Tanesha Anderson's Death at the Hands of Police Deserves Our Attention

by Brittany Dawson

Two years ago, my twin sister was diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, depression, multiple personality disorder, and others—all of which induce anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis. It was only when I saw my sister’s suffering during my sophomore year of college that I realized the taboo surrounding mental illness, the inherent shame that accompanies it, and how we continue to fail the mentally ill.

It was Christmas Break of 2012. A tailored lawn and typical house in Southern suburbia concealed the pain that lied therein, camouflaging the silent suffering of my sister. I had just returned home from college, eagerly slinging my luggage near the foyer, kicking off my shoes, and gliding into the living room. There my sister sat, her arms covered in textured scars speaking of time when voices told her to kill herself. A time when knives, scissors, and razors became friends who immortalized their names on both arms and legs.
My heart swelled when I read the empty, drained expressions of my family. A haze of foggy gloom sucked the air from my lungs and tightened my chest. What followed shortly felt like an explosion, shattering the walls around me.

My sister recoiled and did not return my glance.

“I’m going crazy!” she snarled, leaping from the couch, crying and vigorously tugging at her hair. She spun in a circle, stopped, and gave a guttural and exhausted sigh. We stood motionless, afraid, hurting as we watched helplessly as she lost herself in the psychosis.

A powerful self-inflicted blow to the head shattered all traces of silence. My mother sobbed and inched towards her, shifting the weight evenly beneath her feet with hopes of silencing her advancement.

“Stop, please. We love you, baby.” My sister and father joined in, adding more tears and whimpers.

My sister slipped away into the dining room where my father’s toolbox lay untouched and rusty from incomplete projects. She grabbed a hammer, still screaming, and flung it into the air. Eyes closed, she swung it down, grinding her teeth to ready the feeling of the claw’s rusty metal carving away at her skin.

I ran behind her, snatched the hammer, and hugged her from behind.

Warm tears and spit dampened my shirt, I wrapped my arms around her even tighter, feeling the sporadic, arrhythmic patterns of her heartbeat.

“Brittany, am I crazy? I don’t want to be crazy. Help me. Help me. Help me.”

Help me.

These words echoed, reverberated, sloshed around the deep tissues of my mind, digging their way to the core of my heart. We broke down—all of us—as I held her, the hammer fell as did our hearts. Later that evening, she was transported to a facility for evaluation.

I recently heard about 37-year-old Tanesha Anderson, a mentally ill woman who was killed when a police officer banged her head against the concrete during an arrest. Her family had called the police to help them deal with an agitated Tanesha, probably in a situation very similar to the one I experienced with my sister two years ago.

Police brutality and misuse of force is not a new phenomenon: we are all well aware of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and other Black victims of police violence. But Tanesha Anderson’s death is not only emblematic of law enforcement’s misuse of power; it also reveals a system that continues to criminalize the mentally ill through counterproductive measures. To put it simply, arresting the mentally ill does not address the unique set of challenges and barriers faced by these individuals. Anderson was bipolar and schizophrenic: hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety, hyper-aggressive behavior, and moodiness are common symptoms. Thus, the handling of her arrest should have been handle with a greater awareness and sensitivity, due to her mental illness.

And still, there is the issue that little to no emphasis is placed on exploring the experiences of mentally ill African-Americans. We often hear about lung cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. But those who suffer from mental illness are relegated to the rim of society. It’s not as though mental illness has not trickled its way into national discourse, yet mental illness, when mentioned, is either ill-informed or used to determine red flags when a national tragedy occurs.

We obviously understand mental illness as pervasive and troubling. When Elliot Rodgers posted chilling videos on YouTube prior to killing six and severely injuring thirteen in Santa Barbara, California, the media referred to him as “the son of a well accomplished filmmaker” who just so happened to be a sufferer of mental illness. African Americans fail to experience the same luxury and comfort of padded language. The diagnosis for us? Just plain “crazy” or “violent.” Weeks are spent analyzing “red flags”, vapid conversations about we should have “seen this coming” infiltrate discussion. Treatment? Stay away from crazy folk. If you have a mental illness, movies, music, and society at large cautions others to avoid you. When mental illness becomes inexorably linked to mass shootings or heinous crimes, we miss the opportunity to tackle such a stigma and understand better ways to treat these highly complex symptoms.

We should be building a network of support for the mentally ill. By and large, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of mental illness and effective treatment options. Psychic pain is not imagined. Believe me, I’ve watched a loved one unfurl amidst the slicing pangs of psychotic episodes.

Tanesha Anderson could have been my sister, or anyone’s for that matter. From medical research to celebrities speaking openly on the realities of mental illness, mental illness indeed is a real, pervasive illness that affects the African American community even harder due to societal, historical, and negative cultural assumptions placed on the “realness” of mental illness. How we interact with mental illness, as seen in the death of Tanesha Anderson, highlights the dangers of misunderstanding the mentally ill. At this rate, we will continue to fail and provide inadequate treatment for sufferers of mental illness. If we depict the realities of mental illness, flesh out symptoms, and tell stories similar to my own or others, this in turn may lead to protocols made specifically for addressing the unique challenges faced by mentally ill Americans. Justice starts with an informed, engaged, and aware public.

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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