September 8, 2020

While mental health professionals, including art therapists, are specifically trained to address mental health crises, usually, people have no alternative but to call law enforcement to respond to mental health emergencies. An armed police officer responding to someone in a mental health crisis can escalate situations rapidly—and appallingly can end with deadly results. The risk for violence is further heightened when these encounters involve people of color, especially Black individuals. 

We were once again reminded of the need for mental health responses to mental health emergencies when body camera video was released in the horrific killing of Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man, by Rochester, New York police on March 23, 2020. Daniel’s brother called 911 seeking help after Daniel left his home while experiencing a psychotic episode and making suicidal statements. When law enforcement officers found Daniel, he was running naked around 3 a.m. Officers put a mesh “spit hood” over his head after he began spitting and held him face down on the pavement for two minutes and fifteen seconds, until Daniel stopped breathing. He had to be resuscitated, and died later at the hospital. While Daniel Prude’s death has been officially ruled a homicide due to asphyxiation, his autopsy also lists “excited delirium,” which is not recognized by numerous health organizations, and PCP intoxication. 

Of the 1,000 people who are killed annually by police use of deadly force, a devastating one in four has a mental illness, according to the Washington Post, which began tracking police use of deadly force amidst national protests in 2015. These numbers have remained consistent from year to year. Four in 100 adults in the United States are living with a severe mental illness, but generate no less than one in ten calls for police service and occupy at least one in five of America’s prison and jail beds, according to a 2015 Treatment Advocacy Center report.

Perhaps even more heinous, among those with mental illness who were killed by police since in the last five years—17 were children under the age of 18 years. Just this weekend, a Salt Lake City police officer repeatedly shot 13-year-old Linden Cameron, who has Asperger syndrome and was having a mental crisis. His mother had dialed 911 for help after he ran away. It was her first day back at work in almost a year, and her son has long battled severe separation anxiety.

The American Art Therapy Association urgently calls on lawmakers to invest in community mental health services and shift response to mental health and substance abuse emergencies from law enforcement. Trained mental health professionals can mitigate deadly and harmful incidents and reduce the number of unnecessary jail and psychiatric hospital admissions of people experiencing mental health and substance abuse crises. We strongly recommend implementing policy recommendations from SAMHSA’s 2014 report, Crisis Services: Effectiveness, Cost-Effectiveness, and Funding Strategies.

Our nation must decriminalize mental health and shift these crisis responses from law enforcement to trained mental health professionals. Additionally, we must stop demonizing people experiencing a mental health crisis or under the influence of substances and not blame them for their own deaths at the hands of law enforcement.