While the roads remain empty, the sidewalks of Skid Row are lined with cardboard boxes, tents, and men and women gazing listlessly into the distance. One woman clutches a small pipe as she sits cross-legged on the ground, rocking back and forth. She mutters inaudibly to herself and though I stand right in front of her, I am much less real than the alternate reality she has created.
Skid Row is a section of Los Angeles that is replete with men and women who struggle daily with mental illness. For that reason, many city officials are working to implement new policies that will more effectively aid the mentally ill. And their call for a better approach to mental health issues on Skid Row is a part of the larger cry for more treatment and awareness of mental health throughout the African American community of Los Angeles.
On June 30, LAPD Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph wrote in the Downtown News, Skid Row is currently “in the throes of a mental health state of emergency”. Joseph, who has been patrolling Skid Row for 16 years, laments the fact that once individuals find themselves on Skid Row due to their struggles with mental health, those struggles are often exacerbated because they do not face proper repercussions for criminal behavior. Joseph regrets the instances in which he has had to arrest mentally ill men and women and declares, “What we need most is the stepped-up assistance of professionals who deal with mental health to reach out before these individuals become victimized.”
Officer Deon Joseph is not alone in his observation that mental health issues are not being handled properly on Skid Row. Some city officials are proponents of initiatives such as “homeless diversion programs”, programs that work to channel Skid Row defendants into treatment programs rather than prisons. Proponents of these programs believe that a renewed focus on mental health is the key to reducing crime. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reports that a new initiative, Operation Healthy Streets, budgets $3.7 million dollars for increased street cleanings and bathroom access for homeless people on Skid Row. During these cleanings, outreach workers will be present to offer mental health services.
The issue of mental health in our community extends far beyond Skid Row. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Services in 2012, African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic Whites. Still, young adult African Americans, especially those with higher levels of education, are less likely to seek mental health services than their white counterparts, according to the American Psychological Association.
According to Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, this disconnect between the number of African Americans that struggle with mental health and the number that receive mental health treatment can be attributed to the stigma within the African American community associated with asking for help. Ridley-Thomas explains, “ We talk about mental health through music, religion and self-medication, not necessarily through pursuing counseling”. This tendency may go as far back as slavery. When African Americans had to silently endure slavery and later institutionalized racism, they were forced to find solace through creative means. Consequently, today many African Americans reject the notion that they should reach out to strangers rather than rely on their individual strength or community.
And it is in order to combat this pervasive reluctance to seek treatment that Ridley-Thomas, along with NAMI( National Alliance on Mental Health) California leaders, presented a resolution on June 26 declaring July to be National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. As chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Mental and Behavioral Health, Ridley- Thomas pledges to work tirelessly in the areas of health and mental health. As Assemblyman Ridley Thomas’ media spokesperson Fred MacFarlane affirms, “National Minority Mental Health Month lifts the stigma from mental health. Some do have the means to seek counseling or treatment but they are affected by the stigma. This month is an opportunity to understand that it is okay to tackle mental health.”
As we near the end of National Minority Mental Health Month, consider what you can do to spread the importance of properly tackling mental health issues within our community. One suggestion, proposed by NAMI, is that you “share your unique story about how you or someone you love has been affected by mental illness to let others know that they are not alone”. Promote awareness; support policies that expand mental health services.