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By Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of Mental Health America

Black lives matter.

We should not have to say that. But we must, because our nation has finally come to realize that racism has cost us too many lives for too long a time.

Why would Mental Health America (MHA) need to state something that should be obvious? Because racism is a mental health issue. It undergirds the trauma so many people have experienced from sources too numerous to mention. And trauma paints a direct line to mental illnesses, all of which we need to take seriously.

What we have witnessed with greater frequency these past couple of weeks is something that has undermined our society for decades. Our police have too often not protected us from trauma - but imposed it on us.

We must change the way we think about public safety. Part of this is changing the role of the police.

I have argued that our police should not be the ones responding to mental health emergencies. Handcuffs should not be the tools used to escort children from their schools. Squad cars should not be the vehicles that deliver people with medical crises to emergency care.

You might say, therefore, that I support defunding the police.

But that wouldn’t be quite right.

Yesterday, Rep. James Clyburn, an icon of the civil rights movement, said of efforts to defund the police, “if you have got to explain the soundbite, you’re losing the whole issue.”  He went on to say that if you support reforming or reimaging the police, you should say so directly. We need to listen to him today in ways we have failed to do for the half century he has been involved in the civil rights movement.

So, I would say in response to him that I support reimagining the role of the police.

I want to end their involvement in the mental health space. Period. Now and forever. For too long we have been asking police officers to be social workers and mental health technicians, roles they did not seek and for which they are not adequately trained. 

And I want to change the institutions they control, too.

It is a failure of public policy when so many dollars we have needed to support the mental health of our population go to programs like jails and prisons that undermine mental health. Police chiefs and sheriffs are among those who have been saying this for years. It is time we listened. 

I support cutting the dollars that have propped up our jails and prisons for years and turned them into 21st century custodial care institutions for people of color and people with mental illnesses. I want to put these dollars into community-based services and supports. 

And I want something more. I want to empty our courtrooms of people whose only “crimes” are their mental illnesses, the color of their skin, or both.

This is not something new for an MHA leader to say. Back in 1913, MHA’s founder Clifford Beers and his colleagues developed our first public policy agenda. It called for taking control of mental illness treatment away from the sheriffs and giving it to mental health professionals. 

No one listened. This control was already built into the institutions of our nation.

I am a mental health advocate. And I know that we all have a role to play in ending institutional racism. My role is to say that when we talk about mental health, race matters. It always has and it will continue to until we make fundamental changes to our societal structures. 

Too many people – including many I love – are suffering from serious and persistent trauma. And too many others are dying from untreated or poorly treated mental health conditions because of the color of their skin. 

We need to change that.

I can’t tell you everything we need to do. But I can speak with authority about some of them. They include universal mental health screening, supporting children’s mental health, and changing from a public safety to a public health model of services and supports – all things MHA has advocated for, for more than a century. 

And I can suggest where to discover some others. Ask people like Rep. Clyburn. And don’t just listen to them, but act on what they say.

At MHA, our unique contribution to action – and one we have played for more than a century – is to focus on mental health. Racism is a mental health issue. So we will keep talking about it. We will also move forward with action to create long lasting change and stand with others who are raising their voices and actions to ensure equity across systems and protect human services, the right to assemble to protest injustice, and - to fight racism and end it once and for all.