Mental Illness and Awareness: Commentary on a Local News Story
Passing the newspaper stand today, the one containing the local bi-folded publication, I noticed a story titled “A West Side Story.” I actually passed several of these newspaper stands throughout my errands today, and I was finally motivated to pick one up. After all, I live on the West side of town, and the girl in the snapshot on the cover of the magazine could be one of my neighbors.
The West side of town in my city is considered to be more crime ridden, and the reputation of the Westside of Charlotte, NC often precedes it in many local circles of the city. The history of this side of town and its working class runs deep. One of the first black colleges in the city lies at the beginning of the Westside, and it has been a landmark in the city as well as in many people’s lives for over 150 years. There are many family owned businesses, and community found in the churches on this side of town is inspirational. This side of town is also predominantly black and mostly lower income.
The cover story in ‘Creative Loafing’ this week is about a young teenage girl who hung herself in the back of a police car on the West side of Charlotte. The 18-year-old girl had been raised by her grandmother and had been in and out of trouble in recent years. She took her grandmother’s car one night, to go shopping. At a local clothing store, she waited in line, paid for some items, and was arrested shortly thereafter for wearing a shirt she was accused of stealing.
According to the article, the girl was “demonstrably angry and refused to provide her name.” The article also tells us that while the girl “screamed frantically, police handcuffed her and placed her inside” the cop car. The girl then, began to “desperately bang her head” on both the back window and the Plexiglas separating the front and back of a police cruiser. The incident was caught on the cruiser’s camera, and the girl banged her head 17 times, so hard against the glass of her window that cracks appeared in the middle.
The girl quieted down, and the cops left her unattended while they sorted out paperwork. The 18-year-old girl managed to wrap her seatbelt around her neck three times, and she choked her self, nearly to death. She still remains in intensive care, with little brain function. There is an on-going investigation and lawsuit. The story has gained some press, especially internationally.
Many people feel these officers were negligent, and an 18-year-old is fighting for her life two months later as a result. The NAACP has a strong opinion on this story, as Charlotte chapter president Rev. Kojo Nantambu stated, “I feel if it had been a white child from Ballantyne, there would have been an orchestrated community outcry.” I will also agree with his feeling.
I also think that the prejudice and ignorance in a case is much more complex than just the color of the young girl’s skin. When I first read of the young girl’s reaction to thee arrest, I immediately thought of mental illness. To scream “frantically,” is not a normal reaction or behavior. And to beat your head against glass 17 times, so hard that the glass started to crack is not normal behavior. The article mentions nothing about the girl’s mental state, nor does it say anything about the teen’s history with either mental illness or substance abuse.
But, to me, those are the questions that keep persisting in my mind. Often times, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia do not manifest until the patient is in the late teens or early twenties. Most diagnosed with these diseases do not have their first episode until then, and 18 becomes a prime age for the onset of such a disorder. Also, depression, anxiety, and PTSD could result in the behavior this young girl exhibited. Depression and anxiety are not uncommon with women in a poor area, raised without one or both their parent’s in the picture. Anyway I slice it, the 18-year-old girl’s behavior was definitely not normal behavior, or a normal reaction to an arrest.
Mental illness carries such a stigma with it, and often times one’s mental illness is kept hidden in the family closet. Also, this stigma keeps many of the population from becoming educated about it. When things are kept to a whisper, it is hard to know the real facts. Furthermore, the stigma and ignorance about mental illness has kept our hospitals and police forces in the dark.
Since cutbacks in healthcare, especially for both the poor and the mentally ill in the last ten to fifteen years, many of the mentally ill go untreated. Many cannot afford the doctors alone, much less the medication required to make them better. Some of these patients become substance abusers, as they attempt to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. And many of the mentally ill end up in our court systems. They often commit minor infractions, landing themselves in the hands of our law enforcement officers.
I think that our police force needs to be more educated about the mentally ill. These police are often the front line for seeing the abnormal behavior that someone may exhibit, and they need to be able to respond differently to the mentally ill. When a person bangs their head against glass 17 times, causing a crack, the officers should already be aware of this person’s mental instability.
There is nothing about this young girl’s behavior during the arrest that would be considered “normal.” Reading the article, it seemed obvious to me that there was some sort of mental instability going on with this young girl. Maybe I recognized it because I am educated about the topic. At this point, the young girl still remains in a coma and the ins and outs of her mental state may never be known.
Our police force needs to be more educated about mental illness. They need to be more aware of some of the signs, knowing how to respond accordingly. If that happened in this instance, this girl’s fate could be much different.
As unfortunate as it is, many of the mentally ill end up in police custody and in our jails. The police are the front line defense in fighting this illness today. As our healthcare becomes even more precarious, we see the cases of mentally ill in our jails rising dramatically. We need to educate our law enforcement officers, our front line of defense against this disease. It could possibly save a life or two.