Shawn Maxam tells a story of how his mental illness was used as a reason to treat him like a criminal instead of a human being in need.
ARCHIVED POST: Originally written August 2012
*Before we start criminalizing and dehumanizing people with mental illnesses let’s remember they often need society’s help not stigma and scorn.
My fellow GMP blogger Ozy Frantz linked to an interesting article today The Criminalization of Mental Illness in Black America.
The emphasis on locking up versus treatment, the focus on making people disappear instead of making people healthy, and the power of a white racial frame that sees black bodies as criminal and dangerous contributes to mental health disparities.
-David J. Leonard
Much of the information and perspectives shared are wholly familiar to me. Just like Delonte West I used the anti-psychotic drug Seroquel. Can you imagine telling your friends and family you have to take a drug that prevents you from having symptoms associated with psychosis? Shit, I didn’t even want to take my medication because I associated the word psychotic with serial killers and mass murders. But this is another example of where the popular media meaning of a word has little or no connection to its real medical meaning.
Just like Delonte West, I had a episode with the cops while experiencing an episode. I was having a depression-induced panic attack while at a public gathering. I decided to run outside. Unfortunately, I was running in Harlem. I was immediately stopped by four police officers who pointed their guns in my face. I had no weapons and I didn’t realize running in America was a crime but I was a Black man running in Harlem at night so obviously I had done something wrong.
The officers were actually engaged in the stop and search of vehicle when they spotted me. I was quickly handcuffed with face on the ground. I was still in the throes of a full-blown panic attack. Luckily several of my friends who were with me decided to pursue me when I exited the restaurant. They quickly tried to explain to the officers what had happened. I guess the officers heard the words bipolar disorder and believed I was dangerous because they wouldn’t remove the handcuffs.
My friends eventually convinced the cops to take me to a local hospital. They pleaded with the officers to remove the handcuffs, but they said it be best I remained handcuffed for both my safety and the safety of the officers. I was writhing in pain because the handcuffs were too tight. The officers after much prodding decided to put a second pair of handcuffs on my wrist to help alleviate the pain. I sat on the concrete with tears running down my cheeks with my hands behind my back for over twenty minutes until the ambulance arrived.
I was embarrassed because at least a dozen of my colleagues and friends were standing around me. I knew they were there out of concern for my well-being but I still felt like crap. I was their Black friend who was being arrested. Talk about fulfilling stereotypes. Two of the officers said they would accompany me to the hospital and decided to ride with me in the back of the ambulance. The paramedics asked if I was under arrest. The officers said I was not but explained the handcuffs had to remain. Luckily I had a colleague riding along with me in the ambulance since I was in lucid enough state to advocate for myself.
We finally arrived at the hospital and as we entered, every single person in the lobby stared at me. I assumed they were afraid, because who other than a criminal would need two police officers to escort them to the hospital, right? As I sat down to have my vitals taken by the nurse I was still in handcuffs. More than an hour had gone by and was being treated like I had committed a crime. The nurse asked the officers if I was under arrest and he was told I was not. He echoed the sentiments of everyone before him in wondering why was I in handcuffs then.
Finally I was taken to the psychiatric ward to see a doctor. After the heavy metal door closed behind me, the officers finally removed the handcuffs. This taught me, as a Black man suffering from mental illness, that I had to be secured at all times. That I was considered dangerous. The psychiatrists asked the officers who were still present if they were going to arrest me and they said no. He said they could leave. I guess they were not aware of doctor-patient confidentiality. I explained my story to the doctor, who corroborated it with several of my colleagues and friends who had followed me to the hospital.
I didn’t want to spend several days in the hospital, but my fate was in the hands of others. Yes, these were people who cared about me, but I was a grown man and didn’t like that I had to cede control to so many other individuals. Finally the doctor decided to give me a few pills to calm me down and decided to let me go. The key words there are “let me go”. The events of that night have left me traumatized.
I was having a medical emergency but I was treated like a criminal. Can you imagine putting handcuffs on someone while they were experiencing a diabetic seizure or a cancer patient having a reaction to their chemotherapy treatment. My story is similar to many people who have a mental illness and have an unfortunate run-in with law enforcement due to their symptoms manifesting themselves publicly. But when you have a history of mistrust between a whole community and the police, how am I supposed to believe the police have my best interests at heart? I was being harassed and brutalized when I didn’t have diagnosis. I am already seen as a criminal in America because of my skin color, and now that I have bipolar disorder, I am considered a dual threat. Black men are dangerous and scary. People (especially men) who have mental illnesses are dangerous and scary. So what’s a Black man with a mental illness?
Please share this with friends, enemies and temporary allies alike.
Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting!
Flickr image via MSVG