Police Brutality and Mental Illness
Trigger warning: This post contains a discussion of violence against POC and those with mental illness, including the deaths of victims of police brutality. Suicide will also be mentioned.
This past week I opened the News app on my phone and saw a headline about yet another instance of police brutality, this time against a man named Walter Wallace Jr. I almost didn’t click because it hurts reading about so many lives needlessly lost because of police officer’s racism and inexperience. But I clicked anyway because I knew it was important. My heart broke as I read about this young man-Walter Wallace Jr., a black man with bipolar disorder whose life was cut short. His family indicated that he was having a mental health crisis when the shooting occurred. The video taken of the shooting seems to support that Walter Wallace Jr. was seen waving a knife around erratically.
The officers who arrived on the scene almost instantly pulled out their guns upon arriving and were not carrying tasers. His family had called authorities to get an ambulance for Walter, but it was law enforcement who arrived first. Walter was shot multiple times and taken to a hospital, where he died. An investigation is pending, so all of the facts are not clear yet and bodycam footage has yet to be released to the public. However, it appears that the officers made no attempt to calm the man and try to engage with him to drop the weapon. Instead, the officers yelled at him, something that could agitate someone who is already in crisis further. The situation escalated and ended with someone dying instead of this man getting the help he needed.
It’s not often I get political in my blogs. I try to focus as much as possible just on mental health. But the fact is that half of the people police kill have some kind of disability, including mental illnesses. And police brutality against people of color is causing racial trauma in black people who see people who look like them being gunned down constantly. The topic of police brutality is important to talk about because it is intrinsically linked to mental health. This is a post I have wanted to write for a very long time, and haven’t because I was worried about the “politics” of it. The truth is, this shouldn’t be seen as a political matter. Black lives matter… how is that something to debate?
Police officers are simply not trained to handle people in a mental health crisis. Those with mental illness might not be able to “comply” and officers pulling out guns and yelling may just make matters much worse. Sometimes the police are called to respond to someone who is suicidal and end up killing the person they were supposed to help stay alive.
Five years ago my mother called the police when I had come close to taking all of my Prozac pills. I hadn’t really wanted to die that night, and I quickly became fearful that the police would show up and kill me. At this point, I had educated myself a bit on police brutality against mentally ill people and had heard horror stories. So I sat on the couch, waiting for the police to come, ready to be as calm and cooperative as possible so nothing would happen. And nothing did happen. They drove me to a hospital and though they seemed ignorant about mental illness, they were not rough with me and didn’t handcuff me in the back of their car.
I don’t think about that day much because it is quite painful, but I was reflecting on it after hearing about Walter Wallace Jr. and thought about how things might have been very different. First of all, I am a white woman. I recognize the privilege that comes with that. My name also sounds white, and the officers responding probably asked my mother my name and made assumptions about my race based on that. My mother also lived in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood. I had no weapons, I only had pills.
Although I was severely mentally ill at the time, I was cognizant of what was going on and how I had to act. I was depressed, but I had no paranoia or delusions that might have set me off the second the police walked in my door. All of these factors led to me being delivered safely to the hospital without a scratch on me. If any of these factors had been different, I might not be here today.
Being black and mentally ill can be a death sentence if 911 is called. People of color already have reason to fear the police, imagine throwing delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia into the mix. Sometimes “just complying” is not possible for people in mental health crises and they do not deserve to lose their lives because of this. Police brutality affects everyone, and something needs to be done about it. Minorities are dying because of the incompetency and poor training of police officers, and this is a mental health crisis.
Staying informed is important, but it’s also important to take care of yourself. If the news is too much and you’re experiencing vicarious trauma or just pain because of what is happening, it is more than okay to take a break and heal. When you can, protest, vote, and call your representatives. People of color are the ones most affected by this problem, so white people should avoid taking center stage. This doesn’t mean we should be passive though. We should use our privilege and power to help those with less privilege. Those with mental illnesses are also vulnerable and need to be advocated for and listened to. If you have privilege, use it for good. And maybe we can put an end to this violence.