When I was 15, my great aunt gave me a job working in her restaurant for the summer. Her older sister, Aunt Tina, helped out a couple days a week too. Aunt Tina was not technically related to me and I didn’t know her very well before we started working together. I had only met her a few times before when we had Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house. The one thing I did know, though, was that she had-had a mental breakdown of some sort years before I was born, and that the after effects of that breakdown persisted.
Over the summer, Aunt Tina and I became close. One night, my other aunt wasn’t feeling well and left Aunt Tina to close up. After the last customer left, we began cleaning and straightening the dining room. I was telling her a story while we worked when I noticed she had stopped responding from the kitchen. I called to her a couple of times and when she didn’t respond, I went to the kitchen to check on her.
I found her standing over the dishwasher, staring at nothing. I asked, “What’s wrong, Auntie?” She didn’t respond, just kept staring at nothing. Worried, I walked over and touched her shoulder asking again, “What’s wrong?” She jumped and turned suddenly pushing my hand from her shoulder. “Don’t ever touch me! You always putting your god damned hands on me. Don’t ever touch me again!”
Stunned, I said, “Calm down! What are you talking about?” She started yelling, “Don’t put your god damned hands on me ever again! Do you hear me? Don’t you ever touch me!” Then she grabbed a knife from the dishwasher and pointed it at me. I backed away and ran from the restaurant, using a pay phone to call my aunt.
Eventually my aunt showed up and was able to talk her sister down. I refused to go back in the restaurant and waited out front for my mother to pick me up. When my mother did come, she and my aunt had a huge argument, with my mother blaming my aunt for putting me at risk. Nobody seemed too concerned about Aunt Tina who’d just suffered some sort of mental episode. Although I was afraid of her at that moment, I was still very fond of her, and as such very concerned about her. I was too afraid to discuss it much with my mother, but I wondered why no one took her to the hospital. I wondered what would’ve happened if she had stabbed or otherwise hurt me. Most of all, I wondered why everyone just dismissed her as “crazy.”
I was used to that kind of dismissal, though. Growing up, I was desensitized to mental illness and its outward manifestations. I watched so many of my Black neighbors and friends ignored when displaying what I now recognize as behavior triggered by mental illness. I remember a particular relative (not Aunt Tina) “ruining” a family dinner when she went on what seemed like an unprovoked and unwarranted expletive-laden rant about no one caring about her and wanting to die. My family remedied that by excluding her from future family events. I even remember watching some boys in my neighborhood intentionally set off firecrackers to see the reaction of a man who always sat out front of the corner store. He was a vet who wore his U.S. army jacket everyday. The firecrackers sent him into a frenzy and they delighted in watching him run screaming covering his ears, a reaction maturing and learning has convinced me was prompted by PTSD.
I doubt these incidents are unique to me. Mental illness has always been taboo in Black communities, ignored and consequently accepted, for a variety of reasons. Still, though the conversation about Black people and mental health has started to become less taboo in recent years, it must be priority for us as the collision of Blackness and mental illness make us even more vulnerable targets of the state-sanctioned violence that perpetually plagues us.
It’s well-documented that Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than our white counterparts to be killed in police interactions. That number is twice as much for unarmed citizens, as the Washington Post declares that between January 2015 and the first week of July 2016, unarmed Black Americans “were five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer.” As if those figures weren’t astounding enough, when combined with the knowledge that people suffering from mental illness are a staggering 16 times more likely to be killed by police, the fact that Black Americans are disproportionately poor, unemployed and imprisoned (all of which contribute to depression, one of the most common mental illnesses), and the systemic racism which limits our access to adequate healthcare, the very real threat that any of us are but one interaction with the police away from death intensifies.
In 2014, Cleveland police killed unarmed 37-year-old Tanesha Anderson, who reportedly suffered from both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, after being called by the woman’s family members because said she was “disturbing the peace.” Last year in Dallas, 39-year-old Jason Harrison, who also battled schizophrenia, was shot five times by police within seconds of their arrival on the scene in response to Harrison’s mother calling for assistance getting the man to a hospital. Also last year, Natasha McKenna, who suffered from undisclosed mental illness, was tasered four times in her cell before she slipped into a coma and died days later. Just last week, 51-year-old Joseph Mann, a mentally-ill homeless man police had been sent to “confront” was hit with a barrage of bullets from officers who can be heard on dash cam video plotting to run the man over.
And who forget Miriam Carey, the Stamford Connecticut woman who was killed after leading police on a chase in the vicinity of the White House? Police shot more than two dozen times at the 34-year-old woman, fatally wounding her and further endangering her toddler who was strapped in the backseat. Carey’s boyfriend reported that she “appeared to be delusional, believing that President Barack Obama had placed Stamford, Connecticut, where they lived, under lockdown and that her home was under electronic surveillance.” Though some of her friends and loved ones insisted Carey never showed signs of mental illness, a search of Carey’s home, police found documents listing prescriptions for anti-depressants and medications to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Hyperbolic as it may seem, cries for help to the police too often end in fatality for Black people. So the loved ones of those suffering mental episodes are placed in the difficult position of making a crap shoot and contacting the police for help, praying that they have enough training, compassion and restraint to deescalate the situation, or trying to go it alone ill-prepared. It’s the choice I know all too well.
When I ran from the kitchen, confused, worried and afraid of (and for) Aunt Tina, I first thought to call the police, opting not to primarily because I cared about her too much to see her jailed, but also because I was already distrustful of the police watching them harass and brutalize my community since I was in elementary school. But none of my family had explained Aunt Tina’s condition to me beyond telling me that she had “her moments.” No one had told me what to do in case Aunt Tina had such an incident. The family had no plan in place to help ensure Aunt Tina didn’t hurt herself or someone else.
And for as distrustful and resentful as I was — and remain — of the police, I had never considered they quite possibly may have killed her. Black people cannot rely on sworn, paid public servants to protect and serve the most vulnerable of our population. Even further, the mental illness usually used to pardon the criminal acts of our white counterparts somehow translates to justification for employing deadly force against Black citizens having breakdowns or other episodes sparked by their mental illness.
While we declare, scream and prove that our lives matter, we must be sure that we understand the depth of that decree. We must understand that the destruction and antagonization that are the trademarks of our existence in this country are a crucial part of the assault, not just on our bodies, but on our minds. We must admit that for all we have withstood collectively, there are some forces greater than us. Just as we wouldn’t simply allow ourselves or a relative infected by cancer to ride it out hoping it will be alright, we must be aggressive in this fight against the depression, schizophrenia and other mental cancers which make us even more susceptible to the government sponsored terrorism that torments us.
Really, our lives depend on it.