In the news and on social media, whenever a mass shooter strikes and wreaks havoc, mental illness is always a topic that comes up. It seems that many out there are under the misconception that mentally ill people have more of a propensity to kill others than people without a mental illness. While it may be true that some mentally ill people are violent, from my personal experience as a person stricken with Bipolar I Disorder, most of us are just trying to live our lives like everyone else. However, the latest episode of an unarmed Black man killed by police makes me think that many of us are thinking about mental illness the wrong way. Shaheed Vassell, a man in his 30’s suffering from untreated bipolar disorder himself was gunned down by the NYPD in Brooklyn for holding and pointing a metal pipe. Having had my own violent run-ins with police due to my disorder and after viewing statistics, it is clear to me that mentally ill people, especially Black, face a larger chance of being killed by police than we are of harming someone else.
According to the reports, Shaheed was well-known around his Crown Heights neighborhood. He was a welder and had a teenage son, who says (along with the boy’s mother) that Shaheed was a “caring father.” According to the NY Daily News, Shaheed was known by many as the “quirky neighborhood character with some mental health issues,” who carried an orange Bible and rosary beads in his hands as he walked up and down the streets.
However, yesterday (April 4), Shaheed was carrying a metal pipe as he walked down the street. After receiving a 9-1-1 call, when NYPD officers found him at the corner of Utica Ave. and Montgomery St., they believed the pipe to be a gun and fired ten rounds at him, fatally hitting him several times. The cops claim that Shaheed “took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed” the pipe at them, prompting them to unload. Of course, when they searched the body, no gun was discovered.
Knowing that Shaheed was also suffering from bipolar hit me hard. I was taken back to when I heard the story
of Tanisha Anderson, the 37-year-old, bipolar Black mother who was killed after Cleveland police slammed her while restraining her in 2015. The cops in the case were called by her family who were trying to get her help.
I was taken back to the killing of Dontre Hamilton, the 31-year-old schizophrenic Black father shot 14 times by police after they accosted him for sleeping in a Milwaukee park in 2014.
I was taken back to the shooting death of 66-year-old schizophrenic woman, Deborah Danner, who was killed by the NYPD for allegedly wielding a bat in her Bronx apartment in 2016.
These aren’t the only cases. I’ve seen a lot of them in the news over the years involving mentally ill people being killed by police and it scares the shit out of me, to be honest. I’ve endured my own trauma when I was assaulted by police due to my mental illness. I was having a manic episode in 2014 in the boarding room I was renting while working a journalist in suburban Philadelphia. The police were called. In SWAT gear, they kicked in my door and tased me immediately, telling me to get on the ground. I was unarmed. When I got down, they crowded me and injected me in the arm with a yellow liquid. I was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car. They took me to the psychiatric hospital, where my clothes were cut off of my body with scissors, leaving me naked in the parking lot, before someone came out and gave me a pair of hospital pants to put on and admitted me.
I was homeless after that ordeal (and it wasn’t my only encounter with the laws while manic), but when cases like Shaheed’s, Tanisha’s, Dontre’s and Deborah’s come about, I consider myself lucky. Those cops could have easily come with their guns drawn and turned me into a hashtag. This adds more trauma and stress to an already traumatic experience. The numbers back up the fact that I easily could have been killed. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a 2015 Washington Post study which analyzed 400 police killings concluded that 25 percent of the victims were identified by their families or the police as being mentally ill. The year before, the Treatment Advocacy Center did it’s own analysis of police killings from 1980 to 2008, which found that “at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.”
It would seem that as civil servants who respond to emergencies, police should be better equipped to deal with people with mental illness. There should be specialized training that teaches cops how to deal with someone going through a mental crisis and get them the help they need, instead of responding with lethal violence. Maybe, in Shaheed’s case, if the responding cops had spoken to people from the community who knew him and his affliction, they would have responded more mercifully, instead of hopping and shooting first (an action the police took according eyewitness accounts).
Alas, I won’t count on it. Since the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement years ago, there has been little progress with police checking themselves and preserving life instead of taking it. The biggest advancement I’ve seen is the implementation of police body cameras, but that has not quelled the killings. Black men and women are still being killed for no reason by trigger-happy police officers.
I can only speak for myself as someone who has bipolar disorder, but if you feel that you may be at risk for a mental issue, get diagnosed and medicated. In an interview, Shaheed’s father said that his son suffered from bipolar disorder and refused treatment for years. One could assume that he was manic while haphazardly walking down the street with a metal pipe and allegedly pointing it at police officers. I think this goes to show that getting treatment is our best defense against violent, irrational police. Yes, I understand that there are critics of medicine in the Black community, especially psychiatric drugs. However, I feel that meds been my saving grace. I tried to make it without taking any medicine, but that never panned out well. I found a treatment that has been working for me, so I have not been having as many problems. I am not a zombie. I am in my right mind, from what I can tell. Not treating a mental disorder is more detrimental than taking the medicine. The notion of “mind over matter” does not work, which I found out the hard way in my lived experience. While medicine may not be the perfect answer for suitable mental health, doing nothing about it surely doesn’t work.
If you are dealing with mental health issues, please get the help that you need. Getting your mental health in check could be the difference between life and death. The story of Shaheed Vassell should serve as a cautionary tale of what could happen if you neglect your mental health (I’m not sure where the others I named stood on taking their medication). I’m not victim-blaming here. Shaheed and the others should be alive today, but untrained, paranoid, violent, cruel police are very real. Just do what you have to do to avoid them. With mental illness, the mind can be unpredictable. Don’t let your own mind make you vulnerable to police brutality. They can, and will, hurt you.
Rest in peace Shaheed Vassell, Tanisha Anderson, Dontre Hamilton, Deborah Danner and all other mentally ill people unjustly killed by police.