Public Comment

Social institutions vs. the individuals in crisis

By Steve Martinot
Thursday September 26, 2013 - 01:19:00 PM

The question of mental health, and a certain problem with respect to the growing number of people whose mental health is in disarray, or in trouble, was brought to public attention recently by the death of Kayla Moore. Kayla Moore was a transgender man, living as a woman, who experienced a mental health crisis, and died in police custody when the police responded to an emergency call for help. Instead of offering assistance (crisis intervention) to someone in dire need, they attempted to arrest him on an outstanding warrant.

The questions this event raised with respect to how we deal with mental health crises were, first, why police were called to respond to a mental health emergency, and second, why police are not trained in crisis intervention, so that they can tell the difference and offer assistance to those who need it, rather than mechanically exercise the controlling force of arresting someone. When unable to tell the difference, what the police then do in effect is punish a person for needing help.  

Kayla Moore accepted his existence as a woman, as his sexual orientation. Yet he was subjected to emotional crises, starting in his early teens, that were characterized by forms of overwhelming fear. It is possible that the harassment and disparagement he faced in school played a role in this. By the time he was 20, he did what many suffering from such problems do, he turned to drugs. His sister, Maria Moore, has said that the drugs tended to rebalance him. His mood swings and fears tended to diminish.  

Much of the discussion around this incident has highlighted the fact that there is very little assistance that this society provides for those with mental health problems. In particular, the police are trained to control, and to regiment people to their commands. Those police officers who respond to situations requiring humane treatment rather than militarized obedience to force need to be trained to leave their disciplinary attitudes at the door.  

All this comes into sharp focus when we recognize that Kayla had become obese, and thus was not a person who could offer serious combat to the police when he opened the door for them on the night of Feb. 12, 2013 – his last. Alone with the police in his own apartment, by midnight that night he was dead. Neighbors claim that they heard screams from his apartment for a number of minutes, and then silence.  

These issues were addressed at a townhall meeting on May 30, at the Media Center on Addison St.. The man who runs that center, Paul Kealoha Blake, is on the city’s Mental Health Commission. At this meeting, he reported that the next day after Moore’s death, he went to the Police Review Commission, where Police Chief Meehan made a statement about the incident. Blake simply asked “what happened?” and got no answer. He then reported that it took three months to get an answer to that simple question.  

For three months, the Mental Health Commission discussed the problem of what happened, and how to respond in non-militaristic ways. City Council has still not come up with any proposals, nor has it adopted any of the ideas that the many citizen’s meetings, or organizations involved with the issue, have proposed.  

In the city of Berkeley, there are three people on the city payroll who are trained in Crisis Intervention. They only work during the day. In the absence of trained counselors being available, the city, through the police, falls back on technologies of restraint, to be applied at will by the police. The fact that this is inappropriate is indicated by the lack of transparency on the part of the police. To make matters worse, the police think that, for them, a proper alternative would be to use tasers (which are torture instruments). This actually suggests that they are not interested in being trained to deal with mental health crises in a humane way. A woman from San Francisco at the Media Center meeting spoke about their struggle to prevent the police from getting tasers in that city, for precisely that reason.  

Part of the problem is the social attitude toward people with mental health issues. Those with such problems get stigmatized, stereotyped, and disparaged by people and by authorities. They are told something is wrong with them, and they have to be "fixed." Perhaps the police feel that they are the ones to "fix" things. But as one participant in this meeting mentioned, to lay harsh and controlling hands on a person in the midst of a crisis is to commit an act that can only be perceived as hostile, and thus requiring self-defense – which the police call “being combative.” 

A significant presentation was given at the meeting by Sharon Kuehn, Program Manager for an organization in Oakland called “Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services,” or simply "Peers," for short. It is part of a movement toward self-help by those afflicted. Its main position is that a person be valued, even when in the midst of an "episode" -- that is, that they need not and should not be "conquered" or diminished by those in authority. 

She spoke of what is called “emotional CPR.” It is an approach to people whose fundamental purpose is to remove the sense of fear that envelops a person in crisis. It is based on three principles: first, connecting with the person positively (valuing them), in a non-derogatory way; second, empowering the person, recognizing and aiding the person to recognize their own self-worth; and third, revitalizing the person, discussing and offering alternatives to their present situation that build on their own inner resources. 

She said that this self-help movement now runs mental health crisis centers in about 20 states. They also run safe houses that offer welcoming space and the presence of trained peer specialists for those in mental health crises, or for people to just come in and talk with someone understanding. 

What her organization offers is the possibility that a peer person could (and should) accompany first responders to a mental health crisis situation. This would be much more cost effective than “calling for backup,” struggling to arrest, putting the person in restraints, taking them to jail, and setting a court date. Not to mention possibly killing them. As Blake mentioned, this society’s response to people with mental health issues is to criminalize them by throwing them in jail. "Peers" offers an alternative. 

As an addendum, on April 30, two and a half months after Kayla Moore’s death, because a police report still had not been issued, the family and friends went to the City Council, to demand an explanation. It was a highly proper time for them to make this demand, since the Council was about to debate declaring May to be “Mental Health Month.” But when family members tried to speak, Mayor Bates insanely called the police to remove them from the room.