Humanizing The Mentally Ill And Those Who Deal With Them

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we are all human beings.

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Last month I started working on a new project investigating veterans mental health issues and how they are currently being addressed and handled. I began gathering information for the story, including hearing from veterans who had experienced negative encounters with law enforcement resulting from a wellness or welfare check. While I had prepared myself for the emotional roller coaster that things like this can be I hadn’t anticipated it having such a profound effect on me so early on in the process. I foolishly didn’t consider the possibility that this might be a trigger for me.

Over the course of the years that my brother was alive I had to make the difficult choice on a few occasions to call 911 because I feared for my brother’s health and safety. One of these incidents happened a little over a decade ago, when he came knocking on my door one night shortly after I had gone to bed. I had to get up for work in the morning. I knew that something was wrong as soon as I opened the door. It was an unannounced visit and he appeared to be somewhat distressed. As he walked inside he told me that he had yet another fight with his girlfriend and that she had kicked him out, leading to him swallowing a large quantity of Gravol tablets. The instant he told me that my imediate instinct was to call 911 to have EMS take hom to the hospital, but I also knew that members of the Calgary Police Service would also be attending the call.

Naturally he was pissed off at me for having done that, but at the time I thought it was the right thing to do. I still do. It was a constable from the Calgary Police Service that first arrived at the door. A few minutes later he was joined by another couple of CPS members followed very shortly thereafter by EMS, who would take him out to the waiting ambulance to pump his stomach before leaving for the hospital. Ryan was always cooperative with the police whenever he ecountered them, prefering to remain calm and somewhat agreeable rather than get agitated and mouthy (or violent). One of the constables had engaged in a conversation with my brother, I’m not sure what it was about but when it came to my brother it was probably something about himself.

When I was asked if I would be going to the hospital with my brother I of course said yes. I had put him into the situation that he had found himself in so the least I could do was keep him company. I wasn’t able to ride in the ambulance with Ryan and would be getting a ride with the first constable that showed up that night. I shifted myself over to the middle of the back seat of the cruiser so that I could clearly see the back of the ambulance which was parked directly in front it. The doors were open and I could see that my brother talking to someone casually, probably one of the EMT’s. The black smudges of activated charcoal on his face told me that they had already pumped his stomach though he appeared to be having a pleasant enough conversation despite this. After less than a minute the doors closed and I settled back to wait for the ride to the hospital thankful for having these cops show up. They talked with my brother and were treating him with dignity and compassion. From where I was sitting I could also clearly see the computer that they used to communicate with dispatch and other units, the screen facing me enough to read the entire thing clearly. As we waited to leave for the hospital a message appeared on the screen that I couldn’t believe I was reading at first. It would leave me feeling disillusioned, stunned, gutted, and perhaps even a little bit heartbroken.

Overworked and ignored, front-line Calgary police describe an organization  in crisis | CBC News

You owe me a coffee at break for dealing with this idiot.

I sat there trying to understand what it was that I was seeing. Was this message intended for the constable in this car? Who is this idiot? I simply couldn’t comprehend that the people who only moments before had performed so well, who were the “heroes”, had turned out to be nothing but assholes, at least one of them was anyway. I got my answer when the constable noticed that I was able to read the screen and quickly turned it away, though I did manage to see that he told the sender of the message to hold off on communicating via that method. That told me then everything I needed to know. It was all a facade, they really thought that my brother was some kind of a joke, an idiot. It was a quiet ride to the hospital and I suspect the driver was quite aware that I had seen what had been written on his screen.

It took everything I had to keep the tears at bay, the bitter tears of heartbreak mixed with the hot tears of anger and rage. I wasn’t sure whether or not I would say something to the constable when we arrived at the hospital, or perhaps dig into my pockets to throw whatever loose change I had at him. “Here, buy your partner a fucking cup of coffee for having to put up with such an idiot. Sorry you had to put up with my brother the mental midget, asshole. Next time I’ll be sure to save myself the humiliation and just let him fucking die, how about that?”

I never told a soul about this until recently. I wasn’t about to tell my brother or my mother about what was said, it would serve no purpose other than to hurt them, and it was simply too humiliating for me to tell anyone else. I then buried it deep inside the vault hoping that someday I might forget about it, which I had managed to do for quite a while. When I began working on my newest project the memory came flooding back, and whenever I thought about it I would start to cry, unable to hold the emotions at bay no matter how much I tried.

I would need to get past this in order to move on with things so I began to reach out, and started to talk about it with my inner circle. I knew that I would be writing about this as part of the process, so I sat and had a rather difficult talk with my mom. I could tell by the look in her eyes and the fact she lit a cigarette as I was talking that she had been hurt and disappointed, and it was hard for me to see that even though I knew damn well that they would be there. We talked about it for some time. At the time he passed away my brother was before the courts, and it was a matter of stress for all of us. My mom told me that there was one cop who really supported Ryan, spending hours talking with him and even appearing in court on my brother’s behalf on his day off. This is someone who went the extra mile for my brother and if I knew who he was I would definitely buy him a coffee for showing genuine compassion and humanity for my brother in his time of greatest need.

We both also realize that police have a very difficult job sometimes and that some people may deal with things in a flippant or seemingly uncaring manner. For the most part this is not being done intentionally, it’s simply a way of coping with the things that they see on a daily basis. Sometimes in order to make sure that they do not get hurt emotionally, people will use humor or some other means of coping with certain situations. Sometimes they don’t even realize that they are doing it. To be fair the constable who made the remark had no idea that I was able to read it, and was letting off some steam with his colleagues. Looking back through the years I know that I have been guilty of this myself, making light of something and completely losing sight of the fact that it was happening to another human being who deserved the same dignity as I.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this experience. First, for law enforcement or anyone who deals with the mentally ill regularly, it is so important to remember that the mentally ill are humans too, just as worthy of your respect and compassion as anyone else. There is also a lesson in this for the citizens of society, to remember that first responders aren’t superhuman. We expect them to be there for us when times are at their very worst, to rescue us and be our heroes and lifesavers in moments of crisis. This takes an enormous toll on them both physically and psychologically, and we should be ever grateful to them for doing the things that they do for us. We also need to recognize that they are human beings as well, and remember to cut them a bit of slack every now and then.

Things are obviously far from perfect but they are quite capable of improving. Police need the resources to be able to deal with an ever increasing number of calls involving the mentally ill and they certainly do not need to be defunded. They need every bit of funding that they can get, along with advocacy groups for the mentally ill.

One day I’m going to buy a cop a cup of coffee to thank him or her for what they do. But I will also tell them about my brother and to remind them that every person, mentally ill or not, has a story and deserves to be treated woth dignity and respect. I would encourage everyone to do this. In a world gone mad, it can go a long way towards making things just a little bit better in our little corner of it.

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