Begging for Help
July 12, 2017
Just last month, Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, was shot and killed by Seattle Police investigating a possible robbery in her home. Ms. Lyles was well known to the Seattle Police from the numerous times she had called 911 for help. She was known to the police from being called to her home to report domestic violence. It was also known and noted by the police that she had mental health difficulties which affected her stability.
Neither being a victim of domestic violence or suffering from mental health problems are crimes, yet the tragic outcome of this story was the death of Ms. Lyles at the hands of the police officers she called for help. According to Charleena Lyles’ sister, after being terrorized and beaten by her ex-boyfriend last year, Charleena’s mental health began to decline. “She begged and begged for help” from a system whose version of help came in the form of police officers with guns drawn.
Certainly, in this story that has received national attention, the justification of the police officers’ use of lethal force must be called into question. There are also huge questions related to race and poverty. I do believe, however, that this heartbreaking story raises serious questions about the way we treat individuals who suffer from the often-invisible confusion and pain of mental illness.
At the heart of this story is a clear and all too common failure of systems which are intended to help those in need of mental health help. Over the past half century, our country has seen a dramatic decrease in services available to our fellow human beings with mental illness, particularly serious mental illnesses. At the same time, we have collectively made decisions to increase support for police forces and incarceration facilities across the country. It’s not hard to see how it is that we got to this place – watching helplessly as a young mother, clearly in need of medical help and support, is fatally shot in her apartment in front of her children. Is the criminal justice system really the most effective help for people who are suffering with mental illness?
In fact, with our current standards of treating people with mental illnesses, we seem to be doing the bare minimum. One measure of this is the drastic decline in the availability of beds in psychiatric units. In 1955 in the U.S., there were 340 hospital beds available for every 100,000. Spin the calendar ahead to 2005 where we averaged a stunning 17 beds per 100,00 people. Clearly, providing care for mentally ill individuals is not a priority.
As beds become scarce, the bar for admission to the psychiatric facilities sinks lower. Under our existing system, individuals may only be kept in the hospital for treatment (involuntarily) if they are a clear and imminent danger to themselves or others. If a mentally ill individual does meet this criterion, he/she is kept in the hospital just long enough to clear the danger zone. This catch and release approach may be humane treatment for fish, but it is a simply irresponsible and profoundly inhumane way to treat individuals who suffer from an illness.
Outpatient resources to follow up after a psychiatric hospitalization are similarly scarce. There simply are not enough resources to meet the needs of the mentally ill in our communities. Often without adequate insurance coverage and the will and wherewithal to navigate a complicated and underfunded system, the mentally ill people in our community who need the most help are left to the mercy of the criminal justice system. Without community resources to fill the gap, the mentally ill, who are very often incapable of searching out resources, have no safety net and the tragedies continue to mount.
Understandably, it seems like a herculean and nearly impossible effort to change the system. But all change begins with one step. I believe that worthy first step is to begin to change the way we view mental illness. There is often misunderstanding about mental illness, what it is, what it looks like, how to help. Significant and ongoing disruption of one’s mental or emotional functioning is truly an illness. Individuals with mental illness cannot just simply get over it or just pick themselves up and get back on track. And just as with every other illness, care and competent treatment is necessary to restore stability and function.
Perhaps even more crucial is to begin to change the view we have of our fellow human beings who suffer with mental illness. People who are mentally ill are not crazy, psycho, or insane. They are humans who have an illness. Stigmatizing those who struggle to live each day with a mental illness is cruel and dangerous.
Perhaps as we open our eyes and our hearts to the reality of those in our communities who struggle with mental health difficulties, we will begin to advocate for resources and treatment that provide informed and effective care. Perhaps we will come to see that treatment of those whose world is shaky and confusing is not only the compassionate, but the most helpful action to take. And perhaps in the future, when suffering individuals who struggle with complex mental and emotional difficulties call out for help, they will receive the support and care they need to live a healthier life.
It’s not hard to see how it is that we got to this place – watching helplessly as a young mother, clearly in need of medical help and support, is fatally shot in her apartment in front of her children. Is the criminal justice system really the most effective help for people who are suffering with mental illness?