Mental Illness in the News: Some Questions

One of the notable headlines last week that wasn’t about a celebrity celebrity, ridiculous politician, or even the passing of a great and inspiring actor, concerned mental disorders and how society treats those who have them. Those of us who have or care about people with mental disorders may have noticed this story online:

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/02/truly-barbaric-florida-deputy-drags-mentally-ill-woman-through-courthouse-by-shackled-feet/#.VOyTNKh2Gbc.facebook

For those of you who haven’t read it or seen the video, here’s the gist. A woman, Ms. Rios, was declared mentally incompetent at a hearing for a minor offense and not allowed to say goodbye to her mother. She wanted to sit on a bench and cry for a bit. When she did not go promptly with the officer, he dragged her through the courthouse by her shackled feet. A video was taken on a cellphone camera by a lawyer who happened to be present, but had nothing to do with Ms. Rios’s case. If you watch the video clip you can see and hear her distress.

As the headline says, this was barbaric.

But there’s lots neither the headline nor the story says. I have questions.

What is the woman’s mental illness? Or why is she mentally incompetent? The stories vary, usually calling her “mentally ill,” which is shorter for the headline writers, but so far I have seen nothing more specific. One could get the impression that in the mind of the media – and therefore their readers – that the two terms mean the same thing. Was she medicated or unmedicated or off her prescribed meds? Does she have a developmental disability? An autism spectrum disorder? An emotional or behavioral disorder? We don’t know. But does whatever label make her automatically suspected of potential violence? The woman did not behave like an animal even when she was treated like one.

I think we all know people who have mental disorders but are still mentally competent to conduct their own affairs, up to and including court proceedings. In fact, I know you know one – me. I have bipolar disorder, type 2. But who among us, even the sanest and most stable of the general public, wouldn’t have needed to sit on a bench and cry before going to wherever the officer thought we should go? Who wouldn’t yell and protest and try to hold on to a table if we were dragged anywhere by our shackled feet?

Is that the way to calm someone who’s upset?

No?

Why is the officer’s action called “truly barbaric”? I’m not saying it wasn’t barbaric. But how was it more barbaric than other things routinely done to the incarcerated mentally ill (or incompetent)? Could it be “truly” barbaric instead of just regularly barbaric because the officer’s actions were caught on tape? How many everyday barbaric actions aren’t? And putting aside simple human compassion (which he did), didn’t the officer’s actions create a larger, potentially more dangerous disturbance with someone being dragged and thrashing about?

Why did the other officers present do nothing? You can see them on the video. They are spectators. No one says, “Hey, do you have to do that?” or “Give her a minute to calm down” or “Here, let me take care of this” or “You know, there are other ways to handle this” or even “Are you sure you want to do that with the camera rolling?” Nothing. Nada. Zippety. Doo-dah.

Why weren’t the officers and other courthouse personnel trained to handle situations like that? They obviously happen occasionally. Officers are (supposedly) trained to handle situations involving dangerous felons (which Ms. Rios wasn’t), domestic violence, and how to restrain suspects properly. Some even get sensitivity training on race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Where’s the training for interacting with the mentally ill (or mentally incompetent)? For de-escalating a situation instead of throwing gas on the fire? How about anger management before incidents like this one happen instead of after? Shouldn’t every law enforcement official be able to control or channel his or her anger and not take it out on the public?

Why the hell aren’t police officers required to wear body cameras – and have someone whose job it is to, oh, I don’t know, review the tapes occasionally? Certainly when there’s been a complaint, but spot checks might also do some good. Why are civilians subject to increasing surveillance, while law enforcement personnel – who are also civilians, by the way – perform their jobs with minimal oversight.

And why is the Golden Rule suspended when the “others” have a mental disturbance? I’d really like to know.

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