Investing in Community Care is the Only Way Forward
How do we move from a culture of violence to a culture of compassion?
We may never know the truth of what happened the night that Breonna Taylor was murdered. But one thing I know is true, her life would have been spared if we had Community Care.
Addiction and Violence
Often, folks believe that mental illness can lead to violence. There is a commonly held stereotype that individuals with schizophrenia are violent and scary. The sad truth though is that a person with schizophrenia is far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator of it.
If we examine the mental health of those in our population that have ended up incarcerated, there is not a higher incidence of schizophrenia than outside. But there is a much higher incidence of one type of mental illness, one type of mental illness that often does lead to violence, and that is Substance Use Disorder.
I remember learning this statistic when I was a young psychology professor and it really made me stop and think. Most of us do not think of substance abuse as a mental illness. When I would poll my class to name all the mental health issues they could think of, addiction rarely came up. We still see it as a moral failing or a choice.
We also see it as a crime.
There are many secondary behaviors that come out of addiction that are crimes. Stealing and robbery being the first that comes to mind. The addict’s brain is dependent on the substance so much so that it will drive them to do things that are outside of their character. To cheat, to lie to steal. And violence isn’t far behind. Not only can the substance itself make someone act violently, but the drive to get it can be so strong that it can cause the person to lash out at anyone in their way.
Rehabilitation or punishment?
The criminalization of addiction in this country is short-sighted and cruel. Removing the substance from the user doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The reason relapse is so prevalent is not because the user is weak or has no conscience it’s because the drug is giving them the care that they need. Unless that drug is replaced with actual support and care, they have no choice but to go back to using it.
Johann Hari says that the opposite of addiction is connection. The reason I so firmly believe this is because I experienced it myself. And, I have seen over and over again, friends and family members fall into addiction patterns because they are in desperate need of connection, and don’t know how to get it. They need love, support, care. They need to be heard, to be respected, to be accepted.
Somewhere along the line, we never learned how to ask for what we need, or we were told that our needs are wrong. Our needs became shameful, and the perfect substance provided relief from that shame, and a feeling of connection, no matter how broken or misguided.
Trauma is not the thing that happens to you, it’s what it makes you believe about yourself.
Deeply held beliefs that we aren’t worthy of love are soul-crushing and lead us to seek relief in any way that we can find. Often that is through substance abuse.
If we view every jailed addict as someone who is worthy of love but doesn’t believe in their own self-worth, what would rehabilitation look like? What sort of care would we give to someone who deeply needs support, rather than punishment?
The value of Community Care
I have seen over and over again in social media threads people commenting that Breonna Taylor was a drug dealer. We know that wasn’t true. But we also know that she did have a relationship with a drug dealer, and that relationship led to her eventual death.
She was clearly a kind-hearted person. One doesn’t get into the field of medicine without a big heart. I can’t speak for her, but she likely saw that this person needed love and connection and although she understood that he wasn’t a safe person, and eventually split from him, she tried to give him the care that our community wouldn’t.
Community Care looks like treating people who are in need with respect. Community Care is an understanding that bad choices do not make a bad person. That desperate people do things that they will come to regret. It’s the collective belief that we are only as successful and happy as the least successful and least happy person in our community.
When our country decided to wage a war on drugs, we didn’t do it by creating Community Care. Zero-tolerance policies are not Community Care. Rehabilitation centers that look and feel like jails are not Community Care. Jailing folks for minor drug offenses is not Community Care.
Punishing someone for having a mental illness is not Community Care. It’s the result of a system that is designed to keep those that are suffering and most in need, on the bottom.
Class and Rehab
What happens when a celebrity checks into rehab? They receive mental health support. They get healthy food, exercise, fresh air. They get therapy and have freedom. They are not treated like criminals, they are treated like people who are in need of support.
What about when a person living in poverty ends up in rehab? They end up in a place that is struggling for grant money, that survives on donations, and barely has the money for clean sheets let alone the goods and services its residents need. The workers are underpaid and often struggling themselves. There can be an environment of hostility and suspicion. One wrong move and you are either back out on the street or going to jail. For a person recovering from trauma, this is not the kind of environment that inspires hope or optimism. It doesn’t foster self-love.
Once again, the class difference is stark. Once again we see how the free market abjectly fails those of our society that have nothing. Rehabilitation is not a privilege only afforded to the rich. Therapy and healing shouldn’t be either. The movement that is arising out of the calls to defund the police is saying just this. There is so much money being poured into criminalizing homelessness, addiction, and sex work. There is so much money going towards riot gear and the best and brightest weapons for the police.
What does it say about a society when a police officer wears tools of violence that cost thousands of dollars, but a single mother who finds herself in a rehab facility has to scrub toilets in exchange for a candy bar?
What about the children who have police officers and K9 units patrolling the halls of the school, but no counselor to go to when they are afraid to go home?
Community Care lifts us all
If Breonna Taylor’s community (which is incidentally, also my community) had real rehabilitation services, her ex-boyfriend may have been drawn to another line of work. He may have seen a way out of poverty that didn’t include selling drugs. Rather than using her hard-earned money to bail him out of jail, they may have both been able to have work that brought them joy. And rather than a police force that sees having drugs in the house as a crime deserving of death, we could have a police force that moves through the community with compassion, and understanding.
I envision a world where we understand that addiction is not a moral failing, but a response to trauma. A world where we can give those trauma survivors the help they so desperately need, rather than piling more punishment and pain on top of an already open wound.
If you are interested in learning more about Community Care and seeing it take shape, please check out the BREATHE ACT, created by representatives Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib