Facing Black Mental Health: #IfIDieInPoliceCustody Will My Life Still Matter?

by Anna Gibson 

In the wake of the Sandra Bland case, the black community was outraged and prepared to take action against a system that continues to subject us to violence. They drag our teenage girls to the ground at pool parties. They shoot us for carrying skittles, or even knocking on doors. Despite this, we continue to fight against a culture that seems to get off on dehumanizing us then ignoring the consequences, claiming that we live in a “post racial society.”

As a result of this outrage, hashtags have started trending on Facebook and Twitter to uncover answers regarding her untimely death. Hashtags such as #JusticeForSandy and #SandySpeaks are both touching examples of a community who wants to bring the issue of police brutality to the attention of dominant society.

I understand that Sandy’s death appears to be very suspicious. However, one response to this questionable incident is insensitive. The hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody is trending on social media sites. Since many feel that Sandra’s death was the product of foul play, the point of this hashtag is to convince people that they wouldn’t attempt suicide while in police custody.

The problem with this hashtag is that it subtly distances us from a large subset of people with mental illness who are already highly stigmatized. This is even more alienating in the black community, as we tend not to accept mental illness as a neurological disorder that causes cognitive impairments. Despite this, it can’t be denied that mental illness affects many parts of the brain, including the memory, fight-and-flight, and impulse control centers, making it difficult for many people with mental illness to lead happy lives.

For example, I suffer from acute anxiety, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. When I was off my medication, there were times when I would wake up terrified for no reason. I would go through long periods where everything would appear lifeless; and it seemed like there was no way out of my pain. After a while there were times where could barely sit still. I was practically bursting with energy that would leave me either agitated or euphoric.

While well intentioned, #IfIDieInPoliceCustody decentralizes the struggle of people who deal with mental health issues everyday. Black people are so set on proving that we couldn’t die by suicide in jail, we miss out on a chance to converse with people that actually experience mental illness in these settings. There’ve been times where I would’ve loved to talk about my mental health issues with someone other than my therapist. Though I got that opportunity in the past year or so, before that, I felt pretty alone. I had friends but I couldn’t tell the majority of them about my mental health struggles for fear of stigma.

To say that someone had “so much to live for, that they couldn’t possibly commit suicide” is also ridiculous. In her seminal work, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison tries to reconcile herself with the sudden demise of a close friend who died by suicide. She states:
“A man who had been inventive enough to earn a thousand patents for such widely diverse creations as the Hawk and Sparrow missile systems used by the U.S. Department of Defense… a Yale graduate, lover of life, and successful businessman; this remarkably imaginative man had not been inventive enough to find an alternative solution to a violent, self-inflicted death.”
The concept of 'smiling depression' is nothing new. For a very long time, I used to wear a happy, outgoing face only to cry myself to sleep at night. I was lost. My perceptions of people would constantly shift, and I would find myself in a state of perpetual emotional turmoil, unanchored and easily led by external events.

According to Dr. Jamison, this turmoil has very real consequences. Having bipolar disorder means that I have a 25-50 percent chance of attempting suicide in my lifetime and a 15-17 percent chance of completing the act. It should also be noted, if you attempt suicide once, you have an 80 percent chance of trying it again in your lifetime. How many times can you play Russian roulette before the odds cease to be in your favor?

In short, I think that fact that you’re confident that you won’t die by suicide in police custody is awesome. Really. We need as many people as possible in our communities to thrive and live long, happy lives, especially when our humanity is threatened so often. I’m also happy to say that I’m well on my way to becoming one of you. I have rough days, but a combination of therapy, medication, and the coping skills I implement everyday, I’ve made great strides in loving myself, conquering my anxiety and doing what I love.

However, black people need understand that we are disproportionately represented in both jail and prison and that people with mental illness make up 40 percent of the prison population. We need to reconcile ourselves with the fact that many of us may not make it. Kalief Browder didn’t make it. Kindra Chapman didn’t make it, nor will many others. We need to lift up the names of those men and women subject to dehumanization and brutality in everyday life. We also need to affirm the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities: the mentally ill. Only when we face the issue of mental health can we begin to heal our communities and better impact the world around us.

Photo: a katz / Shutterstock

Anna Gibson is a freelance journalist and student at Wayne State University who seeks to create a safe space for the marginalized to tell their stories. If you think she’s cool (she thinks she’s cool, so you should too) you can reach her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook where she’s totally not hiding under the name Anna Gibson.

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