The police and mental health are often contradictory topics, usually one exacerbating the other, leading to tragic headlines. Discussions on either topic tend to be a given and take of the other. However, it cannot be denied that the police themselves are going through the same: Not only do they have their own have mental health to be concerned about, but they are in the midst the very same mental health crisis as the rest of us – the very same crisis they are known to react to with force and firearms.
The question is: Are these crises experienced equally?
If we are to consider that one is likely to be detained and jailed or hospitalized, if not killed, while the other has a union and political backing to ensure whatever they do will not come to any real consequence, the answer seems like an obvious no.
So, how are we to read “cops” and “mental health” together?
This past April, US Capitol Officer Harry Dunn, who was on site and attempted to fend off attackers during the January 6th insurrection, spoke at the American Association of Suicidology’s 56th annual conference AAS23. He spoke about his struggles with PTSD and being at the Capitol that day; he spoke about suicide and how difficult it is for cops to breach the topic of mental health.
Mental health is said to be stigmatized, this being the main obstacle to getting care for everyone who is in need of help. Dunn claimed that this is the reality of police as well: That they don’t know how to speak up and ask for help. Yet millions of individuals do the same every day. What is keeping a professional – who already has absolute discretion on their side – from asking for help? Are police departments not staffed with psychologists as well? Perhaps it is not so simple.
Speaking to a packed room populated mostly with those in the mental healthcare industry in some way or another, there was not a thing Dunn could say that would not hit.
“Who do the police go to when we need the police?” asked Dunn.
”We need to be more proficient in mental health…as proficient as we are with our firearms,” stated Dunn.
“We have all these [mental health] services and no one is taking advantage of them,” said Dunn. “You only get out of [mental health] what you put into it.”
How was it that all these mental health professionals were fine celebrating the very problems mental health has supposedly been trying to tackle for decades? During the question and answer session, people were eager to acknowledge his bravery that day he spoke at the conference equal only to that fateful day in January 2021.
The police side of things felt the same – i.e. proudly pronouncing the proficiency of firearm use. However, something felt amiss in the mental health with which Dunn spoke.
Although this was a very particular situation for a police officer to find themselves in, and Officer Dunn has certainly been through a lot, there is a major concern when police start speaking in mental health terms.
For example, when Dunn asks “who do the police go to?” he misses the obvious answer: The police go to the police all the time for help, usually in the form of protection or to cover something up. Known as the “blue wall of silence” or “blue code,” there exists a long record of cops testifying to protect other officers, staying silent over crimes, and planting evidence. Many state apparatuses, such as judges, already favor police, usually minimizing sentences or allowing them to keep their firearms even after a domestic assault.
The Supreme Court, in its ever-dwindling popularity, has even been known to protect police officers.
Dunn – whether, consciously or not – seems to be asking the question ironically: Mental health crises are still very much a matter of the police and that is the problem of today. On top of this, Dunn misses the much larger problem of these mental health services that allegedly no one is taking advantage of: It is not that they are simply available and stigma has prevented people from using them, but rather that mental health care is expensive, often prohibitively so, and many people lack the time and money to engage with it. We also are facing a major shortage in mental healthcare workers, not to mention that such care varies in quality drastically. Stigma is a symptom that stems from how unavailable mental care is to the majority of people.
Dunn’s words on mental health are the same arguments we have been hearing for a couple of decades now regarding mental illness, suicide, and personal crises. Police can easily use the very same “destigmatize mental health” slogans – which have done little more than to further repress talk and working-through of actual mental illnesses, suicide, eating disorders, addictions, domestic and sexual violence, etc. – because it makes them seem human, fallible, prone to accidents.
The problem with mental health today is that it fully represses the underside of mental illness in favor of notions like self-care and wellness, and further subtracts the inherent violence of mental health issues in their entirety. To say that there is such a thing as a “non-violent” mental health crisis obfuscates much of the violence that exists leading to and during that very crisis.
From here it is not such a big leap to realize that both stigma and destigmatizing efforts repress the same thing. So, how do the police fit into all of this? How is it that cops can easily co-opt the same language as those that so often find themselves to be the (fatal) victim of police? How is it that the police can experience the allegedly same mental health crises despite an excess of power and still come out as the same fallible humans as us?
“Mental health” has had a meteoric rise in public discourse in the last few decades, which very quickly led to prominent ideas of self-care and a wellness industry, which rakes in $4.5 trillion a year. Cynicism aside, mental health is an important aspect of all our lives and is, in fact, a dependency for healthy living. The problem is less the notion itself and more what that notion entails. For example, the availability – and, thus, the affordability – of mental healthcare is incredibly limited. From therapeutic costs to the prices of psychotropic drugs, treating mental health clinically is very costly, often prohibitively so.
The wellness industry, offering “more affordable alternatives,” is no better: Self-care in the wellness industry looks like – and it must look like something to keep up appearances – meditation and yoga classes, candles and incense, supplements and vitamins, light masks, and even fashion itself. Self-care is a lifestyle – one that precludes the very problem with which we began: mental illness.
The police are able to use “mental health” and destigmatizing slogans just as any company can peddle self-care products for the sake of a better “you” because they are talking about the exact same thing – or, more accurately, they are not addressing the very same thing.
The unfortunate truth with which we must reconcile with is that by repressing what really needs to be figured out – the excess of suicidal violence, the lack of affordable healthcare, police intervention, a shortage of competent mental health professionals – mental health acts as an “equalizer” giving everyone the appearance of equal footing. This can easily be seen in how one’s self-care fits the same neoliberal logic of personal success and failure – i.e. you only have yourself to blame for any mental hardships.
The “equality” found in our concept of mental health today excludes class antagonisms, power dynamics, an unequal availability to focus on one’s mental health, etc.: Everything we feel too conspiratorial to bring up.
“Mental health” is a narrative that works for corporations and cops. It would even seem logical to take it a step further and suggest that destigmatizing mental health not only doesn’t get us to a more comfortable spot with mental health concerns, but rather destills it of any significant, even subversive, content whatsoever. Whatever this destigmatized mental health is, it can clearly be used as much against us as we are led to believe it can help us. What happens when the mental health we were after has its original intent subtracted from it to now stand unequally above us? We are back to the same problematic power dynamic with which we began. When the police take another thing – whether its a life, city funds, someone’s comfort – it feels necessary to quote James Baldwin: “Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”
Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based out of Detroit. He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.