Trigger warning: real, emotionally-charged talk about fears of violence; mention, but with graphic details embedded within a link, of persons with bipolar disorder being killed by the police; and discussion of fears in calling police for help as a person with bipolar disorder. Hopeful payoff: resources and encouragement to help bring about a change. Also, the International Bipolar Foundation passed on publishing this; I am not going to comment or speculate as to why, other than to say that I am deeply disappointed with this decision. But the organization does great work, so I post this in its original version while lamenting that it sat for a week only to be rejected. Alas, such is the nature of writing and activism I guess.
I can be annoying. I won’t shut up about things like race relations, GLBTQ+ issues, mental health awareness, Muslim-Christian relations, and a whole host of other issues that tend to be hot button. And also tend to be fraught with threats of violence. My hero is MLK, and my life is dedicated to Jesus. I just don’t shut up about things I believe God requires of me. Suffice it say, I am used to being threatened with violence.
Let me be absolutely clear, though. I am a “white,” Christian, American cisgender male married to a woman. My bisexuality can easily be hidden, although I do not hide it, so I do not face many of the same dangers that a vast majority of my community faces. I wear a Black Lives Matter shirt, but not Black skin. I have grown a beard and wear a head covering to act in solidarity with my Muslim and Sikh brothers, but can always shave both my beard and my locs. I have an incredible amount of privilege, including from my education and the cosmic lottery I won to get great parents and an amazing community of people focused on justice, love, equality, and truth. My brother in Christ Rev. Ramone Raschad Billingsley, writing from the margins, has helped me develop my own hermeneutical positioning: rooted in the center, I choose the margins. That is privilege, too. I can, at any point, retreat back to the center and reassume all of the privilege available to me.
My approach to life is pretty much about the opposite of that: I am going to use my privilege until I don’t have it any more.
When I write something like “Stop Killing Us” I am not in any way trying to supplant or deflect the very real conversations that need to happen in terms of addressing the terrifying plague of police violence on citizens of color, trans* persons, and other highly vulnerable populations that experience little to no privilege of any kind. And I most certainly am not attempting to thrust myself into a position in which I am claiming my fears are on par with those in said marginalized states.
What I am saying, though, is that violence against people with mental illness is at shocking levels. We are sixteen times more likely to be killed by police than are people without mental illness. I cannot lie and say that I don’t think about that every single time I leave my little village. To wit:
On September 30, 2016, Shainei Lindsay awoke with a fright in her Pasedena, California home because her husband, a man living with bipolar disorder, had called the police for help. You can read the heartbreaking details by clicking here. For those who want to continue this conversation but not be subjected to the terror of the situation, it will suffice to say that the man was killed. A father. A child of God. A man who had had interactions with the police before, but had never turned violent, at least according to initial reports. Brace yourself, but apologists and blind defenders of whatever police do will say that there weren’t other choices; that he should have been on his meds; that he should have complied; that he should have… Brace yourself, and then push back. Hard.
There is immediate, substantial, proven training for Mental Health First Aid. Where I live, police officers, bartenders, pastors, teachers, dispatchers, business owners, teachers, village employees, members of government, and nursing home professionals took a class together. Some people got scholarships provided by our local NAMI chapter. In fact, I lift up into the light our local NAMI chapter as an example of what can be done by a group of committed and educated citizens. Please, use these links. Familiarize yourself with the services already in your communities, or identify a need and discern if you are someone who can do something about it.
Because here is the truth. We can take our meds; we can be responsible with our mental health; but we cannot always predict what is going to happen to us. Sometimes a med stops working like it once did. Sometimes we can forget a dose, or our manias or depressions are stronger than they have been before. And sometimes we’re just terrified because, let’s be honest, living with bipolar disorder sometimes is terrifying. When we call for help, when we reach out, when we are being honest about the fact that we are not in our right minds, you have a fundamental responsibility to not kill us. There are so, so many more options before a gun needs to be drawn. And don’t be so quick to suggest the taser. I can almost guarantee that if I were tased in a mania, I would likely have a heart attack and die. But it doesn’t have to come to that; there are effective, proved methods of helping a person through a crisis. There are ways to create conditions that are safe for the afflicted, the officers attempting to provide help, others who might be in the area or involved in some way. We are not dealing with a great mystery. I personally know three dozen people I am very confident would have been able to resolve the situation with little to no violence. Why? Because they have the training. They have the relationships. They have the understanding that a person in crisis asking for help is holding a fire extinguisher because his mind is a landscape of terror I would not wish anyone to see. But I have seen it. And I will see it again.
Sadly, a friend and longtime resident of our village was killed in a police standoff. We called him PaulE, and he had several diagnoses. Anyone who had lived here for more than fifteen years likely would have known that, and a whole bunch of people who have lived here for less time knew it. Didn’t stop his death. I have held the hand of PaulE’s mother as we both cry, and I have spoken with many of the officers who were there when the tragedy ended. They are haunted. They felt beholden to a process rather than attending to a person. When the tanks came and the helicopters flew overhead, and yet Paul’s mother was not allowed to speak to him and friends of his who are professional counselors were kept away, I wrote on a message board, “PaulE is never going to be taken alive. They have just given flesh to his deepest fear.”
No good police officer wants to kill a mentally ill person in crisis. We owe it to them to do everything we can to make sure these decisions only used as a last resort. Don’t accept the argument that a mentally ill person’s disconcerting, but not immediately lethal behavior is enough justification to shoot them. We cannot accept that low bar for a use of deadly force. It is time to demand, as Shaun King has eloquently set forth in his recent work, that police officers have four year degrees. That there be consistent and updated training in areas involving mental health assessments by officers. If the sight of a mentally ill person in distress is presented as sufficient cause for fear and bullets, we are going to see more and more tragedies. I have had enough of them for one lifetime, frankly.
I won’t shut up. And I know that we come to this place to feel better. I so appreciate the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, work, and witness. I’m honored to be a featured blogger. But I don’t shut up, friends. I’m annoying. I get it. But I also love deeply and passionately, and I care about the people in our community. Our lives matter. Our lives are not just to be lifted up as a reason for why we don’t need gun control. Right? How many times have we heard that? We need more money for mental health and more training. Great! It is available, but communities have to act. We have to push our legislators. We have to do what we can when we are healthy to make sure that when we’re not, we aren’t shot to death asking for help.