Busy with his weekend chore of sweeping, the 90 pound teenager with a broom and a tiny screwdriver in his hand became unexpectedly agitated, expressed his confusion, and slipped into another episode. As accustomed as they could be to his behavior when schizophrenia pulled him into his private darkness, the boy’s parents did as they had before, and called the police for assistance in calming down the 18 year old. Based on multiple news reports, officers familiar with the youth’s diagnosis and family situation arrived on the scene, followed police protocol, and began successfully to speak through his psychosis and to his balanced self as best they could, being law enforcement agents and not psychiatric professionals.
A third officer, allegedly irritated by the circumstances after having arrived and assessed the scene only 70 seconds before, ordered the other two to subdue the teen with physical force, instructing them to employ Tasers to further subdue the young man. The detective then unholstered his sidearm and shot and killed the mentally ill boy in full view of his mother and father.
Investigations at the city and state level continue. Eyewitness accounts from family members, friends, therapists, caseworkers, government agencies, and the detective and officers involved in the incident will decide, in a court of law, whether the shooting of Keith Vidal of Boiling Springs Lakes, North Carolina was cold-blooded murder, justifiable homicide, or an out and out hate crime against a mentally ill teenager.
I am not in a position to decide guilt or blame in this killing, nor do I claim to be. I do not know what course of treatment Keith Vidal followed, what medications he was or was not prescribed, how involved his parents and family were or were not in the maintenance of his treatment plan, how well- versed or trained in dealing with psychiatric disorders the officers were, how – or even if – the teen was behaving violently or in a truly threatening manner such that it demanded split-second timing in the decision to end his life. What I do know is that a skinny, frightened, mentally ill boy – with the same diagnosis that I live with daily – was tazed and restrained by two adult officers in full protective gear, and killed in front of his parents by a detective claiming self-defense. Against a child pinned to the floor, paralyzed by electroshock, and lost in the vortex of psychosis and terror.
Not only is this news story devastatingly sad, but if you take in the comments posted by many of various news articles’ readers, the public misconceptions about mental illness are on display in such a way as to further outrage any free-thinking individual. Unforgivably prejudiced words like “psycho”, “defective”, “whack-job”, and “schizo”, to name but a few, are peppered across the internet in the name of Free Speech, exposing the truth behind our culture’s fear of, and discrimination towards, individuals diagnosed with a mental illness.
As an advocate and a person living with schizophrenia, I am appalled by both the news story and the resultant responses to it by its (mostly) uninformed readers, but in no way am I surprised by any of this deplorable thinking. Ignorance is out there and it’s rampant. Education is imperative.
As people living with a mental illness, and as family members, friends, and supporters of the same, we need to work together with our lawmakers and educators to turn this discriminatory behavior around. People have been persecuted and killed for inexcusable reasons, and our culture continues to establish laws to corral such abominable behavior by those who perpetrate it. At this point in history we are moving toward a more tolerant society where being who you are by nature is no longer a crime. Why then, I have to ask, does our country continue to maintain the errant belief that people living with a mental illness are an allowable target for public aggression?
Do we, as a people, need to consider outrage as a means to right societal wrongs, as did the courageous advocates for other human causes before us? The “acceptable” stigma and discrimination against people with mental illnesses appears, for all intent and purposes, to have replaced previously unacceptable forms of bigotry and prejudice. As communities continue to make progress in accepting human rights, promoting healthy viewpoints, creating and establishing laws, and empowering individuals regardless of race, religion, gender, or orientation, why do we idly stand by and allow the cruelty and hostility of demeaning language and the thoughts behind it, to cripple, disable, and otherwise taze and murder the delicate hope that we can bring change to mind, when all we really want is to be accepted and loved by the world into which we are born.
Henry Boy Jenkins is a Seattle artist, writer, and musician living with schizophrenia. He received his diagnosis in 2010 and has been managing his illness with a passion ever since. He is currently writing a memoir chronicling his experiences with schizophrenia and trauma in the hope that people living with a mental illness – as well as those who love and care for them – will find something in his story that compels them to share their own. Publicly open in his advocacy for awareness and change, Henry focuses on education and communication as the most effective tools in any superhero’s utility belt. Honesty and courage work hand-in-hand to combat stigma.