At age 58, I am exactly thirty years older than Sandra Bland, yet I am she. Life in my thirties was not much different than that of Sandra Bland. Moving back home after losing a job, I recall on one occasion how a somewhat routine traffic stop resulted in my being removed from my car, taken into custody, fingerprinted and booked. I was not as cooperative as Ms. Bland. After all I saw myself as a professional and became indignant that an officer would pull me over and speak to me in the manner in which he did. I became argumentative. As an an educated black woman I felt I did not merit the gruff manner and treatment from the officer who pulled me over.
So Sandra has unwittingly became a sacrificial lamb, speaking for perhaps countless women who have felt mistreated by law enforcement. My infraction also was not simple as Ms. Bland’s. Having recently returned to the area after having been away for about over a decade, I attempted to “over correct” upon missing an exit. During the questioning and arguing that night sitting on the grassy mound where I had been pulled over, my foot hit the gas pedal, jolting the car forward. This alarmed the officer who asked me to get out of the car where he proceeded to take me into custody and proceeded to book me, charging me with “fleeing and eluding an officer.”
For Ms. Bland to be treated in the manner in which she was for something as innocuous as a turn signal is bizarre at best. Her response was calm and cooperative. Admittedly, my response was not.
There seems to be an uncanny relationship between personal advancement and police encounters. During the time that I sought my second degree over the following year, I received numerous traffic tickets and arrests. Some people have suggested that I was profiled. Whatever the case, I was plagued with tickets and arrests and ultimately spent 14 days in jail. It was during that time that my depression took over and had I had the means. The only thing that separates me from and saved me from suicide was that she had the means to carry it out, I didn’t.
I once read that change is never easy --- even good change causes stress. So consider Ms. Bland in that setting. She is already suffering from postpartum depression. Added to that she had the added stress of moving and taking on a new job. Finally, the violent encounter with the officer would have tested anyone’s emotional reserve (let alone a person that is suffering from depression). Being left in a jail cell is a perfect formula for depression . Jail cells are lonely, stark spaces with no natural light and form the perfect conditions for a suicide.
The question becomes why she was not placed under suicide watch after revealing that she had once attempted suicide is extremely troubling. Studies have shown that once a person attempts suicide chances are that she will do it again and it is even more probable under such conditions. Another question is why she had access to a black plastic bag or any item which she could use to harm herself. Beyond the bizarre, inexplicable reason that she was even booked, the ultimate questions lie in the unprofessional and lax manner that those in charge treated her after placing her in their custody.
It seems that Ignorance of mental illness is claiming more lives than the disease itself. Despite progress over the past several years, there are still glaring errors made daily that put lives at risk. It is not uncommon for personnel; bet it law enforcement or medical to be inattentive or unaware of procedures relating to mental health.
It is also not surprising that Sandra Bland’s family knew nothing of her depression . Her intelligent sister is more than likely ignorant as most are regarding issues of mental illness. For whatever reason Ms. Bland did not reveal this problem to her family is not surprising. Too often families are either in denial or make it uncomfortable for family members to bring up the issue. Black families in particular often still see the topic as taboo and are unwilling to admit that it can be present in their family. For whatever reason she never sought a clinical diagnosis may be attributable to the taboo manner in which we still treat mental illness in this society.
After the fact we can only speculate. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that our society remains woefully behind when it comes to interacting with each other regarding critical issues such as mental health. As individuals, we miss cues every day that could inform us that someone is in trouble. Even as individuals, not too many people understand the necessity of being proactive in one’s mental health survival. I certainly didn’t when I was Sandra Blands’s age.
Only four years away from my first major episode of depression, I was still leary of medication. A single working parent, I was caught off guard and struggled through my depression many years undiagnosed. It rendered me helpless to keep up with the demands of my teaching duties, and ultimately I let my teaching certification lapsed and lost my sole means of income. Miraculously, I struggled through the next ten years with no diagnosis until I one session I virtually cornered a therapist and demanded that I know what caused me to feel moments of hopelessness.
But as a society we are ignorant in so many relevant issues. We still do not understand that losing a home is a traumatic experience and have such have not assigned a diagnosis or ultimate treatment for it. No one knew to check on my mental health when I fell into homelessness. I have survived because I have learned to be proactive. To take my medications diligently. To ask for help when I need it. To have an internal “go-to” plan when I am in trouble. Without these, I could not have endured this far.
Depression can be diagnosed and treated. But it takes a village as do all the ills of our society. Awareness and sensitivity training for all segments of society is vital, and should be compulsory for individuals dealing with the public. From mental illness to homelessness, there should be no topics that are off-limits, only a resolve to end problems they cause. Without every hand on deck, we are destined to sink under the weight of our own worst fears.
Get email updates for future posts!