Robin Opsahl (Medill undergraduate student) on intersectionality and mental health.
Dontre Hamilton was homeless, black and shot 14 times after violently resisting a pat-down by police officers. During the unrest in Ferguson, Milwaukee protesters added Hamilton’s name to the list of unarmed black men who had died at the hands of police last year.
Hamilton’s death stands out from the rest in an important way- he was schizophrenic and had needed assistance with mental health often in the past.
Intersectionality is a concept describing the interaction of different identities for a person who is categorized into multiple marginalized or oppressed groups.
For Dontre Hamilton, intersectionality affects how the police interact with him as a black, mentally ill man. Police do not have a good track record with their treatment of black or mentally ill citizens. This means that for a person who belongs to both groups, their experiences are often a product of the patterns in both groups.
Hamilton may have been seen as threatening or ‘thug’-ish as other African American men were described in shootings around America this year, but his erratic behavior and the violent responses from police are also characteristic of cases of brutality wherein police were not equipped to deal with people with mental illness.
Tanesha Anderson and Kajieme Powell were other black, mentally ill people shot during 2014. Kajieme was shot after a worried neighbor called police. And Tanesha was killed after her family called for police assistance. In these cases we see the ways that families and concerned onlookers saw the police as potential mediators for responding to someone in a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, these cases also show how things can escalate when the police arrive on the scene. Instead of calming someone exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, a police officer may end up using lethal force.
The use of lethal force in stressful and difficult situations was central in Ferguson as well, with Officer Darren Wilson saying he wasn’t comfortable using his taser so he used his gun, fatally shooting Michael Brown. Lauren Harris’ blog for SJNN outlined the connections between this case and her fears for her brother, who is mentally disabled.
Black mentally ill people deal with not only the lack of police knowledge in handling mental illness safely, but their potentially threatening appearance to police because of their color or size. Intersectionality explains why people belonging to groups dealing with multiple forms of social marginalization, such people of color who are also mentally ill, face more discrimination, are institutionalized at higher rates, and face greater risks when dealing with police.