Thursday, August 11, 2022

If Our Goal Is To Help Our Fellow Humans

I arrived home from walking the dog, to find police cars, fire trucks, and an ambulance filling the city block just below my apartment window. In recent years, I've taken it on as a civic duty to get nosy about anything involving police activity, so instead of just staying out of the way, I got out my phone and got it ready to record. As I waited to cross Westlake Avenue, a young man excitedly told me that there was someone on the roof of my building, eleven stories up, threatening to "start a fire and jump." 

My first thought is to wonder if it was was someone from the building I know. One would need to gain access to the building and then use an elevator code to get up there, so it was likely that it was one of the 300 or so people who live in the building. 

I did what we all do, I think, when we consider suicide. I recognized how small my problems were compared to what this person was going through, I despaired about the tragedy of mental illness, I wondered if there was something I should be doing to help. I finally decided that the best thing I could do would be to just get out of the way and leave it to the professionals.

It wasn't until I was back in my apartment, the flashing blue and red lights just below me, that I thought to ask, "What professionals?"

Fire fighters, EMTs, and ambulance drivers aren't mental health professionals, and if the last decade has taught me anything, it's that your typical cop certainly isn't. If someone is threatening to start a fire and jump from the roof of a tall building, I can understand why you would want fire fighters and trained medical people on hand, but why police? I counted at least 10 officers milling around below me and just as many squad cars, including one larger, ominous looking van. From what I could determine, they were there for . . . What? Crowd control? Two of the police vehicles were being used to block off the roadway to traffic. Fair enough, but do we really need an army of well-armed men on the scene of an individual's mental health crisis? I can't imagine that their presence gave any sort of solace or peace to the poor man on the roof. 

As Mina Tobias, co-founder of the Don't MIND Me foundation, tells me at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, one in four families are directly impacted by mental illness, yet it's something we rarely talk about except, like I'm doing here, when it comes to a dramatic crisis. We look the other way. We sweep it under the rug and hope no one will notice. And this silence is deadly. Mina tells us the story of her brother Sylvester and her family's struggle to get him diagnosed and treated. "And we're some of the lucky ones," she says, pointing out that the stigma and fear surrounding mental illness combined with lack of funding leaves too many alone in a world. And alone in a world that does not understand mental illness, is a real and present danger. She recounts the time a SWAT team was called on her Black brother as he suffered from a bi-polar episode. Fortunately, the family was able to convince the officers that they could holster their weapons, but the vast majority aren't so lucky. They are left to fend for themselves against the army of police who arrive ready for battle when compassion is what's needed.

If you have to send an army of any kind to the scene of a potential suicide, wouldn't it make more sense to send in an army of mental health professionals, people trained in the art and science of talking people off of ledges? It occurred to me that I, as a preschool teacher, was probably better equipped to handle the situation than a cop: I've spent my entire career working with human beings in emotional moments. I even considered making my way to the roof of my building. What stopped me were all the guns. I was afraid of getting caught in crossfire or being mistakenly identified as a threat. I spent the rest of the afternoon anxiously anticipating, not the tragedy of a despondent fellow human throwing himself to his death, but rather the sound of gunshots. 

I'm left with asking why we persist in our irrational reliance on an armed response to mental illness and the answer I keep coming to is the one Mina talks about: we need to break the silence. We need to find a way to set aside our shame and fear about mental illness and normalize telling our own stories about mental illness. This is the mission of the Don't MIND Me foundation. It's fear and ignorance that causes us to resort to men with guns rather than mental health professionals. 

We need to rethink our nation's relationship with mental health and the place to start, I'm convinced, is with telling our own stories. That's what makes sense if our goal is to help our fellow humans. 


To watch my full interview with Mina, please join us August 13-17 for the free Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Compassion must be born anew with each generation and we are the midwives.

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