The Criminalization of Mental Illness in Black America

Eye on Culture

It was a normal night in 2009 at Delonte West’s house. Tired from a long day, West retreated to his room to get some rest.  As usual, he took a dose of Seroquel, medication he uses for his bipolar disorder.  “Sadness is a normal human emotion,” explains West. “And there’s a mechanism that kicks in and lets you know it’s time to stop being sad. With bipolar, that mechanism is out, so you don’t even know when you’re sad.” Despite certain side effects, Seroquel helps to regulate these mechanisms.

Shortly after falling asleep, West was awoken and told that his friends were downstairs messing around with some guns in the house.  Despite feeling the effects of the medication, West decided that the best course of action was to remove the guns from his home, transporting them to a house nearby. He described the situation to Slam Magazine in the following way:

A few of my cats had found some stuff in the studio and they were living the whole gangsta life thing- guns in the air and this and that.  And I said, ‘Oh my God. What the fu*k are y’all doin’ in here? Y’all got to go. Momma ain’t on that. Kids are running around upstairs. It’s time to go.’

Gassed up from the commotion, West decided it would be prudent for him to relocate the guns to an empty house he owned nearby. So, with his other vehicles blocked in by guests’ cars, and expecting it to be a short trip, he haphazardly loaded up his Can-Am and placed the weapons in a Velcro-type of bag – “not a desperado, hardcase, gun-shooting-out-the-side type case” -and set off.

Unfortunately, while responsibly moving the guns, he found himself unable to shake his groggy feeling.  Realizing the terrible predicament he faced, he sought out a police officer, only to find himself under arrest and ultimately in jail.  While clearly a result of his Bipolar Disorder and his need to medicate, West would be punished by the criminal justice system (1-year house arrest), by the media (in terms of ridicule and a narrative that consistently imagined him as criminal), and with a 10-game suspension from the NBA. Named as a member of The Bleacher Report’s “all thug team” and also a member of a list of players who “could double as gang members,” and often described as a “thug” and a “gangsta” in comment sections, Delonte West highlights the ways the criminality and mental health becomes within the black body.

His difficulties and troubles are rarely linked to his disease, instead positioned as yet another criminal baller.  Moreover, even acknowledgment about his Bipolar Disorder provides little cover or context given the stigmas directed at black males. Knowledge of medical conditions, instead, are used as further evidence of his criminality and danger.  “West wouldn’t be the first person to be picked on for having a mental health condition, and certainly not the first to be picked up for the same,” notes Sam Eifling. “But it’s worth noting that, despite harming precisely no one, West likely became another example of the criminalization of mental illness in America. Now he’s stigmatized as not just sick, but criminal.” Ain’t that a truth known all too well by a disproportionate number of African Americans.

Responding to the Los Angeles Lakers’ Metta World Peace’s courageous announcement about his own mental health struggles, Mychal Denzel Smith offers an important context for understanding the intersections of race, mental health, and the criminalization of black bodies:

“Black men don’t go to therapy, they go to the barbershop.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this throughout my life, nor relate how embarrassed I am to have actually believed this at one point. The resistance black men exhibit toward mental health awareness is astounding. The belief, in my estimation, is that admitting to and/or seeking help for a mental illness makes one less of a man. We have come to define masculinity/manhood as ‘strong,’ meaning silent, emotionless, stoic and uncaring. To our detriment, black men have accepted, embraced, and perpetuated this idea and left a community of emotionally stunted black men so repressed that the mere mention of a psychiatrist is met with a chorus of hearty laughter. It doesn’t prevent us from suffering at the hands of mental illness, it’s just that black men prefer to self-medicate with marijuana and Jesus (not necessarily concurrently).”

As evident by the ways commentators have used MWP’s testimony against him, citing it as evidence of his criminality, the silence surrounding mental health issues is not surprising.  Already imagined as suspect and criminal, any hint at struggles with mental health issues is further used to construct blackness as pollutant, undesirable, and otherwise dangerous in the public sphere.  The constant descriptions of West and MWP as unpredictable, and dangerously crazy, points to the larger connection between racism and mental health within a myriad of discourses.

Marc Lamont Hill further emphasizes this larger context, providing an important historic reminder as to why African Americans (beyond the often culture, machismo, or cultural practices) often resist and otherwise dismiss mental health challenges:

Since slavery, the American scientific establishment has functioned as an ideological apparatus of White supremacy by advancing and normalizing claims of Black moral, physical, and intellectual inferiority. As a result, the last four centuries have witnessed the production of deeply racist beliefs and practices that justify the abuse, exploitation, and institutionalization of “flawed” and “diseased” Black bodies. . . .

By using mental illness to justify the denial of full humanity, freedom, and citizenship to Blacks, as well as ascribe mental pathology to those who operate against the interests of the White supremacist capitalist State, the American medical establishment has engendered a healthy and persistent distrust among Black communities.

The emphasis on locking up versus treatment, the focus on making people disappear instead of making people healthy, and the power of a white racial frame that sees black bodies as criminal and dangerous contributes to mental health disparities.  Here are some facts to consider:

  • African Americans constitute over 25 percent of those in need of mental health care
  • Since 1980, suicide rates among African Americans has increased 200 percent
  • Rates of depression among black women are 50 percent higher than those of white women
  • 25% of African Americans live without health insurance
  • 35% male prisoners have Borderline Personality Disorder
  • 25% of incarcerated women have been diagnosed with BPD
  • 10% of people who suffer from BPD commit suicide
  • Blacks are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than with other mood disorders, even when the symptoms point to a mood disorder (whites more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorder when symptoms mirror schizophrenia)
  • Blacks are less likely to be given anti-depressant medications
  • Blacks are least likely group to receive therapy
  • Only 1:3 African Americans who need mental health treatment or care receive it
  • African Americans constitute only 2 percent of the nation’s psychologists and psychiatrists

According to Dr. Regina Benjamin, mental illness continues to plague the African American community in disproportionate rates, a fact not surprising given recent studies on the mental toll of racism: “Mental health problems are particularly widespread in the African-American community,” remarked the U.S. Surgeon General.  “In 2004, nearly 12 percent of African Americans ages 18-25 reported serious psychological distress in the past year. Overall, only one-third of Americans with a mental illness or a mental health problem receive care and the percentage of African Americans receiving services (nearly 7 percent) is half that of non-Hispanic whites.”

Rather than treat the symptom (mental distress) and/or the root cause – American racism; health care inequalities – the public and institutional response has been one invested in criminalization and incarceration.   Whereas there remains a range of options and treatments for whites confronted with mental health struggles not too mention public acceptance, African Americans continue to face scorn and contempt, ridicule and incarceration, highlighting the importance of intervention at every level.   The experiences of Delonte West, Metta World Peace, and countless others reveals that we have a long ways to go in terms of decriminalizing mental illness, especially when it comes to communities of color. A prison nation is not a healthy nation.


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris