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On October 10th 2023, the Duke Human Rights Center held a film screening of Bedlam, a feature-length documentary that immerses us in the national crisis surrounding care for people with severe mental illness. This is accomplished through the stories of patients, families, and medical providers, and puts viewers into America’s busiest psychiatric emergency rooms, jails where psychiatric patients are warehoused, and the homes — as well as homeless encampments — of those with mental illness. 

To accompany this thought-provoking documentary, we were joined by two guest speakers: Jahkazia (Jae) Richardson and Billy Cao. Jae is a licensed clinical social worker, as well as a healer, energy worker, and educator. She uses collaboration, affirmation, and empowerment to support others in their own healing work and practice from a social justice, holistic, and afro-spirituality framework. Billy is a junior at Duke studying literature and biology, with an academic background in the history of psychiatry, critical theory, and psychoanalysis. He currently teaches a house course in “mad studies,” where students trouble the distinction between madness and sanity and investigate the construction of mental illnesses by the psych disciplines.

The post-screening panel discussion began with the connection between mental health and human rights. Billy drew our attention to the history of psychiatry and how it is often intertwined with serious human rights violations. These include practices of the past such as forced lobotomies or electrocution, as well as modern-day practices such as forced drugging for patients with schizophrenia. Jae noted that while mental health care should be a human right, it is most often connected to money. Many of the people who do not have access to treatment are impoverished and/or people of color. And, it is clear that this ceiling for care must be lowered.

A key theme that was articulated throughout the documentary and by our panelists was that shame kills people. Jae identified a crucial difference between shame and guilt. She established that guilt is thinking that you are doing something bad, while shame is more of an identity. Shame is thinking that you are a bad person. Unfortunately, shame is also a culture that has developed around mental health. For this reason, it is important that we evaluate and question our culture, instead creating a new normal where mental illness is not seen as shameful — thus helping people get the treatment that they need without discrimination.

At Duke in particular, and other elite universities, we often find ourselves stuck in a cycle of perfectionism. Billy discussed how it is hard for Duke to change this culture because of how, as an institution, Duke is rooted in productivity. And, on campus there are no resources for students struggling with severe mental illness. Current resources such as CAPS and Duke Reach are not poised to support students through such serious struggles. While our panelists echoed the importance of finding things that bring you joy — from poetry to time with friends — they also emphasized that it is important to stray from the idea that everyone needs to be happy all the time. Recognizing the ups and downs of mental health will help us to dismantle our culture of shame and normalize seeking support, treatment, or rest. 

Our hope is that Bedlam and our panelists’ insight left our audience with a more nuanced understanding of the current mental health care crisis in the country and its intersections with factors such as race, socioeconomic status, police violence, and mass incarceration. This film screening is a part of our Rights! Camera! Action! film series that highlights human rights related themes across the globe. Take a look at our upcoming films here. All screenings are free and open to all Duke students, faculty, staff, and the general public.