Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mental Illness Is Neither Black Nor White

We have been told that we are our brother's keeper.  When we lose a member of our community, we feel a sense of failure.  Or, as Ira Socol puts it, "And so we might give up, the impossibility of the task before us. We might descend into depression ourselves, overwhelmed by the hurt."

Perhaps an oldish white man whose last name was  Black being killed by a young black man whose last name was White is meant to be only a perverse cosmic pun.  The fact is that both men ended up in the same homeless shelter because they both suffered from some form of mental illness.  Because of the lack of mental health facilities in this country, this was a murder waiting to happen.  As was reported, the young man had been going around the shelter threatening to kill somebody.  Why weren't these threats taken seriously?  Or were they shrugged off as so much drama?  “We lost two,” Mr. Ricks said. “We lost a young man who needed help and an old man who didn’t need to die.”  The problem is that both men needed help with very little possibility of ever receiving it.

 As Deven's son Jonas said on his Facebook page:

Although (my father) had struggled with mental illness for many years, he was unable to get the treatment he needed, and he fell through the cracks of a severely broken system. It is hard not to hate the man who took my father away from me, but ultimately I see my father’s killer as another victim. Had there been adequate mental health infrastructure in place, this tragedy would not have happened.

Perhaps it wasn't just a lack of facilities that prevented both men from getting the help they needed.  Perhaps in Deven Black's case it was also the stigma or shame of mental illness that stopped him in his tracks.  Ira and others in his community who reached out to him should not be so hard on themselves.

The hard lesson that I have learned over the last few years is that you cannot save anyone.  C., a young man we know, is an Iraqi War vet.  Given the shaky childhood he had as well as his war related PTSD, he will not take himself to the VA for treatment.  Whether it's some form of addiction or mental illness, the fact is he suffers from some altered sense of reality.

Much like you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink, you can lead an individual  to the VA or to a mental health facility but you cannot make them accept treatment.  Under such circumstances all you can do is wait and watch and hope that the individual will decide they have hit bottom. Hopefully neither too hard of a bottom nor too soft and sandy of a bottom which would only cause them to sink even deeper.

In her open letter to the president about mental health, Rachel Griffin vividly describes that sinking feeling as she waited on hold to find out about insurance coverage. She continues on to talk about the overall dismissiveness of some of the psychiatrists she sees before finally finding the right one who helps her discover a path to recovery.  Rachel states, "I haven't had any relapses since receiving this excellent care (7 years strong). I am a thriving, happy, valuable member of my community."

Clearly she has enough inner strength that allowed her to continue to stumble over obstacles that many either cannot or will not.  Rachel can advocate not only for herself but for others.  She adds:

People are too ashamed to get care because of stigma. They wait far too long and then when they finally try and it's complicated and hard to access. They finally get it and it's low quality. It's rushed. This all needs to change.

Perhaps Deven Black would still be alive if he had not felt ashamed, or, despite the fact that people reached out, not scared and alone.  Or, worse, perhaps feeling as if he would be a burden. That is what a very dear friend of ours keeps telling me. I have been trying to convince him that not only would he not be a burden, (a challenge, yes, but a burden, no) but ultimately a tremendous asset to our community.

Whether it's PTSD or childhood abuse or some other trauma, we need a way for people who are suffering from mental illness to feel that they are whole.  We need to find ways to prevent tragedies from happening, be it suicide or murder or simply disappearing into the ether.  

We need to do more than just convince politicians to stop closing mental health facilities in order to balance a budget.  Even if more resources are not available, we need to give those suffering from mental illness a way to feel safe. We need to let them know that no one will blame them for being mentally ill.  Although the message of all means all as expressed by Ira Socol is a powerful one, we need to realize that there simply will be people we will lose along the way.  It will never be our choice.  It will be their choice.  

Rachel Griffin invites us to join her on Twitter using the hashtag #iamnotashamed to which I'd like to add, #youarenotalone  And, of course, #itwillgetbetter.  

I don't want either Deven Black or Anthony White to be merely symbols of mental illness.  I want both of them to be remembered as men who struggled and who didn't receive much needed help. 

We need to see to it that everyone knows they are cherished gifts. We, as a society, need to stop both categorizing and dismissing people who we find to be inconvenient.  We need to find ways to form welcoming communities.  We all need safe havens.  We need to recognize that improving access to mental health is not merely a problem for those who are mentally ill.  We are all Black, and we are all White. 

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