Defunding the police is also a mental health movement

I have said it many times before, and I will say it again: The current mental health stigma reduction movement is shallow. 

Every time another person ends their life, the conversation always surrounds “checking in on your loved ones” and “seeking help before it’s too late.” Stigma reduction education and mental health advocacy help reduce stigma, but pop culture too often dilutes the systemic issues that contribute to mental illness and suicide, such as homelessness. 

The movement also undermines the criminalization of mental illness. With election season in full swing, the media has brushed over the story of Walter Wallace Jr. On Oct. 26, Philadelphia officers shot Wallace Jr. multiple times when they were responding to a 911 call from his family. Wallace Jr. was experiencing a mental health crisis and the shooting took place just three days after he was discharged from a mental health crisis treatment center. According to the Philadelphia police commissioner, the police department also lacks a behavioral health unit and a way to coordinate police calls with medical specialists.

This tragedy serves as an unfortunate reminder that people with psychiatric illnesses are criminalized, maltreated and dehumanized in the modern carceral state. Ultimately, this prompts further discussion about the dissemination of funding to police departments. In order to work toward decriminalizing psychiatric illness, the police must be defunded nationwide to provide appropriate funding for mental health emergency services. 

Approaching this issue from a broader perspective, psychiatric illness has been historically criminalized since ancient Greece, where it was perceived as the “manifestation of evil spirits.” Today, the media exaggerates the role of mental illness in violent crimes — people with mental illness are actually more likely to be victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. Prisons and jails are now the nation’s largest psychiatric facilities, with approximately 10% of prisoners having a severe psychiatric illness. 

This does not mean that prisons are the largest psychiatric treatment facilities. The criminal justice system simply funnels people with psychiatric illnesses through jails and prisons with inadequate mental health care, after they are arrested due to symptoms of their mental illness. Studies have found that people with serious brain disorders are actually four times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct and threats than people without a mental illness. Plus, the risk of death from police intervention for people with mental illness is seven times greater than people without a mental illness.

This inequity among people with mental illness prompts a necessary reevaluation of the police’s role in mental health calls. In response to the current push to defund the police, activists offer social workers and mental health professionals as alternatives for mental health calls and other situations where the police lack appropriate training. However, defunding the police would be ineffective without acknowledging carceral social work. 

In a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, researchers identify carceral social work as social work’s collaboration with the police to uphold white supremacy and manage marginalized communities across different social work arenas, including mental health intervention. Virtually, carceral social work promotes collaboration between law enforcement and social workers as vital, but it ultimately feeds into the broader carceral state.   

If we want to defund the police in order to decriminalize mental illness, anti-carceral social work must be implemented. We cannot defund the police without having a plan to fund programs that do not perpetuate the current criminalization of psychiatric illness, nor continually abuse inmates with mental illness. It would make no sense — mental health calls would be handled by mental health professionals, but people who suffer from psychiatric illness would still be vulnerable to the nightmare of the carceral state. 

For a possible solution, the study proposed that social workers engage in workshops that educate them about the intertwining of policing in health care so they can develop crisis intervention skills and protect vulnerable communities, just as the Oakland Powers Project does. Defunding the police means funding programs such as this, which would diminish drastic mental health inequities and build trust within the communities most impacted by police brutality. 

One final note: Although this column will be published after election day, I am writing it before. If Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins, this is one prime example of how he must be held accountable. In their statement responding to the senseless death of Walter Wallace Jr., Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris dedicated more than half of it to condemning looting. Property should not be more valuable than human lives, but society continually treats it as such. We simply cannot afford this shallow thinking anymore. 

Matthew Eck is a junior writing about culturally relevant social issues. His column, “The Eck’s Factor,” ran every other Wednesday.