Bipolar Lives Matter

World Bipolar Day came and went, and the world’s eyes were focused on the trial of the policeman who sniffed out George Floyd’s life.  But bipolar lives matter too. The lives of everyone with mental illness matter.

Bipolar sufferers live among the homeless.  They live in our corrections system, prisons being our largest mental illness facilities.  They live in the shadows of depression and despair.  And they live with what destructiveness mania delivers to them.  They’re tased.  They’re pepper sprayed. They’re beaten.  And they’re shot.  Police shoot and kill a person with a mental illness every 36 hours in this country. 

When George Floyd died at the hands (or knee) of a Minneapolis police officer in May of 2020, people across America rightly called for a re-examination of systemic racism and police brutality in our country. 

But some people also called for defunding police departments. My immediate reaction was that we need to call for more funding. For training. Especially when it comes to dealing with people with mental illness. Hairdressers get more hours of required training than police officers.

Even though it’s my state’s largest city, Burlington, Vermont is a relatively small town of 40,000 people.  Its police department has about 100 officers.  So incidents of wrongdoing should be rare.  But they shot to death a mentally ill man in 2013, again in 2016.  Another emotionally distraught individual had his head bashed several times leading to his death. It was a sickening example of escalation and excessive force.  The chief and current mayor attempted to get the medical examiner’s “homicide” ruling changed.  Racially charged and racially motivated incidents of excessive force have led to multiple federal lawsuits against this department.  

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training is something every police department should go through.  CIT got its start after a 1987 incident in Memphis, Tennessee.  Police responded to a call regarding a man with mental illness who was cutting himself with a knife and threatening suicide. Responding officers ordered the man to drop the knife. The man became increasingly distraught and ran toward the officers with the knife still in his hand. Police fired a volley of shots, killing the man.  Perhaps deadly force was required at the time of the shooting. But CIT training focuses on de-escalation techniques that can occur before deadly force becomes necessary.

The resulting  “Memphis Model” of CIT training has been adopted by communities in 40 states, but only about 15 percent of all police departments in the country.  

And the killing continues.  Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Jose, Salt Lake City — the headlines keep saying virtually the same thing: “Man Fatally Shot by Police Had History of Mental Health Struggles.”

Milwaukee police officers tased a man with mental illness in a shower 15-18 times in 2017.  He had no weapon.  He died.  They were not held accountable.  An 82 year old woman was tased in Chicago in 2007.  An 87 year old woman was tased in Georgia in 2018. Can police not handle octogenarian women?  Tasers have been involved in over 1000 deaths, Reuters found in 2017, one quarter of the incidents involving victims of mental illness.

Tasing has gotten a fraction of the media attention that the waterboarding of three terrorists got.  And none of them died. And none of the tasing victims blew up two skyscrapers.

Clearly the idea of defunding police departments should be replaced by the idea of more funding, better funding. Let’s get CIT training for all our officers. Half of all police departments have fewer than ten officers; 75 percent have fewer than 25. Small departments have trouble paying for such training. Federal grants could address the problem. Because people with mental illness can be found in our smaller communities.

It’s perfectly appropriate to say the lives of the underserved and oppressed matter. Of course all lives matter. But people with mental illness regularly go to jail for committing the crime of having a mental illness. (If they survive their encounters with the law.)

Diabetes is not illegal.  Epilepsy is not illegal. COPD is not illegal. So we need a reminder that bipolar lives matter, as do diabetic, epileptic, COPD-stricken lives, and all other lives.