Mayor Eric Adams has announced a policy that amounts to the mass internment of mentally ill people in New York. Clarifying openly that they need not pose a threat to anyone’s safety, Adams has decreed that hundreds or even thousands of people with disabilities will be collected from the street, taken into official custody, and force into mental hospitals against their will. Freedom for severely mentally ill people is now a nonentity in New York City.
Adams’s brutal authoritarianism has come as a shock to metal health advocates in New York City and across the country. In response, there has been an outpouring of justified anger at the mayor for his callous treatment of New York’s most vulnerable, and least popular, city residents. The outrage towards neo-confinement is fully warranted. But, for all that it’s an anomaly relative to recent policy, New York’s reinstatement of coerced hospitalization comports with a long history of malignant control.
Mentally ill people have never had their bodily autonomy respected in this country. Before the 1850s, the mentally ill tended simply to be banished, locked in cellars. After Dorothea Dix attempted to bring their suffering to light, a vast system of asylums opened across the country. Though Dix and her fellow reformers envisioned the asylums as a humane solution, the institutions quickly became hellacious dungeons, in which a peak number of 400,000 Americans would be essentially incarcerated by the mid-twentieth century. America typically punishes disfavored groups rather than attend to their hardships, so after the asylum/snakepits were finally closed, Ronald Reagan decimated the mental health budget, and the mentally ill were abandoned.
Now, despite a potent surge in welfare spending brought along by the Biden agenda, America is once again cracking down on mentally ill people’s freedoms. We could have funded the social services that mentally ill people need to live free, but it is hardly a surprise that a country obsessed with controlling marginalized bodies would force people into institutions instead. (To her credit, New York Governor Kathy Hochul has proposed a large increase in mental-health funding, but Adams has not budged from his plans to institutionalize people.)
This is a classic form of systemic oppression, which one theorist of mental-health history, Michele Foucault, called biopolitics. Why is biopolitical control aimed at the oft-sad lives of the mentally ill? Though policy often instructs the culture, in this case system oppression is downstream from cultural contempt. The mentally ill have been reviled in Western culture for almost 2,000 years. From the time 4th-century missionaries asserted that mentally ill people were subject to damnation, non-mentally ill Westerners have regarded people with mental illness as a tainted and dangerous race. This demonization continues in the media today, with TV shows such as Steve Carrell’s The Patient portraying mentally ill people as psychopathic killers. Most politicians form their impressions of mentally ill people based upon the centuries-old prejudices and contemporary mental-health minstrel shows that suffuse our culture. From these muddied waters comes a disposition towards oppression.
The mental health lobby, heroic though it is, holds roughly as much purchase in governing circles as the anti-poverty lobby–meaning, none. Continuing a bitter tale that has unfolded for nearly two millennia, our country’s politicians seem hellbent on shunning mentally ill people from a society that ought to belong to everyone no matter their brain chemistry.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.