Alfred Saunders, a man with bi-polar disorder was shot to death by Minneapolis police this month. He was the third mentally ill person in Hennepin County to be killed by the police this year. We don’t know all the details, but it seems that Al was in a manic phase of his illness, hadn’t slept, eaten, taken his meds or even drunk water in some days, and was crashing fast. His family, worried for his health, tried to help him get some help but with no luck. And because of what had already happened twice before this year, and because he was acting erratically, and because he was black, they even alerted the police department, asking them to look out for Al, telling them that he was not a danger to others, but was in a bad place with his illness. For some reason Al drove around town that morning in his car over to the Augsburg area, where he was spotted by a security guard driving slowly but dangerously. Minneapolis police followed him back to his neighborhood, blocked his car in the alley, and when they approached his car, said that he hit the gas and tried to run them over. They believed they were in danger and fired on him, killing him there in the alley, within sight of his home.
I wasn’t there, so I can’t second guess the police’s actions. I can’t imagine how hard their job must be, or with what split-second decisions they have to make regarding life and death situations. But as a consumer of 30 +
years, I’ve had my share of experiences with the police. I’ve seen how their “us vs them” attitudes stop any chance of communication. How every situation they run into becomes a power struggle, with very few acceptable outcomes
available. I’ve seen how their past experiences have conditioned them to be full of fear and anger, clouding their judgments. I know these situations well both from my personal experiences with the police, but also because
these issues are similar to those that I’ve personally fought with my own mental illness. The “me against the world” attitude, the power struggles with medical professionals, family, employers, the conditioning that comes with stigma, I’ve experienced all of those, and have constantly worked to stop them from poisoning my life.
As President of Hennepin County National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, I’ve been asked to join a team of mental health experts to meet with the Minneapolis Police, to try and work unjudgementally with them, to find common
ground, develop a new vocabulary, explore new tactical options, to try and develop a relationship between them and Minnesota’s mental health community. I am hopeful about this collaboration and the interest they have shown in educating themselves about this disease that is at epidemic levels. The police are often the first line of contact for people with mental illness. We need to work together to make that first contact one of care, understanding and medical assistance, instead of a contact of trauma, judgment and humiliation. I believe that as a team of police, mental health professionals, consumers and family members, we can work on a new awareness and understanding that will help everyone.
When I heard on the TV that Mr. Saunders had been killed, I was lying on my couch, battling pneumonia, and I was so tired and fatigued and out of it, that I just sighed, feeling this empty pit inside of me, said to myself, “Oh, God, not again,” and then changed the channel. A couple of nights later, still lying on my couch, I heard on the TV that Al’s family and neighbors had attended a rally in Al’s defense and memory, and I felt so ashamed at my lack of energy and caring, and that I hadn’t attended it or even heard about it, that I started crying.
I’d never met Alfred Saunders, he wasn’t a member of my Hennepin County NAMI group, I didn’t have any contact with his family or friends. But as President of Hennepin NAMI, a mental health leader in Minneapolis, he was one of mine. And I remembered that all of those homeless mentally ill people, starving in boxes or freezing under bridges, are mine. And all the thousands of consumers in the hospitals and day treatments and half-way houses and residences, are mine. And all the family members, praying for their loved ones, living day to day with that sick feeling in their stomachs worrying if their loved ones are OK or will even live till Christmas, are mine. And all the people with mental illness in the jails and prisons and work houses battling this illness that has turned them in wrong
directions, are mine. And all those suffering dual diagnosis of substance abuse with their MI, are mine. And all the kids in high schools or colleges, feeling desperate and alone, are mine. And all the executives in the high-rise office buildings, hiding their depression in shame and fear of discrimination, are mine. And I have to remember that helping them is why I’ve gone through the struggles I’ve had, and that the reason that I’m on this earth is because they’re mine. And they’re yours,too.