Stop Killing Us: Privilege Don’t Cure Bipolar Disorder

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. 

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 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.

 

On Hinkley and Freddie

News outlet are reporting that John Hinkley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, is set to be released from a mental hospital after nearly 35 years of commitment to the psychiatric facility. The doctors in charge of his care declare that he is no longer suffering from depression and psychological delusions. For the past year, he has been living 17 days a month with his mother in Virginia. The Reagan Foundation has issued a statement saying they disagree with the doctors and the judge and declare that he is still a threat. So does that pile of human garbage that is running for president on the GOP ticket.

I don’t know what it is like to be shot. I don’t know what it is like to lose a person I love to gun violence. I am not doubting that for a few persons, although not Ronald Reagan who forgave Hinkley years ago, connected with the shooting there may still be strong feelings. And that is understandable. But on a day in which it is announced that while Freddie Gray was the victim of a homicide, not one single person seems to be responsible for his death, I am thinking that a man who was found not guilty by reason of insanity and served almost the whole of my lifetime in a facility, has earned the right to go home if actual medical professionals clear him. Because, sorry, I trust them a lot more than I do the people at the Reagan Foundation and Herr Drumpf. President Reagan and the other three victims saw justice served in their case. The Gray family is still waiting.

But this situation reveals some deep contradictions and hypocrisies in our country. First, a large number of citizens think that we are a Christian nation  but seem to forget that forgiveness it at the heart of the faith. Ronald Reagan knew it, and practiced it quickly. But 71% of Protestants and 68% of Catholics support the death penalty, which is indicative of a larger trend in this country: we like our justice retributive, not restorative. Second, Reagan’s own policies have caused the current crisis we face. Look at the rise in our private prisons, despite overwhelming evidence that they are rampant violators of human rights.  Look at the massive amounts of money taxpayers spend on incarceration, especially given that nearly 60% of those imprisoned are guilty of nonviolent offenses. In fact, Hinkley was lucky. An estimated 356,000 prisoners have serious mental illness but are not placed in institutions because of overcrowding and lack of facilities. Placing mentally ill persons in prison is a danger to themselves, other inmates, and institutional staff. And that rests squarely at the feet of the Reagan Administration and the GOP. Finally, we continue to perpetuate the notion that people cannot be rehabilitated. Returning citizens face legal, cultural, and societal stumbling blocks that make it difficult for them to reintegrate to life outside of prison. And despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the government should be providing more treatment and support to mentally ill persons, we still see that mental illness is grossly misunderstood. If it weren’t, people would accept that doctors who have been working with Hinkley for decades are in a much better position to determine his threat level to self and others than are people with only a GED.

As a person who lives with mental illness, as someone who knows what it is like to be in distress and what it is like to be healthy, I am deeply concerned about how easily and blithely people say, “He should be locked up forever!” Really? He should? Why? Because he shot Reagan? Well, what about Freddie Gray? What about the massive number of murders that occur each year in which no one is charged or found guilty, yet we continue to fill up prisons with nonviolent offenders, essentially running graduate schools for criminality. And if that is conflating separate issues, fine. Let’s hit it head-on: consistent evidence shows that treatment works. And do we really think that doctors who have been tasked with caring for one of the most high profile patients in modern history would sign their names to recommendations for release if they were not overwhelming confident that Hinkley is not a danger to himself and others?

The dumbing down of this country and the notion that every opinion is equal is doing serious damage to lives and reasonable conversations. If we are serious about stopping the school to prison pipeline, we need to reexamine our mental health system, including building facilities for the criminally insane. Some, maybe most, should not get out. I can understand that; there are mental illnesses that are so mysterious and powerful, the only thing that can be done is to isolate a person as humanely and safely as possible, while still respecting basic rights. But others can be treated and brought back to a level of health that allows them, with proper restrictions and responsibilities, to return to society.

This is an important issue. It comes down to a basic philosophy. Are we a country that believes once a criminal always a criminal, or do we believe that rehabilitation and transformation are not only possible, but also a focus of our justice system? Because saying that people should stay locked up indefinitely or in inhumane surroundings because “JUSTICE!” just doesn’t work. It ruins lives. And it goes against the fundamental message of Jesus Christ.