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Justice for All?

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On my honor,
I will never betray my badge,
my integrity, my character,
or the public trust.
I will always have
the courage to hold myself
and others accountable for our actions.
I will always uphold the constitution
my community and the agency I serve.

These words are the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor. Beautiful words, but are all officers living them in daily life? That is debatable. Don't get me wrong. I am so grateful for the police officers that do live these words and take them to heart. We need our officers, many of whom have sacrificed their lives in the name of keeping our communities and our country safe.

But, it seems that in some cases, some officers feel that there are exceptions to this oath. One exception seems to be with the mentally ill. How do I know this? I know this because I have a mental illness, and have at times experienced police officers making such exceptions.

I want to first explain the type of mental illness that I have. I am diagnosed Bipolar II. I have had highs and lows, been in and out of the hospital, and have at times had suicidal thoughts, which I acted on once in my 36 years of life. I have NEVER been a danger to others.

In the last decade, I have been stable, and have not seen the inside of a hospital for most of that time. I work full-time training mental health professionals at a prominent university in NYC. I also have my own life-coaching practice, and am starting my Ph.D. in the fall in Psychiatric Rehabilitation. In short, I'm working hard to make a difference. Before my diagnosis, I was an honors student, a varsity cheerleader, and a loving member of my family and community.

Yet, a few times during my struggles, the police had to be summoned to bring me to the hospital, because I wasn't willing to go on my own. Why? Because, quite frankly, psychiatric hospitals are undesirable places to be. You lose your freedom and are locked away for weeks at a time with other people who are struggling. You have to sit through meaningless groups, and your whole life is disrupted. But this is not a blog about hospitals.

I'd like to lay out a scene for you. I am living in New Hampshire, where I am an Americorps Volunteer. I am 23 years old. I start to experience the delusion that I need to go back to New Jersey to save the world. I get into my car on an icy December day. I'm slipping and sliding on the road, so I pull over. Soon after, the police pick me up. The start to question me: Are you on any illegal substances? No, I say. Where are you going? Home, I say. They pull me out of the car, and tell me that they are going to take me to the hospital. I start to protest, because I know how awful those places can be. Then the strait jacket comes out. Now, I'm locked in it, being wheeled with police escorts into the ER. Everyone is in the ER is looking. The police officers appointed to "guard" me are cracking jokes with each other. "Looks like we've got a live one," they say. "Taking her to the looney bin," they say. I am utterly humiliated; a humiliation that doesn't leave me until they inject me with a sedative against my will in the ER. Then, everything goes numb and dark until I wake up alone in an unfamiliar hospital in New Hampshire.

This is just one of many times that I have experienced this type of treatment -- the same treatment that a criminal might experience. In my opinion, this treatment is even worse because there's more room to mock someone who is completely vulnerable, and acting in "odd" ways.

I read the other day the story of Jason Harrison, a schizophrenic man who was recently killed by the police in Dallas after his mother called them to help her get him to a hospital. It brought me back to my own experience as a mentally ill woman being mistreated by the police. My heart goes out to Jason and his family. It's hard enough on families who struggle with a mentally ill son -- they don't need the additional trauma of watching their son be killed by police officers for no good reason.

Again, I am not anti-officer. I believe in complying with the law, and respecting the men and women who work day and night to protect our safety. But, I do think that some of these men and women need training on how to deal compassionately with people with mental illness. People fear what they don't know. The fact is that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime. As a person who was never dangerous, I didn't need the trauma and humiliation of being placed in strait jackets, injected with things, and mocked by the very people that I was looking to for help. And Jason Harrison didn't need to die. He needed treatment, help, and compassion. Our country was founded on the principle of "liberty and justice for ALL." This doesn't mean all people without mental illness, this means ALL people. Let's train our police officers to understand mental illness, and know what to do when they get a call to help someone who is struggling with it.