Policing, Morality, and Mental Health

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Recent years have seen an increase in discussions concerning ‘mental health’, particularly within racialised, under-served, and often excluded communities. However, these concepts do not exist in a neutral space. They are imbricated in webs of meaning which are deeply politicised and influenced by norms and social structures. As such, continuing critical reflections on mental health are essential to ensure that those excluded for so long do not enter and begin to reproduce and re-project the very structures which led to their exclusion onto others.

Although they may not appear immediate, the links between policing, imprisonment, and mental health have grown over several centuries. This piece will reflect on three distinctive, but interconnected areas related to history, contemporary society, and the future. Rather than prescribing the author’s interpretations, this piece encourages reflection on the relationship between policing, prisons, and mental health systems to our experiences of reflecting and acting through Sikhi.

History connects

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the onset of an industrial revolution in Britain and other western nations. Such changes were made possible by the exploitation of workers and children, wealth generated by the transatlantic slave trade, and ongoing colonial extraction. Concurrently, the psychiatric profession was slowly gaining purchase in an ever-changing world; notably, in 1851, a new disease called ‘drapetomania’ was proposed in a prominent medical journal – it attempted to classify enslaved peoples who attempted to flee slavery as a ‘disease of the mind’. At this time, a new capitalistic class began to turn its attention towards confronting and rectifying ‘social issues’ seen as their ‘responsibility’. As well as focusing on things like living standards and sanitation, some turned towards the lives of those read as ‘insane’. Rather than expecting everyone to toil in workhouses, they advocated for specific spaces to house those with ‘diseases of the mind’ which eventually turned into the ‘psychiatric asylums’ which became commonplace in industrialising nations as well as within their colonies. Though large portions of these institutions were dismantled in the twentieth century due to patient experiences of violence and budget reductions, many remain active and their impact on our understanding of mental health and those living with mental illness remains central.

It is no surprise that a society turning towards capitalistic modes of production would want to ensure that populations were able to participate in the labour force with the aim of extracting their surplus value in the form of profit. Class and race exploitation worked together at the heart of western industrialising nations to shape a society in which life revolved around individuals selling their labour for a salary. In the context of such changes it is also apparent that shifts in public morality, behaviour, and organisation were ongoing. Police forces became social mainstays as cities with highly dense populations grew; the surveillance of social behaviour increased to enforce (in)acceptable behaviours and the ‘good’ citizen became one which valued ‘honest’ work and the lifestyle bound to it. Those who fell out of these frameworks were bound to be categorised, targeted, and cast aside. 

In his work Asylums, sociologist Erving Goffman draws comparison between the regimes of asylums and prisons in their effort to police public morality, ensure social isolation of those read as ‘deviant’, and absorb their livelihoods into formalised and administrated regimes. These themes cannot be detached from concurrent developments in capitalist modes of production, the exploitation of racialised and classed groups, and the aim to citizens contributing towards a ‘social good’. While some were well intentioned in their move to develop separate, psychiatric institutions, it became apparent that these spaces would use the same mechanisms of control seen throughout other state-controlled and state-run institutions. Both prisons and psychiatric institutions held captive those deemed to detract from society, those seen as violent, and those who to be separated from the mainstream.

Even today we only need to look towards popular culture – novels such as One Who Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, modern mythologies such as Batman, and films like Shutter Island – to see the legacy of psychiatric institutions on our thinking about morality and mental health. Most of these representations point towards the inhumanity of such institutions and the violence perpetuated upon those they serve. Having considered the linkages between industrialisation, capitalism, policing, and psychiatric institutions all undergirded with a view to ensure exploitation, can we be sure that our current perceptions of those experiencing mental health challenges are not impacted by these histories? How do we understand the place of psychiatric institutions in our society? Do we know of their issues and the experiences of those they serve? Finally, is this a system that we think fits into our readings of Sikhi?   

Contemporary realities

Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the judicial and practical relationships between policing and mental health have become blurred. Various contexts have implemented laws which allow for the compulsory detention of those deemed to pose a risk to themselves or others. In practice these acts can reproduce and project the biases located in racialised logics of those deemed to pose a ‘threat’; in the UK, for instance, Black communities are 4 times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act compared to white populations whilst they are 40% more likely to access treatment for mental health challenges through a police or criminal justice route. Furthermore, it has been outlined that state healthcare services are actively reporting their patients to ‘anti-terrorism’ departments if it is believed that they pose a ‘risk’. More recently we have seen the increased use of police in undertaking ‘wellness checks’ for those in mental health crisis. Unfortunately, there are notable instances of these police-led checks resulting in the death of the person in crisis. Many police officers do not have the skills to deal with complex mental health crises and it is racialised communities who are often affronted. Securitisation, surveillance and violence are rife throughout both policing and mental health.

Beyond judicial frameworks and public policing, another often forgotten component of mental health pertains to the role of prisons. Often used as a dumping-ground for those with particular mental health challenges, prisons are known as a space of danger, trauma, and violence as opposed to safety, support and rehabilitation. For those without previous mental health challenges, being held captive in prison estates can be immeasurably difficult due to physical, emotional, and psychological violence experienced by others imprisoned, prison staff, as well as throughout the judicial system more widely. For those with mental health challenges these obstacles are intensified. The use of prisons to quite literally police, punish, and survey those with mental health challenges reveals the deeply interconnected histories between judicial and medical institutions – although they may seem separate, both can easily converge to meet the needs of the state and the society it looks to create.

For many racialised communities the police have created fear rather than offered support. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis catalysed these discussions throughout the world. Our current approaches to mental health are deeply connected to modes of policing which have developed over several centuries, to the extent that those experiencing particular mental health crises can meet their death when approached by police. Beyond this, budgetary cuts in social and community based services have meant that many who need support have been unable to access it when required. To resolve this, prisons have been used extensively to segregate those who society does not care to support, especially racialised folks experiencing mental health challenges. As overt spaces of punishment, surveillance, and violence, do we think institutions like prisons and psychiatric institutions are suitable to support our communities? How do we reconcile the violence faced in public life and that within state-led institutions? Do we really think that current practices of supporting those with mental health challenges should involve the use of prisons or does this signify a broader issue with how our society fundamentally mistreats social issues?

Future possibilities

What do we see when we think of a future wherein those with mental health challenges are best supported and empowered to live their lives how they wish to? Do we see individuals who are purposefully isolated from the rest of society? Do we see individuals whose lives are reduced to a ‘revolving door’ between public life and imprisonment? Do we see institutions that cannot guarantee the safety of those they serve from physical, emotional, or psychological violence? Do we see people who are afraid to seek help through the threat of being criminalised?

For me, the future lies in community-based solutions which are run by those who have been served and supported in their lives. These solutions would:

  • view health and mental health outcomes as beyond biological causations;
  • be dynamic and responsive to their contexts;
  • work alongside others within their communities to serve populations;
  • espouse compassion and care rather than criminalisation;
  • be held accountable to those they serve;
  • place a primacy on de-escalation;

Ultimately, these solutions would absolve the need for prisons and police in mental health, working towards their dissolution from society as a whole. This short piece is by no means complete, but it aims to offer a way of thinking about police, prisons and mental health. Our current systems are failing those who are most vulnerable. However, we can change this, and it doesn’t involve speaking the same language or espousing the same values as those historic and contemporary institutions which have dehumanised and enacted violence upon so many.

Shuranjeet Singh is the founder and director of Taraki, a movement working with Punjabi communities to reshape approaches to mental health. Shuranjeet believes that mental health is deeply embedded in our social and material realities, meaning that conversations around the topic cannot and should not be decontextualised if we truly want to work towards a more equitable world for all. Shuranjeet tries to instill conscientiousness and compassion in all of the work he does, which has motivated his learning particularly into abolition, prison systems, and mental health. Those held captive in prisons and detention are easily forgotten, overlooked and heavily ostracised. Their lives are simply valued as ‘less’. Shuranjeet hopes we can begin to understand and unpick the unsuitability of our current systems to provide healing and justice to those who need it most.