How policing affects Black mental health

Community activists and mental health experts discuss the daily stressors that contribute to cyclical Black trauma

On May 28, Dimarjio Jenkins was on the Toronto Sun’s front page. The 21-year-old hip-hop artist known as Houdini was killed the day before in a brazen entertainment district shootout. The newspaper ran the headline Who made Houdini vanish? – turning the young Black man’s life into a pun.

Jenkins’s violent death and that headline were among the triggering events for the city’s Black community in a week that began with video of Amy Cooper, a Canadian living in New York City, threatening to call police on a Black man who asked her to keep her dog on a leash in Central Park, and the police killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“You’re thinking about it and you almost want to cry,” says filmmaker Director X, referring to the Toronto Sun front page. He compares the effect of a Black child reading it to asymptomatic coronavirus: You may not see it, but it’s there.

“Then it begins to express itself in a bunch of weird, strange ways,” says X. “How you look at school how you look at people how you look at yourself how you value your own life. We can’t deny that part of it. It’s not just the outside world that thinks we’re not important. We don’t think we’re that important. It’s just a cascade.”

On May 27, 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death from a High Park apartment while police were in her unit, an event that inspired thousands to join a #JusticeForRegis protest on downtown streets on May 30. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a civilian watchdog, is looking into the circumstances around her death.

Floyd’s death has reignited calls to defund the police in cities across North America. The idea has been around for a while, but is now gaining traction on social media and in mainstream media.

Korchinski-Paquet’s death amplified those calls in Toronto, which is not a new sentiment in the city at grassroots and political levels. A 2016 KPMG report identified several areas where the ballooning police budget could be trimmed. That same year, city councillor Michael Thompson drew support for calling for “blunt” cuts to the force.

The Toronto Police operating budget for 2020 is $1.076 billion – up by 3.9 per cent or $40 million from 2019. Politicians and community group have argued that police resources could be better managed to free up funding for other services in Toronto – namely mental health supports.

“This is trauma,” says Toronto-St. Paul MPP Jill Andrew of Korchinski-Paquet’s death. “Whether you are directly linked to it or not, whether you are Regis’s mother or brother, or whether you are a Black person who has to worry at night every time your son, daughter or uncle goes out, this is vicarious trauma.”

In our conversation, Andrew wouldn’t directly respond to calls to defund the police, focusing instead on the need for mental health funding.

“There are broad mental health implications to witnessing systemic anti-Black racism, whether we are talking in policing institutions, schooling institutions or whether we’re talking health-care inequities,” she adds.

Justice for Regis

We don’t know all the circumstances surrounding Korchinski-Paquet’s death. Toronto police chief Mark Saunders says multiple 911 calls were made, with mentions of a knife and assault. A Mobile Crisis Intervention Team consisting of a nurse and an officer were not dispatched to her apartment. A report in the Toronto Sun contained leaked details of the case, causing the family to cancel planned interviews with SIU investigators.

Korchinski-Paquet’s mother Claudette Korchinski-Beals told reporters that she called the police to take Regis to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for support. Instead, her daughter ended up falling to her death while police were in her apartment.

Via a lawyer, the family has walked back claims the police pushed Korchinski-Paquet off the balcony, but insist her death was preventable.

“The mother is distraught,” says filmmaker Charles Officer, who attend the Justice For Regis march on May 30. “Who’s there for her? Who’s communicating to the family? Who are they giving respect to? Where’s the support for them?”

Officer is the director behind the Black Lives Matter documentary The Skin We’re In as well as Unarmed Verses, a doc about how young Black kids process economic precariousness and upheaval in their lives.

He compares these reoccurring events to successive punches that spin you in circles. He points out that, for a Black person, these tragedies trigger memories from their own lives, or they connect these injustices to day-to-day experiences. That could be systematic oppression or microaggressions, a lack of opportunities at work, discriminatory housing practices, racial profiling from police or a dismissive teacher in a racist school system. All of these issues affect mental health.

Others question whether police should be involved in mental health calls at all.

“There is no reason that when someone is having some sort of mental health stress that the only place to call for an emergency service is one where they will send the police to come deal with it,” says Black Lives Matter–Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson.

“There should be another frontline emergency service, because we have so much evidence that the police are unwilling to be prepared to deal with this type of situation.”

Korchinski-Paquet’s death follows the April death of 26-year-old Brampton man D’Andre Campbell, who was tasered by two Peel police officers, one of whom subsequently fatally shot him. Campbell had a history with mental health issues. According to his family, Campbell himself had made the call to police asking for help.

On Thursday, June 4, police in Edmundston, New Brunswick shot and killed Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman, during a wellness check. The police claim that Moore attacked the responding officer with a knife in hand. According to Moore’s aunt, Chantel’s ex-boyfriend in Toronto called police to check in on her safety after the BC woman had been experiencing harassment in her new downtown apartment.

“People should be able to call police and not fear that a call will end in their death,” says Andrew, who pledges to stay on top of the SIU investigation into Korchinski-Paquet’s death. 3.6 per cent of SIU investigations that were closed in 2018 resulted in charges. That percentage has been in gradual decline since at least 2015 when it was 5.9 per cent.

Jermaine Carby, Abdirahman Abdi and Andrew Loku are other recent examples of Black men with mental health issues who died in interactions with police.

According to a CBC investigation, 70 per cent of Canadians killed by police since 2000 suffered from mental health or substance abuse issues. According to an Ontario Human Rights Commission report, Black people in Toronto are 20 times more likely to die at the hands of police than a white person.

“Once you have that intersection, things get worse,” says Hudson, emphasizing how dangerous it is to be living with mental health issues while Black.

She notes the commitments police have made over the years to better training when dealing with anti-racism and mental health situations, now that they are essentially de facto frontline mental health workers in recent years because medical services are stretched thin.

Investing in mental health workers and training them for emergency police calls makes more sense. According to experts we spoke with, social workers and therapists go through college and post-grad and then stay up-to-date with constant learning. Being able to sensitively handle someone in distress requires more than a three-day crash course.

“It’s not working,” says Hudson, explaining that commitments to better police training have not led to better results. 2018 saw the highest number of new SIU cases (382) since the unit’s inception in 2012 (the SIU have not released figures for 2019).

“Why don’t we actually take some action now and actually defund the police.”

Hudson realizes that, for many people, defunding the police is an unfathomable idea. The debate is ultimately about building safety for our communities, so she understands why some hesitate to defund the people they call to feel safe.

“There’s a huge section of society where calling the police does not make them feel safe,” says Hudson, listing Black and Indigenous people, people living with mental health issues, living in public housing or doing transient work as examples.

If the police make you feel safe, Hudson argues it’s “because you’re never interacting with them.”

Mental health in the Black community

“The trauma from decades of oppression lives in our bodies,” writes Kathleen Newman-Bremang in Refinery29. “The tax on our mental wellbeing cannot be quantified. Black trauma festers and spreads. It infects and kills. It is exhausting beyond comprehension.”

The pain and anger described in Newman-Bremang’s article is starting to show on increasingly mainstream platforms. Sadness and rage poured out from eTalk reporter Tyrone Edwards, who is otherwise known as the endlessly cheery Mr. 1LoveTO, in a galvanizing appearance on CTV talk show The Social on May 28.

Liben Gebremikael, executive director at Taibu Community Health Centre in Malvern, worked with the city to make the first Monday or March Black Mental Health Day. The initiative is meant to raise awareness about the lack of resources and outreach for the community to cope, while also fighting the stigmas around mental health.

“Because of anti-Black racism and the Eurocentric model of mental health, the community seems to be keeping issues within themselves or within the family for longer than necessary,” explains Gebremikael.

He believes it’s normal for Black people to experience mental health issues considering their daily stressors. Mental health services can also seem inaccessible to people within the Black community, he says.

Black mental health practitioners are underrepresented in the profession, he adds, while most therapists can’t empathize with the specific stressors caused by racial profiling or precarious housing.

Jenna Dolly is a social worker and part-time therapist through employee assistance programs. The people she serves don’t realize she’s Black until she arrives at their doors. When Black families see Dolly, they let out a sigh of relief.

“It’s like, ‘I can breathe, because there’s a part of my story that I don’t necessarily have to explain or hide,’” says Dolly. “Because this person is just going to get it.’”

Dolly is still working on getting her private practice off the ground. Although there is a community of Black therapists, Dolly says they can be challenging to access. And while the patients she sees through work benefit programs can specify that they want someone who specializes in trauma or couple’s therapy or children’s behaviour, they cannot request a Black counsellor. Depending on the company, racial identity isn’t among the boxes to tick. Black therapists are trying to get around that by creating and communicating through social media.

Therapy costs can be prohibitive. Gebremikael points out that Black people often access mental health through the criminal justice system – when it’s too late and more expensive than the kind of preventative measures his organization advocates for.

He compares the predicament to diabetes, a disease that disproportionately affects the Black community. Spending on medical treatment is costlier than investing in food security and physical activity to reduce the potential cases of diabetes.

Splitting the difference between policing and mental health services should be looked at in a similar way.

“We spend a lot more on reaction than prevention,” adds Dolly. “If the police are part of the reaction, what are we doing regarding the prevention so that we don’t even need to get to that? If Regis and her family had the support they needed from the very beginning – if there were other supports in place and her team of supports were well coordinated, and everybody who is involved in Regis’s life is connected – then we may have had a different outcome.”

The mental health of police

Director X asks us to consider the mental health of police – the potentially good ones.

A police officer that goes to work to truly serve is met with chronic stress from repeatedly encountering dangerous situations. X cites reports published in the U.S. National Library Of Medicine that describe how such stressful situations affects your brain, shrinking the prefrontal cortex where decision-making happens and enlarging the medulla where emotions are regulated. These effects tend to show up as violent and aggressive behaviour because the medulla ends up hard-wiring fight-or-flight responses, especially in high-stress situations.

“You have those friends who are always ready to fight,” says X, recalling personal experiences when he’s seen chronic stress manifest. “I never had a friend like that come from a super-loving home and everything was fine. It’s tied to their childhood.”

“You have police officers that are constantly in dangerous situations that’s changing the shape of their brain, and shaping it in a way that’s more violent and aggressive.

Dolly adds that police in high-stress situations, where a fight-or-flight response is ready to kick, don’t often have the time think about what they are doing.

“If we don’t pause, then we don’t have a calculated response,” she says. “We don’t say to ourselves who do we want to be in this moment, who do I want to show in this moment.”

X’s organization Operation Prefrontal Cortex is all about fighting violence with meditation, following medical reports advising such routines. They introduce meditation to schools, streets, prisons and police as a way to remedy the effects of chronic stress.

Some police forces introduced meditation to help with both an officer’s mental health and their decision-making when dealing with bias. An article published in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine reports positive outcomes though there’s no hard data with results.

Why is Director X so concerned with the mental health of police? He says decision making capabilities are inextricably linked to how officers deal with poor neighbourhoods.

“We’re talking about violence in poor neighbourhoods,” says X. “Police violence is part of that situation. When you’re a young kid abused by cops, it changes your brain. Abuse does what stress does.”

“When you think about trauma, it’s an experience that we have an inability to process,” says Dolly, explaining that trauma can range from abuse to inconsiderate teachers.

“If we’re seeing these things at young ages, they get stored in your body and your brain. By the time we get to the point where we may have a little bit of skills to think about it, it’s already overwhelming, and then things spiral. We’re not controlling the narrative from the very beginning. As a society we have a responsibility to our young Black children to make sure we are changing the narrative.”

The kids are not alright

After his death, an undated video George Floyd made resurfaced.

“Our young generation is clearly lost,” says Floyd, lamenting the youth who engage in gun violence and bury their fears and trauma deep inside.

Director X posted the video to his Instagram, applying Floyd’s words to the Entertainment District shoot-out that killed Houdini and endangered the life of bystanders, including a six-year-old boy who police said was “exactly” in the line of fire.

How are kids processing the traumas in the Black community? And how do they see their relationship to the world with every cumulative incident, tragedy or Toronto Sun cover?

Director X poses a call to action as a question: “You about Floyd? Are you about Floyd?

“This man was concerned too about what was going on with our kids and what was going on with us. We can’t leave that out of the conversation,” he says. “Yes, we have a problem with the cops. We can punish them through their funding. We can mandate that they meditate. We can have our secret services shake their focus off of young Muslims and put it onto the police force.

“What can we do to honour this man’s memory? We can deal with our youth. Part of honouring George Floyd’s memory is helping our youth.

“Policing the kids doesn’t work. Yelling at the kids doesn’t work. The kids need individual attention. They need someone to care about them.”


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