Commentary: People in crisis

Marshall A. Mays

Commentary: People in crisis
June 20
10:12 2019

By Marshall A. Mays

Interactions between the police and the mentally ill often don’t end well.  The most recent numbers that I can find date back to 2017. For that year, the police fatally shot 498 people of which 151 of those victims were known to be mentally ill. These numbers show us that about one in four fatal shootings involving the police also involve the mentally ill. Half of those shot were white, while a quarter were black. African Americans are overrepresented in fatal shootings between the police and the mentally ill when you consider that our population was around 12% black in 2017. 

It is not fair when one realizes that African Americans who are also mentally ill are deemed a serious threat that warrants lethal force on the part of the police. It is not fair that a person of any race who is in crisis should lose their life rather than receive treatment.

When a mentally ill person needs emergency services, their only real option is to call 911. In most cities in the U.S., police don’t train their officers on how to respond to mental health emergencies. When a person undergoing an episode is black and deemed out of control, it seems the same old story is that police draw their guns instead of extending a hand.

Of course, the public needs to be protected against violence and harm. If a person who is in a psychotic state poses a real threat, they should be subdued by police with the appropriate force. There are cases we read about every day, however, that don’t meet this criteria. The Vice media outlet reports of Deborah Danner:  “Deborah Danner, the author of a widely shared essay about her schizophrenia, was 66 when she was shot by a team of officers familiar with her and her medical history.”  Deborah’s story is one of many mentally ill persons who are black and are needlessly victimized by police. White people are not excluded from suffering a second time, first from their mental illnesses, and secondly by ill-trained police. It just seems that black people who are mentally ill are stigmatized as dangerous to a much greater degree by first responders when they pull up on the scene of a mental health crisis.

It is interesting to note that in a story published in the journal, Psychiatric Services, blacks are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with what is often considered the most disabling of mental illnesses, schizophrenia, than whites. The black population was disproportionately less likely to receive medication to treat their illness, however. Black consumers who live with depression or schizophrenia were more likely than whites to receive formal psychotherapy to treat their disorders. 

These findings seem to suggest that African Americans trust talk therapy rather than pharmacology. Could this lead to a better or worse outcome for the patient? It’s hard to say. In terms of the number of blacks who end up in crisis situations where the police intervene, it would seem that a greater acceptance of medication treatment along with psychotherapy may be the answer. This is a perfect instance of the necessity for Medicaid expansion.

Marshall Mays is a lifelong resident of Winston-Salem and a graduate of RJ Reynolds High School.  He attended college in North Carolina where I majored in creative writing.

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