workers and nurses that are there try to match that patient with a different mental hospital. Of course, it’s all depending on your insurance. I do want to acknowledge my privilege for two things: One privilege is that I had insurance and my second privilege is that when my parents came to visit me there, my mom actually knew one of the social workers personally. She was able to get me into a better mental hospital that was a private nonprofit. And that was a whole different experience. I actually had a room. I shared it with someone, but there was a bed and a bathroom for us. The room though was kind of like if I was on a road trip and I needed a place to sleep. You stay for a night but you leave type of thing. And they had an activity room and the lunches catered to everybody’s allergies. In terms of the staff that was there, they weren’t super diverse. It was predominately white. But the therapist I had was a Black guy. So I would definitely say that mental hospitals need to diversify their staff. Honestly, getting paired with a Black therapist helped me feel not as ashamed to be there. Working with somebody who looks like me, I was able to feel comfortable and actually share what was going on with me in an open way and not feel like I need to pull things back. If you can, I would suggest asking for either a doctor or a therapist if they have any Black staff and if you can get assigned to them. Black people in mental hospitals also definitely need sleeping caps, period. I remember my skin was so dry and chapped and it was bothering me. And so I asked them if there are any lotion. And they were like, “We have vaseline and this kind of lotion.” I was looking at this stuff thinking this lotion is literally just water and mineral oil. I asked, “Do you guys have a comb?” They’re like, “Yeah!” But of course, it was those small pick combs. It wasn’t like a wide tooth. I can’t do anything with this. Besides that though, I would say the nonprofit hospital helped. Of course, for me as a person with borderline personality disorder (BPD), the nonprofit hospital was a place where I’m like, I don’t want to leave because everything is taken care of for me. I can just be and have no worries. No stresses about bills or school. I’m in my element. But they saw I was getting too well so that’s when they were like, you gotta go. [laughs] My last advice to Black people who may go to a mental hospital is to be gentle with yourself the whole time you’re there because if you’re not, you’re going to miss out on a lot of learning opportunities to help you grow for when you leave. 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 to patients.

    Imade-Nibokun

    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.