Tanisha Anderson, like most of us, was trying to get it right when she was killed by Cleveland police. Her story is not as widely known as Tamir Rice’s, but it is equally important and much more of a cautionary tale. Anderson was living with Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia, was in crisis as a result of her illness, and worried her family enough that they requested police intervention. Anderson’s family wanted help for their sister, daughter, and mother, but what they received instead of the assistance they sought, was the trauma of watching the woman they loved, and were trying to protect, be brutalized.
July is National Minority Mental Health Month. I’ve written previously about living with depression, and like famed Black novelist Bebe Moore Campbell (NMMHM was named in her honor for her work as a mental health advocate), I believe that the stigmas associated with African Americans living with mental disabilities must be eradicated by any means necessary. Our inability to identify mental illness, seek treatment for it, and advocate and care for the people we love who live with it, is literally killing us.
Our conversations on police violence in our community and the #Blacklivesmatter movement are dangerously narrow. We don’t talk enough about Black women who are brutalized by police, and we seem to be completely oblivious to the growing number of Blacks who are mentally disabled that are killed or assaulted by them. According to The Washington Post, 25% of citizens killed by police are mentally ill. As shocking as this percentage seems, we shouldn’t at all be surprised by it since more than half of prison inmates have some kind of mental illness. In fact, in many cities, prisons are the largest mental health facilities.
Habitually, those living with mental illness are arrested for petty crimes associated with trying to survive sans adequate support systems. As often, the mentally ill (who many would argue are societies most vulnerable) are made to interact with police because they are in crisis and need help getting (often life-saving) treatment.
Since our community sees Black death at the hands of police seemingly daily because we are deemed a threat (by merely existing), one can only imagine how dangerous it is for those who may be in mental or emotional crisis and who may be a danger to themselves or others. Because we need to ensure that we see no more stories like Tanisha Anderson’s, or Jason Harrison’s or Lavall Hall’s, or Natasha McKenna’s, we must become familiar with how to handle these kinds of crises.
I chatted with licensed counselor and mental health advocate Andrea Battle, M.Ed and LPC to talk about the best ways to keep the people we love, who are challenged mentally and emotionally, safe. In addition to working as a clinician, Battles facilitates free and confidential support groups for those living with Depression and Bipolar Disorder. She offered the following advice on how to advocate for a loved one in crisis if police are involved:
Be educated about the disorder(s) that impact(s)s your loved one—along with symptoms and warning signs. Frequently, if symptoms and warning signs are noted, a crisis can be prevented or managed without police involvement. Talk with your loved one’s psychiatrist and/or therapist to create a safety plan ahead of time. Friends or family members may also call a crisis hotline to help determine if calling 911 is appropriate. (The goal is to handle the situation without police intervention if at all possible.)
Familiarize yourself with community resources available to help your loved one. Call a local mental health hotline or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (which is available 24/7). Know if your local police department has joint initiatives with local mental health professionals.If you don’t live in an area with those kinds of joint initiatives, and police must be called, request an officer with mental health training and specify that you are calling regarding a mental health emergency.
It is important to communicate the symptoms you’ve observed. Instead of saying your loved one is “acting crazy” or is “out of control”, describe specific behaviors. In example, “My son is schizophrenic and has not been taking his medication. He believes he is God. I can no longer keep him safe.”
When police arrive, it is important to stay calm and be prepared to repeat information provided to the dispatcher. Although you should request an officer trained in mental health, sometimes an officer will respond who does not have that training. Restate that it is a mental health emergency and calmly inquire about a trained officer.
Whether the hospitalization (because the goal is treatment that most likely will require hospitalization) is voluntary or involuntary, speak to police clearly and calmly about your loved one’s disorder. First responders generally arrive to facilitate a transport to the hospital. Involuntary hospitalizations will usually require officers to handcuff your loved one (even though such actions might prove to make the situation more volatile), which police agencies believe keeps the person in crisis safe.
Generally, loved ones cannot travel in police cars with those being involuntarily hospitalized. It is important that you gather all of the information about where the person in crisis is being taken. Additionally, loved ones can call the police station to do welfare checks for those being involuntarily admitted.
It is obvious that we cannot, and have never been able to historically, completely eliminate police brutality in our communities. But it is our responsibility to know our rights, and the rights of the mentally disabled we care for, when interacting with police.
Because, again and again and again, #allBlacklivesmatter.
To learn more about safety planning, disorders, warning signs and identifying community resources:
Josie Pickens is an educator, griot, and cultural critic. Follow her on twitter: @jonubian