I think I will start here and full disclosure, I posted this to Facebook but I am including some info that I could not post there because my son is on Facebook and I did not want to tell his story there where others in our family would read it or judge it.
This is going to be a long post. It’s about mental health, policing, housing and a system that is incapable of true help. It’s a true story but not a complete story. It’s ongoing... complex... and unsolved. I don’t have the answer but I know what isn’t working.
My (Black) middle son has significant mental health issues that as a kid made it impossible to do homework, function in class or participate in sports. He has been treated for mental health issues since he was 5 and been in the hospital more than once for trying to kill himself. As a child he would throw hours long temper tantrums. H O U R S long. Sometimes as long as 6 hours. He was known to sit and bang his head on the door and scream and cry. I took him to thereapists and child psychiatrists and we tried any number of meds and techniques. He was diagnosed with Sensory Integration disorder and they recommended brushing and pulling his arms, having him suck on straws.
He was diagnosed with Mood disorder-- unspecified (they said in children they couldn't say Bi-polar which is probably best as he isn't and I have a better sense of what he is now) but that meant they tried all kinds of mood stabilizers, non of which worked.
In 4th grade they kicked him out because he kept taking off and hiding when he became overwhelmed. Later in middle school he was referred to the Mental Health Corp of Denver to their treatment center because the special needs department at his large public school couldnt help him.
It wasn’t long before MHCD kicked him out because THEY couldn’t manage his behaviors.
As an adult the situation worsened. His inability to control his emotions and process prevents him from him from holding a job, being able to pay bills, maintain a residence, and all the adult things. More problematic is that the general attitude towards mental health in this country is that people should medicate and get their shit together.
But medication comes with its own set of problems. They often leave the person out of it or tired all the time (just a few of the side effects) which means it’s still hard to work or keep track of the things you need to do. Many medications used for mental health problems have been in use for a long time and do little to actually help. For example we still administer drugs for bi-polar disorder that we used 30-40 years ago (primary drug of choice is lithium). But lithium can cause blindness in some and has many other terrible side-affects in others. But we don’t care that it doesn’t really help as long as they’re drugged up enough to stop being a nuisance.
Ultimately, the expectation is that families should take care of their struggling family members. But for all the advice and all the tips& strategies I was given over the years, I was not capable of helping him calm himself down, learn to think things through and handle the next situation better. So, fifteen years later, many of the same issues trigger him into a deep depression, or worse, into aggressive behavior.
Which then leads me to the next problem....
Over the years his teachers, social workers and other professionals always told us to call the police when he was escalating- meaning he was breaking things, yelling or being threatening. And I did a few times- guiltily knowing it could go very poorly for him- for all of us. Mostly the police said there was nothing they could do and I was always relieved that it didn’t result in police taking him away in handcuffs but that was generally when he was younger. There didn’t seem to be anything anyone could do. I certainly don’t feel safe when he is punching walls and telling me he wishes I would die but it never feels criminal either. When he was living with me and I called the police he was always protected by my whiteness, my calm and he was never arrested. However the last time I called the police, they told me I needed to evict him because they weren’t coming to my house anymore.
He did move out- out of state and now there is a different situation...
Now that he's in relationships with women his own age and they're arguing or he's just being who he is when he's losing it. the police aren't likely to just check and make sure he's not suicidal. They are more likely to assume it's a domestic dispute and he is more likely to get arrested. Generally I hear, “well he has to face the consequences of his behavior” or “he’ll have to learn...” I’m never sure what to say to this.
Police are expected to be mental health experts , social workers AND to negotiate highly volatile situations like the Columbine shootings or Aurora shootings and often with less training on these issues than a hair dresser. Mental health crisis are the TOP reason police are called to a scene. In this high stress world MORE of our population are struggling with crippling anxiety and depression and other mental health crisis. We need change. Real change.
In my sons case involvement with police has just added difficulty on top of difficulty — he now has to follow court orders, see a PO regularly, find and keep a job and whatever else the court orders. He starts with good intentions and quickly becomes overwhelmed and then either gives up, or worse, looses it again- which then means he winds up interacting with police again. It’s a terrible vicious cycle. And no real help in sight. Just a vague hope that the medication he has been ordered to take will make him docile enough to stay out of trouble. But will it really help him do the basics? Help him negotiate negative interactions? (or just his inner dialogue that tells him he’s worthless?)help him find and KEEP a job? Pay the rent? Pay the electrical bills? Keep his phone on?
The evidence is not on his side.
Too many people on our streets are struggling with the same issues* (my son is unhoused btw). Their families can’t live with them. Medication didn’t help enough to enable them to do basic functions in a high functioning society and so they sleep where they can, eat when they can scrounge up enough money- either on the corner with a sign or doing odd jobs- and do what they need to do to stay safe. There is no stand your ground law for the unhoused and the streets are dangerous- not just from other unhoused who may be desperate but also from those who see unhoused people as less than, non-people, and decide to take things in their own hands. Police are either less than helpful or a threat.
We live in a troubled world and it is becoming more difficult to negotiate by the day. As I said at the beginning, I don’t have all the answers but I do know that what we’re doing isn’t working and we need to change. We need complex answers to an increasingly complicated issue. I also know we don’t like having to admit the problems are complex. We want simple solutions- follow this diet to lose weight, read this book to become a millionaire, follow these steps to become a happier you.
If only life weren’t, well, LIFE....It might be that easy.
I hope, before you jump to a knee jerk reaction against calls to defund the police that you find out the details of what they mean. They don’t want to just eliminate police altogether- they want to change what police do. We definitely need police to arrive at a scene like Columbine with the training and experience they need. We don’t need police to deal with a mentally ill person the same way they do Timothy McVay. Better yet they shouldn’t have to get involved. That is part of the defund police plan- having the properly trained person at the scene of our emergencies.
*not all unhoused people have mental health problems. Some are caught in other societal problems such as eviction which then makes it incredibly difficult to get another place to live.