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Stop Calling 911 on Black People in Mental Health Crises

The Black Lives Matter movement is asking to defund the police; in addition, from Mental Health America’s call to action, “communities should ensure that incentives and resources are aligned to most effectively provide effective crisis intervention. Communities should engage in coordinated efforts to identify and provide those services necessary to prevent behavioral health crises. These efforts must include not only better mental health and substance abuse services, but also a recognition of the role of unemployment, poverty and homelessness in behavioral health crises.”

I facilitate a peer-led support group for Black men. They have been accused of felonies and are in the Felony Mental Health Court (an Accountability Court). They participate in the program to avoid sitting in jail. They also get their record cleared.

They have also been diagnosed with a mental health condition. They have been diagnosed with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic depression. They do not believe that they have mental illnesses and if they do, they will not admit it in front of the group. I tell them it does not matter about a diagnosis — we are just all here to get mentally healthy.

I am Black woman from a middle-class family, and I am a lesbian. They are black, straight men with substance use issues, low income, homelessness and limited access to mental and medical health services. Even though I have a mental illness, I do not have much in common with these men. I had to work hard to adjust my perception of people who commit felonies and I needed to find commonality so we could work together effectively. My perception that if they were arrested, they must have done something wrong was clearly off the mark. I know arrested people say they did not do it, but these men should have never been involved with the police in the first place.

From Mental Health America: “Police arrest a substantial number of people with behavioral health conditions. The percentage of those in pre-trial detention with serious mental illnesses in the United States is 14.5% for males and 31% for females. However law enforcement officers often express reservations regarding the lack of training and resources devoted to the engagement and treatment of people with mental illness and addictive disorders.”

“Racial and ethnic minorities have less access to mental health services and are more likely to receive poor quality care when treated. Persons of color are disproportionately represented in both adult and juvenile justice systems. While there are few, if any, differences in the nature and scope of crimes committed by persons of color, their rates of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, as well as the length of sentences, are substantially higher than the Caucasian population.”

I have listened to my group participants’ stories and hear a common theme. They were having a mental health crisis and the police were called. This, right there, is the problem. The police were called. The police are called to arrest and detain criminals, not to help in a mental health crisis and deescalate the situation. The families that call 911 want help, not the arrest of their loved one, but there is no other number to call so they reach out to the only option they have.

In this same county with the mental health court, a jury has found an ex-police officer not guilty of felony murder. The officer shot and killed a mentally ill man in March 2015, a man who was naked and unarmed at an apartment complex. The officer was found guilty of aggravated assault, violation of oath and making a false statement. This killing should never have happened. The neighbors that made the call about a naked man acting erratically had no option but to ask for the police to be dispatched. They did not want their neighbor hurt. They just wanted help for him.

Mental Health America says: “Many of the problems associated with police involvement in behavioral health crises can be avoided by creating alternatives. Non-behavioral medical emergencies, such as heart attacks, strokes and non-vehicular accidents are often handled by the 911 system. But rather than dispatching a police officer, an ambulance is sent. Whenever possible, mental health crises should be treated using medical personnel or, even better, specialized mental health personnel. Substance use disorders need to be handled in a way that promotes recovery, not victimization.”

When the Black Lives Matter movement calls for systemic change in the policing of Black bodies, changes such as a medical resource being dispatched instead of the police to a mental health crisis are exactly what they are talking about.

The men in my group should not have been arrested. But now they have lost their housing, jobs, relationships with family, place in their community, good record and self-respect. In my group, I try to restore dignity to all the men. I try to let them know that they have value and that they are cared for, that the mental health challenges they are having do not have to stigmatize them for the rest of their lives.

Our concept of law and order needs to radically change. It is rotten from the core and people with mental health conditions are receiving the brunt of the disastrous criminal justice system. There is no justice for them.

For more on the Black Lives Matter movement, check out The Mighty’s topic page.

Photo by JD Mason on Unsplash