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Right To Be Safe - Mental Health Awareness

A young Black man, Jordan Neely, recently died at the hands of another civilian during a scuffle on a public train system. As a result of the fight, a life is now gone. Witnesses on the train seem to acknowledge and support the person who took the life, Daniel Penny. These same witnesses seem to claim that the now deceased individual was yelling and throwing trash while onboard the New York train car. The questions are, how did we arrive here? Is it ever acceptable to take another person's life, albeit by accident? Lastly, when are we finally going to seriously not just talk about the mental health epidemic in today’s society, but rather take active measures to remedy it?

The Tragedy

Mental health and what to do about it is a vastly different discussion than what to do about treating people with mental illness that refuse to be treated? We know statistics show that most people suffering from mental illness are not violent, yet we as a society seem to be complacent with allowing individuals with mental illness to roam freely around in unsafe conditions and risk exposure to harmful situations. On the other side of the argument, because we do not know what to do with this population, we end up incarcerating them instead of examining what, if any crime they are committing, and how to correct or rehabilitate them.

Most often some sort of treatment needs to be involved which may or may not involve medication. The issue can become for some families dealing with this that their loved ones do not want to be treated at all. The dilemma we are left to address involves getting people the help that they need even when they do not realize they need it. The fact remains that resources are not always readily available to marginalized communities. Additionally, there may exist cultural stigmas that are attached to dealing with loved ones who have mental illness or even recognizing that they have it.

A tragedy such as the one involving the now deceased Mr. Neely may have been avoided if the person that took the life, Daniel Penny, walked away. Others who are advocating that soft policies on crime cause chaos say it is elected officials' fault for not addressing the rampant issue of homelessness and mental illness. These same advocates say the conditions are making commuters and members of society unsafe and are ripe for more incidents of people wrongfully taking the law into their own hands. There are no easy solutions to this problem, however, talking the same rhetoric and throwing money around solves nothing.

One city dedicated millions of dollars to fight mental illness yet nothing tangible was done. No new beds opened up in local hospitals, or state run hospitals, and there were no new outpatient treatment programs for those suffering from mental illness. Instead, those suffering as victims because of their illness or who become perpetrators are not getting help. Instead they become part of a revolving door system that fails to provide a treatment plan or permanent resolution before releasing them back into society.

The Need

All members of society have the right to feel safe and have access to treatments. Our society’s mental health issues further highlight the deficiencies within providing access to basic human needs such as food, shelter, and medical treatment. No one wants to tackle the issue of treating people with mental health conditions that do not want to be treated, however, at some point it has to be done. There are various programs that do wonderful work with people battling mental health and these programs should be supported more. Additionally, mental health facilities that were closed should be reimagined and reopened because prisons are not equipped to address mental illness.

We know there should be increased access to mental health services, however, there also needs to be a measured approach that can focus on prevention and early intervention. We have routine physicals for pap smears, colonoscopies, and other pre-screening tests, yet there is insufficient mental health screening. In the case of this particular incident, Jordan Neely suffered a traumatic episode involving the murder of his mother when he was a teen. How many countless other individuals are living with unprocessed trauma or PTSD, and are homeless? This is particularly an issue in communities of color and was further heightened by the events of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will take a unified effort across all mediums including healthcare, our education system, places of worship, community partners, and leadership to address the mental health epidemic. It will also take action in leadership to improve and address social determinants of mental health that require improvements to affordable and safe housing, quality education, sustainable employment, and access to treatment. Community leaders and officials making investments in these areas will allow for the development of more community based organizations and their funding.

This can further lead to a network of groups partnering with faith based organizations, and advocacy groups or other non profits that can create support and resources for those struggling with mental health issues. They can provide peer mentoring and follow up so that individuals and their families are not left on their own. We cannot ignore the fact that desperate individuals, those experiencing poverty, homelessness, and have physical or mental issues have no place on the streets. Every human being deserves the basic right of food, shelter, access to clean water, and clothes. These are not luxuries, they are birth rights particularly in a modern society.

There is no arguing that the system failed Jordan Neely before he reached adulthood. The same family that is speaking out now after his death may have failed him as well. It can be concluded that more resources need to be created for someone that may not recognize they need help. Society must address this issue head on instead of waiting for the next tragedy to occur.

Vigilantism is never a correct thing and almost only excusable in self defense. It should not be a citizens job to restrain or intervene in a violent attack or fight. Additionally, the perception of what might have happened may not be enough to justify this tragedy. Have we become a society that devalues life? Just a few weeks before Mr. Neely’s murder in New York, the famous MET gala was held in the same city. Patrons came out and spent upwards of fifty thousand dollars per ticket to honor Karl Lagerfeld, a man some say was not worthy to be honored. All that money raised in one night for the arts, yet as a society, we cannot solve the homeless or mental health issues and claim more funding is needed. Let that thought sink in when you hear community leaders allege they cannot solve this without more funding.

If you or someone you know may need assistance with a mental health issue, contact your medical provider if you have one and if not, check with your local department of health for resources in your area. Remember one does not have to suffer alone, and we all have the basic human right to be treated fairly and equitably and have access to treatments that can literally save our lives.


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