For several years, I raised a teenager who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Parenting a child with active PTSD is like walking through a minefield. The slightest provocation could send him into a violent rage that could last several hours. Enforcing rules and setting boundaries were perceived as threats, oftentimes resulting in aggressive responses. On chaotic days, when there seemed to be no end in sight and he was beyond my reach, I did what no parent ever wants to do; call on strangers to come into my home for support.
As a woman of color, I know all too well that calling the police on a Black boy is a cardinal sin. No, actually it is the cardinal sin. At the same time, as a mental health provider, I understand that sometimes an outside intervention is necessary to defuse incidents or to get needed treatment. My training and knowledge of seeking support for mental health crises further assuaged my conflict. Still, I cringe every time I hear that harm has been inflicted upon an individual by the very people who are called to help.
Last year’s police shooting of Lavall Hall, a 25-year old Miami Gardens, Fla. man, is an unfortunate but typical example of how someone innocently seeking help finds themselves in a situation that goes terribly awry. Hall’s mother called law enforcement for assistance when her schizophrenic son became too much to handle. Dash cam video later revealed a broom wielding Hall was fatally shot by officers. In fact, in 2015, more than 1,000 people were killed by the police. A quarter of the victims were identified as having a mental disorder. A third of these same victims crossed paths with police in an effort to get care or while in an emotional crisis.
My mental health training has taught me to never blindly call 911. It’s likely you will not encounter someone who possess specialized training that includes compassionate and adequate care. Sadly, this article is a reflection of our times, where we have to take extra steps and precautions to preserve our lives. So many of us have given our Black children “the talk” about interfacing with law enforcement, but it seems we have to expand that conversation with an awareness about accessing and interacting with these systems (medical, legal, law enforcement) to get help for our loved ones.
A review of the data of fatality cases reveals a stark reality; a call to 911 for a mental health crisis often results in a criminal response rather than a supportive one. The police officers who show up at your door most likely don’t have the training to de-escalate these types of situations, and just their presence alone can exacerbate the symptoms of someone who may already be confused and feeling under attack. Dr. Isaiah Pickens, an LA based licensed clinical psychologist, runs IOpening Enterprises. They provide trauma-informed training to law enforcement agencies
across the country. “The problem with solely having a punitive approach to policing is it only shows people what they can’t do, not what to do instead,” said Pickens.
In cases where I contacted 911 for assistance, personally or professionally, I requested ambulatory services to transport to psychiatric care or mobile crises support who offer mental health professionals to come to my home. Recognizing that the stigma of mental illness is so deeply entrenched in our society, I find it necessary to emphasize illness and use descriptive terms with a focus on symptoms rather than behavior. For example, just giving a diagnosis alone like “she is suicidal” or “he has schizophrenia,” may prompt a focus on threat assessment, shifting away from treating the mental illness.
In our society, we have yet to view mental health diagnoses as true medical problems thus, we respond to emotional crises with fear and helplessness instead of with clear plans and protocols that ensure the person in peril feels safe and supported. Given that I knew what my child was facing, I made sure to learn which of our local hospitals offered psychiatric services, information I shared with first responders upon arrival to my home. I also utilized emergency services when I observed maladaptive behavior was escalating. It is a sad reality that many people don’t even know you can take someone to the E.R. who is experiencing a psychiatric break. Family and friends can also get trained in Mental Health First Aid. This type of guidance will not make you an expert in dealing with mental health issues nor should you rely on it in lieu of seeking appropriate professional services but, similar to CPR, it will give you the basic skills to recognize and respond to crises.
By no means do I want to diminish the responsibility of law enforcement to take appropriate steps to increase their knowledge and skills when responding to citizens who are emotionally disturbed. Arguably, the systematic and structural changes necessary to effect real institutional changes are beyond the scope of most of us. However, we do have control over how we respond to our loved ones when they need us the most. I’m happy to share that the teen I parented some years ago is now a well-adjusted and healthy young man. Like any other millennial, he still asks to borrow money, he’s considering career choices, and complains about injustice in the world— you know, typical stuff. But most importantly, he has lived through his worst days and is finally able to enjoy the better ones.
Dr. Anissa L. Moody is a psychologist and educator in New York City. She has published papers and given talks on the practice of mental hygiene and the social constructions of race, health, and gender among many topics. By sharing her expertise on current topics, Dr. Moody aims to raise awareness of mental health and highlight the importance of mental hygiene in enriching people's lives. Follow her on Twitter @Frame_OfMind.