It is that time of year in the United States again. Mortar boards and tassels, tossed in celebration, dance in the sky. And, as I have shared previously, I am a graduation junkie. So, you can imagine how disappointed I was when I woke up yesterday morning too sick to attend the graduation of my nephew who happens to have earned his degree from my alma mater, Johns Hopkins. Not to be deterred from getting my fix, I watched the livestream from home as I convalesced.
Bryan Stevenson was Johns Hopkins University’s 2018 Commencement speaker. Human rights lawyer, social justice activist, and author of the NY Times bestseller, Just Mercy, Stevenson is also the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He is devoting his life to raising awareness about the deep-rooted racial injustice embedded in our social and legal systems. Stevenson defends the innocence of individuals on death row, and most notably, he won a U.S. Supreme Court case that resulted in a historic ruling declaring that it is unconstitutional to sentence any child 17 or younger to life without parole.
Stevenson is committed to making the world a more just place. He implored all of us to figure out how we can do our part. For all who care to do so, he articulated four essential principles. His recommendations grow out of his particular focus on changing the landscape for those wrongly incarcerated. They ring true across the landscape of many and varied social injustices, including those related to mental illness.
Power in proximity. Stevenson warned against trying to impact injustice or inequities from afar. We learn and understand the experience of marginalized communities when we get close. This means overcoming perceived barriers of distance and difference and means giving voice to those who have lived experience. In Stevenson’s case, this meant getting to know the accused on death row. In the case of mental illness, this wisdom is captured in the commitment to have individuals with lived experience of mental illness be part of the conversation to improve mental health systems and services. In the case of global mental health efforts, this means ensuring true partnerships and honoring local expertise in all efforts to increase understanding and build capacity. Two refrains from mental health in this regard are “nothing about us without us” and “global is local.”
Change the narrative.Fear and anger sit at the base of the core story line that has fueled the racial inequity reflected in U.S. incarceration rates. Although Black Americans comprise only 12% of the U.S. population they account for nearly 40% of the nation’s inmates. Similarly, fear and ignorance have fueled the unending failure of the community mental health movement since the 1960’s. Not understanding and being afraid of people with mental illness, communities engage in all kinds of NIMBY strategies to block attempts to integrate individuals with mental illness into our communities. These social injustices targeting those we do not understand is the product of fear, anger and ignorance. We need to get close, and we need to change this narrative.
Stay hopeful. Social problems like slavery and mass incarceration and mental illness can overwhelm us. The problems seem too big and complex and too entrenched for the average person to have impact. Whether it be the racism of incarceration in the U.S. or the prejudice and ignorance related to mental illness that leaves individuals untreated and abandoned, by getting close and changing the narrative, understanding and justice are possible. As Havel compassionately articulated, hope is “an orientation of the spirit.” It is hope that gives us the strength and conviction to live and to explore and heal, even in circumstances that seem most despairing. Stevenson takes that one step further to say that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. These sentiments fully resonate for me whether we are talking about injustice propelled by race or mental illness.
Do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable. We have to understand that the status quo has its supporters. Intentionally or inadvertently, these defenders of the status quo are the naysayers for anyone who wants to make real change. They will tell you all the reasons why your idea is outrageous. They will tell you why you are likely to fail. They will make very good points. But if the changes you are trying to achieve were easy, they would be realized already. Making real change requires inconvenience and discomfort coupled with getting close, changing the narrative, and staying hopeful even when the odds are against you.
Where incarceration and mental illness intersect. At the conceptual level, Stevenson’s four principles apply to all strategies aimed at achieving greater social justice. In the case of mental illness, the overlap moves even closer to home. In the same way that racism has fueled the escalating rates of incarceration for black and brown men, prejudice and ignorance about mental illness has meant that among those who are incarcerated, 25% have serious mental illness.
Thank you, Mr. Stevenson, for getting close, changing the narrative, tolerating the discomfort, and staying hopeful. You are creating a more just world and you set an example for us all.