On Emotional Pain: Psychiatric Abuse and Neglect

On Emotional Pain: Psychiatric Abuse and Neglect

Emily S. Cutler

Since my activism primarily focuses on my opposition to involuntary commitment, I am often asked about my opinion on another important issue: individuals who seek mental health services for suicidality and who are turned away. While some people, like myself, have been locked up for half-hearted or facetious statements about wanting to die or feeling like killing themselves, others are not taken seriously when expressing suicidal thoughts. They are told that they are "seeking attention" or "acting out," and that they don't really mean it. 

"Are these opposite, contradictory problems?" a friend of mine recently asked. "Or are they two sides of the same problem?"

I see these two issues - abuse and neglect - as two sides of the same problem. Both issues stem from the fact that we as a society view suicide - the act of ending one's life - as the problem, not the emotional pain and suffering that leads to a person's desire to escape.  

We are constantly told to sit with our distress, to feel our pain and not act on it. To some extent, our worth as an individual is measured within society by how well we can tolerate pain - by the extent to which we can feel discomfort or misery and still survive, or even better, act happy. Those who are most valued by society are those who are seen as the ones who can endure the most physical and emotional discomfort - those who put in the highest number of hours in their jobs, exercise the most, eat the healthiest (and therefore dullest or most bitter tasting) foods, and give up the most activities that solely exist for the sake of leisure or recreation, such as recreational drug use and TV watching.

It is not distress that is seen as the problem, then. We are told that life itself is supposed to be distressing. Our capitalist framework requires that we devote the vast majority of our time to work; our lookist and healthist ideals coerce people into hours of exercise, dieting, and other painful procedures carried out in the name of health and beauty.

We are supposed to go along with these systems. We are supposed to internalize these ideals and norms, and in doing so, accept the distress they cause. 

If we cannot tolerate this emotional pain - if we would prefer to escape it - then we are pathologized. We are told that something must be very, very wrong with us. And so we are met with one of two reactions.

Some of us are met with neglect. These individuals are told to "suck it up," to stop complaining so much and seeking attention. They are not given the help and services they have asked for because that would be seen as "rewarding" their desire to escape. Only if their desire to escape is met with neglect will they learn to push through their emotional pain and "grin and bear it" instead of asking for help. So the theory goes.

Others are met with abuse. These individuals are imprisoned in psychiatric institutions where they may be forcibly drugged, restrained, secluded, and further violated. The purpose of this imprisonment is to control the individual's body - to ensure that they do not have access to the means or methods to end their own lives. Nothing is done to address the emotional pain that the individual is in - only the physical risk to their body. More importantly, no action is taken to address the external circumstances that have driven this person to such a high degree of emotional pain that they wish to escape.

And so, both psychiatric abuse and psychiatric neglect serve to maintain the status quo. They serve to uphold the notion that life should be painful and miserable, and the only problem is the individuals who are just too sensitive or lazy to tolerate that pain and misery. This of course allows our individualistic, capitalistic framework to continue without any of us having to take responsibility for one another's pain. How convenient.

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