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Systemic Racism in Mental Health Care: Charleena Lyles


 

Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

This has been a terrible week for the USA on so many levels. There are so many topics I could cover related to this audience, that arise from current events, but I need (and maybe you do too) for this week’s post to address the intersectionality between invisible disability and the racial justice riots that are rocking our cities after the killing of George Floyd by an on-duty police officer.

Three weeks ago I ran a column on privilege relating to the pandemic. A lot of people still aren’t crystal clear on the concept of privilege, and getting them to think about it in relation to the pandemic was going to take some illustration. I started with white privilege, something more people are waking up to, and applied that idea to pandemic privilege, and the fact that social distancing and staying in a safe, secure home are luxuries that far too many of us aren’t able to comply with.

The Charleena Lyles story illustrated the relative privilege I had as a white woman, being able to call the police and count on protection, and not be mistaken for a perp. I relied on my memory of the first story I read in a Seattle paper (I don’t even remember at this point if it was the Times or the P-I that reported she was in her pajamas and ran outside to escape her abuser. In fact, she didn’t make it outside and her abuser was not home at the time.) I should have dug up the many articles that now exist, but the account was not central to the theme of my post, which was about the privilege enjoyed by anyone with the ability to shelter in place, far enough apart from neighbors to be able to do social distancing. People in tiny New York City apartments, living above crowded streets, or even people living on those streets, can’t do that so well. COVID 19 is hitting poor people and people of color disproportionately because of typical living conditions for these populations. The concept of privilege extends to the pandemic; that was the point.

Still, a commenter took issue with my misstatement of fact and sent me a link to a later news story . Interestingly, while the commenter’s content wasn’t presented in a trollish or even disrespectful manner, s/he still chose to comment anonymously.

Now, I did know Ms. Lyles had a mental illness. So what? Apparently I’m supposed to think, “Well, she was a crazy lady so her shooting doesn’t count.” (To be fair, Annoyed may have simply responded to the inaccuracy and not disputed my conclusion.) I read other accounts of the events leading up to her shooting, and I think it’s the exact opposite—if her illness had been treated properly from the beginning, the shooting wouldn’t have happened. The police would not have been summoned to her home that night and her family would not have been devastated. (Ms. Lyles had 4 children and another on the way—yes, she was pregnant.) Her adult family members reported that they thought her poor mental health was due to domestic violence. Ms. Lyles also had a history of homelessness and had obtained a job at a coffee shop through the THRIVE program that helps homeless people get stable jobs.

Ms. Lyles had called the police to her home many times before to report (nonexistent) burglaries, and most recently upon their arrival, she brandished scissors and made threatening statements. After that, she was court-ordered not to possess weapons. The police were warned on their way to the fatal call that she had mental health issues. Transcripts of the conversation on the way there indicate that the officers did not have tasers with them. They did have batons and pepper spray.

When they arrived at the house, Ms. Lyles greeted them at the door calmly, but then brandished a knife (some reports say she had a knife in each hand; even the newspaper reports from the inquest do not resolve this). The officers retreated, and when she lunged, they shot her 7 times. Seven times, between two officers, to subdue a petite pregnant woman armed with a knife.

If the total messed-up-ness isn’t hitting you yet, let’s take I-5 north a few miles to Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood and watch the same scene play out with the hypothetical 30-year-old Charlene Miles, a white woman who lives there with her husband and two children, aged 5 and 3 (because seriously, who in Magnolia has 5 kids by age 30?). Charlene’s tech-executive husband abused her physically and emotionally. When Charlene’s birth control failed and she found herself pregnant a third time, the combination of pregnancy hormones and domestic violence triggered a latent genetic tendency toward chemical imbalance in her brain. One afternoon she was waiting with dread for her husband to come home, and she went a bit haywire. She called 911 and panicked when the dispatcher answered. Embarrassed to say she was afraid of her husband coming home, she reported that her son’s X-box had been stolen. When officers arrived, she brandished her Fiskars sewing scissors and said, “You’re not leaving here.” They looked at Charlene’s disheveled blonde pageboy and Donna Karan sweater set, and knew this had to be a mental health situation. The officers retreated to a safe distance and one called for an ambulance, indicating that it was a psychiatric emergency. Meanwhile, they talked to her from a safe distance, their tasers at the ready, until she dropped the scissors and collapsed in tears.

Charlene was taken to Harborview and checked in under her excellent private health insurance plan. During the psychiatric hold, the domestic abuse was discovered and a social worker was assigned to ensure that she had an exit plan to a new condominium in Ballard upon her release. Child Protective Services made sure the children were temporarily placed with a safe relative.

Charlene’s private physician took over managing her pregnancy-related psychosis and she made it safely to term. She was carefully monitored after the birth and her medication was adjusted to ensure her continued recovery. Her husband had a good lawyer, so he didn’t go to jail as long as he abided by the terms of the court protection order. His family persuaded him to get help for his violent behavior as well, and eventually he was allowed supervised visits with his children.

This Hallmark-movie story sounds more believable than what really happened to Charleena Lyles. She deserved health care. Instead, she was dismissed as a troublesome person, to be subdued, not helped, even though she was responsible for several young children.

In the New York Times story referenced below, the introduction states, “Societal failure to care for mental health, which leaves the police as mental illness first responders, may well have been one deadly ingredient in this tragic encounter.” I would venture to say that the police are far more more likely to recognize a mental health crisis in a wealthy neighborhood where behavioral manifestations of mental illness are more out of place and more likely to be interpreted correctly.  In a neighborhood full of oppressed people, antisocial behavior is common and not an obvious indicator of a psychiatric problem. Charleena Lyles’ story happened in Magnuson Park Affordable Housing, not Magnolia, for a reason.

The brain is an organ like any other, and people with mental health issues belong in this audience. Mental illness is an invisible disability. To my readers with mental health issues, I see you; I advocate for you, no matter what color your skin, no matter where you live.

This week, I’ve been thinking about how to use my privileged voice on behalf of oppressed people. I admit to factual errors in my original telling of this story 3 weeks ago. I stand by my conclusion, and I sincerely thank Annoyed for spurring me to do better.

 

 

 

 

 

Systemic Racism in Mental Health Care: Charleena Lyles


Kristin Noreen

Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington with two cats and her vintage touring bicycle, Silver. Her triple passions are animal rescue, long-distance bike touring, and writing. Her book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed, is about reinventing her life following a catastrophic injury.


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APA Reference
, . (2020). Systemic Racism in Mental Health Care: Charleena Lyles. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/hidden-disabilities/2020/06/systemic-racism-in-mental-health-care-charleena-lyles/

 

Last updated: 4 Jun 2020
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