What’s At Stake When We Ignore Mental Health?

July 24, 2015  |  

If anything, the Sandra Bland case speaks to two particular problems we have here in America: First, there is the criminalization and mass incarceration of the Black community; and secondly, the need for more mental health treatment, as well as awareness.

Just as it is possible that Bland was murdered, it is also possible that she was also severely stressed, if not depressed. Let’s look at the facts: she was looking for work, sad about the world (particularly racism, police brutality, and violence) and had previous bouts of depression. It is true that she had finally found a job and appeared to be in good spirits. At the same time, just as those dominoes were starting to line up for her, here comes the criminal justice system to knock them all down. That is systematic racism for you…

I can’t speak for anybody else (or even Bland because we just don’t know what happened in that jail cell). But if I were in a depressive state, I could see my wrongful arrest being the final straw on the back of an already mentally burdened camel. And yet, it seems that even acknowledging the possibility that Bland might have been triggered by her wrongful detainment to take her life is both offensive and shameful to some folks. “Suicide is for the weak.” “Mental Illness does not exist, at least not in our community.” I’ve seen sentiments like this written online and said out of the mouths of other Black people. We have people who use the defense that “black women would never” and the strong black woman narrative as a way to deny the alternative view of this case.

While it is true that regardless of her fate, Bland had no business in jail in the first place, our denial of her mental state and how it played into her demise is an example of how our continued neglect of mental health in our community contributes to the criminalization, and even deaths, of people just like Bland.

I am reminded again about how deep our reluctance to talk about mental illness runs when I seen the reaction to a video of a Memphis woman having a psychotic break, abusing a 19-day-old baby. The video is heartbreaking, and I advise you to not watch it. With that said, the video went viral over the weekend, which means a lot of you have probably already seen it. And a lot of folks have been asking for this woman to be buried under the jail. To summarize, the 13-minute video features Faith Moore speaking religious gibberish while repeatedly tossing her newborn across the room. An older child is also seen in the video, sitting on the mother’s lap, crying and trying her best to keep her mom from attacking the baby again.

According to WHBQ My Fox Memphis, the video was recorded by Christian Banks, the father of the newborn, who told the news reporter that he filmed the episode because he needed “evidence.” He also said that the reason why he had not intervened and tried to save the baby from the abuse, but instead goaded the mother on by telling her to “go head” was because he was scared. Thankfully, the children are safe and in the custody of another family member.

As Moore’s mom told the local Fox affiliate, Moore had been off of her medication since finding out she was pregnant and giving birth. The woman’s mother says that she was concerned about what the medication would do to the baby. Moore is now receiving help. Meanwhile, a warrant has been issued for Banks for aggravated child abuse. He had been arrested twice for domestic violence previously, including an incident in which he hit Moore so hard with a telephone, it left a bruise.

In this instance, the authorities stepped in and did the right thing. Not only were the children placed into safer spaces, but Moore was given the treatment she desperately needed. But that is just one case. And the reality is that our criminal justice system, and prisons, in particular, are filled with people with mental health issues. Many do not deserve to be there and are not receiving the help they need so that they can function better in society.

Unfortunately, the bias we show to people with mental health issues, including our inability to acknowledge the fact that someone might actually be mentally ill, helps the system to further alienate, if not do more harm, to these people. I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve read from folks who, in spite of her mental illness, thought that Moore should be locked away or worse.

Whether the mentally ill person is a victim of the system, or of their own delusion, jail is not the place for them. Sandra Bland was likely hurting from within and needed help. Instead, what she found was her life – as well as her mental state – compounded even more by the system. And ultimately that complication cost Bland her life. The question is: Where would Moore and her children be if authorities would have merely locked her up?

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