Trigger and content warning: this article discusses suicide, death, and ableist language
It’s been two months since I was de-institutionalized from a psychiatric ward. Many things have changed since then: I lost my best friend, started several projects regarding disability advocacy, have gone to multiple support groups, and am taking different medications to alleviate severe insomnia, anxiety, and depression everyday. After being discharged, I have experienced extreme feelings of isolation, insecurity, and hopelessness. During the process, I broke up with one of my friends whom I trusted the most but at the same time, who called police during the crisis. Our last conversation was very traumatic. I criticized them that they defined the hierarchy between “rational” and “irrational” by reporting me to police and that they didn't try to accommodate my disabilities. In contrast, my friend retorted that I was the one who acted irrationally and inconsistently which made me lose any accountability or credibility before calling out injustice. Also, they said it was not their job to support me. After the conversation, I sensed a deep crevasse between our different understandings on mental health, identities, and systems. This is unavoidable since we experience and undergo different realities, but I wondered whether it is possible to find alternative strategies in those situations and restore disconnection. For this article, I wanted to share part of my story.
Part 1. Death and suicide
On a snowy day, I had an argument with my friend. Triggered by circling debates, I blurted out, “I wish I were dead!” My friend did not say anything.
I come from a culture where death was frequently appropriated in mass media and everyday conversations. Korea is notorious for ranking one of the highest suicide rate among OECD countries, which has been a major social issue and has not gotten better (https://data.oecd.org/healthstat/suicide-rates.htm). I remember how often death was mentioned as metaphors and how it was normalized in the society. I was able to hear, read, and see the trend nearby: school, family, and streets. The strange thing was while appropriating “death” as a metaphor was normal, sharing and discussing issues of mental health was considered as weak, childish, and immature. Even in my family, expressing negative emotions such as depression, sadness, or anger was taboo and not allowed. For a person with autism, manic depression and anxiety, this created the worst environment for wellness and mental health. On top of that, I had difficulty assimilating my queerness to society where heteronormativity was the dominant ideology, and often felt othered. Also, I had difficulty finding meaning of life while living in an ableist, capitalistic, and meritocratic society where the quality of life was often measured with monetary success. Being disabled meant a path to failure, a burden to society and family.
Usually, I kept my face neutral and straight and did not talk at all. Sometimes, my oppressed feelings would burst out as tears, ranting, and self harm. I cried that I wanted to die rather than live. One family member would respond: “Then go out and kill yourself." At those moments, I felt that I wasn't able to speak anymore, so I would go to my room or outside to cry and do things to relieve anxiety such as biting my fingers or tearing books. Throughout the years, I became accustomed to the violence around me.
Sometimes another family member would tell me I was trying to manipulate them with my depression and anxiety. They told me that I was just trying to make them feel bad, to get their attention. I became desperate and said, “if only one time you could understand this.”
Back to the snowy day. I was crying and walking over to a lake, leaving my friend behind. Being triggered, I was no longer able to talk to them properly. I wanted to be alone and calm down. I lied on the snowy beach to feel the coldness. Someone came over to me and asked whether I was okay. I laughed and said I would be fine. As I felt a bit cold, I decided to just sit and look over the lake. My friend blocked my sight as they thought I was going to jump into the lake. I lied my face down as it was triggering to see their face. Then I heard my friend calling the police.
Part 2. Police
An anxious thought crossed my mind. Are they really calling the police? I stood up and saw my friend actually calling 911. My heart started pounding with fear. I tried speaking but I only had a weak and squeaky voice: “I am okay, I am okay, Please don’t call the police” I stretched my arm to turn off their phone but they shoved me away. I became full of fear and started running, feeling disoriented. But I soon stopped due to problems breathing. I felt disconnected between my body and thoughts. My friend was running behind me, thinking that I was about to jump into the lake. I didn’t walk right. I didn’t act right. I didn’t speak right. I didn’t look right. I wasn’t right. I was wrong and irrational and dangerous. I tried running away from the police, but was caught very soon.
The Police asked, “what happened?” I tried speaking, but my words became broken, stuttering. I wasn't looking straight into their face but sideways. They asked, “do you need anything?” I said, with a crawling voice, that I wanted to go home. I felt my accent stronger than usual. I made a faint smile which was soon distorted with facial numbness. They said I looked a bit lucid. They whispered to each other. They said I needed to go to hospital. I said I did not want to go. They said I did not have a right to refuse. They took me.
I was institutionalized for about a week and released. After that, I researched and met pro-bonos, social workers, and community organizers to know whether there was anything I could do in the situation. Their answers were no. But I wondered if I spoke right, if I were not Asian, if I were not disabled, if I wouldn’t have experienced this. At the same time, I knew that I was able to be released in a week because there was another institution behind me where I was associated and because I was able to connect with the people outside the psychiatric ward. Nevertheless, the interaction with police and institutionalization gave me the message that I would not be safe in public spaces. It was so easy and quick to be labelled as crazy, dangerous, and abnormal depending on who has the power to define the madness. Sometimes I felt sad that my friend did not provide the support I wanted. Meanwhile, I understood that they might not have had proper resources on how to interact with someone in a crisis situation. For the individuals who weren't trained on responding to a crisis situation, it might seem difficult to figure out what are the best ways they could go about the situation.
In a crisis situation, one helpful thing to ask oneself is: before doing any action, have I asked the person what support they need or how I could support them? Have I asked their consent?
Looking irrational or suicidal is not a consent to calling the police or being institutionalized. Also, it does not give a pass or exempt from the responsibility of the consequences after calling police. Once the police arrive, the person in crisis becomes deprived of their voice to represent themselves since everything is under control of the authority. In addition, the reported one cannot predict what treatment they will receive next. Calling police can result in a variety of situations: imprisonment, hospitalization, police brutality, deportation or loss of immigration status, shame, sensational media report, medical bills, and more (mindfuloccupation.org).
If the police is called, and the reported one becomes institutionalized, it is very important to follow up with the individual after the situation so that the person can feel connected to the outside world. A sudden change of surroundings against their will often brings about an extreme sense of isolation, helplessness, and increased depression and anxiety. After being de-institutionalized, be consistent about support and let the person know that they are being supported. It is also helpful to have multiple supporters so that you are not burned out as well. Lastly, create a support network by sharing resources and keeping in touch with one another on a constant basis.
Calling the police should be the last and least option to consider. Currently, it is not required for police to train for how to interact with people with disabilities (whether in crisis or not). Many social justice advocates work to raise awareness of this issue and to change the system, but the actual implementation is still far away.
Recently, I have started collaboration with other activists to facilitate the workshop “Alternatives to Calling Police During Mental Health Crisis.” The workshop was originally organized by Rebekah Frumkin, a Chicago-based activist, and she invited other grassroot organizations to participate. In the workshop, we share information about: what are the myths around mental health and police system, how different identities intersect during crisis and affect treatment by police, and deescalation strategies for crisis situations. For the workshop, I have provided a booklet called “First Aid for Mental Health Crisis” where people can create their own first aid kit for their mental health crisis. Here, people can write their emergency contact lists, things people should know about their mental health crisis, and ways to support them during mental health crisis. (www.nauwu.com/first-aid-for-mental-health-first-a)
I remember my story. I made it into a poem, a zine, writing and spoken language. At the same time, I want to hear other people's stories. I want to learn how to support myself and other people. I want to create alternative system of support with allies. I hope someday, these tiny grassroot efforts contribute to dismantling systems of violence and oppression.
Euree Kim is working on receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an Studio Emphasis in Performance and Art Education. For more information, visit www.nauwu.com