Abolition Means More than Prisons: Systems of Harm in Psychiatric Care

Design by Shannon Boland

[Image Description: A pair of handcuffs with a broken chain surrounded by blue contour lines.]

In Solidarity with Cassandra Gatica

Content warning: discusses mental health, traumatic medical experiences, police

When I was first taken from my dorm room to a psych ward, I went to a different school, way across the country. I was a freshman in pain forced out of the one place I was comfortable by a cop. My RA attempted to rectify the situation in light of my protest against getting the police involved, but I ended up in the back of that car all the same. 18 and already homesick and depressed, I was repeatedly harassed and bullied by the adults supposed to “protect” me. 

“Comply and I won’t handcuff you.” 

“I was nice and I parked out back so your roommates won’t see you arrested.” 

“Allow us to violate HIPAA or we won’t treat you.”

“It cost you $600 for me to walk into this room. You better give me something to work with.”

“You’re lying.”

Although our stories are different, your story of harassment and mistreatment by UCPD in response to your mental health resonated so deeply with me I’ve been able to think of nothing else since. 

When we talk about abolition, the conversation needs to go further than prisons and police. We must abolish systems of psychiatric “care” that leave hurting humans more traumatized than cured. Women, BIPOC, and queer people in particular, historically ignored and abused by the medical industry, need to be given alternatives. Among other issues, Black patients are consistently given inferior care as compared to white patients, women’s pain is dismissed, LGBT+ patients are discriminated against by healthcare providers — and these biases extend into mental health care. Emergency situations in which those struggling with their mental health are criminalized and brought in by police exacerbates such conditions. 

Lying your way out of the psych ward is easy. Talking yourself out of trauma from an involuntary hospitalization is less so. 

I call for UCLA to divest from UCPD, including in response to mental health crises. Colleges often look at students with mental illness as a liability, jumping to the extremes and calling on unnecessary levels of force. Replacing police response and forced psychiatric hospitalization with consistent, compassionate care — which looks like easily accessible mental health supports, professors giving additional accommodations for students struggling, and community support — does far more for both student and school. Currently, UCLA CAPS is vastly understaffed and unprepared to accommodate students struggling with their mental health — with bleak wait times and the majority of students limited to three CAPS appointments, the current system for mental health care at UCLA is primed to cause student crises. With sufficient funding (which could come from a defunded UCPD) and additional staff well-versed in social justice based treatment, UCLA would be far better equipped to promote mental health among students.

I dropped out of my first college after two forced hospitalizations, after being shoved into the back of cop cars with a backpack full of socks I packed in a panic, after being repeatedly belittled by hospital staff. I left with resent, additional trauma, and an intensified fear of both police and emergency mental health care. 

We deserve so much better than that. 

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