Medical Trauma and Mental Health Care in the United States: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Class
One woman's experience with medical workers and mental health treatment.
It feels like 100 years since I read on Twitter about the news of Daniel Prude’s murder in Rochester, New York. He was injured by police on March 23, 2020, and then died one week later of his injuries, on March 30. There was so much about it that felt so sad and familiar for multiple different reasons.
Another murder of an unarmed Black man by police, especially given everything else that has happened to Black people since the beginning of time, especially given this year. Someone was clearly in profound distress asking for help and was met with literal physical force and death.
Daniel Prude’s mental health situation is one of the most tragic components of his story. This man was experiencing mental health issues at the time of his death. He had been seen in an emergency room the day before and evaluated. He was released back to the care of his brother and did not receive additional support. His brother called the police because he was in crisis and behaving erratically. At the time the police arrived where he was, he was naked in the street. It was March, and it was snowing in Rochester.
If you listen to the dialogue of the body camera footage, it is very clear he is in a mental health crisis, and the way the police respond to him is disgusting and devastating.
Just a few days later after the story of Daniel Prude was initially released, I also saw with sadness a news story about an Autistic young man in Glendale, Utah. His name is Cameron Linden. His mother called 911 to get support transporting him to the hospital because he was in mental health crisis. The police shot him multiple times. He was unarmed and is 13 years old. He was injured on his shoulder, both of his ankles, and his intestines and bladder.
As a White, educated, cisgender, middle-class passing woman, I can’t know what that experience was like for either of these men or any person of color. The ways they were responded to by “helping professionals” generally and medical professionals in particular was sadly familiar to me.
Over the course of my life, I have been seen in emergency rooms and urgent cares at least 12 times for self-harm related issues. These visits happened in two different states. Most often I was seen for needing stitches or some kind of wound repair. As best I can count, during those visits I received over 50 stitches and 20 staples.
In those multiple medical situations, not one time was I ever offered real support or a higher level of care (e.g., hospitalization) other than a Utah doctor saying, “Do I need to lock you up for the weekend?”
In 2017, following the most traumatic incident of my life, I went to the emergency room for a single cut I was concerned needed stitches. I went to the ER because it was Thanksgiving weekend and the urgent care I would have preferred was closed until Monday. I was being responsible and healthy by seeking medical attention.
The experience I had was dehumanizing on multiple levels. When I was asked where the cut came from and I answered it was me, that changed everything about my interactions with medical workers. I was made to take off my pants and show my sacred religious clothing under my clothes to show I was not carrying blades with me into the hospital. My coat and purse were taken away from me.
I was not actively suicidal and continued to tell the hospital personnel this was the case. I had called a friend to be with me, and they would not allow him back until a certain point. I remember being terrified that they would hospitalize me against my will even though I was not actively suicidal and genuinely had support and was receiving significant treatment from both my psychiatrist and my therapist I saw twice a week.
Someone was kept in the room to supervise me. She said, “We have to be here with you like this because you never know what will set you off,” like I was some kind of animal who couldn’t actively think or regulate or choose for myself. As of a few weeks previous to that night, I had the title of “Dr.” in front of my name. I had two graduate degrees. I taught at a University. I had research expertise and studied emotions and trauma extensively during my dissertation and had been attending therapy and taking medication for nearly 10 years. I explained this.
Yet she said, “We have to be here with you like this, because you never know what will set you off.”
I met with the on-call psychiatry resident and explained the situation. I had just had a really traumatizing event with my dad a few weeks prior. The holiday had been hard. My sister had been abusive that night. After explaining these extremely painful and intimate details with someone who I did not trust and had not done anything to earn my trust, I still did not know if I was going to be hospitalized even though I was not actively suicidal, and I had a support system and treatment in place.
The resident would not release me until he verified my story and that I wasn’t lying to him. I was forced to give him phone numbers of friends who could verify it. He called two friends and neither answered the phone in the middle of the night. He finally said speaking to my male friend would work. They left the room so they could speak privately. He only released me when he “verified” my story with a male friend. That is stunning and disgusting.
It is terrifying to think this is the kind of care I received. As someone who is relatively privileged, extremely educated, knowledgeable about mental health and trauma, and able to speak for themselves, it is even more terrifying. Even more terrifying yet, this is only one situation from multiple situations that happened in hospital emergency rooms and urgent cares in two different states. There are more experiences. This is the link to a Twitter thread I wrote about just one of them.
What would the care have been like if I had been male? A person of color? A woman of color? A man of color?
Medical treatment and the medical profession are based on racist practices and white supremacy. Research shows people of color have a shorter life expectancy and are disproportionally vulnerable to everyday diseases as well as COVID. Black women, Alaska Native women, and American Indian women are 3 times more likely to die from childbirth-related causes (see this report from the CDC and Serena Williams’ experience giving birth). Research also shows fat women are more often ignored and subject to shame and medical stigmatization. See this research here and this conference presentation here.
Would I have been ignored?
Would I have been responded to with extreme aggression?
Would I have been physically restrained?
Would I have been shamed?
What would have happened if I was so triggered I was unable to communicate with a male medical “professional” I didn’t know?
Thank god as my trauma recovery has progressed, the need for genuine medical care has decreased. I am now at a point where I no longer actively need stitches often for cut skin, but I know my recovery work is a lifelong task, and there will always be a part of me that struggles with self-harm to some degree.
I cannot speak for Daniel Prude’s experience and what it felt like to be injured and then die in that way. I cannot speak for Linden Cameron. I can only speak to my own experience.
The medical profession is built upon a foundation of classism, fat phobia, ableism, elitism, racism, homophobia, and many more forms of oppression. We give medical workers the status near unto a god, assuming all medical workers know more than any of us could dare to know. Many medical workers also treat patients as if this is true. This is wrong. Medical workers and other helping professionals do not deserve this type of status. Respect and trust are not a given, they are earned through competent, professional, compassionate care.
Ask Daniel Prude if this is true. Ask Linden Cameron. Ask anyone who has ever needed medical attention for their mental health.
Feminist, researcher, writer, teacher, boss lady.