How Can We Protect Our Mental Health When Discussing Disability and Assisted Suicide?

A white woman sitting next to closed blinds, using her fingers to open them and peek through the window to outside.

Content note: discussion of mental illness, suicide, and physician-assisted suicide

If you or someone you know are in need of support, please consider the following resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
    En Español: 1-888-628-9454
    For people who are deaf/hard-of-hearing: 1-800-799-4889
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
  • The Live On Movement

I’m not sure what role my opposition to physician-assisted suicide played in the nervous breakdown I had in 2016. There were a lot of triggering things going on in my life and severe mental illness can be unpredictable. I had showed up at as many hearings related to the issue as I could because I had studied it in my disability studies research and I saw my anti-assisted suicide advocacy as something good that I could do to help others with disabilities. However, I started having panic attacks strong enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. I had lived with depression for seventeen years, but I suddenly experienced mania and paranoia, so I stepped away from that topic. Apparently fighting the darkness associated with the assisted suicide movement was too much for my brain to handle, so I moved into the light of training to help disabled children as a special education teacher.

Even though I stopped engaging in anti-assisted suicide advocacy, stopped following Twitter accounts that addressed that issue specifically and generally attempted to just “not think” about it, news about assisted suicide has remained a part of my world. A Twitter account I previously followed for social purposes once retweeted an article arguing for assisted suicide for mentally ill people on Suicide Prevention Day. I was once eating at a restaurant and the people behind me were discussing their support of assisted suicide. It’s their right to have that discussion, but it indicates that the topic of assisted suicide is becoming a visible part of our culture that disabled people will have to deal with.

Especially for people with disabilities, this exposure to assisted suicide might lead to suicide contagion, (known as the Werther Effect), which can happen when a person living with suicidal ideation encounters the message that suicide is a positive solution to human suffering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes suicide contagion as “a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide.”

Given that many of the reasons people support assisted suicide correspond to ableist, stigmatizing experiences that disabled people have on an everyday basis, the rhetoric used by proponents of the practice can be triggering, definitely a source of suicide contagion. The situation is particularly difficult for our disabled brethren in Canada, where a bill has recently passed expanding the availability of physician-assisted suicide to people with non-terminal disabilities. It’s an option that can be accessed much faster than the services they need to lead fulfilling lives. Alysm745, an indigent disabled woman who intends to pursue assisted suicide in Canada tweeted, “I’m feeling as if governments conspired for years to push disabled into near starvation, abject poverty, homelessness and without proper health supports-in order to arrive at this moment in time-knowing that we’d be in the condition of practically begging for assisted suicide.”

Gabrielle Peters, one of the lead organizers against the expansion of assisted suicide in Canada tweeted, “I don’t discuss this much, but as a sexual assault survivor this experience has been very much like the worst of court and public discourse from decades past, minus having a lawyer to insulate some of it. We’ve been called liars, exaggerators and accused of some hidden motives.” As a sexual assault and bullying survivor who has studied utilitarian bioethics and the history of the right to die movement in my musicology research, I agree with Peters: the ableist ideology that proponents of assisted suicide operate from can reasonably be experienced as a violent attack. Moreover, statements in support of expanding assisted suicide to disabled people in the US have been part of hearings I’ve attended and have appeared in the media, so it’s not irrational to surmise that a similar law may come to the United States someday.

Because of our exposure to the many disturbing consequences of systemic ableism, it’s important for disabled people to find coping strategies to keep ourselves healthy. I think most disability rights activists agree that we live in a world that has proven the axiom “good always wins” to be false. Sometimes ignorance and oppression prevail. That doesn’t mean that disabled people should accede to that oppression, but accepting the reality that we cannot fix everything or win all the time can help stave off social justice burnout and recrimination.

As a disabled Christian, I have found that my faith in a loving God helps me cope in a world that does not accommodate my neurological impairment adequately, sets out plenty of environmental triggers for suicidal thoughts, and now presents assisted suicide as an option to people like me. It is true that some disabled people have had terrible experiences in faith communities. I have, too. Moreover, those of us who are living in the West are fortunate to live in a pluralistic society where people have the freedom to accept or reject religion as they see fit. As a disability rights activist who wants all people to lead fulfilling lives, I want the best for others no matter what they believe. However, as someone who has freely chosen to follow Jesus, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Him. Sometimes my mental illness or struggles with suicidal thoughts place me in situations in which I am powerless; yet I remember that I belong to and am watched over by a powerful, compassionate God who loves everyone and wouldn’t want anyone to take their life, no matter what difficulties we experience.

I have also sought support and practiced self-care through dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a therapy developed by a woman with psychiatric disabilities for other people battling those challenges. Marsha Linehan developed the therapy to help herself cope with the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder after she was hospitalized with suicidal ideation several times. DBT is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, validation, and Buddhist ideas about suffering that can be accessed through Medicare and Medicaid. It includes techniques for asking for what one wants or needs, achieving successful interpersonal relationships, problem-solving, self-advocacy, and mindfulness training.

Another thing that helps me cope with triggering topics is media. I often listen to Christian contemporary music, classical music, jazz, and protest music from the 1960s. As an autistic person with ADHD, the sound of the music helps ground me as I carry out everyday activities, and it also provides inspiration and strength when I am engaging in disability rights advocacy. I also recommend watching movies or reading books about love, forgiveness, and resistance to oppression. All of these things can help disabled people process the emotions triggered by anti-assisted suicide activities or disability rights advocacy in general.

Even with all these coping mechanisms, sometimes assisted suicide is just not a healthy topic for a person with disabilities to engage with, so if protecting one’s mental health means avoiding that issue, then those of us who can avoid it should make that choice. But it can help to have a safe space to vent to other disability rights activists who are fighting the same issue. Since beginning my journey as a disability studies scholar and disability rights advocate, I’ve consistently seen disabled activists from all ideological and religious perspectives band together to support each other’s well-being, because essentially, we are functioning as a kind of “family” unit. Disabled people are up against a lot in our society and checking in on each other either online or in person can help us cope with the distress that this kind of advocacy engenders.

At the end of the day, there will always be injustice to resist and healing to be done. Disabled people around the world can only collaborate, comfort each other, fight for each other, and keep working for good. We can share resources with each other and support those most marginalized by stepping up for each other when society fails. We can share our stories of overcoming suicidal ideation and emotional distress so that others can know that it is possible to persist in a society where powerful forces continue to push for assisted suicide. No matter how vast the darkness, we can keep walking together toward the light.

Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

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Stop Blaming Mental Illness for Evil Behavior

A row of people with their backs to the camera, each holding a sign with one letter of the word "Enough"

Content note: mental illness, inpatient psychiatric treatment, gun violence

The worst experience of my life occurred during my fourth round of inpatient psychiatric treatment in 2016. Having used up all of my Medicare days at one of the country’s best psychiatric hospitals a month earlier, I was now in a Medicaid-funded public psych ward, hearing a voice that told me I had been condemned to Hell. My mind was filled with horrifying mental images of flames, worms, and vignettes of myself and my loved ones being tortured in eternal perdition. Bizarre cognitive changes had knocked out most of my ability to reason or speak, so I spent most of my time screaming uncontrollably and weeping instead. An older woman who had been in that place for months walked around wailing, “I’m dying and nobody cares! I’m dying and nobody cares!” over and over again. A third patient who had schizophrenia was convinced that she had AIDS and that the orderlies were poisoning her coffee. The unremitting, searing communal torment suggested to me that I was already in Hell. I prayed that I would die.

So, it angers me when instead of recognizing that tragedy is part of the human condition, politicians like President Trump and Governor Cuomo appropriate that kind of suffering whenever there’s a mass shooting. I have to believe that people who are calling for these misbegotten “mental health registries” don’t recognize the cold utilitarian logic of dealing with gun violence by going after people with mental illness. Instead of thinking of creative solutions, such people are framing mental illness as a substitute for the concept of evil.

Disabled people live in a society where the non-disabled majority feels entitled to rule the proverbial social roost. Institutionalizing disabled people is easy for those who wish to remove us from their midst, and gun violence is just a popular excuse. When viewed in a historical context, the desire to institutionalize people with mental illnesses isn’t really about violence; it’s a selfish human reaction to sharing one’s community with people who might have meltdowns or talk to themselves on the bus. That attitude is evil. It is the fruit of human avarice.

From my perspective, it seems as though people who are used to being able to go wherever and do whatever they want without encountering anything unseemly would like an excuse to warehouse mentally ill people. Apparently we should consent to live in dingy, whitewashed rooms and be told when we can eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom for the rest of our lives so that no one has to see us drooling, crying, or walking down the street next to their nice, manicured lawns. That is what is driving bipartisan scapegoating of mentally people whenever there’s a mass shooting.

Now that I’ve discussed the role that rapacity plays in public discussions about violence and mental illness, allow me to get to the point of this piece, which is to discuss positive mental health care reform. I suggest that rather than giving third parties more power to incarcerate psychiatric patients, psychiatric hospitalization could be significantly improved by giving mentally ill people more power to make that decision ourselves.

For instance, disabled people across America have shared reports of people being committed without any regard for their basic human rights, or of being denied admission to a hospital after they’ve asked for it. I personally was turned away at a hospital emergency room in 2015. I told the doctors that I felt as though there was another force in charge of my body that was going to force me to kill myself, that I couldn’t decide what was real and that I thought I might be a terrorist. “I can’t be walking around like this; you need to put me in the hospital right now,” I sobbed. Instead, the doctors sent me home alone on a bus without so much as a phone call to a relative. In contrast, other people have described being subject to wrist restraints and full body cavity searches because they walked into an emergency room crying and said, “I need counseling; I just feel like I wish I could get hit by a bus or something.” Rather than providing counseling, the doctors had them put them in straight-jackets.

This dichotomy is the result of making mental healthcare depend entirely on a physician’s subjective judgement rather than in tandem with our own instincts. The status quo is completely repressive, dehumanizing, and unnecessary. For instance, during one of my hospitalizations, I met a police officer who had given his service weapon to a friend weeks before admitting himself for treatment, because he knew that having a gun in the house was a suicide risk. Indeed, most of the people I met during my hospitalizations were there voluntarily because we wanted to get better. Because of those experiences, I believe that social policies about hospitalization should empower people with mental illnesses who want to seek comprehensive treatment, and that means giving third parties less power to veto our directives.

In the real world, people with mental illnesses generally know our own bodies. If a person with a mental illness asks for inpatient care, that should be arranged. If a person says that they need emergency counseling but not hospitalization, they should be able to make that decision too. That is the care and respect that innocent people living with mental illnesses deserve.

If there was evidence that one of the perpetrators of El Paso or Dayton pleaded for admission to a hospital prior to the shooting, was denied admission, and then grabbed a gun from a passerby and shot people because he thought he was stopping a martian invasion, then I might agree that mass shootings might be stopped by psychiatric hospitalization. However, that’s not what happened. Instead, the shooters obtained a gun, chose a public place, and mowed people down. Even if some of these individuals did experience symptoms of a mental health problem, it’s a fact that like cancer, mental illness strikes good and evil people equally.

Moreover, perhaps leaders who are currently jumping on the institutionalization bandwagon should consider the role that entropy plays in human affairs. Sometimes there is no logical explanation for why horrible things happen. Since the Enlightenment, people have believed that reason and science will solve all of our problems. Because our society puts so much emphasis on individual choice and control, people have swallowed the lie that we can create a perfect society by letting “benevolent” caretakers control people with mental illnesses. Some powerful people find it easier and more comforting to institutionalize people with mental illnesses than to accept that evil is real, that human intellect can’t save us or that human beings aren’t always in charge of our own destinies.

In short, politicians and talking heads need to stop using mentally ill people as pawns to obtain political power after a crisis and make themselves feel safer when they fail to solve the problem of unrepentant evil.

If Trump and Cuomo want to improve mental healthcare, they should support community-based, collaborative structures that allow us to choose hospitalization when we feel that it is necessary. We shouldn’t have to pay for the evil behavior of mass murderers, and our healthcare should lie more squarely in our own hands.

Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

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The Fact that IDEA Might be Fully Funded by 2023 Isn’t an Accomplishment. It’s a Disgrace.

A photo of a brightly decorated empty classroom.

In the 1955 Brown vs. the Board of Education case, the court stated:

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments….It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today, it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

Although disability-based discrimination and race-based discrimination are separate, specific experiences, I quote this case because advocates for people with disabilities used the premise of equal educational opportunity to advocate for the inclusion of disabled children in their neighborhood schools. Moreover, the statement perfectly describes the connection between education and social justice: education helps determine the degree to which people can participate in and influence society.

Advocacy for the extension of such opportunities to people with disabilities led to the passage of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1977. Today, the EAHCA is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As a learning-disabled woman who grew up receiving special education services, I couldn’t be more passionate about IDEA. It opened a critical door to disability justice.

However, IDEA was so unpopular when it was passed that President Ford signed it in secret rather than in the Rose Garden where most major legislation was signed. There were two reasons for the legislation’s lack of popularity: it promised to end the segregation of disabled students from nondisabled students and it was expensive.

The bill contained a promise that the federal government would fund 40% of the costs of implementing IDEA. Today, the government funds just 14.7%. Noting this discrepancy, legislators have filed the IDEA Full Funding Act to fully fund IDEA by 2023. I’m glad that this bill has been filed, but what I don’t understand is why IDEA wasn’t fully funded forty-four years ago. I also don’t understand why legislators didn’t take up this cause as a bipartisan issue in the ‘80s, ‘90s or ’00s when I was going to school. There really is no excuse for that lapse.

In Massachusetts where I grew up, people discussed civil rights and social justice but they didn’t apply those insights to people with disabilities. I don’t feel comfortable chalking this failure up to simple ignorance. The disability rights movement has been going strong since the 1970s, so the bipartisan legislators who voted to lower special education standards in Massachusetts from Maximum Feasible Development to Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in 2000 to save money had already had ample time to learn about it. Special education students just weren’t on their list of priorities.

That decision was part of a pattern both in and out of the classroom. For instance, in high school, I constantly overheard teachers complaining about the presence of special education students. I was fortunate enough to take mostly advanced college preparatory courses, and sometimes the teachers would tell us things like, “We can’t go into the computer lab because the special kids are in there,” or, “I used to work with retards-oh, I’m sorry we can’t say that anymore, emotionally disturbed. Well, all I did was rip people apart to keep people from killing each other.” During that same year, the school yanked accommodations in some of the college prep courses that I was taking. When I complained, I was repeatedly reminded that kids in special education “didn’t usually go to college.”

It was over that summer that the Massachusetts legislature lowered the standard of progress for special education students from Maximum Feasible Development – the “de minimis” standard of progress required by FAPE. My school decreed that students needed to be failing before they received special education services. So, students like me who were succeeding in their academics became allegedly ineligible for special education services. Some of my services were cut, which made accessing the curriculum even harder than it already was. I kind of think that was the point. The message from the state legislature and my school was clear: You are here to take the opportunities other people choose give you. Be grateful and stay in your place.

Attitudes like that are a shame. Fully funding IDEA would help break down this kind of systemic ableism in a big way. For instance, full funding for special education would help pay for the services that high-schoolers with disabilities need to succeed academically and attain a four year degree. With college and graduate degrees, such students will be more likely to avoid poverty, access job opportunities, and be allies to one another in situations where ableism rears its head.

Yet, despite knowing the statistics about education’s connection to enfranchisement, Congress has broken its promise to fund IDEA for the last 44 years. This is largely due to the fact that too many people in the United States think that special education is a waste of money. For instance, President Ford’s statement about the original EAHCA read in part:

“Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains. Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill — educating all handicapped children in our Nation The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective. Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic.

Despite my strong support for full educational opportunities for our handicapped children, the funding levels proposed in this bill will simply not be possible if Federal expenditures are to be brought under control and a balanced budget achieved over the next few years.”

Ford’s statement was built on a faulty premise. He asserted that the government didn’t have the money to fund special education, which really isn’t true: the government pours billions of dollars into its pet projects every year and it always has. Hence, Ford’s statement wasn’t a response to true fiscal constraints, but a value judgment about the social benefit of educating people with disabilities.

Today, utilitarian objections to the cost of educating kids in special-education continue to abound, and they have a connection to even darker arguments about resource allocation, such as those in favor of eugenics, euthanasia, and organ transplant discrimination. Essentially, disabled people are viewed as resource-suckers. Ultimately, not funding special education represents the influence of that perspective on the field of education. The denial of educational opportunities can be understood as the non-lethal counterpart of asking disabled people to give up their lives. Hence, the lack of full funding for IDEA is rooted in the same phenomenon that drives every other mechanism of disability oppression: social hatred of people with disabilities for being burdensome and expensive.

Underfunding IDEA has helped put disabled people in a terrible catch-22: the powers that be express resentment toward disabled people for needing public assistance, but perpetuate a special education system that leads to increased dependency in adulthood. Given that there is no way for people with disabilities to “win” in this system, underfunding IDEA is one of the ways in which society expresses its wish for disabled people to disappear. If Congress finally funds IDEA in 2023, its members shouldn’t pat themselves on the back for promoting justice for kids with disabilities: they should apologize to all of the people whose education has been stymied for almost 50 years.

Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

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How Do We Bring Social Justice to Special Education? With Love.

A child's drawing of a rainbow. Below the rainbow are two stick figures. One is Miss Scrader and one is Luis.

“What’s the Matter?”

[Child sobbing under his desk] “They said I killed the worms, but I swear I didn’t kill the worms!”

“Don’t worry, I believe you.”

“[Sniff] But they’re gonna tell the principal that I killed the worms!”

“That’s ok, because I will personally tell the principal that you did not kill the worms.”

This was a conversation between me and a six-year-old child who I encountered in my first few weeks as a substitute teacher. The little boy had ADHD and likely struggled with feelings of being overwhelmed by his environment; moreover, he was rambunctious and had had some sort of altercation with other students in the class. The combination of these circumstances had overwhelmed him, and now he sat curled beneath his desk, crying. I had no idea what he was talking about, but whatever the situation was, it was clearly consuming his world. It was touching to see that once I’d reassured him, he calmed down. Later that day, he drew me a picture of the two of us holding hands beneath a rainbow.

Experiences like the one described above caused a critical shift in my perspective on how I could best improve the world.  When I first began substitute teaching, I had been getting my feet wet in the burgeoning field of disability studies. As a person, I passionately concur with the Social Model of disability. The experiences I’d had growing up with a learning disorder taught me that the primary impediment to the well-being of disabled individuals is intolerance, not impairment. However, in the last few years, I’ve found that while the latter insight is brilliant, I have felt frustrated by the gnawing realization that the social model is a theory, not an intervention.  Without a suitable application, my passion to help others felt lonely, ungrounded, and separate from the experience of love.  In contrast, my work as a teacher represented the social model in practice.

As a person who grew up in Special Education, this realization was a bit of a retcon for me. From age eight until age seventeen, I had felt called to become a teacher. I loved people, I loved school, and I wanted to pass on the kindness of those teachers who treated me with respect and compassion. This all changed in high school, when I had to fight to take college preparatory courses and exams. Not completing these requirements could have kept me from attending college or even graduating, but the school didn’t care. As personnel put it, I was “not otherwise qualified” to do such things, and providing accommodations was “unduly burdensome” for them.  During that same time, the Massachusetts legislature acceded to the teachers union and lowered its Maximum Feasible Benefit standard for Special Education to FAPE. I was so disgusted by these dynamics that I pursued degrees in cultural studies and musicology instead. I reasoned that there was no point in teaching third graders that they could do anything they wanted to in life if the school system and society were going to make those decisions for them.

Hence, I poured my desire to help the disabled community into academic research. I studied and published research on the history of the disability rights movement as it pertained to aesthetics, music, the horror genre and bioethics. I started lecturing in disability studies and advocated against assisted suicide at as many legislative hearings as possible, because I didn’t want other people to be manipulated by the same disempowerment that I’d experienced as a Special Education student. Nevertheless, I avoided engaging with Special Education directly, lest related resentment become my identity. Ironically, however, the topics that I did engage with made me intensely aware of horrible social dynamics that I couldn’t fix, and all I had to fight them with was righteous indignation. I hated these dynamics.

During my time as a substitute teacher, however, I realized that I loved my students-I was never happier than when a three-year-old boy with autism reached out to touch the soft fleece on the sleeve of my jacket, or when I purchased a stuffed kitten for an emotionally disabled preschooler. During these times, I experienced the strong sense that I was applying social justice theory to my interactions with people who needed justice the most. Hence, the contrast between those experiences taught me an important lesson about the difference between social justice theory and love. Unlike the uncaring darkness that I wanted to fight as an activist, teaching elicited a sense of warmth that I wanted to participate in. I realized that by making each child’s experience of learning safer, more inclusive and thereby richer, love had the potential to cut off social oppression at its root.


Rooted in Rights exists to amplify the perspectives of the disability community. Blog posts and storyteller videos that we publish and content we re-share on social media do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Rooted in Rights nor indicate an endorsement of a program or service by Rooted in Rights. We respect and aim to reflect the diversity of opinions and experiences of the disability community. Rooted in Rights seeks to highlight discussions, not direct them. Learn more about Rooted In Rights

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.