We Need Communities Other Than “Mental Health Ghettos”

"Ghettos" by Ghetto Kid

"Ghettos" by Ghetto Kid

People with diagnoses still suffer illegal discrimination in housing because they can’t prove a property owner is refusing to sell or rent to them because of their disability or mental condition.  They often pay more for poor housing in less desirable neighborhoods than non-diagnosed people do for better housing.

They cluster in the town’s poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods, or in low-cost housing projects that accept the government housing vouchers nicer developments refuse.  Housing discrimination is one of the reasons people with mental health diagnoses are victims of violent crimes 6 to 23 times more often than the general population.

Involuntary Ghettos

Racial and ethnic ghettos in America were perpetuated by banking and real estate practices, and restrictive covenants and “gentlemen’s agreements” among property owners in many towns and neighborhoods not to sell or rent a home to a particular racial or ethnic group.


Housing Discrimination is Hard to Prove

Housing Discrimination is Hard to Prove

Realtors “steered” customers to certain neighborhoods, and away from others, because of their race or ethnicity.  Discrimination in mortgages (red-lining) was harder to explain, but even more destructive to the quality of life for African Americans, who had to pay more than whites for the same house in a less desirable neighborhood.

These unwritten practices were intentionally discriminatory, and everyone knew it.  But a person could never prove discrimination because it was impossible to prove intent to discriminate, or that an owner refused to sell or rent to a person because he was black, Jewish, gay, or something else the neighbors found undesirable.  The discriminatory policies were never written down anywhere.

So racially discriminatory practices in housing continued long after the courts declared them illegal and unenforceable in the 1960’s.  They continue to this day for people with mental health issues and disabilities.

Voluntary Ghettos

Many members of groups that had been victims of housing discrimination chose to live with people like themselves voluntarily when they no longer had to.  Many Jews, African Americans, and GLBT’s prefer to live surrounded by people like themselves.

The positive reason is that the ghetto fosters group identity and culture.  The other reason is that many members of minority groups feel less conscious of being minorities — less watched, judged, strange, other, and unwelcome — when surrounded by other members of their own group.

The bad news is that ghettos tend to turn groups inward, isolate them from other groups, and Balkanize the larger community into separate racial and ethnic enclaves.

Mental Health Ghettos

The same things, positive and negative, happen to diagnosed people when they hang out exclusively in mental health ghettos.

Even if they are in recovery, or activists, or recovered, or consider themselves survivors of mental health treatment, people with “mental health” in their self-definition, who spend the bulk of their time among people with the same identity. develop a stronger group identity when they interact and learn from one another.

Every day on Facebook, people in the mental health world support one another, exchange ideas, share the latest thinking and journal articles, publicize their events, and post their own blogs and articles about mental health, recovery, mental health politics, and  developments in their civil rights movement.

They draw strength from one another, and keep themselves at the cutting edge of their movement.  The downside is that they risk becoming insular, ingrown, and out of touch with the rest of the world.

Living a normal life requires normal connections with normal communities:  faith communities, softball and bowling leagues, hiking, nature, and gardening groups, book clubs, writing workshops, and college courses.  An unbalanced life is unbalanced, even if it tilts in a healthy direction.

Justin Dart

Justin Dart

Progress for the movement can only happen in coalitions, not Balkanized in ghettos that contain only survivors on one side and the mental health system on the other.

Justin Dart, father of the Americans With Disabilities Act, was right when he insisted that the ADA cover all disabilities and involve all disability communities.  No divide and conquer, he always said.  We must not throw one disability group under the bus to win a few votes in Congress for the rest of us.

Usually, the community disability advocates wanted to throw under the bus was the mental health community.  Often, people in wheelchairs were afraid they’d lose support if they were too closely identified with “crazy people,” who could access public accommodations on their own.

By refusing to let the community divide itself to get something for part of the community, Mr. Dart held everyone together and got what everyone needed.  The mental health community was the primary beneficiary of that united front.

What are you involved in, aside from mental health ghettos?


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