Office of Inclusive Excellence

Mental Health Abolition: Considering Radical Communities of Healing

January 24, 2023

By Stephanie D’Costa & Elsie Ybarra

In the days following events of violence, there is a repeated call to improve mental health services in the country. Politicians will declare on social media that investing in mental health is the solution to keep individuals from engaging in these actions, but is investing in mental health really the answer? Often, investing in mental health means bridging further connections between mental health services and policing. A present-day example is the rollout of the national suicide and crisis lifeline 988, formally known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. While a move in the right direction, by providing a free and easy-to-remember phone number that can assist in moments of crisis, it is important for minoritized communities to be aware of the limitations of the line. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website, 988 and 911 systems work closely together, and 988 calls may be referred to 911. Once again, despite our hope to support those in crisis, our enmeshment with carceral systems is ever present. 

It’s important to note that much of our community's mental health needs stem from the structural oppression they endure on a regular basis. The ongoing assault of racism, xenophobia, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and other forms of oppression take a significant toll on our psychological well-being. Historically, mental health care has also taught minoritized people to be compliant in the face of oppressive forces. When traumatized by corporate  greed and systemic discrimination, we are taught to “take deep breaths” and “accept what we cannot change.” For mental health care to truly be a liberatory force, we will need to embark on a journey that moves beyond positioning challenges at an individual level and one that problematizes larger systemic forces. A key facet of an abolition worldview posits that there is no one solution to the carceral system. In the same way, there is no one answer to how we can support the mental well-being of our communities. We invite you to consider with us a radical, community-based healing model that views mental health as a collective issue. 

One way we can do this is by learning about mental health in general and normalizing mental health challenges. Another way is by validating the big feelings of those in our community. We can acknowledge the feelings that someone is having without necessarily condoning the behaviors they are engaging in. Accepting that people are doing the best that they can and that they have the potential to engage in less harmful behaviors is a critical stance that we must have to offer empathetic validation of people's emotionality. 

In a society where individualism is the norm, healing as a community is a radical act. For centuries non-European cultures have gathered collectively to heal and process grief. Mexican curanderas/os (healers) have practiced a type of limpa (cleanse) called pláticas (talks) with individuals or in a group. The way sessions are conducted may differ, but the goal of a plática is the same: to have a heart-to-heart talk that aids in the person’s healing journey. In some ways, it is similar to talk therapy. Still, unlike current talk therapy, where the practitioner is a stranger, the curandera/o is usually a well-known and trusted person in the community. Other community practices can include collective grief gatherings such as Dia de los Muertos gatherings. While well-known as a Mexican practice, it is practiced by several cultures worldwide and can include many community members. For example, following the murder of George Floyd, members of the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center of St. Paul in Minnesota organized a Dia de los Muertos event in which George Floyd and other victims of police brutality were honored and remembered. Together we can embrace a community healing framework for the mental well-being of all.

Specially-trained mental health providers also have a role in bringing radical community-based healing. They have a responsibility to learn about the historical and structural oppression that our communities experience, as well as how mental health practices often stigmatize people from minoritized groups. Alternatives to using involuntary means to keep individuals safe (police) during a crisis are other considerations. Using unarmed crisis response teams that center de-escalation strategies could limit the violence that often accompanies crisis calls. Some of the carceral roots of mental health services, and a non-police model of community mental health response offered by M.H. First, were explored in an ADEC panel on Community Mental Health Models in March 2022 featuring Asantewaa Boykin and Stephanie D’costa. These explorations and experiments are critical and must be ongoing. 

As we move towards building radical communities of healing, it will take us to understand and normalize mental health needs and build systems of support to help our communities thrive. 

Please call Monterey County’s Mobile Crisis Team (831-755-4111) or Mobile Response Team for Youth (831- 687-4379) as an alternative to involving the police in a mental health incident. 

Stephanie D'Costa is an assistant professor of counseling in the Kalmanovitz School of Education at Saint Mary's College and a consultant for CSUMB's Office of Inclusive Excellence & Sustainability. She is committed to exploring mental health practices that empower minoritized children and families. 

Elsie Ybarra is a third-year student in CSUMB’s School Psychology masters program and is passionate about working toward an equity-driven school system that embraces students’ diverse backgrounds and values.