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The 'benevolent' policing of social work and mental health

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Image: Ye Jinghan/Unsplash

Ejaz Choudry requested life support and was instead given a death sentence. He joins Rodney Levi, Chantel Moore, D'Andre Campbell, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and hundreds of other deceased victims in the archives of police brutality and neglect -- more proof we shouldn't have needed that police routinely inflict the violence they supposedly exist to counter; that they "serve and protect" the colonial, racial, ableist status quo; and that their murderous MO is seemingly impervious to public scrutiny and rage.

Every additional second of this reality represents the further exposure of Indigenous, Black, racialized, poor and disabled people to harm, death and trauma.  

But amid our sadness, anger and fear is excitement about unprecedented social and political willingness to create something new. This moment is born out of the unrelenting activism of Indigenous and Black communities, who have mobilized in grief, rage and love for years against state violence.

Heavily present in our post-police society imaginings are, apparently, social workers and mental health practitioners -- pitched as non-violent substitutes to the police in answering crisis situations, and more generally as staples in a society organized around collective well-being. 

As a social worker, I join my critical peers in challenging this assumption. Indeed, our profession comes out of the very same system that has produced the police and, together, we ensure the same thing: the perpetuity of the colonial, white supremacist and capitalist status quo.  

We don't carry guns or tasers, but we do have our own tools and tactics of violence.  

Social work -- then and now 

In their brilliant tome A Violent History of Benevolence, academics Chris Chapman and A.J. Withers eviscerate the mythology of social work as a historically counter-hegemonic force. Hindsight makes obvious that social work's complicity in residential schools and eugenics were wrong -- but rather than capitulating to a fantasy of progress, we should instead ask: how does the guise of "benevolence" function in a current context to maintain oppressive relations?  

Today, social workers work as therapists, researchers, policy advisors and everything in between. Perhaps most consistently, and regardless of our specific role, we act as low-budget psychologists and psychiatrists. Even as we're not qualified to make diagnoses, we nonetheless deploy mental health frameworks, languages and tools in our work.  

The insidiousness of this form of violence is what renders it so toxic.

Psychiatry, settler colonialism and anti-Black racism: a brief history

Psychiatry and mental health knowledge/practice has always aided and abetted the settler-colonial and racial project in North America. Indeed, "colonization depends on the maintenance of discipline ... in subordinated groups" -- and psychiatric institutionalization has historically facilitated this maintenance. 

Up until the mid-1900s, Indigenous peoples who violated racial conventions -- by arguing with a reservation attendant, practicing their spirituality, or refusing to relinquish their children to residential schools -- could be deemed insane and forcibly incarcerated in asylums.

Similarly, former Black slaves who weren't sufficiently docile to whites were labelled mentally ill and institutionalized.

Incarceration via psychiatry enabled: the punishment of those who violated race hierarchies; the suppression of anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance; the termination of reproduction -- cultural, social and physical, since sterilization was a routine practice; and the perpetuation of slave relations through the forced labour of psychiatric inmates. The routine neglect and violence experienced in these spaces belied the stated concern with mental and emotional recovery.  

Outside of physical containment, psychiatry offered up the objectivity and altruism of its discipline to justify and naturalize unequal race relations. Psychiatry theorized that Black people were psychologically suited for subordination; and developed "drapetomania" to diagnose the Black pathology of resisting slavery and fleeing one's captors. 

Similarly, psychological portraits of Indigenous peoples characterized them as primitive -- in a state of child-like cognitive under-development that precluded complex thought, and kept them driven by intuition and superstition. This helped to spin colonial domination as analogous to the protective and loving paternalism of a parent-child relationship.  

Psychiatry's historical deployment towards racial and colonial subordination doesn't merely reflect the misapplication of an otherwise bona fide discipline.  Rather, psychiatric thought and research has been fundamentally propelled by the colonial/racial need to "control … through the production of knowledge." 

Intensive psychological research on Indigenous populations, for example, supported the design of government programs that would facilitate their successful colonization. This research, of course, also always "proved" their psychological inferiority. 

When Freud drew equivalencies between "primitives" and "insane whites"; when American psychiatrists suggested Black Americans to be of an inherently "primitive psychological type"; when colonial psychiatrists in Africa deemed colonial subjects "normally abnormal" -- they were both drawing on and advancing a body of thought that has constructed definitions of madness out of ideas of race. 

Indeed, "mental illness [is] a discourse of difference" -- and colonialism/racial domination is both a cause and effect of making the colonized/dominated "different" -- physically, mentally, intellectually, psychologically and spiritually. 

In other words -- the raced are mad, and the mad are raced.  

The violence of diagnosis 

When police officers encountered Ejaz Choudry -- a frail and elderly man diagnosed with schizophrenia --  and decided he was a threat, they were, partially and unknowingly, drawing upon the lasting embeddedness of race-thinking within psychiatry.  

As a disease, schizophrenia was reformulated in the civil rights era -- from a white woman's malady of melancholy and ennui, its reconfiguration as a disorder of violence and paranoia facilitated the classification of Black men who angrily resisted racist oppression as mentally ill.

A 1968 article in the well-reputed medical journal Archives of General Psychiatry, for example:

"described schizophrenia as a "protest psychosis" whereby Black men developed "hostile and aggressive feelings" and "delusional anti-whiteness" after listening to the words of Malcolm X, joining the Black Muslims, or aligning with groups that preached militant resistance to white society."

Schizophrenia 2.0 facilitated the incarceration of Black men in psychiatric institutions, and the placation of Black anger through the administration of anti-psychotic drugs. It also: fomented social anxiety about the dangers of Black men; constructed Black freedom as antithetical to white social sanity; and de-legitimized acts of resistance by medically pathologizing them.  

Ejaz Choudry and others labelled schizophrenic partially inherit these racialized associations with violent male Blackness. Those like D'Andre Campbell -- a young Black schizophrenic man murdered in his home by Canadian police this year -- are doubly sentenced by their Black maleness and their Black male mental illness.

Race science has been debunked and, officially, psychiatry no longer differentiates between white versus non-white psychology and mental illness. But psychiatric thought and discourse nonetheless retain their racial logics, and perpetuate racist and ableist violence through the abstraction of "diagnosis."

That people labelled schizophrenic are perceived as being violent while actually disproportionately receiving violence parallels the racialized construction of Black men -- also falsely constructed as dangerous despite overwhelming vulnerability to harm, both interpersonal and structural.

More generally, and beyond schizophrenia, racial and mental Others are both subject to this discourse of difference -- one that qualifies and discounts their humanity, and thus justifies and facilitates their maltreatment. 

The violence of "normal"

Psychiatry doesn't only define deviance but, necessarily, its binary opposite, normal. 

As critics have noted, normal is socially determined -- and the function of psychiatry is to route social norms through science in order to render them objectively desirable. That homosexuality was once a diagnosis attests to this: pathologies are a function of social mores, and shift alongside them.  

In this context, normal is tethered to white, Western, cisgender, straight, male, capitalist subjectivity. For example, one academic deconstruction of the human development science finds the human it describes to be a Western one, rather than universal one. 

In this way, non-Western subjectivity is deemed developmentally delayed or incomplete. Indeed, that the DSM -- the updated and official list of psychiatric pathologies -- lists dependent personality as a disorder but not workaholism reflects the psychiatric legitimation for capitalist fitness: normal is overwhelmingly defined in relation to capitalist utility, which is marked by both economic, social and emotional independence, and a willingness to work -- even to the point of self-destruction. 

In validating the normal, psychiatry recasts social failure as personal failure. Gender dysphoria -- a DSM-classified illness -- locates deficiency in the trans or gender-non-conforming person rather than a gender binary that is clearly incapable of accommodating everyone. 

Similarly, critics of ADHD suggest the disease to be "nothing more than a list of all the behaviors that annoy teachers and require extra attention in the classroom." We medicate children into meeting classroom standards instead of questioning why our schools consistently fail the learning and engagement needs of so many of them.

Scientific racism "proved" biological superiority, and modern psychiatry "proves" socio-cultural superiority -- while not explicitly raced or classed, it nonetheless assumes capitalist, colonial and racial systems to be universally normal and desirable, and thus venerates those who function well within them.

In legitimizing and enforcing normalcy, psychiatry pathologizes and corrects those who deviate. Ultimately, this arrests meaningful social/political transformation by constantly re-aligning us instead of a society that persistently fails so many of us.

The violence of individualism  

Of course, psychiatry and mental health knowledge/practice is more than a social imposition -- it is, often, a desirable intervention into our very real experiences of distress. But in individualizing and medicalizing human emotion, psychiatry distances human experience from the social context that produces it.  

The cultural obsession with diagnosing U.S. President Donald Trump as narcissistic or sociopathic reflects the social anxiety to label him an aberration rather than an inevitable product of the racist, classist, patriarchal world he (and all of us) have been socialized into. 

Conversely, diagnosing depression in the individual makes invisible a systematically depressing society -- one that destines so many to material deprivation, physical violence, social isolation and political dispossession. As Martin Luther King Jr. opined on the psychological trend of diagnosing the maladjusted: "there are certain things …(about) which I am proud to be maladjusted … segregation and discrimination … religious bigotry ... poverty …madness of militarism."

Unsurprisingly, "depression and anxiety spiked among Black Americans following George Floyd's death" -- sadness, fear and anger should be the expected response to state murder. Yet, psychological discourse and treatment disavows and individualizes these conditions, instead adjusting -- pathologizing, placating and gaslighting -- those of us harmed by them. 

bell hooks describes this as a form of "psychological terrorism" -- one that both silences anti-racist protest, and encourages "the masses of white folks, and other nonBlack groups, to see Black people as insane when they discuss their victimization."

Of course, we should be capable of treating individual distress while also remedying the social conditions that produce it. But psychiatry and mental health knowledge/practice have historically done the exact opposite. 

Tellingly, post-emancipation white psychiatrists acknowledged that racism contributed to Black rage and discontent. But their solutions didn't include anti-racist efforts, but rather, individual institutionalization, medicalization, and pathologization.

The above-described history of "schizophrenia" demonstrates the psychiatric impulse to treat racism with medicine -- in ways that actually foment racism. This problem goes beyond the psychiatric discipline. 

Audre Lorde deftly critiques a dominant societal orientation towards "happiness," suggesting it obscures reality, "the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo." In this way, individual happiness -- as a personal desire and social ideal -- silences us and distracts us, actually precluding the work necessary for collective and structural well-being. 

This individualized and medicalized approach to treating social disease informs every aspect of our society. 

When well-known environmentalist Michael Pollan pitched psychedelic drugs as an effective treatment for climate grief; when our employers market self-care as a serious alternative to fair labour practices; when our health-care system forcibly hospitalizes those attempting suicide -- only to later release them onto the streets without housing or enough money for their prescriptions drugs: they are drawing on and advancing a discourse that undermines and distracts from structural change by offering up temporary and incomplete solutions that inevitably blame us for our problems.

Mental health support is akin to mopping the floor so we never have to fix the hole in the ceiling.

The benevolent and violent policing of the status quo

Policing exists to enforce the status quo.

When the status quo is so violent -- when millions of desperately poor live alongside unimaginable wealth, food waste alongside food insecurity, empty houses alongside homelessness; when Indigenous sovereignty is consistently violated and Indigenous peoples denied basic services; when Indigenous and Black communities witness their children taken away, killed by cops, and locked up en masse in prison cells; when those who put food on our table and take care of the elderly, sick and young are made legally and economically precarious and disposable; when those who are old and sick are warehoused in homes to die in emotional neglect and physical pain; when white supremacist cops and civilians terrorize with relative impunity; when those seeking refuge from violence and poverty are regularly incarcerated and deported; when we've either experienced intimately the effects of climate change or live in anticipatory dread of it; when our siblings in other parts of the world are being brutalized and murdered by our tax dollars -- when the status quo is so violent, the more violence is produced, and the more policing is required to stabilize it.

Police carry the name, but don't monopolize the practice. Rather, policing is structurally integral to all of our institutions, and is carried out both "benevolently" and violently. 

It galvanizes different tools and discourses depending on the task at hand -- guns, tasers and law and order do for violent cops, what medications, diagnoses, and happiness do for benevolent mental health practitioners. 

Benevolent policing isn't necessarily less directly harmful, as illustrated by the system of child welfare (not coincidentally, primarily managed by social workers). That Indigenous and Black communities are statistically overrepresented in child apprehension and in police brutality and incarceration demonstrates how the state can administer "care" for Black and Indigenous children even as it insists on continuing to harm Black and Indigenous people.

Child apprehension is an effect of racism -- a recent study found that poverty and the traumatic legacy of residential school participation was positively correlated with child welfare interaction. It also reproduces racism, by functioning as what former executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic Margaret Parsons described as "modern-day residential schools system" -- traumatizing children and families, disrupting cultural and social transmission, destabilizing communities, and legitimizing racial myths of parental incompetence. 

In this way, policing's benevolent and violent functions collaborate towards racism's perpetual self-reproduction.

Often, benevolent and violent policing systems communicate quite directly. The myth of Black criminality was piloted, in part, by psychiatric thought which theorized that, in contrast to the inward-facing nature of white mental illness, Black "insanity" was manifested externally through violence and homicide.

D'Andre Campbell and Ejaz Choudry lived and died at the intersections -- benevolently diagnosed, and violently killed, through different but interactive racialized policing mechanisms.

Policing necessarily targets Black, Indigenous, racialized, poor, undocumented/precarious, asylum-seeking, disabled, queer and trans people for surveillance and control. Their continued victimization is only made possible through their continued regulation. Welfare checks, CBSA check-ins, school detention, refugee board hearings: policing functions to punish the already-punished, by further burdening the marginalized with its burdensome gaze.

Policing doesn't just subordinate us, but also blames us for our subordination. Cops and prisons cite the biological "frailty" of Indigenous peoples to explain why they die under their care; mental health practitioners imply psychological frailty among those who can't find well-being in this world. Both redirect scrutiny from a system that produces "frailty," and onto its victims.

We don't need a different body to police the status quo less violently, but a status quo that is less violent and therefore doesn't require so much policing. This means uncovering and addressing the normalized status-quo violence that results in policing violence.

For example, we don't just need different professionals to respond to domestic violence -- we need less of the poverty and migrant precarity that make it difficult for many to leave their abusers in the first place. We don't just need better-trained professionals to respond to episodes of psychological crisis -- we need less of the capitalist-engendered poverty, fatigue and social isolation, that both produce distress, and make it so that we don't have the robust social and emotional networks to care for ourselves and each other.

Police abolition is more than just ridding ourselves of this fundamentally racist and violent institution -- it's about ridding ourselves of the need for such an institution. This version of reality also doesn't include social workers in the numbers we find ourselves in. 

Dreaming something better

We're often made to feel idealistic for envisioning something much more radical than a 10 per cent cut to a police budget (apparently itself too big of an ask). But we're not. Even within North America, there is historical and current evidence of child welfare, community safety, and mental wellness systems among Indigenous and Black communities organized around love, protection and collective wellness, rather than coercion, domination and self-perpetuating violence.  

White dominance has not just privileged white bodies, but also white ethics, morals, politics, economies, cultures and systems. The physical and emotional destructiveness of white supremacy is made to be our material reality and our imaginative one; we resign to this world because we can't fully conceive of a different one. 

Thankfully, our poor imaginations don't actually reflect our options; they merely reflect the self-reproducing nature of white supremacy, which suppresses any alternatives to it.

And so, Black and Indigenous lives matter -- their bodies, but also their histories, wisdoms, knowledges, theories, scholarship, activism, relationalities, languages, structures, visions, creative endeavours and perspectives. They matter to Indigenous and Black people, and they matter to all of us who dream of something better.

Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming, and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.

Image: Ye Jinghan/Unsplash

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