“People are recognizing that the police aren’t the answer to every problem”
As protests over racial justice continue, many cities are reimagining the way they look at policing. And people with mental health needs are 16 times more likely to be killed by police.
In New York City, J.J. Parish is the Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. She told Wake-Up Call how social workers or psychologists can effectively replace police officers in certain circumstances — and why incarceration is especially damaging to those suffering from mental illness.
Wake-Up Call: Could you describe the type of work you do?
The specific work that I do within the Mental Health Project relates to the overlap between our criminal legal system and people with mental health needs. For example, I see how often we use the police to respond to mental health crises, and then we incarcerate people who haven’t been given the proper mental health services.
We also do some advocacy around solitary confinement, which is especially dangerous to people with mental health issues. They end up in those conditions disproportionately. Then the rest of our project provides more legal services for people, so help getting Medicaid and other benefits.
A lot of people who are calling to “defund the police,” are advocating for directing more funds to other areas of social services. And some have called for replacing police officers with mental health professionals. What tools does a psychologist or social worker have that a police officer might not?
Police are trained to be suspicious of people, to react quickly, to assert their authority, to try to dominate the situation, which is exactly the opposite of what you need when you’re trying to deescalate a situation. So a person who’s been trained in addressing mental health needs knows that you need to slow things down, change your tone of voice, take your time. There’s a whole process around de-escalation that a mental health professional is much better-suited to provide.
And how is the Mental Health Project seeking to bring more mental health professionals into these types of situations?
There are crisis intervention teams, which many police departments across the country have adopted. Officers can volunteer to be part of them, get special training, and are able to understand de-escalation techniques. We advocated for this in NYC for a very long time. More recently, NYC has started doing some training around crisis intervention. But changing police culture has not proven successful.
There are other models. Probably the most famous one is in Eugene, Oregon. They have a whole separate response for people who are facing a mental health crisis. They have a mixture of clinicians, as well as peer advocates, who people can call.
It’s just a different way of responding. People are recognizing that the police aren’t the answer to every problem. And this is something that could actually be more effective.
How is the outcome different if a mental health professional responds to the scene of a crisis, rather than a police officer?
In many instances mental health professionals don’t carry guns, so no one gets killed. And then also the other element of it is that families, once they’ve had a bad interaction with the police, they don’t want to call them anymore.
With the mental health model, it’s really about dealing with the crisis response AND trying to get that person the services they need to prevent similar future situations.
Moving on from the initial point, could you tell me about how incarceration impacts people with mental health issues, and how sometimes they get stuck in the system?
Being arrested and incarcerated interrupts everything else that’s going on in your life. So even if you have any like connection to benefits, all of that gets stopped while you’re inside. And a lot of times when people come out, they have to recreate all of those connections again. So especially for people who don’t have housing and don’t have other resources, they can wind up in this loop of being incarcerated.
It’s very hard to get into supportive housing anyway in NYC. But the rates of people getting in from jail, as opposed to the community, are much lower. And then the jail environment itself is so traumatizing. Most people who have mental health needs have experienced a lot of trauma in their life already. And you’re going into a system where people are stripped of your humanity.
And then also like you can imagine, anyone’s anxiety, depression, delusions, can all get worse when you’re inside. The use of solitary confinement just exacerbates the problem.
What challenges has Covid-19 posed for your work — and for people in general in the city?
A lot of the resources that people rely on for therapy or other services have moved online or on the phone. For people who don’t have a lot of resources, that can be very difficult. For anyone who needs a system that has regularity in it, it’s made things a lot more difficult.
There’s still a negative stigma surrounding mental health. What do you think would surprise people about your work?
I think people would be surprised by some of the people who are out now and having very productive lives and have been able to overcome incarceration, homelessness, and mental health to be very active working, productive members of society. I think people don’t recognize how much growth there can be if people are given the resources that they need.
I don’t know if people know that most of the people who are in jail are there because they’re accused of a crime — not because they’re convicted of one — and they can’t make bail. So they’re awaiting trial. I worked with a woman who was in jail for over three years. And spent most of that time in solitary confinement. When she finally got to trial, she was acquitted. But coming out she had lost her NYCHA apartment. She was homeless. And even though she was acquitted, it’s not like the city did anything to help her get her life back to normal. Being in solitary caused her to have PTSD that she still suffers from now.
If you met her, you would just be surprised by her resilience and all of the things that she has been able to do. But it’s important just to think about how the jail system has really scarred her and no one’s really accountable for that, for what we’re doing to people’s lives and those decisions we make about public safety.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.