Illegal Minds

Daniel by Sam Burriss

Illegal Minds

a reflection on decriminalizing mental illness

A few weeks ago, I was attacked by a homeless, mentally unstable Black man in Washington Square Park in Philadelphia. While immediately distressing, the incident itself became more discouraging for someone who desires and openly supports better mental health policies and support for homeless folks. The immediate question asked of me following being seen by a medic on site following the attack was whether or not I would press charges against my attacker.

It's absurd to think that a person suffering from both mental illness and drug addiction deserves to be imprisoned, let alone would survive in the harrowing carceral system given the severity of their combined illnesses.

I declined and explained that I didn't think it would be fair or ultimately even practical. But I also wanted to consider what the implications are that someone would want to imprison someone with mental illness. There is an inherent cognitive dissonance that blankets those who are neurotypical in society; it is a gross privilege to be able to dehumanize and vilify someone based on their subconscious.

The shortage of mental health facilities with intake care has already exacerbated the mental health crisis we're experiencing in the U.S. This is why we see so many homeless people who are mentally unstable--particularly in Philadelphia where most of them were at one time in a facility that has since closed. And when you consider that potentially 3.4% of the population (that's 8 million folks) in the U.S. have serious psychological distress, you can start to see the real cause of the stigma surrounding mental illness starts with the fact that we do not offer decent support for individuals who suffer with mental illness.

Various Black people (Joshua Barre, Charleena Lyles, Laquan McDonald, and Saheed Vassel to name a heartbreaking few) have had their mental illness criminalized to the degree that they were murdered. These were all instances where the officers knew prior to arriving on the scene that these people were mentally ill. I don't believe there's any reason to place resources into training police to become more adapt to handle individuals who suffer with mental illness because I know for a fact that would be a waste of those resources.

But there absolutely does need to be an allocation of resources to develop more psychiatric centers that focus on legitimate rehabilitation, more places that focus on re-establishing patients with the world at large so that once they are released, they'll be self-sufficient and have resources to stay that way. 

We cannot change the world overnight but we can change our communities in a year and that can transition into informing and re-structuring the national scope of mental health resources, provider services and insurance. Our communities will always improve themselves from within when we can utilize strong leadership, planning and financing. The best thing to do is donate volunteer time, raise money and awareness for groups that already do this work. You can learn more about groups specific to Philadelphia below:

+ Prison Society

+ Amachi

+ Healthy Minds Philly

+ Project Transition