“Hello, 9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
The operator’s business-like monotone was exactly what I needed so I could focus.
“I need an ambulance,” I gasped into my cell phone. “My son has symptoms of manic depression. He’s not violent, but I need to get him emergency psychiatric care.”
After I gave the operator the address, I ran the rest of the way to my mother’s house. Khari, who was usually friendly and cracking jokes, was seated at my mother’s dining room table, frowning and rocking rapidly in his chair with his hands tightly gripping the sides. He was talking nonstop about my father who had died from multiple myeloma eleven years earlier.
“Nothing has been the same since we lost Pop-Pop. Nothing. Nothing. Not for me, not for Nana, none of us. Nothing!” he said.
My mother, sister, and I gathered around him.
“It’s going to be OK,” I said and tried to hug him.
“Don’t touch me,” he yelled.
We backed away slowly and watched him silently, unsure of what else to say as we waited for help to arrive.
Ten minutes later, the doorbell rang.
When I opened the front door, I was shocked to see two police officers standing in front of me. I had requested an ambulance.
As a Black mother with a son in crisis, I could not afford the luxury of hyperventilating. I took one slow deep breath, exhaled to mask my racing heart, and chose my words carefully because they would mean the difference between my son’s life and his death.
I opened the screen door but stood in front of it.
“Hello,” I said, an octave higher than usual, in the tone I used to greet parents on Open School Nights. “Thank you for coming so quickly. My son is upstairs and seems to be manic. He is not violent.”
As the officers began to enter, the alarm I was trying to quell arose again.
“Please,” I said and locked eyes with the officers.
Please do not hurt my son. Do not shoot him. He is not a criminal.
I had good reason to be afraid. As the Black mother of a Black son with a mental illness, I had no assurance that the justice system would protect him. When law enforcement responds to people experiencing a mental health crisis, these people frequently end up in jail, living on the street, or worse yet, they are harmed or killed during the encounter.
The Washington Post’s police shootings database reveals that more than 95 percent of people murdered by police are male, and more than half are between 20 and 40 years old.1 The database further shows that, between 2015 to 2020, about one in four people shot and killed by police had a mental health condition. Moreover, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during police interactions than other civilians.2 It’s also disturbing that in 44 out of 50 states, jails and prisons intern more people living with mental health conditions than the largest state psychiatric hospital.3
People with mental health conditions pulled into the criminal justice system and harmed or killed by law enforcement are disproportionately Black, and more commonly Black men. We saw this play out in the case of Daniel Prude, 41, who suffered a mental health crisis while visiting family in Rochester, New York in 2020. He had run into the street naked, and after his family called police for help, officers smothered him to death with a so-called spit sock. The grand jury refused to indict the officers. Warren Patrick, Sr., 52, was shot with a Taser and killed by police in Killeen, Texas, in January 2021 during a mental health check requested by his family. That same month, the death of Jamal Sutherland, 31, in Charleston, South Carolina, became the center of national debate after video was released of him being forcibly removed from his jail cell, sprayed with a chemical irritant, shot with a stun gun multiple times, and was heard saying that he could not breathe.
During my second trimester of pregnancy with Khari, his paternal grandmother told me that Khari’s father suffered from clinical depression, and I discovered later that he had been hospitalized for manic depression. I decided to go the route of watchful waiting as my child grew.
Khari was charming and funny from the time he was a baby. He was adored by my parents, my sister, and my niece when she joined our family four years later. Khari loved shooting hoops into the mini-basketball playset I bought him for Christmas when he was four, and he made us watch Space Jam ad nauseam.
Khari was honest. He once stole ten dollars from my wallet when he was five and returned it to me several days later. While he was never a stellar student, he was always curious and bright. When Khari was ten, he read Mamie Till-Mobley’s memoir Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America on his own, and once he was done, we discussed the tragedy of Emmett Till’s murder. Khari loved to freestyle rap and write poems. We had fun as mother and son at Knicks games at Madison Square Garden, and on trips to Niagara Falls, Atlanta, and Mystic, Connecticut. Once Khari entered college, I breathed easy—he had made it.
Khari struggled in college, especially during his junior and senior years, and his GPA dipped below a 2.50. I was enraged because of the sacrifices I made to finance his education without student loans, and we had numerous arguments about his academic performance. Because I did not notice long-term depression or mania, I thought Khari was being lazy and unfocused. It was not until several years later that one of Khari’s roommates revealed that Khari frequently missed classes because he would not get out of bed. Khari managed to graduate, and I hoped what I thought was a work ethic issue would dissipate.
On April 25, 2016, Khari had been home and was supposed to be getting ready for work. Since his return from his alma mater’s music festival three days earlier, he had hardly slept and had been calling dozens of friends all hours of the day and night, talking profusely and rapidly about his plans for his rap career.
“Khari,” I probed. “Aren’t you supposed to be leaving? Aren’t you going to be late?”
He vigorously waved his hand at me and continued talking on the phone with a friend.
“Khari,” I said more forcefully, “you need to leave so you can get to work on time.”
He ignored me. This was not like him, and I knew that something was wrong.
“You seem really agitated since you got back from your trip. Do you want me to help you find a therapist?” I asked gently once he got off the phone.
“No! Leave me alone! You are always on my case. I’m going over to Nana’s.”
When he left, I immediately called my sister and described Khari’s behavior. She assured me he could stay over at our mother’s house until he calmed down. I called my school’s social worker. She advised me to call a crisis intervention team, but the one I found said there was a 24 to 48-hour waiting period.
My sister called me that night with a tremor in her voice. “He’s getting worse. You need to come see about him.”
I grabbed my keys, ran to my mother’s house, and dialed 9-1-1.
As they entered, the officers, who were Latino, nodded quietly as though they understood what I had said with my eyes.
We went upstairs.
“What’s going on?” one of the officers said as he stood next to Khari.
“They said,” Khari said pointing at my mother, sister, and me, “that I need help.”
“We can take you to the hospital. There is an ambulance waiting for you. Your mother can come with us. It will be OK.”
Khari looked around at them, sucked his teeth, and stood up.
“Fine. I’ll go.”
Khari, who protested in demonstrations after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, knew how situations involving Black people and police officers can escalate into violence. I felt guilty knowing Khari complied out of fear.
It took Khari several years to battle his bouts of depression, and when I became depressed because of it, I sought counseling. Over time, Khari’s psychiatric care team convinced him to add a small dose of Wellbutrin to his regimen. He regained his interest in his social life. We each attended our own National Alliance on Mental Illness (N.A.M.I.) meetings, but I was disheartened to hear other parents’ stories of children with mental illnesses who struggled to find work, who refused psychiatric support, disappeared, or went to jail.
Khari is 28 now and has health insurance, a new psychiatrist and therapist, is looking for a new job, and is saving money for his own apartment.
“I’ll figure it out,” Khari often says.
And I pray every day that he will.
Daniel Prude, Jamal Sutherland, and Warren Patrick, Sr., should still be alive. I remain haunted by the many stories of Black people in crisis who were killed by police, and by the possibility that my son could have suffered their fate.
A lot of work must be done so that people suffering nonviolent mental health crises can get emergency assistance without involving the police, and the government has taken an important first step. The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 became Public Law No: 116-172 on October 17, 2020. Under this bill, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is required to designate 9-8-8 as the universal telephone number for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline by July 16, 2022. During the transition to 9-8-8, Americans who need help should continue to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
However, Public Law No:116-172 does not go far enough.
The government must increase funding for mobile crisis intervention teams, such as the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) Program in Denver, which sends teams of a mental health clinician and a paramedic to respond to low-level, nonviolent incidents, including mental health concerns. According to Denverite, during the first six months of STAR’s existence, there were zero arrests in the 748 incidents teams responded to.4 Another example of an alternative to a police-based response is White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon, which provides counseling, support during housing crises, and transportation to supportive services, and CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets). CAHOOTS is a 24/7 mobile crisis intervention team of a medic and a crisis worker who help stabilize situations involving mental health.
In May 2021, New York City expanded its pilot program of having social workers and paramedics respond to nonviolent mental health crisis calls to every borough. According to New York Daily News, the city’s 2022 executive budget includes $112 million to expand crisis teams’ 9-1-1 call response system, $50 million for services for people with serious mental illnesses, and $225 million for community-based mental health services at places like shelters and police precincts.5
Those are important allocations, and more funding is needed to not only expand these mobile crisis teams, but to support what mental health advocates and organizations like N.A.M.I. recommend, which is the inclusion of specially trained peer support workers with lived experience—meaning they have experienced mental illness—on these mobile response teams. These peer support workers could help de-escalate people experiencing mental health crises and facilitate getting them the resources they need.
In my hometown, New York City elected Eric Adams as our new mayor in 2021, and that same year, I became a NYC N.A.M.I. Ambassador-in-Training to join the fight to ensure that his administration, and our state politicians, increase funding for a non-police response to mental health crises and for increased community-based mental health care facilities. Each time I am able to speak with policymakers with my fellow N.A.M.I. Ambassadors, I will share Khari’s story until people living with mental illnesses get the care they deserve.
1 “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post, updated January 7, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
2 “People with Untreated Mental Illness 16 Times More Likely to Be Killed By Law Enforcement,” Treatment Advocacy Center, https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/key-issues/criminalization-of-mental-illness/2976-people-with-untreated-mental-illness-16-times-more-likely-to-be-killed-by-law-enforcement-
3 “Criminalization of Mental Illness,” Treatment Advocacy Center, https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/key-issues/criminalization-of-mental-illness
4 David Sachs, “In the first six months of health care professionals replacing police officers, no one they encountered was arrested,” Denverite, February 2, 2021, https://denverite.com/2021/02/02/in-the-first-six-months-of-health-care-professionals-replacing-police-officers-no-one-they-encountered-was-arrested/
5 Larry McShane, Michael Gartland, and Chelsia Rose Marcius, “NYC’s mental health crisis spans far and wide with few answers in sight,” New York Daily News, May 15, 2021, https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-nyc-mental-health-covid-20210516-zugqg7vmjbctbookukawwccrle-story.html
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