19 October, 2021

The Humanitarian Collective

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OPINION: Liberty and Justice for All: The Ignored Correlation Between Police Brutality and Mental Illness

Why isn’t mental health ever taken seriously in the United States, specifically regarding police encounters? A look at the correlation between mental illness and police brutality.

Before reading this article in its entirety, I want you to ask yourself a very crucial question. A question that many people choose to never ask—let alone answer—for themselves, whether out of discomfort or willful ignorance. A question that should not have had to have been brought up this late:

Why isn’t mental health ever taken seriously in the United States, specifically regarding police encounters?

According to a recent study conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia, people with untreated mental illnesses are sixteen times more likely to be murdered during an encounter with the police compared to other civilians approached by law enforcement. As most police officers do not have the proper training to be able to handle or calm down a mentally unstable person, this data does not come as a surprise to many. And this disparity widens when race is taken into consideration. While there is little to no documentation on exactly how many people of color with disabilities or mental illness are shot by the police each year, there are several studies that indicate the amount to be as high as one-third of the total amount of people killed by law enforcement. For decades, the federal and municipal governments have severely neglected and underfunded mental health services, instead diverting funds into policing. Not only does this act contribute to the national debt, but it also effectively takes money away from mental health institutions like psychotherapy centers or relief programs for a great number of Americans, potentially increasing future crime rates, according to recent evidence. Nevertheless, our leaders and our government remain complacent.

And if one holds the example of the United States against the rest of the industrialized world, it would likely come as a shock just how inactive and inept the United States government has been at assisting people suffering from mental illnesses. For example, Luxembourg (which has the top rated healthcare system in the world) sees mental health as a matter of national importance, pumping money into programs that help all citizens, not only those who can afford treatment, employing what is known as a “Positive Education” model. This model, driven by the latest psychological research, strives to combine high standards of academic achievement with mental wellness in primary and secondary school curricula. The implementation of this Positive Education in Luxembourg has proven to be highly effective in de-stigmatizing mental illness. Ultimately, implementing these and similar accommodating education models help to lead to a more productive and content society—compared to the United States, teenage depression rates in Luxembourg are remarkably low.

Existing disparities only exacerbate the dangerous effects of having a mental illness in the United States. Black Americans with mental illnesses, while markedly and disproportionately lacking access to adequate care, are one of the most likely demographic groups to be killed by police officers. Moreover, law enforcement officers are more likely to neglect official protocol when interacting with Black people who suffer from mental illnesses than when dealing with their white counterparts.

Although it had been well documented in the past, this racial disparity has only recently made it into the public eye with the case of Elijah McClain. McClain was a 23-year-old Black man from Colorado who suffered from a mental illness. He was killed by police officers on August 24, 2019, a few minutes into his walk home from a convenience store, an iced tea in hand. 

Minutes before, a 911 caller had reported McClain for “suspicious activity,” alarmed by the fact that he was wearing a ski mask and dancing. McClain was known by his friends and family to always be in cheerful spirits. He was also known to have been anemic, which explains the ski mask he had been wearing. McClain had committed no crime when the police had found and arrested him. The officers on site claimed McClain was resisting arrest, and they proceeded to tackle him to the ground, putting him in a forceful hold. The cops then called several first responders, who injected him with a dangerous amount of ketamine, all within the span of 20 minutes. No one who actually knew McClain was consulted before he was injected with the ketamine. McClain had a heart attack on the way to the hospital, likely due to the drugs, and was pronounced dead several days later. 

Elijah McClain (From Black Enterprise)

Not only was McClain targeted that day for being a Black man, but also because he had a mental illness. McClain had been documented telling the police in a recorded exchange that he was an “introvert.” that he is not a violent person, that he does not want to die. He also had expressed sorrows to the police officers several times and was pleading with them to save his life because he was a truly good human being. His family also spoke out about how McClain had always been an anxious and sensitive person. Someone with the mental condition of Elijah should have never have been put in a situation like this to begin with, and all police officers involved must be trained in handling people who suffer from mental illnesses.

Police brutality and mental illness statistics, 2017. (From LA Times)

But McClain was far from being the only victim of police brutality who had also suffered from a mental illness. A troubling survey of cases of fatal police encounters released by the Los Angeles Police Department in 2017 found that almost half of all people killed by LAPD officers in the past decade showed clear evidence of mental illness. And this trend was not exclusive to Los Angeles—many other studies of police departments from other major cities in the United States have come out supporting this trend. 

Ultimately, the solution will have to start with accepting the center of the problem: our ignorance and our neglect. We should never have let the epidemic of mental health neglect get so dire that Elijah McClain and so many others had to die before we took notice. But now that they are gone, we cannot forsake them by treating each death as an isolated incident. We cannot continue to avoid the heart-wrenching truth. And, perhaps most importantly, we cannot let the victims’ names fade away with the media cycle.

This is an issue that all people—no matter where they happen to be on the political spectrum—can get behind. It is clear that police need more training, it is clear that standards must be raised—but it is also clear that this epidemic of injustice will not be solved until we all agree that we are in dire need of change—that law is not and will never be accountable if we never hold law enforcement accountable, and that we cannot expect humanity unless we see our common humanity.

Daniel Walter is a high school senior currently living in Auburn, New York. He is an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ and POC rights. He plans on attending the University of Southern Maine as a business major in the fall. He hopes to continue making efforts to help his community and the world.