Why We're to Blame for the Seattle Shooting of a Pregnant Mother

Two days ago Seattle police officers shot and killed a 30-year-old mentally ill woman who called to report a burglary. Pregnant with her fifth child, three of her four children were in the apartment when the shooting occurred.

There is so much to this story that breaks our hearts. First being the children who witnessed their mother killed at the hands of officers dedicated to protecting society. Second being her family who is left to understand why some other force wasn't used. Third being the police officers who did as they were trained. Their safety—and that of others in the apartment, including the children—were threatened when the woman lunged with a knife.

Perhaps saddest of all is that the entire crux of this call is a symptom of a larger problem.

A 30-year-old mother of four lost her life because of mental illness.

Charleena Lyles
Charleena Lyles

Ironically, today is the release of our newest book Real Life Diaries: Living with Mental Illness featuring firsthand accounts of what it’s like to live with schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, anxiety, dissociative identity disorder, trichotillomania, and more. But instead of celebrating, I feel a deep sense of sadness. And guilt.

If only we had shared these stories sooner. Would the firsthand insight been enough to promote better understanding and prevent Sunday’s shooting? Would these stories have spared the children witnessing such a horrific death?

But I’m not to blame. We all are.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 40 million people experience some form of mental illness each year. A physical illness of the brain, it’s nondiscriminatory, and can affect anyone—teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, the famous, the working class, the poor, and the homeless.

A critical component of understanding the heart of any matter begins with firsthand viewpoints. Media articles and news headlines cite research and professional cases. Are those important? Of course. But to get a comprehensive picture of a problem, those findings need to be coupled with firsthand accounts from non-clinical perspectives. Hence, publishing “Real Life Diaries: Living with Mental Illness.”

If a mental illness is left untreated, the mind becomes unstable, but that doesn't mean 40 million people are now a threat to the public. Not every terrorist is mentally unstable. And not every person living with mental illness is a threat.

How, then, did we fail a young mother with four children? And why are we to blame?

Mental illness is heavily stigmatized, making many too ashamed to seek help.

Medication is out-priced for many who need it.

Hospital beds for the mentally ill are scarce and hard to come by.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have too many patients, or are unaffordable and unattainable.

Hospitals treat patients with physical disorders and release them when they're stable. Too often, mentally ill patients are turned away at the door, no matter how unstable they are. Like other highly specialized illnesses, they need specialized beds. But because the system is so badly broken, the demand for those beds far outweighs availability, leaving many mentally ill patients without the treatment they need, and too unstable to work. No income means no health insurance. Hospitals can absorb only so many charity cases.

People are demanding answers to what went wrong in Seattle. Some will blame police brutality. Others will say it was a racial issue. But the crux of this case is mental illness.

And yes—we’re to blame.

Society as a whole let this woman and her family down. The system is broken and nobody’s listening.

When the mentally ill advocate for themselves, their cries fall on deaf ears. And when things go wrong, they go terribly wrong like it did in Seattle.

It’s up to us to fix it by using our voices and sharing our stories to advocate for those who can’t.

It’s up to us to start listening.

The lives of 40 million people—and that of future generations—depend on it.

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