I’ve lived with mental health issues since the age of 18, but I didn’t know what was happening until I ended up in jail 25 years later. In a place that represents despair to so many, my initial contact with the criminal justice system was the first time in my life I had ever felt hope.
I was once hospitalized for four weeks, and all the doctor could offer was that I had hit a rough patch in my life, and that I had to try to “get over it.” This led me to suppressing my symptoms, because my family believed that this was something I had control over. Whenever I mentioned any issues, I was blamed and shamed by the people I loved most.
I ended up in an abusive relationship. My ex constantly berated me verbally and emotionally, forcing me to shove down my feelings even further. One night, his abuse hurt me so much that I stabbed him in self-defense. The police arrested me for domestic violence and attempted murder charges. At the county jail, the psychiatrist asked me routine intake questions and eventually picked up on my state of mind. We delved into questions about who I was and why I was there, talking for a long time until he finally asked if I’d ever been diagnosed with depression or PTSD. That was the first time I had ever seen the light of hope.
The only thing I can say was that it was divine intervention—I never would have imagined that someone in my position would get mental health assistance while in jail. I had gone to my family, but there are lots of issues in the African-American community surrounding mental health, so I never received answers, support, or comfort. I wish I could thank that psychiatrist and let him know where I am now; I wonder if he knows the role he played in changing my life. Once he showed me where I was mentally, that’s what got me involved in advocacy, and I’ve been at it for 14 years.
Even though I had a positive experience with the justice system, I know a lot of people haven’t been as lucky. We need to begin the dialogue about mental health, mental illness, and mental wellness so we can end the stigma and allow people to come forward for help.
Tracy Love is a wellness educator living in Rochester, New York.