Race and Gender in the Psych Ward



“What do I get?” I put on my best photo smile, an ear to ear grin.

Steve was a jovial looking nurse, with rosy cheeks that reminded me of a leprechaun crossed with Santa on a diet.  “I love it. You’re leaving tomorrow, right? Maybe I’ll take a picture tomorrow. I’m gonna miss that, Smiles.”

It was a very odd feeling, trading my smile for DVDs. My strange, temporary clique had sent me as an ambassador because, not falsely, they believed that the nurses liked me because I was a pretty girl. I wasn’t like those patients. I had never really been asked to smile on the street or at the bar. Here though, in the psych ward, I had never been so aware of my gender and my race - and how the perception of me as an Asian woman was impacting my experiences.

When you’re on the outside, "the system" can feel amorphous, pervasive, and intangible. In reality, that world is small. You are physically confined to what amounts to a huge high school detention hall. You live in what are essentially dorm rooms. You are at the mercy of the kindness of a team of nurses to receive your anxiety medications, a golf pencil, toiletries. (And in this ward, it was the nurses who doled out “shots,” what we termed fast acting sedative injections, and decided who would be held in the seclusion room and for how long.)

The machinations of oppression operated on such a small scale in the psych ward, and their latent manifestations were so immediate and apparent. There was nowhere to escape to. There were no safe spaces. There was no place to hide from the vagaries of that tiny world. 

I could never forget my womanhood in the ward. It wasn’t just the constant sexual harassment or the ongoing struggle to keep men’s advances at bay. I had been at this hospital a few years back, when another patient had managed to walk into my room and jumped on me in what would best be described as attempted rape. Eventually, some nurses and mental health workers ran in and tackled him off of me, but my attacker remained in my ward - in direct opposition to what the nurses had told me. They informed me he had been moved, but another patient told me he was down the hall in seclusion. On my way to an EKG in the physician's office, I saw his face peering out from one of the seclusion rooms. He stared. He said simply: "Hello." He smirked.

I didn't make it through the EKG. The treatment team said I was creating a bunch of hub bub for no good reason, placed me on some blood pressure medications to prevent PTSD, and moved me to the geriatric side of the unit for a couple of days until he was finally transferred elsewhere. I remember sitting on the floor of the “happy room” in the geriatric ward as I sobbed, glowing lights and stuffed animals around me, as my then-boyfriend held me as long as he could. Until they made him leave.

There was also a very literal race divide in the ward. I have been to some that have been almost exclusively white; these hospitals tend to have more empathetic nurses and more amenities. But this hospital was a pretty even mix of Black and white patients - in addition to, of course, my lone, strange Asianness. And Black and white patients were treated differently.

There was a seriously deranged patient, a scrawny white male, who would literally run out of the seclusion room naked and try to punch people. Another older white male threw a chair. A tall redhead tried to punch a nurse. These patients were placed in seclusion for brief periods of times. But there was also the skinny Black girl next door to me who kept getting shots - for no reason I could figure out. There a tall, husky Black man who was picked on and put in seclusion over and over for behaviors that I never found that obtrusive.

White people are the blank slate that are allowed to have malfunctioning synapses and thought processes. People of color have broad strokes painted over their every behavior. Because we are expected to act a certain way, we are not allowed to deviate without punishment. When we are able to act “abnormally,” it is because of what society has delegated as our problems.

I have had psychiatrists repeatedly assume that I am depressed or anxious because my parents put too much academic pressure on me. Anything outside of the assumed parameters causes discomfort. When Tanisha Anderson was having a manic episode, when Deborah Danner, Joseph Mann and Alfred Olango were acting erratically, when Charles Kinsey was taking care of an autistic child, it was the police that intervened, even when emergency services were called and/or the 911 call noted that the person in question had a mental illness. In these cases, shots were fired, most of them fatal. It has been noted that police are particularly poorly equipped to handle mental health crises when the victim is Black, and while Black Americans do indeed lack access to mental health care and have fewer resources, the larger picture is that people of color, particularly Black people, are simply not afforded this “privilege.” When a Black person acts outside the confines of “normal” behavior, these actions are viewed as acts of aggression.

When you are a mentally ill woman of color, the world tells you that many of your identities and struggles are invalid. The mentally ill are often not believed; "it’s all in your head” or “think positive” are phrases that echo back to us that we are not trusted to tell our own stories. When recounting micro-aggressions or even overt racism, people of color are seen as exaggerating small incidents or simply making a big deal out of nothing. When women recount sexual harassment they're told it was "just a joke," and they're accused of lying when coming forward with their stories of rape.

In an age where the President-Elect chooses a white nationalist to be his Chief Strategist, where the face of our country condones sexual assault, I have become increasingly worried about what people of color, especially women, will face - and what suffering will be demanded of us. Will we have to be on “best behavior” even more?

I am a mentally ill person of color. I try my hardest everyday. As with many Americans, I have been struggling to prevent myself from feeling further dehumanized. But even if we cannot be afforded our dignity, I only hope that we may be able to heal and recover with our lives intact.