When President Trump declared Monday that people with mental illnesses should face “involuntary confinement,” if necessary, to prevent mass shootings, my heart sank. “He’s talking about me,” I thought.
When I was 25-years-old, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and committed to a mental hospital in New York against my will. Instead of being treated with care, I was treated like a criminal. I didn’t want to be hospitalized. I didn’t want to take drugs. But what I wanted didn’t matter. I was strip searched. My phone was taken from me. My clothes were stored in a closet. I was put in a gray uniform with a medical bracelet around my wrist.
Sadly, my experiences were typical of the way our country has treated those deemed mentally ill; in fact, there’s a whole system in place to enable them. To involuntarily commit someone to a mental hospital, psychiatrists must deem a patient a danger to himself or herself or others, or else gravely disabled. Those terms were laid out in a 1975 Supreme Court case, O’Connor v. Donaldson. Kenneth Donaldson had been a mental patient at Florida State Hospital for 15 years. He sued the hospital for infringing on his constitutional rights and confining him against his will. The case went to the high court, and Donaldson won. The justices’ unanimous opinion included new criteria that needed to be met for involuntary commitment. Each state, however, has different ways of interpreting that criteria and different civil commitment laws.
I believe I was considered a danger because I objected to medication and vocalized my doubts about my bipolar disorder diagnosis. The phrase used in my medical records is that I had “poor insight into illness.” The website of the New York State Office of Mental Health says that involuntary commitment may be used when a “person's judgment is too impaired for him/her to understand the need for such care and treatment.”
I felt it was the psychiatrists who had impaired judgment and understanding of me. I didn’t feel like I was being seen as a whole person who existed outside of a diagnosis and might have social and cultural factors also affecting my distress that couldn’t be cured by medication. My life before no longer mattered. I had played three sports in high school and wrote for the school newspaper. I had gotten into Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and graduated early, starting work before I even received my diploma. I had followed a path that society deemed acceptable and even successful, but now I felt I was only being seen as a noncompliant mental patient. And, ironically, the “care” I was given — forcibly taking me out of my community and medicating me against my will — started to actually make me a danger to myself. I felt worthless. I felt powerless. I felt like giving up. Suicidal thoughts crept in.
Here, too, my experiences were far from atypical. Another Supreme Court case, the 1999 Olmstead v. L.C., decision, acknowledged the harm involuntary commitment can inflict on individuals. The Supreme Court ruled that mental illness is a form of disability and that “unjustified isolation” of a person with a disability is a form of discrimination under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. Lois Curtis (L.C. in court filings) and Elaine Wilson were two women diagnosed with mental illnesses and treated in mental hospitals in Georgia. They sued the state for their right to community-based care and won. “Confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment,” read the opinion, which was announced by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
As Ginsburg rightly suggested, confinement is not care. It’s a way to marginalize and further stigmatize those of us who have received mental illness diagnoses. After my experience, I was left with serious wounds. I didn’t know how to go on. Only over the course of several months did my hardened heart begin to soften. I didn’t want to inflict any more pain on myself than I had already experienced. I had a choice now, and something in me knew I was worth more, that I deserved more. I went vegan. Seeing caged farm animals and the suffering they endure at our hands made me sick. I went to graduate school in the District of Columbia. I started working again. I ran the New York City Marathon. I became a certified yoga teacher.
Even now, the stigma of what I went through torments me, but it’s hard to stay silent as people, including our president, tie mental illness to mass shootings — and call for others to endure what I went through. According to a 2017 blog post published by the American Mental Health Counselors Association, “People with serious mental illness are rarely violent. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness. The large majority of gun violence toward others is not caused by mental illness.” The post also states that people with serious mental illnesses are 12 times more likely to be the victims of crime than the general population. The nonprofit organization Mental Health America further clarified the disconnect between mental illness and violence in a September 2018 statement: “There is a widespread, profoundly troubling misconception that people with mental health conditions are inherently violent and this perception may be getting more rather than less prevalent.”
That misconception is clear when Trump said on Monday that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.” Ironically, by forcing those considered mentally ill into “involuntary confinement” as he says, he’s harming those who are already imperiled and present little to no risk to others.
That’s why I have decided to finally share my story, which I’ve never shared publicly before. As in the #MeToo movement, which calls for people to speak up about sexual harassment and assault, I want those who have stories similar to mine to speak — so long as they’re willing and able. There are many others like me who have received mental illness diagnoses whose bodily autonomy was taken away in the name of “care.” I said no, but what I wanted didn’t matter. I hope by coming forward, I make clear that not just my voice, but all our voices deserve to be heard, our trauma recognized, and our insight taken seriously.
I think back to being at Mile 23 in the New York City Marathon. Everything hurts. I want to stop. Then I remember when I couldn’t run outside, when I wasn’t allowed to. I keep going to Mile 26.2. I cross the finish line. I set myself free.