Where Are All the Protests About the Killed Mentally Ill?

December 9, 2014

As the nation focuses on public protests regarding the deaths of black males by white officers, psychiatric groups take notice.

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE NEWS

As the nation focuses on public protests regarding the deaths of black males by white officers, so do some professional psychiatric groups. There should be no wonder that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the lack of Grand Jury indictment of the officers involved, has piqued the interest of psychiatrists and other mental health care professionals. The mental health ramifications of racism, the appropriate use of power, the stress of being a police officer, and the displacement of anger, among other issues, all relate to our work and work settings.

Just recently, a colleague discovered and forwarded a related example from this summer. In this Miami Herald report,1 a prisoner at the psychiatric ward of the Dade Correctional Institution described that he was ordered to clean up “large chunks of human skin” of then deceased inmate, Darren Rainey, a black prisoner allegedly left in a scalding hot shower for hours. This resulted in his death and the shedding of his skin that was later picked up.

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As far as I know, there have been no major protests about the death of this mentally ill black man. Nor have there been major protests about the death of another mentally ill black man, Dontre Hamilton, shot by a white police officer in a park in my home town of Milwaukee in April, 2014.

The Milwaukee officer who shot the man was eventually fired by the police chief two days after ironically filing for PTSD disability related to the trauma of the encounter and the aftermath. The police chief said that the victim was inappropriately treated as a dangerous criminal rather than as the more obviously emotionally disturbed person that he had been. Small protests advocating for more justice in the form of criminal charges have occurred in Milwaukee off and on.

When he forwarded the old news story from Miami, my colleague wondered why he only came across it recently. I think I know the answer.

That black man in Miami was mentally ill, as was the black male in Milwaukee. Apparently, the similar, if not more brutal, killings of the mentally ill don’t evoke the same empathy and concern from the public or professionals. No mention of these deaths seems to be included in the current protests.

In addition, when racism is added on to the stigma of mental illness, dual discrimination can result in double jeopardy.

Personally, such incidents trigger traumatic memories of my own. About 30 years ago, my patient with schizophrenia, Eddie Lee Johnson-a young black male-was shot and killed by Houston police while maintaining a catatonic-like pose of a karate chop. It has taken much time, but the Houston police are now recognized for their ability to defuse such confrontations with the mentally ill much more therapeutically than in the past.

Maybe we should bring the deaths of mentally ill black men to the attention of the current protestors and the media covering them. Just like whites have joined blacks in the current protests, maybe we, too, should protest (peacefully) on behalf of our patients, say at the upcoming annual APA meeting in Toronto. Maybe we can also learn why Canada does not have these kinds of tragedies.

References:

1. Brown JK. Prisoner: I cleaned up skin of inmate scalded in shower; human-rights groups call for federal intervention. Miami Herald. June 25, 2014. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article1972693.html.  Accessed December 9, 2014.