The Criminalization of Mental Illness in Black America
By David J. Leonard
It was a normal night in 2009 at Delonte West’s house. Tired from a long day, West retreated to his room to get some rest. As usual, he took a dose of Seroquel, medication he uses for his bipolar disorder. “Sadness is a normal human emotion,” explains West. “And there’s a mechanism that kicks in and lets you know it’s time to stop being sad. With bipolar, that mechanism is out, so you don’t even know when you’re sad.” Despite certain side effects, Seroquel helps to regulate these mechanisms.
Shortly after falling asleep, West was awoken and told that his friends were downstairs messing around with some guns in the house. Despite feeling the effects of the medication, West decided that the best course of action was to remove the guns from his home, transporting them to a house nearby. He described the situation to Slam Magazine in the following way:
A few of my cats had found some stuff in the studio and they were living the whole gangsta life thing- guns in the air and this and that. And I said, ‘Oh my God. What the fu*k are y’all doin’ in here? Y’all got to go. Momma ain’t on that. Kids are running around upstairs. It’s time to go.’
Gassed up from the commotion, West decided it would be prudent for him to relocate the guns to an empty house he owned nearby. So, with his other vehicles blocked in by guests’ cars, and expecting it to be a short trip, he haphazardly loaded up his Can-Am and placed the weapons in a Velcro-type of bag – “not a desperado, hardcase, gun-shooting-out-the-side type case” -and set off.
Unfortunately, while responsibly moving the guns, he found himself unable to shake his groggy feeling. Realizing the terrible predicament he faced, he sought out a police officer, only to find himself under arrest and ultimately in jail. While clearly a result of his Bipolar Disorder and his need to medicate, West would be punished by the criminal justice system (1-year house arrest), by the media (in terms of ridicule and a narrative that consistently imagined him as criminal), and with a 10-game suspension from the NBA. Named as a member of The Bleacher Report’s “all thug team” and also a member of a list of players who “could double as gang members,” and often described as a “thug” and a “gangsta” in comment sections, Delonte West highlights the ways the criminality and mental health becomes within the black body.
His difficulties and troubles are rarely linked to his disease, instead positioned as yet another criminal baller. Moreover, even acknowledgment about his Bipolar Disorder provides little cover or context given the stigmas directed at black males. Knowledge of medical conditions, instead, are used as further evidence of his criminality and danger. “West wouldn’t be the first person to be picked on for having a mental health condition, and certainly not the first to be picked up for the same,” notes Sam Eifling. “But it’s worth noting that, despite harming precisely no one, West likely became another example of the criminalization of mental illness in America. Now he’s stigmatized as not just sick, but criminal.” Ain’t that a truth known all too well by a disproportionate number of African Americans.
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