institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Issa Ibrahim’s Memoir of Madness

I have been posting some things about metal illness, race, discrimination, and violence lately. Some of these posts were inspired by my conversations with people at a New York State mental institution, particularly the artist, musician and writer Issa Ibrahim. Issa’s story interested me for various reasons. He became ill with paranoid schizophrenia in his early twenties. At 24, in a bout of paranoia and fear, he took his mother’s life; his illness had him convinced that she was possessed and needed to be exorcised.

At his trial, Issa pled insanity and spent almost twenty years locked up in a mental institution. He was released to an outpatient residential facility for the mentally ill three years ago.

“It was an accident,” Issa repeats every time the deadly incident comes up in our conversations. More than twenty years after the tragic event Issa is still torn by remorse and the ongoing struggle of trying to understand what happened to him over the course of the 47 years of his life. Issa’s complex emotional landscape is reflected in his work; his parents—his father, who died of cancer shortly before Issa became sick, was a jazz musician and his mother was a painter—have always served as an inspiration and an encouragement for his work.


Chain of Command, 1994


Cancer & Homicide, 1996

Last time I spoke with Issa, he explained how his work, when at its best, allows for a sense of forgiveness and peace. “I feel a connection with my mom,” he said as we sat in his room over coffee and cookies. “I just [feel] her presence, or at least a sense of forgiveness, a sense of ‘you’re doing all right, son.’ And so now, whenever I finish a particularly good painting or a particularly good song [and] it’s really better than I thought it could ever [be], I’ll stop for a moment and say, ‘thank you, mom, thank you.’ I feel like a sense of peace in that, more so that she’s forgiven me. It’s a sense of calm within myself finally; part of her lives within me.”

Issa has traced his 20-year-long incarceration in his paintings, music and writing. In March 2012, he self-published a multimedia memoir, titled 330.20 after the Criminal Procedure Law that follows a verdict or plea of “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect.”

There is much to show and to write about Issa, but for the purpose of this blog he and I decided to feature a small multimedia compilation, including an excerpt from his memoir that addresses the seemingly racially-motivated hierarchies inside the institution. The two paintings we chose are “Chain of Command,” which also deals with this topic, and “Cancer & Homicide,” which depicts Issa’s last memories of his parents. The song “Go Tell ‘Em Like it Was” was recorded and mixed in the room of his outpatient residential facility.

(For an excerpt from Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness scroll down.)

Song: Go Tell ‘Em How it Was

From Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness: 

I don’t feel I have much in common with the Mahatas [Mental Health Treatment Aids] who are mostly abusive dullards and virulent racists, to boot. This bothers me because the staff is mostly black and they tend to abuse and victimize the white patients and the minorities who are just too sick for them to form a kinship with. The staff would watch the patients during “prime time,” when the professionals are on duty, and pretty much allow them to work out their relative issues in the safety of this asylum. That is, until the weekend. All the patients were conditioned to dread Saturday morning because this is when the ward staff would come in, put their feet up, eat their sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches with light and sweet coffee delivered from the local deli and begin exacting punishments for long forgotten misdeeds during the week. Continue reading

mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Mental Illness, Medication, and Race

I’ve been reading Jonathan Metzl’s book The Protest Psychosis (Beacon, 2011). Metzl writes that both black and white psychiatrists in the U. S. diagnose schizophrenia in African-American men at rates four to five times more than other groups.

Metzl noticed a shift in the public image of gender and race in the 1950s and 1960s. While in the 1930s and 1940s schizophrenia was often associated with white, middle class housewives “whose schizophrenic mood swings resulted from domestic strife or emotional isolation,” in the 1950s and 1960s ads for the antipsychotic drug Haldol showed “angry black men with clenched, Black Power fists in urban scenes whose symptoms of social belligerence required chemical treatment.”

Metzl’s book shows how drug companies, researchers, individual doctors and the DSM-II from 1968 perpetuated common stereotypes involving gender and race.

“Researchers used DSM-II criteria to uncover hostile aspects of black schizophrenia with civil rights demonstrations. Meanwhile, studies conflated black schizophrenia with Black Power in order to illustrate evolving understandings of the illness as hostile or violent, or used long-standing stereotypes about manic, crazy black men to demonstrate ‘new’ forms of schizophrenic illness.”

“Yet the DSM-II functioned as an implicitly racist text because it mirrored the social context of its origins in ways that enabled users to knowingly or unknowingly pathologize mental illness. This was because the 1960s was an era when the notion that large groups of people acted in hostile ways while rationalizing their aggression as a justifiable response to the attitude of others was a tremendously powerful social message. But that group was not schizophrenia; it was people who were black.”

According to Metzl, in medical charts from 1960 to 1975 black schizophrenic patients were consistently labeled as “hostile,” “aggressive,” threatening,” “dangerous,” “suspicious,” and “belligerent” and were said to have “issues with police [and] authority figures.” (White patients, on the other hand, were more likely to be described as “cooperative,” suicidal,” “depressed” and “withdrawn.”)

This made me wonder about—and hopefully pay more attention to—the ways in which contemporary drug companies, psychological studies and individuals conflate and abuse issues like race and gender when illustrating and analyzing mental illness.

Here some illustrations from The Protest Psychosis: