Dying to Ask for Help

Two weeks ago, the Prince George’s County (Maryland) police shot my friend, Keith. At the tender age of 38, he died from six bullets to the chest. The police took him out in front of his sons’ daycare center. His parents, wife, friends and I – the mental health professional in his network – are still asking, “How did it get to this?”

Did the police really have to shoot to kill Keith? I pondered how many times Black males across this country reached a similar fate as Keith. Police officers are not sufficiently trained to handle mental health-related calls. They are trained to protect the innocent and themselves if the person is exhibiting any threatening behavior. But to those of us who knew him, Keith was also “innocent;” a victim of his own mental anguish.

Check out the work of my colleague, Dr. Michael Compton at George Washington University. Michael has developed a program to train police officers on how to respond to psychiatric crises without resorting to violence. (Link: http://www.gwumc.edu/faculty/comptonmichael)

For two weeks, Keith acted out of character. He said he felt the pain of African slaves. He feared his life was in danger. He believed Lil Wayne was God. His increasingly strange behavior scared everyone around him. Keith was losing his mind and we didn’t even know it.

Keith’s wife, Brittany, tried to make sense of her husband unraveling right in front of her eyes. She confronted his delusions. She prayed with him. She called his friends and asked if they could spend time with him. She hoped some male bonding would make things better. Nothing worked. By the time Brittany called me, she was freaking out. She wanted a referral to a mental health professional. She tried to understand what all this madness meant. I could tell, as I explained that Keith was having a psychotic break, she had no idea what was happening to her husband. She was in shock.

My advice that Keith get immediate professional help did not reach him in time. While I was on the phone with his wife, Keith was at his sons’ daycare center for the second time that afternoon trying to pick up his one- and two-year old boys. This time, he had an ax! Of course, the daycare professionals called the police and what the officers saw by the time they arrived on the scene was a Black man with a weapon.

Did this have to happen to Keith, though? Obviously, no because if mental health problems like a psychotic break are identified early, they are highly treatable. Might the awareness of the signs of a psychotic break, like when Keith thought people were out to get him, and knowledge about how to get help, have saved Keith’s life? Perhaps, yes.

However, many Black males fear asking for help because of the male ego. We are reluctant to go to a mental health professional because we are afraid to be called “crazy.”  We fear being misunderstood by professionals; told we are psychotic or schizophrenic instead of receiving some understanding about the tough time we’re having as we navigate a bad situation. We fear that we are alone; that no one else is feeling the kind of “blues” we feel. And we don’t like to say, “I’m just – you know – depressed.” Why not? Because we expect to be rejected by our “boys,” our family and our community with comments like, “Man, you heard about Junie? They said he ‘trippin.’ I guess he couldn’t handle the pressure.”  Yet, mental health struggles can be as benign as “having a bad day” to more intense conditions, behaviors like having psychosis (i.e., delusions or hallucinations).

Remember the time you saw that dude running down the street in a ski suit, rocking a fur coat in 100 degree weather?  You cast off him off as “crazy,” or “tripping.”  Or, what about the “bag lady”  you saw talking to herself at the bus stop as she guarded her grocery cart stuffed with newspaper? These are illustrations of the “break” I’m talking about. We all shun those people never realizing that what they are experiencing is already beyond their control. They’re in need of serious professional help and you may be the one that helps them get it.

Most often, a psychotic break can be brought on by drug use like PCP. Or, someone can be “pre-wired,” to experience a mental break down because of an inherited gene, you know, it can “run in the family.” Being “pre-wired” is the scariest, though, because psychosis can lie dormant and then surface out of nowhere, often brought on by life’s stresses. But for many reasons, we are not connected to mental health support and treatment. I challenge you, my reader, to identify why that is.

Granted, our mistrust of mental health professionals because of the past may be legitimate. There has been an uneasy relationship between Blacks and the U.S. healthcare system, in general. Remember the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment? But this shouldn’t hinder us from seeking help for ourselves or our loved ones.

Although there is no rhyme or reason for knowing when a psychotic break might occur, getting help at the first sign of a break (e.g. paranoid thoughts or delusions) is VITALLY important. Pick up the phone, call for an ambulance. Mental health professionals suggest that there are psychotropic drugs and talk therapies that can successfully treat the patient. A combination of both may well have saved my dear friend, Keith’s life.

Now, he is another statistic of the Black community: a Black man gunned down by the police; a father never to be known by his sons; a husband gone too soon; a son whose parents are burying their own child; and the beloved friend who has left us to make sense of the inexplicable. Keith deserved a better outcome.

Many of you out there, like Keith, are “dying to ask for help.” Or, you may know someone dying to ask for help. My hope is that, through this blog, we begin to have serious conversations about the mental health challenges we all face. If you cannot talk about something, it is already out of control!

Michael Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH holds a joint appointment as associate professor in the School of Social Work and a faculty affiliate in the Center for School Mental Health, School of Medicine (Department of Psychiatry) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Dr. Lindsey’s research and mental health practice experiences examine the prohibitive factors that lead to unmet mental health need among vulnerable, Black youth with depression and other serious mental health needs. Dr. Lindsey is developer of the Making Connections Intervention (MCI), a program designed to prepare adolescents to be positively involved in mental health services for depression. He can be reached by email at nerve.us.breakdown@gmail.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at DrMikeLindsey.

About Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

Michael Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH is an Associate Professor at the Silver School of Social Work, New York University. He also holds a faculty appointment in the Center for School Mental Health, School of Medicine (Department of Psychiatry) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Dr. Lindsey’s research and mental health practice experiences examine the prohibitive factors that lead to unmet mental health need among vulnerable, Black youth with depression and other serious mental health needs. Dr. Lindsey is developer of the Making Connections Intervention (MCI), a program designed to prepare adolescents to be positively involved in mental health services for depression, anxiety and behavioral problems. He can be reached by email at Michael.Lindsey@nyu.edu. You may follow him on Twitter at the handle, @DrMikeLindsey. View all posts by Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

25 responses to “Dying to Ask for Help

  • http://dennisfutures.com

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  • Nelly Furtado

    amazing sir! simply amazing.

  • Dana

    Indeed, very powerful! I’m so glad that you took the time to start this blog, to push our community forward to have these conversations. I look forward to seeing what’s next and getting involved in the movement. Outstanding!

  • Tony

    I am sorry to hear about your friend. It is always tragic when another young African American man (or anyone else) dies in a senseless way.

    Thank you for these powerful and thoughtful words about one of the many secrets in our community, Mental Illness. I fear that family and communal stigmatization and denial acts as a barrier that prevents us from having serious conversations and sustained actions against this community threat. I recently saw a television public service announcement in Atlanta that targeted mental illness in the black community. This I believe was a great start to breaking down this barrier.

    Regarding the police training issue, I am familiar with the research that you mentioned. The “Memphis Model”, law enforcement training program for responding to persons with mental illness, has been around for over two decades and available to law enforcement departments around the country. My understanding is that many departments have incorporated this training into their Police Academies, but it receives very little attention in their training – one day of training.

    Again, thank you for these wonderful and thoughtful words. I will continue to follow your blog…

  • rachelnico

    It’s sad that the system fails so many people and unfortunately there are so many stories out there of situations like this. Hopefully raising awareness about mental-health issues can help change the future.

    • Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

      I agree… raising awareness is key. Much like getting an annual physical, what if we went to a therapist for an annual “mental health” physical? :)
      In what ways do we take care of our mental health?
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rachelnico!

  • Dr Richard

    Everyone has a “cousin”, friend, spouse…..that could use assistance

    • Ali

      Another view is that each person we invite into our lives is actually a mirror of some aspect of our hidden selves. In this way, a person who evokes emotional discomfort is a valuable teacher, inviting us to be more alert to what we think and feel and what we are unconsciously avoiding. Similarly, nightmares and other kinds of anxiety dreams are helpful too. They draw attention to what requires it but is otherwise ignored.

  • Dr Richard

    Great blog post. As a mental health professional one of the on-going frustrations is attitudes toward mental health diagnosis and treatment, especially within the Black community. There are many factors that attritube to these attitudes, including cultural implications often not openly discussed or disguised behind the vail of diversity.
    We must keep getting the word out: Talking to a therapist wont make you crazy, If you need to talk to someone and you dont: “That’s crazy”

    • Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

      Dr. Richard,

      Many thanks for the feedback! Indeed, the negative attitude toward mental health diagnosis and treatment is deep-seated in communities across this country. We need to become more adept at recognizing the signs of a mental health problem. I also believe that providers need to do more outreach – we cannot wait in our offices and expect that people will bring their problems to us. What other avenues might we explore to reach those most in need? Our strategies need to be far-reaching.

      I agree, talking to a therapist is one of the greatest experiences anyone can ever have. It provides such a release.

      Believe me, we will be going “deep” in on a lot of the mental health issues mentioned in several of the comments about “Dying to Ask for Help.” I thank you for your courage and conviction in helping me raise awareness and sensitivity to the issue. Keith’s story is one that impacts us all, whether we know someone like him or going through a similar circumstance ourselves.

      Thanks for your commitment to the cause!

      Michael

  • Dying to Ask for Help « "Nerve-Us" Breakdown : Schizophrenia Page

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  • Stephon

    Bravo!!! Doc, I am so happy that God caused our paths to cross. The harvest is plentiful…it’s truly a blessing that you are one of the harvesters! There are great things in store bruh. Keep up the great and much needed work!

  • JD

    Great article. This topic has been a taboo subject in the African American community for too long. Way to shed some light on a sensitive subject! This is a very big step on the road to better understanding and treatment of these issues.

  • pronounced "ahhh" like a sigh

    This is an amazing blog. I’ve been a mental health advocate since I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in 2004. At the time, I thought I was the only black person in the world with it and felt isolated and alone. Once I realized that there were “others”, I knew that I had to use my platform as a writer and spoken word artist to speak about my experiences and to hope that someone somewhere will feel less alone. I had a really difficult night last night and this blog helped me to feel a bit better about my journey and decision to be open despite the stigmas and shunning I continuously receive.
    Thank you so very much.
    I’m currently working on a memoir about my experiences as a black woman with a mental illness. I’m also located in Prince George’s County, MD. I would love to talk to you about any fundraisers or events you might have to bring light and awareness to this in our communities.

    Keep doing what you’re doing. I’m also going to have my publicist contact you. I’m doing a few things for May and Mental Health Awareness Month a lot of folks ask if there is a black psychiatrist I can direct them to and you, sir, are it.
    Bassey.

    • Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

      Hi, Bassey.

      I truly applaud your courage. You have an incredible story to tell. Not many individuals in your situation would be “bold” enough to acknowledge their struggles with a mental health issue, especially in a public forum. QUITE courageous!!! We need more folks like you to “come out of the shadows.” We all have mental health challenges; some documented, some not. I cannot wait to read your memoir! (Btw, great idea to write one!)

      I find in my work that stigma is a HUGE barrier to asking for help or receiving services. My hope is that you never feel alone. This blog is designed to provide a forum for discussing mental health issues, particularly in a positive light. We can provide more information regarding mental health issues, or make referrals to appropriate sources of care.

      The main message we need to convey is that it is okay to ask for help or to acknowledge a problem. A mental health struggle does not have to be an isolating experience.

      I encourage you to keep up the good fight. Please do have your publicist contact me. I am actually doing more research these days, but I would love to direct your referrals to mental health clinicians (social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists) who can provide great care.

      Best,
      Michael

  • anandaleeke

    Thank you so much for sharing Keith’s story. Powerful. I love your blog. Just discovered it today. Will be back for more. Keep shining!

    • Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

      Keith’s story is very powerful, indeed. I wish there was a different outcome. Many people are suffering in silence. We need serious conversation about a serious matter. Thanks so much for your support, and let’s continue the dialogue!

  • Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

    Thanks, Vikki! You don’t know how much your support means. I also applaud the GREAT work you are doing at Centric/BET. You are certainly blazing a trail, and I stand in support. Let’s get the word out about our collective efforts! There are many “Keiths” depending on us.

  • Vikki

    WOW! I’m so glad that you took the leap to start this conversation. You are the ONE anointed to do it. I’m sorry about your friend Keith (condolences to his family and friends) and hopefully the efforts you’re helping us (CENTRIC) with will inspire other “Keiths” to wholeness before its too late.

  • Braddock

    I definitely love this blog you put up…Crazy. I remember reading about the Tuskegee Airmen tests, well – as young man my father brought it to my attention. It’ mind boggeling to do my own research and see the percentage sickness Blacks have compared to White people and other race’s, desturbing.

    I have a Cousin, who lives in Honduras (I live in DC). I just found out that he’s losing it. His wife has been calling my mother and explaining that he’s just progressively getting worse; not going out anymore and staying inside afraid to go out, having nervous break downs crying out of no-where really bad, he’s not eating well. You’ve mentioned something about genetics which I trully believe, i also believe strongly more than anything that stress has an affect on the human body that I don’t think many people take serious. Being that I grew up in the hood I seen more black men and women lose there minds either off drugs like you’ve mentioned or just stress and I’ve seen mostly do to stress. Shoot many people in the hood resort to many negative things in RESULT from some type of stress from some-thing LOL. The scary part is when I went to HOnduras to visit back in 2008 I noticed how on edge my Cousin was, he didn’t seem his normal calm self, his character was waaaay off but that was my cousin so I kept it moving. He seemed very different yet he was beyond happy to see me and my brother. But it’s like when we left something changed in him. I’m not too sure how docs are in Honduras but they’re not as top notch as American Docs but word is my Cousin is really starting to scare everyone. His actions seem more depressent than anything not so much outwardly aggression more like so depressed and emotionally gone he’s hurting himself but could lead to hurting someone else as I’m aware of.

    Lastly, my heart goes out to Keith. As far as Police are concerned I’m not too fond of them at this point in my life. 29 Years old now and coming up hard I’ve seen and heard concrete stories of how Police officers handle business From PG Maryland (Maryland), Washington DC, and VA…and I’m sure in many urban areas. I know there are good Officers out there but unfortunately I’ve seen more of what officers don’t do within and around the Black and Latin community than what they should do. My father was special forces in the military and he use to tell me how they trained and with precision all the way down to be soooo cool that they’ve mastered NOT being trigger happy while bullets are flying. So That is no excuse for the record breaking amount of killings Police have done. There are many ways of defusing a situation without someone resulting in death unless you’re like those guys years ago with the body armer and AK’s and the police had trouble stopping them. I’ve seen police DISARM a man ON PCP here in dc with a weapon and bombarded him with shots of bean bags and he went from Hulk smash to fetal position in pain but even that took some time so its posible. There are many ways so there is no excuse. No matter how people want to slice it, no excuse. Anyway, thats my 2cents….Great Blog…I will share it with more of my brothers and sisters out here because this is a topic with many factors (for even seperate descussions)to be shared….

    • Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

      Braddock,

      Thanks for your support, brother. It sounds like your cousin is going through a really tough phase. Lots of support can mean a great deal to someone struggling with a mental health issue. Please encourage your family to not let up on the support, no matter what.

      I am not sure about mental health professionals in Honduras, but let’s put it out there to our “nerve-us-breakdown” network. I will also check among my colleagues. Mental health service delivery in other countries can be very different than how we conceptualize it here. And, in some instances countries like Australia do a great job with mental health promotion public service announcements and other types of campaigns.

      I have come to understand from my friend’s situation that the police are called to protect first. We need to do a better job of responding to psychiatric crises as family, friends, and through civic activities such as encouraging our local officials to advocate for rights and protections of those struggling with a mental health issue.

      Finally, keep fighting the good fight. Proud that you are willing to talk about mental health issues, and happy that you are encouraging others to do so. Talking about these issues can lead to better outcomes for all.

      Let’s do our part!

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