Moving Milwaukee Forward through Mental Health Awareness

BY: SOMER NOWAK

Earlier this month, Dontre Hamilton laid down to nap in Red Arrow Park just moments before he was shot to death by MPD.  What may have appeared to be a restless and violent aggressor to police, was actually a man running scared from the paranoia and the voices caused by the schizophrenia which, according to family members, had tortured him for some time. 

Many questions arise from this scenario.  First, why was an individual with schizophrenia still dealing with such severe symptoms after being diagnosed?  Why was an individual with mental illness unable to seek shelter? And lastly, why did those who encountered Dontre view him as a criminal – calling the cops, rather than lending out a helping hand?

Surely, there are many underlying implications for why Dontre was criminalized rather than helped, but most evident in this case is the stigma that our society casts upon the mentally ill and our incapability of appropriately identifying and treating mental illness. 

Our society’s inability to appropriately deal with mental health is also very visible in the investigation of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. In 2012, there were a reported six preventable deaths that took place at the complex. 

Given our tendency to stigmatize the mentally ill, those affected are often marginalized and go untreated, ending up homeless, in jails and prisons and–worse yet–dying from preventable medical conditions.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 26% of the homeless residing in shelters live with mental illness, while 20% of prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have a history of a mental health condition. 

According to NAMI, 60% of adults and 50% of youth with mental illness received no treatment for their medical condition – with even higher rates within African-American and Latino populations.  These gaps in treatment are detrimental to those affected.  Because such behaviors are interpreted as socially unacceptable or criminal, individuals with mental illness are more likely to be denied basic rights such as housing or employment – while the lack of understanding of mental illness makes it less likely for an individual to be pointed in the direction of treatment and on the path to recovery. 

There needs to be greater understanding and ability to identify individuals who are suffering from mental illness. Whether it is the training of police officers, educators or employers, such disorders need to be identified earlier on.  Those suffering from mental illness need to not only receive emergency care when their health is most severe, but we need to create institutions and programs that can provide prolonged and on going treatment that can secure stability and sustained mental health. 

We need to foster a culture that does not push these individuals to the margin, but rather seeks for them the care they so desperately need. In efforts toward doing so, it is imperative that we create greater awareness around mental illness.  Our misconceptions do the most harm to these vulnerable populations.  If we can be more alert and aware of the issue at hand we will be that much closer to ensure a life of dignity and well-being for those dealing with mental illness.

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