Editorial – Caged Mental Health

People use different words when talking about mental health and mental illness, and many of the terms carry a lot of stigma. While we don’t want to be the “word police,” we are choosing to use the term “mental illness.” We think some of the other terms are too “medical?ized” (like psychiatric or psychological disabilities, illnesses or disorders), and others are just not respectful of people (like nuts, crazy or schizo). CCWP wants to be part of helping people define for themselves what is healthy in relation to the people and situations each of us lives in.
There is a growing mental health crisis in prisons and on the streets. Every person, inside and out, experiences a lot of mental stress because of the conditions of our society: racism, poverty, gender discrimination. All of these things create a dehumanizing system. In the last issue of The Fire Inside, we wrote about the increase in suicides in CCWF and how it is a reflection of a system that isn’t working. Many women talk about the suffering and violations of basic human rights due to overcrowding, lack of mental health services, inappropriate denials or changes of psychiatric medications, increase in lock-downs, and as Sarah Olson wrote, “the general pall produced by simply doing prison time.”
People also talk about what they are doing to survive, stay strong and be as mentally and emotionally healthy as possible, and to build support for each other and fight back against the worsening conditions (see Mental health in prisoners’ experience in this issue).
Documenting what is happening is very important. “A” writes, “The first week our meds were cut [Sept. 2007] there were over 600 602s filed.” You might have to file again and again, but people are winning, so don?t give up! And the fact of that many people filing 602s against the medication change sent a loud and strong message of resistance to the CDCR. “J” writes about the “Grief Share” program that Sister Maryanne helped set up, creating a safe and supportive place for people to share their fears and losses and know they are NOT alone.
Constant threats to prisoners’ mental health, as well as stories of strength and survival, push us to ask the big picture questions: What does mental health — and mental illness for that matter — mean in a prison system, a society and culture that is so abusive, so focused on a “me first” mentality that creates so much dis-ease? How can we begin to talk about mental health when the values in this country are so badly distorted that money for war and prisons is always put above resources for health care, education and jobs? How does one envision mental health inside a cage?
Mental health has a lot to do with our ability to recognize personal and societal strengths and shortcomings in ways that help each of us to live and work within the families and communities we are part of. CCWP supports people defining for themselves what their own health is. There is a lot of room for different definitions and behaviors, as long as those behaviors don’t include harming or abusing others or ourselves.
We want to stretch our minds about these questions at the same time as we build responses to the problems inside the prisons. There is a lot of money going to so-called mental health services inside. Where is it? What is it paying for? What should it be paying for? The CDCR must be held accountable, but what is the best way to do this? Some people say that people with mental illness should not be in general population, that it is harmful to their health and to the health of people around them. Others fight for prisoners with mental illness to have the same rights to programming that everyone else has.
Help us figure out how to focus our campaigns to support the self-determination of prisoners and to advocate for a range of choices in how we care for each other and ourselves. Some possibilities are:

  • Encourage more peer counseling and self-help opportunities.
  • Oppose using the SHU as a dumping ground and punishment for people with mental illness or people who are labeled as having a mental illness.
  • Support appropriate medications for people who want or need psychiatric medicines.
  • Stop over-medicating people who do not want or need psychiatric medicines.

Let us know what you think and keep documenting mental health abuses so that we can track what is going on and hold authorities accountable.