An ugly statement, contextualized by his reliance on blaming mental illness for mass shootings, sprang forth from Bernie Sanders’ mouth at the Democratic Debate on Sunday in Flint, MI – the same place where he also decided to use people with disabilities as props for the Flint water crisis. While he said the following ugly words, I was on stage at a queer open mic yelling into the microphone a poem what it’s like to be autistic and trans and disabled and watch community members die.
“We are, if [I’m] elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health,” Sanders said. “And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in mental health.”
Ow. It was meant as a casual joke. But this is the kind of rhetoric that routinely perpetuates itself into systemic oppression against people with mental illness like myself. It says, “people with mental illness are responsible for oppressive violence. People with mental illness are responsible for racism, xenophobia, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.” We can certainly be all of the above things because above all we are people, but mental illness alone is not responsible for these things. For Bernie Sanders, who professes to be anti-bigotry and progressive, it is a low blow to ascribe these things to mental illness. It’s a cop-out.
And above all we are people. I raised my voice into the microphone to conclude the poem,
and the sun sinks through the trees while you’re holding
candles and mourning the dead into the morning and beyond into all throughout the year
writing statements and riding waves of emotion that threaten to choke you as surely as
all the murdered disabled and trans people were
and sometimes they’re both and you can’t
draw lines in yourself so you’re drawing lines in the sand and saying “no more”
it’s not knowing where the dread begins and ends in you
it’s not knowing where the dead begin and end in your heart
People with disabilities and mental illness die by a variety of methods every year, many of them murder and suicide. You would rather laugh at jokes made our expense than reform an ableist healthcare system (among other things) and society. No one is saying there’s not a need for better health care, especially for mental health care – but that doesn’t just involve making sure people can adequately access it, but that the healthcare itself isn’t going to compound the issue by treating the person as a problem to be dealt with and being ableist.
And when you talk about mental illness like it’s what’s wrong with the “moral decay” of America… and like it’s what’s wrong with the GOP… you sound like a eugenicist. You sound like the people who, decades and decades ago, held strength and power and influenced state legislation to sterilize us – disabled, mentally ill people (along with people of color and low-income people) – and you sound like the people who committed people with mental illness like me to first “madhouses,” and then later called them “asylums” and then “institutions” and “mental hospitals,” along with people with other disabilities to protect society from us.
You make us out responsible for the nation’s shortcomings, when in reality you have failed to initiate the proper funding and organization of community integration programs for us. You call deinstitutionalization a disaster, and refuse to spend money on community care. You are the reason people think we are horrifyingly dangerous and are more than willing to introduce legislation to strip our rights.
You call us responsible for the things wrong with society and sound like eugenicists.