Introducing "Of Unsound Mind"
Updated: Sep 10
Of Unsound Mind is a site for rethinking the relationship between psychiatry, policing, social work, and incarceration. For now, it is the product of my own independent research tied to my own life experience being assigned psychiatric diagnoses, being hospitalized, and receiving treatments in confinement. The project arises in the aftermath of the George Floyd Uprising in Minneapolis and is inspired by its abolitionist spirit, as well as the projects and ideas that have either recently appeared or received a new spotlight in its wake. The immediate precipitating factor in the formation of this website lies in this wave of anti-police discord and knowledge sharing; I hope this site can be of some use for those thinking about a world beyond police and prisons.
This project also begins in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic amid calls for "increased mental health services" to respond to the mental distress wrought by the disease and its political and economic fallout. This is a perfect example of the growing, but already very popular, tendency to medicalize and individualize a population's varied emotional or psychic responses to political crises mediated by psychiatric and psychological language and interventions. Of Unsound Mind is in part an effort to politicize (or re-politicize) the experience of madness, which means illuminating its political context and inscribing it as an element of a broader story and thus bringing it out of isolation in specialized psychiatric discourse.
From the late 19th century to the present, people with disabilities and psychiatric labels have resisted the regulatory measures, coercive treatments, forced labor, and incarceration often deemed to be "for their own good." These actors have called themselves self-advocates, survivors, ex-patients, and users; their productions and actions have gone under the names antipsychiatry, critical psychiatry, disability justice, and mad pride (among others). Of Unsound Mind is informed by these tendencies, but I would like to use this space as a site to question some of their shortcomings, specifically the centering of the white disabled person or psychiatric survivor/user (like myself) as the neutral subject of the majority of these histories and the provincial impulse that separates psychiatry from a wider consideration of US political and economic history.
Despite the consistent involvement of Black, Native, and non-white peoples in psychiatric or disability service critique and experimentation, the histories of these movements are often told with a neutralized, non-situated subject that by default centers the white experience and erases the conditions uniquely affecting Black, Native, or non-white disabled or psychiatrized people. The legacy of Black thinkers, radicals, artists, and writers on madness and disability like Frantz Fanon, Ella Fitzgerald, Harriet Tubman, Audre Lorde, Chris Bell, and Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan, in addition to the more recent critical writings of Dustin Gibson, Therí Pickens, Suman Fernando, and Liat Ben-Moshe (among many others) illuminate sites of exploration of these conditions as well as a modes of critically examining the whiteness of disability and mad histories.
The title Of Unsound Mind makes reference to the legal designation ("non compos mentis") given to those who are determined incompetent to stand trial. It is a term unique to the intersection between psychiatry and criminal law. This takes us to the heart of this project: to think policing, psychiatry, and social services as points on a connected grid of power and as mutually constitutive paradigms rather than antagonistic forces, each of which are essentially entangled with the development of capitalism, the history of slavery and anti-Blackness, and colonial dispossession. The history of psychiatry is just as much about police officers, judges, lawyers, architects, prison wardens, COs, and social workers as it is about psychiatrists. This focus grows from the need to rethink the current psychiatric paradigm of knowledge and treatment in the way it relates to, supports, and collaborates with the police function or the prison-industrial complex and to begin to imagine new worlds beyond this pernicious double-bind.
Part of this rethinking entails denaturalizing the concept of madness at the same time as we denaturalize the concept of crime. The tumultuous history of criminal law and psychiatry's entanglements since the early 19th century in the US teaches us that these two concepts are closely tied to one-another and help to constitute one-another. At times, this process of reconnecting madness with its conceptual relatives will entail denturalizing and questioning the concept of "mental illness," and the scientific presuppositions that come with it.
In the Resource section of this site, I have created a timeline of the history of psychiatry in the US as it relates to disability services, policing, law, social services and more. In the sections devoted to specific topics (diagnosis/treatment, policing, the courts, prisons, and social work/advocacy), I wrote short summaries of major themes and provided resources and links to follow up. Some of these are my own articles, but the majority are from others authors. It is important to note in this context that what is termed "psychiatry" (and even more so "mental health") is contingent and variable and always in flux around the world. I tried to center and ground this project in this complexity in the Timeline section. By honing in on psychiatry's relationship to criminal law on the remaining pages, I have mainly limited myself to describing psychiatry's social management function at the expense of its other functions.
Psychiatry is not only negatively involved in describing and managing problems like deviancy or madness, it also offers positive interventions meant to optimize individuals in a capitalist system. Various forms of psychotherapy and psychopharmaceutical treatments exist that are not directed at controlling or manipulating dangerous members of the community, but are instead marketed towards improving one's capacity to come to work with a smile, be productive, more acute, less sluggish/sad, among other modifications or optimizations. Such individuals are able to receive psychiatric diagnoses and treatments without necessarily being framed as particularly "abnormal," "deviant," or "insane" but rather as improvable (particularly in terms of their economic productivity). Since World War II, mental and behavioral difference and perceived weakness that doesn't pass a threshold for "madness" has increasingly come under the purview of psychiatric experts. This mechanism is largely unexamined on the site, as are many other scientific and epidemiological problems with diagnosis and treatment that are less pronounced in psychiatry's relationship to law, policing, and prisons.
Following Ruth Wilson Gilmore when she said that “Abolition is about presence, not absence," I have included in the Peer Support section some ideas that I hope can help serve as small gestures of possible places to look for life-affirming worlds being built, no matter how small. It is time to think creatively, provocatively, and ambitiously about what mental health care can mean and how to approach it to avoid the tired binaries we have been fed.
In this blog section, I will publish announcements, newly found resources and/or events, analysis, news, plus short articles and creative texts. The gallery will feature the visual works (submitted, public domain, or with permission) by disabled or psychiatrized people used on the site or important photos from history. If you're interested in writing something here, feel as though some resource or artwork is sorely missing, or you want something featured in the gallery, email me (Sasha) at email@example.com. I'd like to keep a Midwest focus, but feel free to send any screeds, rants, paranoid ravings, melancholic musings, frothy convulsions, and word salads. Depending on interest, I intend to produce a newsletter reporting on developments in psychiatric and disability law with a critical and abolitionist framework as well as an infrequent journal offering longer, and more complex, analyses of these issues, depending on interest and submission volume.
The image for this post is a hand-written letter the early 20th-century German psychiatric patient Emma Hausk sent to her husband. The letter is comprised of the words "darling, come" written over and over in a dense concentration. None were ever read. If no one ever reads anything on this site, that's alright. This project is also a gesture of yearning for something currently unattainable, sent out to a world that is often less than enthusiastic to receive it but, out of some mixture of compulsion and foolishness, Of Unsound Mind now has a digital home.