Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: The criminalization of trauma

I believe innately in the power of people to overcome. The crux of life is navigating beauty and pain and making meaning out of hardship. What makes us human is experiencing discomfort, pain and inequality. Life can be objectively difficult and unfair, and it is within those times that character manifests. Experiencing discomfort is humbling, as it reminds us of how we should support others and how we want to be treated.

The gift of psychology gives us the opportunity to evaluate our feelings, behaviors, perceptions and thoughts — making space for human growth. We have a societal expectation, a universal idea, that things are supposed to go our way. Thus, when they don’t, we go into a state of anxiety about the future or depression about the past. Psychological counseling and treatment is the key to navigating change, but there is a large gap in access to ample treatment. Approximately one in five youth aged 13 to 18 experience a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and 21 percent of low-income children and youth from ages 6 to 17 have behavioral mental health disorders, according to Partners for Our Children. These statistics do not account for those who go untreated and are undiagnosed.

As public health problems turn into law problems, mental health is further criminalized. In The New York Times’ article “A Gun to His Head as a Child. In Prison as an Adult,” journalist Audra D. S. Burch draws the connection that childhood trauma can predict criminality and addictive behavior in adulthood. While observing inmates’ histories, she discovered that “many of them were victims” before they were perpetrators. Many of them also scored a high score on the scale of childhood trauma.

Currently, 40 to 80 percent of youth in the criminal justice system have at least one diagnosable mental disorder, according to a study from Regent University. The system does not do much to treat the presence of mental illnesses, portraying a large lack of restorative justice.

Furthermore, the school-to-prison pipeline aids this process. It’s researched in the field of sociology that rates of aggression may be higher among low-income students of color. Violence is prevalent in schools, and students eventually face disciplinary consequences such as suspension or expulsion. Sometimes violence in schools can be regulated by the courts, which turns into a criminal record — once a student of color has a criminal record, they are subject to the institutionalized racism present within the criminal justice system. If a child is expelled, they do not always have support and sometimes seek out illegal activity. Aggression is a feeling, a displayed psychological behavior — not a character trait.

I would argue that aggression in this instance stems from the host of trauma children have experienced due to unjust conditions created by poverty. Through a host of therapies, trauma can be treated and people can heal. Without healthcare, treatment becomes near impossible. Most people living in these conditions do not have healthcare.

Mental healthcare is a human issue. People face hurdles that get in the way of seeing and experiencing the beauty of life. There are societal hurdles such as the detrimental effects of racism, homophobia, sexism and a host of other prejudices that can hinder a person’s development, wellbeing and access to resources. There are also interpersonal hurdles, such as stressful familial relationships and problems with friends or loved ones that affect one’s behavior.

Then there are hurdles beyond human control that make life uncertain, such as the effects of physical and mental illness, death and loss. As acclaimed public defender Brian Stephenson says in his novel “Just Mercy,” “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I believe we are also much more than the worst thing that has ever happened to us.

The link between crime and mental illness remains explicit. Without counseling and care, controlling your emotions surrounding life’s hardships and inequities can be extremely difficult — pushing people to partake in behaviors that are rendered illegal to assuage their pain.

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