As an autistic adult concerned about the treatment of those in society who have historically been unjustly marginalized, I am proud to declare myself a citizen co-sponsor of the Mental Health Justice Act of 2020 (H.R. 8639). If it were to become law, this bill would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to award grants to states and political subdivisions of states to employ, train, and dispatch mental health professionals to respond to emergencies involving one or more mentally ill, intellectually or developmentally disabled people. Such professionals would intervene in crisis situations not alongside but instead of law enforcement personnel.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has been violated too many times as a result of the unjustified institutionalization, including imprisonment, of people with disabilities. The denial of essential services for these individuals is yet another violation of this law. The Mental Health Justice Act of 2020 seeks to do something about this. All too often, the innocent, well-intentioned behaviors of folks whom the Mental Health Justice Act would protect are misconstrued as being suspicious or criminal, leading to police involvement and sometimes to serious or even deadly consequences. With respect to the autism spectrum community, there are noteworthy examples of law enforcement personnel working with the community towards greater autism awareness, though these efforts are largely voluntary in that laws requiring training around autism spectrum disorders do not yet exist in all 50 states. All the more reason for the Federal Government to step in and provide guidance on a national scale for ensuring that those with a mental illness or a disability who find themselves in emergency situations are properly treated.
The Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that at least 1 in 4 fatal police encounters involve someone with an untreated mental illness. As such, the risk of death is 16 times greater for these individuals than for others who are approached or stopped by law enforcement. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), one of four lawmakers to introduce the Mental Health Justice Act bill, stated that “for far too long, our legal system has criminalized our neighbors with mental illness and disabilities instead of providing them with the resources and care that they need and deserve.” In the words of Congresswoman Katie Porter (CA-45), another one of the four introducing lawmakers: “Having a mental illness is not a crime, yet it is treated like one time and again.” The stories I have come across which deal with innocent autistic individuals and police brutality are but a small subset of all of the stories which speak to Congresswoman Porter’s statement.
The care and resources to which Congresswoman Pressley has alluded are more likely to lead to positive outcomes and to the de-escalation of sensitive situations. Because of the extreme stress and anxiety which can ensue when individuals on the autism spectrum enter into an interaction with a police officer, they may likely resort, involuntarily, to a "fight or flight" response which often escalates and leads to violence and/or arrest. Law enforcement personnel, by no fault of their own, are simply not as well-equipped as trained mental health clinicians to provide appropriate care and support to folks with mental illnesses, intellectual and developmental disabilities in emergency scenarios. This statement is by no means meant to belittle police officers. Fundamental differences between how people in both professions are trained and the skill sets they possess suggest that mental health clinicians will be a better fit under some circumstances and police officers, under other circumstances.
I have never been in favor of defunding the police, considering their importance to public safety. However, I am passionately in favor of implementing reforms which would allow for greater accountability for officers of the law who commit injustices while on duty. The Mental Health Justice Act nicely compliments this notion of greater accountability in that both address the problem of injustice at a time in America when this issue is at the forefront of the national conversation. And so, to the four members of the United States House of Representatives who introduced the bill, Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Katie Porter (CA-45), Tony Cárdenas (CA-29) and Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05), I say an impassioned "thank you.” To the U.S. Congress, I emphatically say "now is the time to get this bill passed.”
Too many innocent autistic individuals and folks who are contending with mental illness or a disability are ending up in prison, severely injured or dead when this simply should not be. Law enforcement personnel face all kinds of dangers and probably feel some degree of apprehension during unusual situations over the very real possibility that they might make a consequential mistake in the heat of the moment which they don't intend to make but which may result in unfavorable media attention, disciplinary action, termination or incarceration. As such, dispatching trained mental health professionals, when it is appropriate to do so, could kill at least a few birds with one stone: less for police officers to worry about while on duty; a reduction in exposure to emergency scenarios in which the police may be in over their heads and which are therefore more likely to escalate; greater safety and security for the vulnerable groups of people which the law would protect; greater justice for those who all too often are denied it. Let 2021 be the year in which the Mental Health Justice Act of 2020 is written into law, showing acknowledgement and concern for so many who have been unfairly marginalized for too long.
Sam Farmer wears many hats, among these father, husband, musician, computer consultant, and autism spectrum community contributor. Diagnosed later in life with Asperger’s Syndrome, he writes blogs and articles, records coaching videos, and presents at conferences, sharing stories, ideas, and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in life despite facing challenges and adversity that often interfere in these pursuits. To learn more, visit samfarmerauthor.com.