Last week Charleena Lyles, called 911 to report a burglary. Lyles, a 30 year old pregnant woman was in treatment for what her family described as “mental health issues.” She held a knife in her hands as she answered the door for the police. The two police officers answering the call both discharged their fire arms, killing Ms. Lyles and leaving her children in protective custody.
Tuesday of the same week, the Minnesota Bureau of Corrections released dash cam footage. The video showed the shooting death of Philando Castile by officer Jeronimo Yanez. The next day, footage was released showing the conversation between Castile’s girlfriend and her daughter. Watching the footage has had a negative effect on many viewers’ emotional and mental health.
I am a white woman, a Christian minister, writer, and artist who has been in treatment for my own mental health issues (mood and eating disorders). The non-threatening nature of my mental health issues, and my white skin offer me a level of privilege. I am not a mental health or criminal justice expert. I share these thoughts not as an insider or an expert, but as a witness and an advocate.
As we discuss the value of Black Lives, and Police Community relations, we cannot do so without considering mental health.
Number One: Police Interactions with Mentally Ill People Can Escalate or De-Escalate Mental Health Symptoms
Example: Brittany’s Place
This winter, in the Saint Paul, Minnesota, a teenaged girl in a sex-trafficking recovery program for children threatened suicide. Program staff at her treatment center called 911. Later, when the police officer tried to force her into the car to go to the emergency room she spit on him and resisted. He punched her in the face, handcuffed her and called her an, “[f-ing] bitch.”
A child, with a history of being abused by a series of strange men and being forced to do things with her body that she didn’t consent to do was being forced to do something with her body that she didn’t consent to do. The officer went to trial and was acquitted. An internal investigation is ongoing in the Saint Paul police department.
Example: Khaleel Thompson
On May 23, 2017, Khaleel Thompson, an eighteen-year-old African American Man who had recently been diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia was threatening suicide. Police were called, friends say they spent “about two minutes,” checking on him. The next morning. Thompson carrying an Airsoft Gun was shot more than a dozen times by four officers in Crystal, Minnesota. The officers are on administrative leave. Thompson was recently moved from the ICU to a rehabilitation unit in the hospital. His friends have said that he was trying to complete suicide by cop.
A Problem: Escalation
Too often what I have witnessed between police officers and folks with mental illness has been more categorized by escalation, aggression and disrespect. Friends of mine who work in mental health say that many of the interactions their clients have with police tend to produce more emotional distress and more disordered behavior.
Example: Uncle Lynn
A few years ago, my husband and I were driving my Uncle Lynn to a medical appointment. Uncle Lynn has lived with Paranoid Schizophrenia for more than forty years. On our way to the appointment we made an illegal turn and were pulled over by the police. While the officer asked for our license and registration, Uncle Lynn in the back seat, rolled his window down and asked the officer for help. “I’m trying to get to the clinic, and these people don’t know how to get there. Can you help me? Can you get me to the clinic?” The officer was polite to Uncle Lynn. Even in an anxious and paranoid state, even as we were being pulled over, my uncle trusted that a police officer was a person who could help him.
Last month a man in his twenties came into the suburban church and pre-school building where I work. My interactions with him suggested that he was not neuro-typical. He asked to play the piano in the sanctuary and tried opening different doors in the building, raising suspicions. One of my colleagues called the local police. “Oh yes, we know [Xavier], he has never been violent and is not a danger, but he does like to hide inside of churches when he gets anxious. Here are the strategies that we’ve used with him before, he’s a very nice, but very anxious guy.”
Witnessing these interactions between police and Uncle Lynn and Xavier was disorienting to me. The interactions were positive, professional, helpful and kind. There was an understanding, that both the police officer, and the person with mental illness were a valuable a part of the community. There are places where policing works for the mentally ill community. These examples give me hope. These two stories also broke my heart. They highlight a gap between the treatment that people with mental illness receive from one community to the next a gap that is widened by race and suicidal ideation.
A Tool: Crisis Intervention Training
I asked friends of mine who work in mental health and who work closely with Police Departments for their thoughts on police interactions with people with mental illness. One friend, who works as a case manager with mentally ill clients for the county told me that there were certain officers who seemed to be able to de-escalate the situation with her clients. Those officers had been a part of Crisis Intervention Training. Another friend who served as a police chaplain had went through the training and said that it was excellent.
C.I.T. is a forty hour training for law enforcement officers. In addition to verbal de-escalation skills C.I.T. connects officers to mental health professionals, family members of people with severe mental illness and people who have recovered from a mental health crisis. The officers go through training based on specific mental health crisis scenarios they may encounter. Even in cases when police are encountering people with suicidal ideation, or threatening violence, officers who have been through C.I.T. training have been able to successfully de-escalate the crisis more often than before training.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has resources about C.I.T. available here; here and here. And the Crisis Intervention Training website has great research and information here and you can see if your area has trained Crisis Intervention Teams by checking out this map.
Number Two: Impact of Police Violence on Community Mental Health
Just over a week ago, Jurors in Ramsey County delivered a “Not Guilty,” verdict in the case of Jeronimo Yanez. While I sat in a community listening session at the Hallie Q. Brown/ Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, facilitators reminded participants repeatedly that there were grief counselors and mental health resources available in the back. Even the strongest and most emotionally intelligent leaders in the community were expressing grief, shock, anger and fear.
While the miscarriage of justice in this case is emotionally draining on its own, it also triggers memories of past racial trauma’s and can have some terrible mental health implications for constantly retraumatized people.
Dr. Walter Howard Smith Jr, describes the psychological effects of racial trauma:
- Increase aggression – Street gangs, domestic violence, defiant behavior, and appearing tough and impenetrable are ways of coping with danger by attempting to control our physical and social environment
- Increase vigilance and suspicion – Suspicion of social institutions (schools, agencies, government),avoiding eye contact, only trusting persons within our social and family relationship networks
- Increase sensitivity to threat – Defensive postures, avoiding new situations, heightened sensitivity to being disrespected and shamed, and avoid taking risks
- Increase psychological and physiological symptoms – Unresolved traumas increase chronic stress and decrease immune system functioning, shift brains to limbic system dominance, increase risks for depression and anxiety disorders, and disrupt child development and quality of emotional attachment in family and social relationships
- Increase alcohol and drug usage – Drugs and alcohol are initially useful (real and perceived) in managing the pain and danger of unresolved traumas but become their own disease processes when dependency occurs
- Narrowing sense of time – Persons living in a chronic state of danger do not develop a sense of future, do not have long-term goals, and frequently view dying as an expected outcome
Racial Trauma, Author, Activist and Professor, Shawn Ginwright, writes extensively about community healing and trauma. He suggests that rather than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, we should speak of Persistent Traumatic Stress Experience in the African American Community.
The community mental health response to the Yanez verdict has been impressive. Community organizations like the Minneapolis Urban League, NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center, and Kente Circle have offered both community events and extended hours for walk-in counseling services since the verdict.
Many people have chosen not to watch to footage as a healthy boundary for their mental health. Others have posted reminders that it can be harmful to share the footage on your facebook timeline because videos that auto-play can re-traumatize friends who are already hurting.
Number Three: Officers’ Mental Health is a Factor
We see news stories quite often discussing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in military veterans. It has also become more common to talk about Trauma-informed care and trauma-informed education. But Police Officers also experience elevated levels of Trauma. Officers are likely to witness or experience trauma in their jobs. This repetitive traumatization coupled with a stigma around getting treatment, talking about mental health and a cultural view of masculinity that devalues vulnerability leads to a lot of untreated mental health issues in the Police Force.
Untreated trauma in officers leads to more unhealthy interactions between officers and the communities that they serve. Add in the repetitive stress and trauma that officers face, and the lethal weapons officers carry and we have created a system where we can only expect that there will be inappropriate use of force. There are police departments doing work around officer mental health, recognizing that PTSD in officers is real and treatable. NAMI has more information here.
Number Four: Lack of Access to Mental Health Care Leaves Criminal Justice System Responsible For Care
Within the Juvenile Justice system 70% of youth have at least one mental health diagnoses. Similarly, 15% of men and 30% of women in local jails have a mental health diagnosis and at least one in four people shot by police have a mental health diagnosis. Cook County Jail in Illinois is known as one of the largest Mental Health facilities in the nation.
With Mental and Chemical Health disorders not having insurance parity with other health diagnoses, the burden of mental health interventions often falls on the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, police officers learn to prevent respond to and investigate crime. But they must also respond to self-harm and suicide calls. Additionally lack of funds for treatment mean an increase in mental health symptoms and crises.
Both the House and Senate health care bills get rid of a requirement that basic mental health care be covered; cut Medicaid funding (which many adults with mental illness rely on; and allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing mental health conditions, even relatively common diagnoses like depression or anxiety disorders.
We do not know what the impact will be on law enforcement if more people fall through the cracks of the health care system. But I suspect that police will respond to more crises.
Many counties offer mental health urgent care and crisis lines. But these programs cannot respond as fast as a 911 call. For example, a friend of mine called the mental health crisis line when a child she was caring for was in crisis. However, the crisis passed before the crisis team could respond. Again and again, it is police officers who are the first responders to mental health crises. C.I.T. programs can teach officers where else they can bring people besides jail when they experience mental health crises. However, until we have better mental health care coverage in the United States our police forces carry the burden of intervention.
My Christian tradition teaches that both JUSTICE and HEALING are central to the message of the kin(g)dom of God. There is an invitation from God for us to work for justice and to heal the wounds of injustice. Some next steps in that invitation as I understand it:
Learn and Teach
NAMI.org has great resources for faith communities about mental health, as well as resources about the intersection of mental health and law enforcement.
Shawn Ginwright’s blog often covers racial trauma and healing.
Community sessions like this one: offered by the Minneapolis Urban League, provide opportunities to learn about “Police Brutality and Black Health.”
Seek healing through therapy, yoga, prayer, or massage. Do what you need to do to take care of your own healing and the healing of people in your immediate circles.
Contact your members of the senate and urge them to vote no on the health care bill. Ask your state representatives, mayors and city council members what there plans are for both health care and police community relations. Show up at the capitol, and community events.
NAMI has mental health advocacy page here. Also, within my own denomination, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, is urging people to share this graphic on social media and to contact their senators to vote against the bill.
Think about the mental health impact of what you post. Yes, it is important that we share information, even when it is shocking and traumatic. But please, think about the best way to do that. For someone with a history of racial trauma, watching someone kill your peer on Facebook is triggering. Therefore, use trigger warnings in your posts. Also, if you are sharing videos post links and disable previews rather than posting the video itself in your feed.
 The Impact of Racial Trauma on African Americans African American Men and Boys Advisory Board The Heinz Endowments
February 16, 2010
Walter Howard Smith, Jr., Ph.D.