How a Wellness Check Showed Me the Danger in Having Police Respond to Mental Health Crises
I grew up being taught that the police were the “good guys” that you reach out to for help when you’re in trouble. Even when I had kids of my own, I instilled in them a carte blanche sense of respect and admiration for officers as a whole. I wish I could say I still thoroughly trust the police without question, but I would be lying.
It is not that I am a seasoned criminal who has to fear being arrested for my crimes. I am just one of millions of people with mental illness living in the United States. But sadly, according to statistics, my mental health diagnosis alone means I have a much higher chance of dying during an encounter with the police.
I was not aware of any of those statistics six years ago when I experienced a police wellness check of my own. But in the years since, my eyes have been opened to how lucky I was.
Before sharing the story itself, I feel I should provide a little background and context. Six years ago this past May, I was still in a relationship with an abusive ex. He had been working out of town during the week and coming home on weekends. I had developed some pain in my left side during the course of one week. It started out mild and grew steadily worse throughout the week. By that Friday morning, the pain was so excruciating that I could barely walk, so I decided to get looked at in the emergency room before my now-ex returned home for the weekend.
It turned out I had a large cyst on my left ovary with a fibrous mass forming inside of it, contorting my ovary itself. I was given a surgical referral for a nearby woman’s medical center, a prescription for pain medication, and a recommendation for bedrest until my condition could be addressed.
After returning home, my life as I knew it turned upside down. That afternoon, I found out the man I had been living with for 11 years and was engaged to marry, had been cheating with someone else for several months while working out of town. When he returned home for the weekend, I informed him I needed surgery, and he informed me he was leaving me to move in with the latest in a long line of women he had been cheating on me with.
Despite his deplorable actions, he expected to maintain some sort of connection with me after moving out. When I chose instead to go no-contact, he got spiteful. He contacted a friend of mine who had a psychological background and lied to them, telling them he believed I was suicidal following the breakup. I had not spoken to that friend in a while so they did not know the full story, only what my ex had told him. That friend, in turn, rushed to judgment and called the police for a wellness check.
Did I have a history of depression? Yes. Was I in the best place mentally at that moment? No, but who would be following the end of an 11-year relationship, combined with the prospect of being in constant pain, on bedrest for weeks until I could get surgery approved by my insurance company and scheduled? But was I suicidal or in need of any type of intervention? Absolutely not. Not that anyone even checked with me before the police arrived.
I was in bed, in severe pain, when the pounding began at the door.
Thud, thud, thud.
I attempted to call out “one second,” as I struggled to pull myself into a seated position so I could get up to answer the door. My words were overshadowed by more pounding and shouting.
Thud, thud, thud.
“Police! If you do not answer the door, we will come in!”
Thud, thud, thud.
Confused and in a panic, I began trying to shuffle to the door as quickly as I could, hoping to open the door before they burst through, even though every step felt like daggers in my side. Sweating from the exertion of pushing through that pain, I answered the door.
Two policemen aggressively entered past me, uninvited. As I hobbled back to get off my feet again, one brusquely began stating that they got a call for a wellness check and needed to bring me to a nearby hospital for an evaluation.
I was confused and in severe pain from my wild dash to open the door. I honestly had no idea why they were even there. I inquired what they were even talking about and who recommended this wellness check, though they made it immediately clear that they were there to ask the questions and had no intention of answering any of mine.
One cut me off to remark that I looked pale, then eyed the collection of pill bottles next to me on the table which consisted of a few bottles of prescribed antidepressants, as well as the antibiotics and pain meds I had been prescribed at the emergency room.
“How many have you taken?!” the one officer demanded to know.
I once again started to ask what he was talking about, but was again cut off by one of the officers asking if I had overdosed. The other made a comment about how they should call for an ambulance for transport.
Immediately, the urgency of the situation set in and I went into defense mode. I told them that I didn’t need an ambulance. I was fine. Well, not fine, I was in extreme pain while awaiting surgery, but I did not need to go to the hospital. I had already been to the hospital and they sent me home and put me on bedrest. I don’t need to go back.
That’s when the one officer barked that they got a call for a wellness check and a report that I was suicidal, so I needed to come with them for an evaluation. That it was not up for debate.
I reiterated that I was fine. I was not suicidal. I was just in pain.
It was like they did not hear a word I said. They again repeated that they got a report for a wellness check and I needed to see a doctor, that I had to come with them.
“I have seen a doctor!” In a panicked state, I explained that I had continued with my therapy appointments remotely over the phone in the last week while on bedrest, and had just spoken to my doctor earlier that day.
With that statement, a small window of opportunity presented itself.
One of the officers asked if my doctor could corroborate that I was not currently suicidal. I exclaimed that yes, yes she could! They told me I had five minutes to get her on the phone, otherwise I had to go with them.
I looked at the clock and, to my dismay, it was after office hours. Thankfully, her practice had an answering service. I dialed the office number and frantically explained that I needed to speak to my doctor immediately, that there were police officers in my house wanting to take me to the hospital for a wellness check, and that I needed her to speak with them to let them know it wasn’t necessary. I emphasized that I needed her to call me back right away, that they only gave me five minutes.
As I hung up the phone, the one officer told me we need to get going, that they don’t have all night. He asked whether I could walk to their car unaided or if they needed to call an ambulance after all. Eyeing my pets, he suggested I call someone to take care of my animals because evaluations usually take a minimum of three days.
I could feel the panic rising inside me at the prospect of a three-day involuntary committal. At that point, I was in tears, trying my best to not sound hysterical. I explained that I had nobody who could come spur of the moment and take care of my pets. I insisted I didn’t need to go to the hospital, that I was fine, I wasn’t suicidal. I told them I was supposed to stay in bed on best rest. I begged them to give my doctor a few minutes to call me back.
It all fell on deaf ears. They sternly told me that we needed to go. Now.
Then the phone rang.
Thankfully, it was my doctor. She spoke to the cops and reassured them that she had been treating me for a while and reassured them that I was not suicidal. The police then explained to her that they received a call from a concerned friend of mine following a tip from my ex that I was supposedly suicidal. The officers willingly gave her all the answers they refused to divulge to me. They spoke to her for less than two minutes, then hung up the phone and quietly spoke amongst themselves.
As quickly as it started, it was over.
They matter-of-factly told me that if I felt at risk of harming myself, to go to the emergency room, or call 911 and they would come back. Closing the door behind them, they left.
The entire experience was surreal and traumatizing. I was treated as if I were a criminal instead of someone potentially in need of assistance. I felt unheard, disregarded, and disrespected. These officers were supposedly sent to make sure I was OK, yet they were gruff, rude, not compassionate, and uncompromising. They didn’t want to listen to anything I said. There was no comfort or safety in their presence. No warmth or kindness, no apologies even after the fact when they learned they were mistaken. Only terror and panic.
I lay there and sobbed for easily the next hour. Fear, pain, frustration, anger, helplessness —a flood of emotions washed over me in waves. I came dangerously close to being dragged away by the cops and locked away in a mental ward of a nearby hospital for three days for a mandatory evaluation and involuntary committal, for no reason and with no actual proof. They wouldn’t listen to a word I said or answer any of my questions, choosing instead to listen to someone I hadn’t even spoken to in weeks, based on lies told by my ex out of spite. The only thing that saved me was a few words from my doctor.
Over six years later, and tears still form in my eyes talking about it. Though honestly, I was a lucky one because my situation was resolved without an involuntary committal, or worse. Can you imagine if I had actually been suffering from some sort of mental crisis at that time or was actually in need of assistance?
I have come across many news stories since that day that have emphasized and reiterated that it could have been so much worse. There are many people who have died during police wellness checks.
There’s a 2019 article from CNN that highlights how deadly wellness checks can be. It focuses predominantly on people of color and in it, name after name, story after story is shared with one common denominator. In each case, a wellness check was called in, and in each case, the person the police were supposed to check on ended up dead.
Though race has definitely been a factor in questionable deaths by police, the larger and more encompassing connection between mental illness and deadly force by law enforcement is often overlooked. These deaths go beyond race and beyond just wellness checks. When the police are called, being mentally ill is can be a death sentence. As pointed out in an article by NAMI that highlights other stories of the mentally ill dying at the hands of law enforcement officers, “Police have become the default responders to mental health calls,” largely because the mentally ill are perceived to be a danger to themselves or others.
Often, police are the first to be called to the scene when someone is “behaving erratically.” Sadly, many of the people in need of assistance and intervention for mental illness end up dead rather than receiving the help they need.
Just recently, yet another report hit the news about a man in Utah, Nykon Brandon, who was in obvious mental distress and was ultimately killed by the police.
Was the man acting erratically? Yes. And while yes, he had also committed a crime by attempting to steal beer, he did not deserve to die. He deserved to receive help, and his day in court.
I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but he was just one of many. LaQuan McDonald. Ethan Saylor. Michelle Cusseaux. Linden Cameron. Willie N. Henley. Stacy Kenny. The list of names could go on and on. There are two things in common in all of these cases and many others. They were all in a mental crisis, and all their lives ended prematurely due to what should have been police intervention. They all have become a statistic.
According to a 2015 report shared by the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement. To quote the report directly:
“Individuals with untreated severe mental illness are involved in at least 1 in 4 and as many as half of all fatal police shootings”.
This percentage often goes up drastically in less populated areas where crisis training is not as commonplace or as in depth. A Washington Post article in 2020 highlights a 2019 report stating that the mentally ill are 39% more likely to die at the hands of the police in small to midsize areas.
A few years ago, “defund the police” rose in popularity during protests against police brutality. Too many people misunderstood it to mean abolish the police, spurring a counter movement to “back the blue.” Despite misconceptions and misunderstandings that arose in the heat of those moments, I don’t believe the majority of people were calling to abolish the police force outright. People were simply stating that a police presence is not always the best cause of action, and calling for some police funding to be diverted and rerouted toward other community response teams for situations where a police officer might not be the best choice. Teams trained in deescalation, for instance, are more adept at interacting with people in crisis with mental illness, and are desperately needed.
Such a team may have been able to address those in mental crisis and get them the help they needed. But sadly, it is the police that more often than not are called to deal with those in mental distress. And instead of receiving help, in many cases, their families will be getting coffins.
Please do not misunderstand me. I do not hate the police, nor am I advocating for the abolishment of the police force. I believe they do serve a purpose in society. But I do not trust them anymore, not when it comes to handling anything in regards to an alleged mental health crisis. My own personal experience has shown me how ill-equipped they can be in handling even a simple wellness check. The long list of news stories and obituaries have proven how deadly police intervention in a mental health crisis can be. Mental health crisis response should be left in the hands of mental health professionals.
Getty image by Jeremy Hogan