Paradigm Shift: On Envisioning and Imagining Beyond

By now you might have discovered one thing about me, if nothing else: I have been diagnosed with mental illness.  I have lived with mental illness most of my life, and it has shaped who I have become and the experiences that I have had.  However, mental illness – and mental health more broadly – has always influenced the kind of career I have decided to pursue.

I have always felt called to work on behalf of vulnerable communities and to use the privileges I have to make the path I walk easier for those who may come after me.  This is why I entered into a doctoral program for a Political Science, and my desire to implement practical change is why I switched courses to pursue a Masters in Public Policy in my current program at the University of California Irvine.

Right now, my waking thoughts are consumed by one common thread: the warehousing of people.  Now I know, that sounds both esoteric and conspiratorial but hear me out.

In the United States, there are four ways that we “warehouse” people who choose to or feel compelled to express deviant or abnormal behavior, or who are simply victims of systemic resource distribution failure. We (1) commit them – often involuntarily – in mental hospitals, (2) incarcerate them in our overcrowded correctional system, or (3) let them disappear into homelessness.  In many cases, all three options are undertaken as a reaction to concerns about public safety.

In all three circumstances, we treat people the same way we treat un-photogenic (but nutritious) produce and unwanted items, when they are not serving our material or aesthetic interests, we throw them away.

I believe that this cultural adherence to the concept of trash is a founding principle underlying the tendency to warehouse people either until out a better means of addressing whatever issue we believe they present to the general public, or because we believe that the best way to deal with people is to lock them up and throw away the key.

In the same way that our landfills overflow with our society’s primary product – unwanted or unusable goods –  so too do our prisons, our mental hospitals, and our streets overflow with people we have collectively decided are no use to society.

This needs to change.

But what exactly is it that I want to do?


The Vision

I envision a dynamic society unencumbered by rigid dedication to outmoded traditions, a society that reinvents itself according to the needs of its people.  Every society needs a foundation, and I believe that a relentless dedication to ensuring everyone has access to nutritious food, clean water, stable housing, and access to quality, affordable education is one foundation that will never falter.

As a person with mental illness, I find myself uncomfortable with designating anything an illness or disorder on an individual basis before we come to grips with the insane practices in our organizations and systems.  I believe that what we now call mental illness – even severe mental illness – when placed in a stable, healthy environment and allowed to heal, may just be the aspect of human nature that allows us to collectively evolve ideologically, emotionally, and culturally.

I desire, through sharing my own experiences, through my advocacy, and through my research, to show people that the future we all silently yearn for is possible; I wish to show those struggling with mental illness that we are resilient enough, responsive enough, and observant enough to be the leaders in our own destiny, and that our mental illnesses are not indicative of weakness, but strength.


The Hypotheses

I believe that researching the state of mental health and the state of incarceration in this country is the first major step in finding the intervention point that needs to be targeted.  I have chosen these two policy issues primarily because there is such overlap between the two systems, and because of the parallels that can be drawn between them.

  • H1: I hypothesize that the key intervention point in addressing the way our society reacts to and interacts with those it deems threats to public safety or peace lies in the intersection of mental health and incarceration policies.
  • H2: I hypothesize that the intervention point is poverty itself.

I believe that creating accessible resource networks – shaped according to a community’s condition – for basic needed physical and mental resources is a priority.

I am also interested in this intersection because I believe that until will reform our socioeconomic systems to be beneficial to – rather than antagonistic toward – mental and physical well-being, that the development of mental illness and criminalized behavior will continue.


The Questions

  1. What are the key similarities between mental health issues and incarceration issues?  Differences?
  2. How is recidivism dealt with in both issues?
  3. What parallels can be drawn in the histories of mental health treatment and of the correctional system?
  4. What are the financial statuses/resource needs of both institutions?
  5. What do patients say is the problem?  What do incarcerated peoples say is the problem?
  6. What do healthcare providers say is the problem?  What do law enforcement leaders say is the problem?
  7. Where do the two issues intersect?  Where do they diverge?
  8. What role does poverty play in both?


The Goal

My current research goal is to find the main intervention points that lay at the intersection of both policy issues first.

More broadly, I want to put together policy recommendations that would work toward the goal of creating a more accessible network of resources for mental health and fundamental resource needs (housing, nutritious food, clean water).

I realize this may be a very lofty goal, but I am operating from a place of needs-first solutions.  If I can make even one substantial step toward my larger goal, then I will have won.


The mentally ill know.
.     .    .   .  . ……………………….to imagine beyond………………………. . .  .   .    .      .

Are there any questions you think I should add? Do you have any comments or suggestions on getting started?  Let me know in the comments below!

Follow me on Twitter @akaclouise or on Facebook at /AKA.CLouise!

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