Screwdrivers and Schizophrenia

If a suspect points a gun at an officer, that officer is allowed to shoot.

But what if the suspect points a screwdriver?

Meet Keith Vidal, an 18-year-old boy with a screwdriver—and schizophrenia. In January 2014, Keith had a schizophrenic episode that his parents could not handle on their own. In order to get him to the hospital, his stepdad called 911 and asked for police assistance.

After ten minutes of arriving on the scene, two officers managed to calm Keith down and earn his cooperation. The situation was under control—until a third police officer arrived. 70 seconds later, Keith Vidal had been tased twice, shot in the chest, and killed.

Meet Jason Harrison, a 39-year-old man with a screwdriver and bipolar schizophrenia. He was off his medication, and, like with Keith, his mom called the police to help get him to the hospital.

The responding officer’s police cameras show that the scene was initially calm: after they knocked on the door, Harrison’s mom came out with her purse, leading her son to the car. Jason followed her calmly, but hesitated in the doorway while he fiddled with a screwdriver.

The police officers began yelling at him to drop the screwdriver. 5 seconds after the first command was issued, Jason had been shot 5 times. Two of the times were in the back.

You can watch the video here in case you’re worried I downplayed the threat Jason posed with the screwdriver or exaggerated the officers’ response.

I’ll give you a hint: I didn’t.

(And the video will make you sick).

———

There are lots of reasons people don’t receive the mental healthcare they need.

Lack of availability.

Lack of resources.

A distinct non-lack of stigma.

But imagine, for a moment, if one of those reasons was that you might be killed.

We have come a long way in the public view of mental health. Hashtags like #endthestigma and #mentalhealthawareness permeate a world that is otherwise filled with celebrity pics, politically-motivated hatred, and cat videos. More people are talking about mental disorders like depression and anxiety than ever before—and that’s definitely cause for celebration.

But progress hasn’t reached every corner of our broken mental healthcare system. One of the persistent problems that plagues our mental healthcare system is how intricately our treatment for psychosis is woven into our criminal justice system. And I’m not just talking about the number of the criminals who have mental illness, or that our largest mental healthcare provider is a prison—I’m also talking about how police are called remove a homeless man from a street corner, simply because the fact he’s having a conversation with himself makes passersby feel uncomfortable. I’m talking about how we don’t have a better way to deal with individuals with severe mental illnesses than to call the same people we call to report crime.

I’m talking about how families who need help getting their son to a hospital can, in a matter of minutes, need help getting their son to the morgue.

I’m talking about how, if you have any mental illness, you’ll find yourself faced with stigma, disbelief, and (often) difficult-to-access treatment—and if you have psychotic condition, you’ll find your default “treatment” is in prison or a homeless shelter.

And if you have a screwdriver?

Our broken mental healthcare system literally kills.

 

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