Criminal illness or sick criminals? Race and Gun Violence

Last night, 60 minutes aired a segment that focused on mental health and mass shootings, highlighting the consequences of systemic neglect of mental illness.  Documenting the history of policy that has transformed America from a nation of asylums (those dehumanizing warehouses) into a prison nation that makes those with mental illness disappear all while creating entire populations of untreated mental illness, the segment offered an important intervention.

The criminalization of mental illness has led to mass incarceration and divestment in necessary treatment.  The cost and consequences of these policies has been evident as it relates to mass shootings. It introduced the issue as follows:

The mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard two weeks ago that resulted in the deaths of 13 people, including the gunman, was the 23rd such incident in the past seven years. It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the fact that the majority of the people pulling the triggers have turned out to be severely mentally ill — not in control of their faculties — and not receiving treatment.

Although the segment neglected to reflect on how masculinity (and the reproduction of narrow definitions of masculinity) operates within this discussion, it raises important questions in terms of the criminalization of mental illness and the deadly consequences of American policies.

While the result of many decades of neglect, the segment documented the cost and consequences of the Reagan revolution and the “small government” mantra of the GOP.  On the eve of a government shutdown, it should be a striking reminder of the deadly consequences of policy decisions and neglect.

While a very important topic, it also represented a missed opportunity to push the conversation to reflect on how mental health and the lack of available treatment options has consequences as it relates daily violence. Where is the conversation about mental illness as it relates to gun violence? Where is the discussion of PTSD as it relates to Chicago, Stockton, or New Orleans? Where is the conversation about the consequences and dangers of a criminal justice system that only fails to treats mental health issues, that ignores treatable illness, but actually creates a sick population (seemingly guaranteeing sizable prison populations). The entire segment seemed to imply that certain violence, that which is disproportionately carried out by white boys and men, is treatable; yet those instances of gang violence or “everyday gun violence” are unavoidable. No discussion about mental health as it relates to other types of violence, in communities where violence is imagined as inevitable and natural.  We need to have a conversation about mental illness and violence, mental illness and guns in multiple contexts not just as it fits the dominant (white) definitions of innocence and guilt, safe and dangerous, treatable and criminal.

If solutions, interventions, and transformation were a true goal, we might begin to ask “why?” We might begin to look at issues of mental health in every instance of gun violence; we might begin to talk about PDST and trauma in EVERY CASE.  We might look at a recent study from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), which concluded that 50 and 65 percent of male and female juveniles experienced traumatic brain injuries.

“This shows us that we have a real serious organic medical problem among the adolescents,” Dr. Homer Venters, assistant commissioner of the city’s Correctional Health Services, said at a Board of Corrections meeting in March. “We often end up giving someone a mental health diagnosis, who does not have a mental health problem, but rather TBI.” …. In 2008, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which runs Correctional Health Services, created a surveillance and tracking system for new injuries suffered by inmates at Rikers Island, including head injuries. But Venters recognized that head injuries sustained even before an individual is incarcerated could also impact his patients and affect their mental health and even their length of stay in jail.  Two of the most significant manifestations of traumatic brain injuries are emotional dysregulation and impaired processing speed. “This means you can’t control your emotions and you can’t follow directions,” Venters told the corrections board. “These are two very serious complications for people who find themselves in jail.”

The high rate of TBI, which likely predates incarceration, surely needs to be part of the conversation about “crime.”  It certainly needs to be part of the “why” or is that a question one only asks when violence occurs involving people we don’t expect to kill or for those we don’t see as “legible” (Neal 2013) threats.  If only we asked the same questions, demanded the same answers of why, we might be able to move forward to actually address mass shootings and “street violence.”   But that would require seeing humanity outside of our race-colored glasses.

The Criminalization of Mental Illness in Black America | Urban Cusp

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.

Continue reading @ The Criminalization of Mental Illness in Black America | Urban Cusp.

SLAM ONLINE | » Condemn The Foul, Not The Mind

Condemn The Foul, Not The Mind

Leave the mental assessments for professionals.

by David J. Leonard / @drdavidjleonard

There is no defense for the elbow seen around the world. Metta, why? Irrespective of intent, it was a hard flagrant foul, one that has no place in the beautiful game of basketball. The seven-game suspension, while a bit on the high side, is measured and appropriate.

In fact, given the incendiary rhetoric from the media, the continuous loop of the incident, and their overall efforts to excite anger, the decision from David Stern to issue a sensible suspension (not the case with the Palace Brawl) is worthy of praise.

As such, there is nothing to debate regarding Metta World Peace elbowing James Harden in the head—it was vicious, uncalled for and disheartening. As a Lakers, Metta World Peace and basketball fan—it was disappointing. It is indefensible; yet, that fact is not a defense for a media spectacle-defined unnecessary cheap shots, much of which has nothing to do with the incident.

From the hyperbole and rhetoric designed to incite anger, to the constant invoking of the language of the criminal justice system and the demonization of Metta as a crazy person, much of the sports media has failed to inform and elevate the discussion, instead embracing roles as referee, commissioner and worse yet, doctor.

A common theme evident since the nationally televised elbow has been the constant mention of Metta’s mental state. While one might think mental illness mitigates culpability (it can within our justice system), the media establishment has used his purported mental fabric and wiring as part of a narrative that depicts him as pathological and dangerous. Although painting him as unstable and mentally weak, the ubiquitous references to his mind reflect an effort to mock, make fun and ridicule Metta World Peace.

The references have saturated the airwaves. “To say that something is wrong with Artest would not do him justice. This is the guy who applied for a job at Circuit City to get a discount, has come to practice in a bath robe and has admitted to drinking cognac at halftime,” writes Jason Black. “After winning the NBA Championship in 2010 he thanked his psychiatrist. There are many people who need therapy or have mental health disorders, so the fact that he publicly talked about having a psychiatrist isn’t a bad thing, but it tells us there is a problem.”

Black goes onto argue that Metta’s mental illness represents a threat to himself, other players and the game itself, calling for extensive punishment as a method of protection: “Having a mental health issue and getting help for it is commendable, but what price does somebody have to pay before it’s too late?” As with media pundits like Stephen A. Smith, who described Metta as “not that far away from coo-coo nest,” “as touched,” and as someone who has refused to take his medication in the past, the media narrative demonizes Metta for his mental issues.

Describing him as having “violent tendencies,” Bill Plaschke furthers the picture of MWP as psychopath, as crazy dangerous man: “This was about a celebration that turned caustic when somebody walked into the middle of it, the weird mind of World Peace switching from jubilation to rage in a matter of seconds. Maybe even scarier than the elbow was the look in his wild and crazy eyes as he stalked around the floor immediately afterward.”

Continue reading @ SLAM ONLINE | » Condemn The Foul, Not The Mind.

NewBlackMan: Brandon Marshall and the Challenge to Mental Health Treatment Inequality


Brandon Marshall and the Challenge to Mental Health Treatment Inequality

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

On Sunday, amid all the hoopla about the start of NFL training camp, player movement, and the start of the NFL season, Brandon Marshall quietly told the world a secret, announcing that he was living with a Borderline Personality Disorder.

Right now today, I am vulnerable, I making myself vulnerable, and I want it to be clear that this is the opposite of damage control. The only reason I am standing here today is to use my story to help others who may suffer from what I suffer from, from what I had to deal with. I can’t explain to you and paint a vivid enough picture for you guys where I been in my life, probably since the end of my rookie year.

Noting that neither the cars nor the fame, neither the success on the field nor the joys experienced off the field resulted in happiness, Marshall highlighted the despair that he has experienced during his life:

I haven’t enjoyed not one part of it and it’s hard for me to understand why . . . . One of the things I added to my prayer was for God to show me my purpose here. When I got out of the hospital, I called my videographer and I said, Rob, grab your camera and just come to my house and just start shooting. I said I’m very depressed right now, I probably won’t talk, I probably won’t even leave my theater room, but you just shoot and don’t stop shooting. I said, I don’t know where we’re going with this, I don’t know what’s going to come out of this, but something good is going to happen.

Marshall is not the first high-profile African American athlete to publicly document the struggles with mental illness. Several years ago, Ricky Williams spoke about his illness (Social Anxiety Disorder) “to up the awareness and erase the stigma.” Likewise, Ron Artest, who has publicly acknowledged his own disease, has gone beyond chronicling his own story, testifying before congress while raising money (through auctioning off his championship ring) for mental health awareness among youth.

Continue reading at  NewBlackMan: Brandon Marshall and the Challenge to Mental Health Treatment Inequality.