Content note: includes discussion of mental health crises and police brutality
In 2012, my own fear of the police due to previous trauma impacted my ability to call the crisis response team for a friend who was having a mental health crisis. My trauma informed my belief that if I called them, they would send the police who wouldn’t have the skills to help, and as a result my friend would be badly hurt or lose their life. I thought I could figure out a safer option to help. Unfortunately, I received news the following morning that my friend died of suicide. I struggled with my decision, feeling like I should have done something different and that I failed to help so I was responsible for what happened. I was confused about how to use crisis intervention services when my own experiences showed that it can make situations worse. I needed to know where to turn for “safe” help.
Years later, I carry that experience alongside my other trauma. And even though I carry a wallet card to give emergency response team personnel and law enforcement which explains my disabilities, I am still worried about what could happen to me as a result of racism or stigma related to my disabilities or gender identity? Will I be able to access “safe” help? Will my wallet card really help?
As protests against police brutality grow, discussions of police reforms and mental health system reforms are ongoing. But there continues to be tragic headlines of police brutality against individuals in crisis including Linden Cameron, a young boy with Asperger’s who was severely injured, and Daniel Prude, a man with a mental health disability who was killed.
The emotional toll and the effects on mental health and overall well-being from events like these feel almost never-ending. The impacts on individuals with disabilities and families are immense.
Navigating crisis intervention services has been incredibly challenging for my friends, family, and community members, and for me—a biracial black man with multiple disabilities, including autism and complex hereditary spastic paraplegia. I wish it wasn’t so challenging, and I especially wish these services didn’t so frequently end up increasing trauma or end in individuals losing their lives instead of getting the help they need and deserve.
Undue harm and death are disproportionately the result when black and brown individuals with disabilities are experiencing a mental health crisis. These tragedies create barriers and a lack of access to supports needed for individuals and families, leading to further declines in wellbeing.
Improving Crisis Intervention Services in the Community
Crisis intervention services that serve communities need to improve in order to dismantle the barriers that inhibit individuals and families from receiving access to safe supports. First, there should be non-law enforcement options as first responders to crisis situations. And second, anti-racism, disability awareness, cultural competency, and mental health first aid are four essential areas of training that I believe should be required for crisis intervention. These trainings are centered in providing first responders and public service personnel, including law enforcement, the tools to better help the communities being served.
Anti-racism training is rooted in promoting greater racial equity by guiding participants to learn how to be aware of, challenge, and change institutional racial inequalities. Disability awareness training provides the opportunity to learn about different disabilities, misconceptions, accessible communication, and etiquette on responding based on the needs of an individual in crisis. Mental health first aid training provides an opportunity to gain tools and strategies for de-escalating and responding to mental health crisis situations in a safer manner while also decreasing stigma by focusing on expanding understanding of behaviors, challenges, and complexities of mental illness. And finally, cultural competency training helps participants develop awareness and understanding of their own culture, worldviews, values, and biases, and teaches how dynamics of difference influence interactions when providing services/responding to crisis situations.
While these areas are often viewed as separate, they intersect and inform one another, similar to how individuals have many intersecting identities that work together to make up the whole of who they are. Together, these areas of training can inform professional development and crisis response protocols and practices for everyone from law enforcement, to emergency response teams, to all professionals in helping fields (i.e. doctors, community center staff).
Holding professionals and systems accountable for their actions is also necessary. It is time for people to not be afraid of reaching out for help. It is time for people to stop being harmed and losing their lives while seeking needed help. It is time for the mental health system, crisis intervention services, and law enforcement to change so that everyone can access services in a safe, equitable way.