My Time in the Mental Health Industrial Complex
Wellness Departments, yoga for cops, and lots of "listening"
Taylor Cody Beck is a Chicago-based screenwriter whose work centers around American masculinity and queer identity. Their first short film, Chrysalis, is currently in post-production and will be released in 2023. Follow Cody on Twitter and Instagram.
I really wanted to love my job.
As an administrative assistant at a major mental health advocacy nonprofit, I was excited for the chance to contribute in some small way to a mission that helped people. At my workplace, that mission was wide-ranging, from education and political lobbying to free support groups and a public helpline. Staff mental health was given equal emphasis, with “wellness days” instead of sick days and even a “Wellness Department” that functioned as in-house counselors. Given my own history of mental illness, the job seemed like a dream.
But by the time I was unexpectedly laid off, I was almost happy to leave. The previous year-and-change had revealed a shockingly toxic culture of burnout and duplicity underneath the shiny veneer, sapping my energy until making time for friends became a chore and my workout routine fell by the wayside. Once I was forced to take a step back, I found a weight lifting from my shoulders. I realized that my ex-employer had advocated for mental health while actively harming mine.
This hypocrisy isn’t new in the nonprofit space. The anti-violence organization INCITE! was the first to fully describe what has become known as the nonprofit-industrial complex, or NPIC. The group developed a framework to describe how neoliberal capitalism tames radical social movements. In short, the nonprofit model’s dependence on the benevolence of wealthy donors makes social justice organizations more accountable to status-quo power structures than to the marginalized communities they purport to serve. (For a full explanation of this framework, the INCITE!-published anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is essential reading.)
As a mental health nonprofit worker, I learned that the NPIC’s hypocrisy goes far beyond its funding model; it infects the very way nonprofits pursue their mission and even treat their employees. In particular, the mental health industry co-opts its own language of “wellness” to compound and obscure the harm it perpetuates as part of the NPIC. While my ex-employer gave lip service to the importance of social equity and holistic wellness, in practice it ignored the systemic factors that contribute to mental illness and impede access to care. What’s more, it did so while negatively affecting the mental health of its employees—the very people who were supposed to help carry out its mission.
While my ex-employer approached mental health with good intentions, its solutions were superficial. As a member of our communications team, I was given an imperative to never seem too “negative” or “stigmatizing” when discussing mental health. Potentially triggering language was avoided in favor of hopeful keywords like recovery; even the phrase mental illness was verboten. Our public-facing workshops included self-care tips and breathing exercises, but little specific mention of conditions or symptoms beyond depression and anxiety. We were also to avoid partisan topics, with an exceedingly broad definition of “partisan”—in one instance, I was told that a comment on Britney Spears’s guardianship would be inappropriate to our work, despite it being a clear issue of mental health and self-advocacy.
While this approach was partially out of an effort to include everyone who may be facing a “mental health challenge,” there was also an economic incentive: the NPIC pushes nonprofits to make themselves palatable to the often-conservative foundations that fund them. This pressure flattened my organization’s mission from systemic mental health advocacy to an upper-class, hegemonic idea of “wellness” which alienated our most vulnerable constituents. Nowhere was this more apparent than in our relationship with state violence.
The police department in my city is notorious even by American standards, and the negative mental health effects of over-policing are well-documented (especially in BIPOC communities). Even so, my organization maintained a close and friendly relationship with the police: in addition to providing “wellness training” to officers, our CEO was contracted as the department’s “Chief Wellness Officer.” When city cops committed suicide, our spokespeople ran the media circuit, lamenting the lack of mental health resources in the force. But when a cop who had murdered a Black youth was released from prison on parole, our donor-friendly guidelines allowed no room to acknowledge the resulting community outrage. This double standard not only demonstrated a lack of investment in civilian mental health crises, but actively upheld the racism inherent to American policing. My ex-employer’s allergy to boat-rocking allowed only for white, “respectable” forms of grief: vague solemnity, thoughts and prayers, flowers at the grave.
When employees questioned our police work, the general response was a shrug; our CEO told one coworker that her concerns only served to “stigmatize” the mental health of police. Rather than understand racist police violence as a major contributor to mental illness, my ex-employer framed it as a side effect of the police being unwell—the mental health equivalent of the “bad apple” fallacy. Teaching yoga to cops was rosily framed as harm reduction. As The Revolution Will Not Be Funded makes clear, this was by design: politically and economically incentivized to maintain a proximity to power, organizations within the NPIC grow cozy with state institutions at the expense of a more radical mission. It’s hard to get behind “defund the police” when the cops are sending you paychecks.
This flattening of my ex-employer’s mission also resulted in framing mental health as individual rather than social and systemic—another feature common to the NPIC. As a result, organizational leadership abdicated their responsibility to care for employees. Alongside the phasing-out of COVID-era precautions during my tenure, the HR department discontinued sick days for some part-time employees under the assumption that they could “find time” to maintain their health while off the clock—regardless of the fact that part-timers were the most likely to work multiple jobs. This cavalier attitude toward employee well-being uncomfortably mimicked the corporate world that nonprofits are supposedly built to reject, and exacerbated inequities that most often affected staff members working under already-precarious conditions.
When employees felt safe enough to speak out about this hypocrisy (which wasn’t often), our concerns were met with avoidance and dissembling. Early in my tenure, I was asked to construct a digital job application form for our website. As the only out trans person at the organization, I opted to self-advocate by adding spaces for applicants’ preferred names and pronouns in addition to the requested space for a “legal name.” The backlash was immediate. I was ordered to delete the added boxes; according to the HR director, candidates would be able to give a preferred name “upon hire”—far too late to avoid misgendering and deadnaming transgender applicants who hadn’t received a court-ordered name change.
My subsequent emails politely detailing how this hiring practice excluded trans people went unanswered. Desperate to make myself heard and forced into an emotionally vulnerable position, I even disclosed my own upcoming name change, something I hadn’t planned to do in my workplace at the time. Days later, my supervisor passed word down to me secondhand that HR was “listening,” even if they wouldn’t respond. That was the last I heard of the issue. This pattern of avoidance and indirect answers from executives created an environment that sidelined marginalized workers, forced us to risk our emotional safety, and contradicted the “community-led” mission we were supposedly there to fulfill.
Unfortunately, my experiences are not unique to my workplace, but are just a few small examples of the core hypocrisies inherent to the NPIC. The economic and political pressures of neoliberalism actively undermined my organization’s responsibility not only to the mental health of the communities it wanted to serve, but even to its own employees.
The current national mental health crisis cannot be solved by advocacy alone. Workshops and support groups cannot substitute for the radical, systemic changes that would bring real relief to people living with mental illness: universal healthcare, housing, and basic income; climate justice; police abolition; robust workers’ unions; and reparations for colonialism and slavery. Until the mental health industry develops a truly holistic understanding of mental illness, it will only ever be rubbing salt in a wound and calling it medicine.
Gosh, just lost my cousin. He was a Black and having a mental health crisis. Cops called and shot him. No recognition of how quickly the negotiations went into full on execution.