How racism undermines mental health

The Mental Health Association of East Tennessee believes that racism undermines mental health and we are committed to equal access to behavioral health services for all persons in our community. This is a position we have firmly embraced and use as motivation and inspiration in these challenging times.

Why are these challenging times?

Communities of color are being hit disproportionately hard by Covid-19. This pandemic is highlighting our nation’s ugly experience with racial trauma in the form of health care disparities and discrimination in health care. Nationally, African American deaths from Covid-19 are two times greater than their representation in the general population and are 3.5 times more likely to die from the virus than white Americans. Further, the Hispanic population is testing positive at higher rates than would be expected in all but one of the jurisdictions that report ethnicity data. With these findings it is no surprise that Covid-19 has reinvigorated and put a spotlight on our nation’s painful history, a legacy of disparity, discrimination, and distrust.

This history includes the Tuskegee Syphilis study where Black men were intentionally not given the study medications. It includes the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman suffering from fatal uterine cancer who had her cancer cells harvested, cloned and resold for decades profiting both the white researcher and university and not her family. Lastly, it’s a history where people of color were treated in separate and certainly not equal psychiatric facilities across the country.

These are also challenging times as racial tensions have risen due to incidents of police violence across the country.  These are not single events, these are a series of incidents involving persons of color, law enforcement, excessive use of force, sometimes resulting in loss of life. There is clearly a disturbing pattern as many of the incidents involve Black Americans and white officers.

Are all officers involved? No, and it is not fair to blame all officers just as it is not fair to blame all people of color if one commits a criminal offense. It is also not fair for a white male (me) with a broken taillight in 1998 to be advised it wasn’t working and to get it fixed, while a Black female with the same taillight issue did not get the same advice AND got a ticket.

Some may breathe a sigh of relief that these fatal incidents have happened elsewhere, in other communities. Because of this some may also think these incidents don’t affect them or don’t see the impact they have.

Over the last thirty years, Knoxville’s population has increased by almost 50%. With all the change, it’s easy to forget but we had our own “I Can’t Breathe” moment more than twenty years ago.

Around the same time, we also experienced tragic outcomes involving mental health crises and law enforcement. At least six cases involved persons of color in a mental health crisis did not end safely, resulting in the death of these individuals. These incidents inspired change and opened a door for Knoxville to advance forward. Mayor Victor Ashe asked me to lead a Mental Health Policing Task Force to review KPD mental health training while other community leaders Gwen Winfrey, Rev. Harold Middlebrook, Tank Strickland and others addressed racial tensions.

Through this task force we discovered an overemphasis in training on Psychopathological behaviors, meaning that KPD was training police to perceive all persons with a mental illness as people with Psychopathy, highlighting well-known individuals with antisocial personality disorder such as Jeffrey Dahmer. We knew that to be successful we needed to change police training to prioritize better understanding of mental illness, recognition of signs and symptoms, and include a concentrated focus on de-escalation techniques.

This statue of author (best-know book was Roots) and Pulitzer prize winner Alex Haley was dedicated in February 1998 during Black History Month.

With Mayor Ashe’s support, new training commenced in 1998 which would lay the groundwork for changes Knoxville needed. This could not have happened though without the leadership and bravery of leaders within law enforcement and the community to acknowledge their own shortcomings, and a willingness to make the needed changes.

Those leaders included Chief Sterling Owen, David Rausch who was then at the Knoxville Police Training Academy and later rose to become the Chief of Police within KPD and the Director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (and an MHA board member), Sgt. (now Captain) Don Jones, 911 Director Brad Anders, and current Chief Eve Thomas who were all instrumental in implementing police training changes which led to developing a CIT (Crisis Intervention Team), and eventually a Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center (colloquially known as the “Safety Center”) and important policing tools like dashboard cameras, audio recording and soon police video cameras.

Equally important to the new policing tools was the creation of PARC or the Police Advisory Review Committee. PARC provides a valuable forum for persons to file a grievance about their interactions with law enforcement. It’s a place to be heard and listened to about one’s concerns. The PARC process and the policing tools, when used appropriately, can validate the grievance or the policing practice. I was proud to testify before the Bernstein Commission at the time in support of both improved police training needs and the establishment of PARC.

Our community had it’s “I Can’t Breathe” moment long ago, and the progress made in Knoxville to address this moment came about because we worked together! The Mental Health Association of East Tennessee is proud to have contributed to this progress in improved law enforcement practices and community relations.

There is still much work to do to improve the mental health in our community, including continuing improvement of law enforcement practices and addressing healthcare disparities. We stand committed to these efforts and will continue to advocate for our community’s mental health.

Ben Harrington, MA Ed, has worked in non-profit health for more than 30 years, including 26 years as the CEO of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee. Switching jobs helped him realize how personally connected he is to mental health issues which affect so many. His passion to intervene earlier and in more impactful ways led to the creation of two of our signature programs – the Mental Health 101 program in Fall of 2000 and the Peer Recovery Call Center in 2013. Ben is married to Norma Harrington. They have two sons Donovan and Jackson and two “fur babies” Baxter Bugtussell (a Jack Russell) and Lady Violet (a Goldendoodle). He earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History from Heidelberg University and a Master of Arts Degree in Education Counseling & Guidance from Bowling Green State University.

The Mental Health Association offers all services to eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin or disability.

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