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On December 5, there was yet another shooting of an unarmed, black, and mentally ill man at the hands of law enforcement, this time in Arkansas. As of the time of this writing, Gary Johnson is hospitalized and is in critical condition. This is sadly not uncommon. It is estimated that anywhere from 25%-50% of individuals fatally shot by police have a mental illness. What’s also sadly not uncommon is that when I bring cases like this up in conversation, the response is often something along the lines of “yeah, that’s sad, but he had a criminal record” or “but he didn’t comply with police.” I always remind people then that neither of these facts justifies having lethal force used against someone. But the more I have these types of conversations, the more I realize that the underlying belief in these statements isn’t that people believe one deserves to be shot for having a criminal record—most people don’t believe that. Rather people are very uncomfortable with the idea of mental illness and seem to believe that it’s somehow a moral failing—a character flaw. This thinking absolutely must change if we are to combat the current pattern of tragedies at the hands of law enforcement.
Before I go on, I’d like to make it clear that what happened last week in Arkansas is a tragedy for everyone involved. There is an ongoing investigation surrounding this case and my aim is not make guesses or to point fingers, but rather to understand the narrative surrounding mental illness. It seems to me that there is a significant and startling difference in the way we as a society speak of physical health/disability and mental health/disability.
If I had two broken arms or didn’t have arms and I were told to do push-ups and I didn’t do them, you wouldn’t be judging me for being disobedient or uncooperative. You’d realize that I have real limitations and just cannot perform the task as you envision or expect it. However, if I had an addiction, let’s say to alcohol, and you told me to just stop drinking alcohol, and I didn’t do that, it’s likely that you’d perceive it as a sign of weakness. You’d feel that I’d failed, that I just didn’t have enough willpower. But the fact is that addiction is a physiological disease and it is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act as a disability—because it is one. What I’m trying to say is that these two examples are not at all different in principle. In both cases, the person has a serious limitation that explains their behavior. Yet when it comes to physical disabilities, we as a society tend to be more understanding and tend to offer treatment.
According to reports, Gary Johnson, the man shot in Arkansas, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and/or anti-social personality disorder. When he called the police, he had allegedly stated that he’d killed people who were trying to rob him. The report on the case notes that there was no evidence to corroborate such a statement. According to the reports, Johnson did not cooperate with the police when they told him to show his hands. So a part of me can understand why people would say that he didn’t cooperate, so it’s understandable he got shot. But if Johnson had been an amputee without hands, no one would ever accuse him of not cooperating for not showing his hands. This is a tragic double standard where we attribute personal responsibility, and therefore personal failing, to someone with mental, and therefore invisible, disabilities that we just wouldn’t attribute to someone with physical, and therefore visible, disabilities.
The complexity of the circumstances that led to last week’s tragedy fuels the nationwide demands for more and better police training. And yes, police need and deserve better training that would help them to better protect civilians and themselves. But it’s very important to recognize that tragedies like these are not just a policing problem—they are a society-wide problem. The more we perpetuate the idea that mental illness is a matter of personal responsibility and not a physiological illness, the more we’re not going to take steps to help those who need it the most.
The organization Mental Health America has a philosophy called B4Stage4 that best illustrates this problem. If we found signs of cancer in someone, we wouldn’t wait until the illness had progressed to stage four to treat it. We’d do something about it immediately. But sadly our society’s approach to mental health and narrative about mental health doesn’t follow this philosophy. According to SAMHSA—the federal agency on substance abuse and mental health services administration—the overall nationwide spending on mental health treatment has been declining steadily in recent years and is projected to keep declining. The less treatment and resources there are for those with psychological disabilities, the more the police become the first line of response when psychological disability becomes unmanageable.
If we as a society don’t recognize mental illness as a physiological illness that requires treatment and care, just like cancer does, we’re not going to advocate for ensuring that people who need treatment receive it. Our collective response to the repeated shootings of people with mental illness must not be “they resisted” or “they didn’t cooperate”. It must start being “they needed help long before the moment of crisis that led to tragedy.”