Our Brush with Homeland Security: Can Better Understanding of Mental Illness be Legislated?

June 21, 2002. JFK airport in New York. Just nine months after September 11th, my friend and I have just been asked to disembark our flight to California by the airline's head of security. My jaw is a vice. I grind my teeth. It's 9:00 a.m.

My friend, Sam, is also the subject of my first feature-length documentary, A Summer in the Cage. The film chronicles Sam's battle with manic-depressive illness, also known as bipolar disorder. I'm traveling with Sam that June of 2002 while he is in the midst of a delusional, paranoid manic episode. He has spent the last two hours with his shirt off, genuflecting in front of the jetway, praising God, and swaying back and forth. He's 6'7" and weighs 300 pounds.

When we finally board another flight, I spend the next seven hours trying to contain his psychological torrent. Sam praises Osama bin Laden (in the context of fighting for what he believes, however unpopular). He accuses passengers of being armed federal air marshals sent to capture him. The in-flight film, I Am Sam, unglues him as he begins to audibly bawl over the coincidence and poignancy of Sean Penn playing a mentally challenged father named "Sam." Eventually, we finally arrive in Los Angeles where five policemen are waiting to take Sam into custody for his alarming behavior.

Fortunately, I was with Sam that day to explain what was going on to flight attendants, passengers, and eventually the LAPD (they took Sam to a mental health facility instead of to jail and possibly worse with the climate of federal legislation on terrorism). It was one of many moments throughout the course of shooting my film where being a filmmaker was sacrificed so that I could help Sam as a friend. Had I not been accompanying Sam, the episode could very well have ended up like the bloody gun battle that happened to Sam's beloved Oakland Raiders player, Barrett Robbins, who also suffers from bipolar disorder. During a manic episode in Miami, Robbins was shot by the police after he took on several Miami policemen who wanted to arrest him for trespassing. It is imperative that we better educate both the police and medical responders of the symptoms and manifestations of mental illnesses so tragic conflicts and misunderstandings like these can be avoided in the future.

In addition, a better understanding of mental illness needs to extend beyond first-responders to the criminal justice system that is faced with a growing number of people with mental illnesses. According to Human Rights Watch and Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, "Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates" (2006), "the rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater (56.2 percent) than in the general adult population (11 percent)." The stresses involved in navigating the penal system can severely exacerbate the symptoms of a mental illness. The pressures of lock-up, confinement, isolation, intimidation, sanitary conditions, and the mercurial pace of adjudication create an environment where detainees with mental illnesses are set to fail. Unfortunately, these symptoms of mental illness are often not recognized or understood by the prison staff, leading to violent outbursts or unnecessary harsh treatments and punishments for the unstable inmates. If we want to instill proper rehabilitation and start breaking the cycle of recidivism that faces those who suffer from mistreated mental illnesses, our prisons must be better equipped to recognize and properly treat mentally ill inmates. (Pete Earley's Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness is an excellent personal and journalistic inquiry into the penal and court systems' failings, contradictions and inhumanities).

Sam and I were lucky that day when we got off the plane. I was educated on bipolar disorder and the symptoms of mania. I know Sam as a loving and peaceful person who suffers from a mental illness and I was able to convey that to the LA police officers. But I have witnessed and read about countless instances of first responders who misunderstand the symptoms of mental illness to tragic results. I hope that my film, and others like it, can help spark interest and motivate people to better educate themselves about the symptoms and signs of mental illnesses. With that knowledge, I hope that viewers will encourage legislators to support increased education and training for the first responders and correctional officers that are increasingly coming into contact with people suffering from mental illnesses.

A Summer in the Cage will air on Sundance Channel at 9 p.m. EST Monday, October 22, 2007 check local listings. More information about bipolar disorder and the film can be found here.