A Different Way Forward for Responding to Mental Health Crises

On October 26, 2020, Walter Wallace, Jr. experienced a mental health crisis that ultimately led to his death. Concerned for Walter’s wellbeing, his family called 911 three times that day, frantically requesting help. When police arrived on the scene, they observed Walter in crisis and holding a knife. Despite Walter’s mother’s screams for help and attempts to shield her son from fire, officers ultimately shot him 14 times. How different could the outcome have been if a trauma-informed mental health professional responded instead of police?

Mural of two cupped colorful hands. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

In 2019, one in three people experiencing a mental health crisis were transported to an emergency room by the police. Staggeringly, people with severe mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police. Add the fact that Walter and others in his situation are Black — unarmed Black men exhibiting signs of mental illness are at a higher risk of being shot by police than unarmed white men exhibiting the same signs. Women of color and people living in poverty are also at disproportionate risk of experiencing police violence.

Within calls for “defund the police” by Black Lives Matter activists, diverting funds to social welfare initiatives to address mental health crises is integral. Police are not well equipped to respond to mental health crises, yet our current infrastructure requires them to do so. What’s the alternative? Investing in trauma-informed, alternative responses to mental health emergencies — and it’s more necessary now than ever. 

On May 14, 2018, Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed Black man experiencing a mental health crisis, was fatally shot by Richmond Police. Since his killing, local community organization Justice and Reformation has spearheaded the #HelpNotDeath campaign, prompting the ability for localities to establish Civilian Review Boards to investigate police-involved shootings. His story has inspired legislation to train officers in de-escalation, as well as the development of a Marcus Alert system to aid in responses to emergent mental health crises. Marcus-David’s legacy can be seen today at the former Lee Monument Circle, now widely known as Marcus-David Peters Circle.  

Civilian Review Boards and the Marcus Alert here in Virginia are just the start. What kind of transformation is needed for a future of compassionate, racially just, and trauma-informed responses to mental health crises? Individuals with autism, like Matthew Rushin in Virginia Beach, deserve better than this. Walter Wallace, Marcus-David Peters, Gay Ellen Plack, and all people who experience mental health crisis deserve better than this. Survivors experiencing trauma responses deserve better than this. 

Clearly, a massive cultural shift is needed to ensure people experiencing mental health crises receive #HelpNotDeath. Community-based organizers having been forging a different way forward for many years. A group called Cahoots, made up of trained medical and crisis workers responding to crises without police involvement, has been successfully operating in Oregon since 1989. Domestic and sexual violence advocates have long been aware of the potential for police involvement to escalate or worsen emergent situations. Justice Teams Network, a California-based coalition of organizations dedicated to ending state violence, offers toolkits for communities seeking to create their own, non-police-based responses to crises. Abolitionist groups like Critical Resistance and Survived and Punished have also been dreaming alternatives to carceral responses for some time. Ideas about alternatives to police response are not new — though a new and broader awareness of these issues does seem to be catching fire. 

We must continue to push for changes in what crisis response looks like, and we must continue to look to and trust the leadership of the communities that have been doing this critical work for years. People in crisis deserve better. They deserve #HelpNotDeath.

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