Alfred Olango, a Black disabled man, was murdered by police last September. Some news outlets are reporting that he was in a mental and/or physical health crisis. It’s more clear than ever that we need to be extremely thoughtful about calling the police and should literally do everything we can to keep the police from being called. When someone is having a mental health emergency the people around them may feel at a loss of what else to do. It’s important that we think about and create alternatives as we work towards a world without police. It is up to each of us to think about the safety risks that we are willing to take when someone is having a mental health emergency. But remember: people with mental health disabilities are ten times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators and only 3-5% of violent acts are by people with severe mental health issues.
Here are a few things to think about, and you can use what is helpful and discard what is not. This comes from my professional and personal experience as someone with mental health issues and working, loving, and living with others with mental health issues.
1. Harm Reduction
Harm reduction is a great model to use when thinking about mental health emergencies. One questions to ask is “how can I make this person or situation safer?” With a mental health emergency, the immediate goal is not for the person to be 100% okay, but for them to get to a place where they can utilize other resources. If they have weapons or other things that can escalate the situation, try to get them to let you hold the weapons. If they are having a crisis in public and you are worried the police may be called, try to get them somewhere private with their agreement.
2. What Are You Worried About?
I think the first question to ask yourself is what is the fear? Many times people in mental health crises will make other people uncomfortable, though there is no real actual fear of harm. Are you afraid that the person may kill themselves? You can learn how to support someone who is suicidal here. If you are worried that they may be a danger to other people, in what way? Will they use weapons? Can you make the situation safer in any way? Are you worried that they need more formal mental health treatment than you can give? That’s fine but not a reason to call the police. Are their delusions making you uncomfortable? Our own (internalized or not) ableism can often manifest as fear when it is actually just discomfort.
3. Reach Out to Your Community
We need community to create alternatives to police. However, some of us may have stronger communities than others. You don’t need to do this alone and reaching out to other people in the person is crisis’ community (or your community) can make all the difference. Are you out with a friend who is having a crisis and you can contact their partner or sibling who have a better idea of what to do? Can you create a schedule for friends to take turns sitting with someone who is feeling suicidal? We can do so much more together and don’t be afraid to ask people that you both trust for help. (Though do be mindful of privacy and other concerns).
4. (Thoughtfully) Use Resources
What resources are available to help? Does the person have medications that will be helpful? Are there “safe places” to go? Is the hospital a good option? Are there hotlines to call that can help? (Though some suicide hotlines will call the police if they feel there is imminent danger). Is there a safe inpatient facility in your area that they are willing to go to? If you don’t have a car is there someone that does who can help with transportation? Do they have a therapist that helps them?
5. Remember to Center the Person in Crisis
Remember that the person having the mental health crisis is a person and their wishes should be followed as much as is safe. The best intervention strategies will be things that the person buys into and is done voluntarily. Those of us with mental health issues have likely been traumatized by doctors and other practitioners not listening to us or doing things against our will. All of this is contextual and there are no absolutes, but think about trauma when you are considering what actions to take.
Through all this you should think about and consider your own safety. In the end it is up to each of us to decide what our boundaries our and what we are willing to risk for ourselves and our loved ones and the communities we are creating. I especially encourage my fellow white people to really think about how white privilege plays into a willingness to call police and to commit to not call the police on our own accord.
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