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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at DrMikeLindsey.