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"Insanity caused by discrimination by Antonia Hylton reviewed - the impact of racism on mental health in the United States."

“Insanity caused by discrimination by Antonia Hylton reviewed – the impact of racism on mental health in the United States.”


At the start of her emotional and extensively studied examination of the past of mental illness among Black individuals in the United States, journalist Antonia Hylton details a frequent meeting she has with a family member at a park in Massachusetts. The family member, who wishes to remain anonymous in the book, experiences a particular form of paranoia in which they believe they are being pursued by white supremacists.

Hylton reports that her family member has taken measures to block out all natural light by covering their windows with black gaffer tape and has also disconnected all electronic devices, due to their belief that they were being monitored through them. Hylton shares that the most upsetting aspect of this situation is that her loved one thought she, as a journalist for NBC, was involved in the supposed conspiracy and even suggested that she inform her editor about the situation. In retrospect, Hylton admits that her family member’s suspicions were not entirely unfounded.

This book is primarily a detailed response to a call for assistance. It examines the history of disregard and imprisonment of marginalized individuals for the past hundred years. Author Hylton delves into the reasons why her own family and the larger Black community have experienced higher rates of depression, paranoia, and schizophrenia. She argues that poverty and injustice are major contributing factors to reaching a mental breaking point, but also acknowledges the valid fear of white supremacists targeting and harming them.

According to Hylton, the fear of lynching in past times has now been replaced by concerns over police brutality and mass incarceration of young African American males. The justifications used by the far right to support these actions have remained largely unchanged. Following emancipation, various commentators suggested that Black individuals, who were considered “immune to insanity” while enslaved, were not mentally prepared for their freedom. This notion is still prevalent in today’s society, as seen in the current election where Donald Trump’s campaign is rooted in racist stereotypes about inherent Black self-destruction.

Homeless man Jordan Neely was characterised as ‘unhinged’ when he was choked to death on the New York subway in May 2023 by former marine Daniel PennyView image in fullscreen

The thread through Hylton’s story is an institution called Crownsville, formerly known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. Crownsville opened in 1911, the hospital itself built by the forced labour of its first “feeble-minded” patients. At its peak in the 1950s, more than 2,700 people were resident in a place that “existed along the spectrum of asylum and jail and warehouse”. It finally closed its doors in 2004.

Over a period of 10 years, Hylton conducted research on Crownsville, finding and speaking with numerous former patients and staff members. They also closely examined the still-existing hospital records to uncover evidence of abuse that had been previously hidden and destroyed.

Her many case histories show how, for years, people were sent to Crownsville for petty theft, or for destitution or illness, and held in close quarters with the criminally insane.

As the population of Crownsville increased, the number of abuses also rose. In 1943, a hospital staff member exposed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People the mistreatment of patients, including being forced to consume rotten food and sleep on bare wooden floors. The facility also housed children with adults, where patients often appeared unclothed. Nurses in crisp white uniforms administered “hydrotherapy,” subjecting patients to extreme hot or cold baths for extended periods. Electroconvulsive therapy was also utilized, similar to the infamous portrayal in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, often more for punishment than for actual treatment.

Over the span of 93 years, approximately 1,700 individuals who passed away at Crownsville were laid to rest in a field within the compound. Additionally, around 600 bodies were transported to universities for anatomical study. This temporary cemetery now serves as the location for a new memorial and an annual “Say my name” event, which pays tribute to those who were previously overlooked.

While recounting this narrative, Hylton delves into the psychological impacts of race relations beyond the confines of Crownsville. She highlights how her own family’s history illustrates how “inequality and racial violence often had the ability to unravel and instill the seeds of mental illness”. For example, her great-uncle Clarence fled to Detroit in the dead of night after receiving threats from the KKK, and the ensuing anger and bitterness continued to haunt him. Her father’s cousin Maynard, who had begun experiencing auditory hallucinations, was tragically shot by a police officer in Mobile, Alabama in 1976 while studying for his bar exams after completing a law degree.

Amidst these tragedies, there are also tales of bravery and gradual progress. It took almost 50 years for the Crownsville facility to hire its first staff member from a minority ethnic group: Vernon Sparks, who became the first licensed Black psychologist in Maryland in 1948. Despite resistance, the integration of the facility slowly improved conditions for patients. Gertrude Belt, the first Black nurse, started washing patients’ hair. Dorothea McCullers, a seamstress, made clothes for the inmates, and Marie Gough, now in her 80s, was the first to advocate for patients to be able to exercise outdoors.

The changes were replicated in mental institutions throughout the nation. In 1953, the National Mental Health Association encouraged all hospitals to remove and turn in any remaining metal chains to be melted down. As a symbol, a 300lb “mental health bell” was created from those restraints. However, reading about the cruel experiments and segregation that continued, one can see the impact of these systems in the insufficient response to the current widespread mental health crisis, especially among Black Americans.

Hylton concludes her passionate and thorough research by examining the murder of Jordan Neely, a homeless Black man who was killed on the New York City subway in May 2023 by Daniel Penny, a former marine. Neely was labeled as “unhinged” and a “vagrant” in the New York Post, and his “offense” was confronting passengers with words that echo throughout history in Hylton’s research: “I don’t have food! I don’t have drink! I’m fed up!” Penny choked him to death, and the incident was recorded by multiple commuters.

Hylton suggests that the harmful practice of “othering” Black individuals, used to justify violent and deadly control, has been consistently present in American history. She believes that issues such as mental illness, housing insecurity, and income inequality affect everyone and cannot be ignored. While society may attempt to hide these problems, it will become increasingly difficult to do so.

Source: theguardian.com