Mayed: De-carcerating peer support, an abolitionist perspective

Sahibzada Mayed, Op-Ed Contributor

We engage in peer support all the time, often out of necessity — as a fugitive act. Peer support can be life-saving and life-preserving, a disruption to the death-making institutions constantly working to erase our existence and deny our humanity. Peer support can be a revolutionary act, resistance to the oppressive tactics and carceral logics that render us as inhuman and commodities.

Peer support is not a novel concept. Us queer, disabled, BIPOC folks have been engaging in mutual aid and peer support for a long time, in the midst of systemic inequities and institutional violence. Furthermore, peer support doesn’t require formal licensure or need legitimization from the very institutions that need to be abolished.

To me, abolition is an act of radical world-making, the ability to dream of and conceive worlds that set us free. Abolition is a pathway to new beginnings, to liberating worlds that are devoid of carceral enclosures. Abolition is not limited to defunding the police or shutting down prisons. It is about building de-carceral futures — building the present from the futures we imagine. This is important to articulate because we cannot rely on institutions; they don’t keep us safe. Institutional support can never be enough. Abolition is how we become free and how we seize the freedom to create our own realities.

Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in peer support initiatives at institutions of higher education, including formal pathways for student-led discussions around mental health and wellness. However, the creation of such programs that are deeply intertwined with carceral institutions perpetuates similar threads of violence and oppression. For example, I am thinking of the Associated Student Government’s new “student-led” peer support program.

Student-led does not guarantee student-centered, nor does it mean survivor-centered for survivors of trauma, institutional violence and systemic harm. Relying on the same oppressive tactics that center liability over humanity creates initiatives rooted in carcerality and reproduce similar inequities. Mandated reporting laws are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to disregarding individuals’ autonomy. It is noteworthy that such programs were not born out of struggle, nor from the desire for freedom. They were created as a band-aid to somehow close the gap between institutional support, student skepticism and lack of trust. They come at the cost of obscuring the efforts of student activists and abolitionist movements.

As disability justice scholar and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha articulates it best, “inclusion without power or leadership is tokenism.” We need to hold institutions accountable and continue our pursuit of freedom. We need to move beyond the performative and demand intersectional justice. We refuse to be silenced.

Institutionalizing peer support is dangerous and rooted in cultural hegemony. The concept of peer support isn’t something new, yet is often presented as a “liberal” and “progressive” agenda. Peer support is essential for us to survive as relational beings. We see threads of peer support in diverse, non-white cultures and how holistic wellness is defined beyond the clinical. The medicalized and pathological perspectives of mental illness are apparent in heteronormative and dominant cultures.

We don’t need new language to define “peer support.” We don’t need more folks to prescribe what peer support is and can be. We understand peer support through lived experience and as political engagement to counter interlocking systems of oppression. We see peer support as urgent and necessary. Peer support is apparent at NU in the absence of culturally affirming and dignifying mental health services.

Students engage in transformational efforts to survive and preserve their humanity and that of their peers. There is an intergenerational legacy of community care and organizing work here. Initiatives such as Fund Our Care Collective and Reform CAPS have persistently advocated for life-affirming support and resources to invest in student mental health and well-being. Yet, too often, these efforts are met with “reforms” that are merely a slap-in-the-face. No task force or committee can fix the University’s “mental health crisis.” No amount of diversity and inclusion training can exonerate them for the harms they have caused. We need justice and accountability. NU, put your money where your mouth is.

Sahibzada Mayed is a McCormick senior. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.