I can't breathe, either

I can't breathe, either

The Cauldron

Claustrophobia (claus·tro·pho·bia) noun - 1) fear of being in closed or small spaces; 2) unhappy or uncomfortable feeling caused by situation that limits or restricts. In extreme situations, may induce fight-or-flight response.

Maybe it would be too convenient to label the nationwide protests over police killings, racism, and social injustice as panic attacks. Still, it is clear our country is suffering from a collective claustrophobia that has intensified within the past year and brought us to a flashpoint. Citizens and police alike feel closed in; responses - whether the reckless and/or gratuitous use of force and weaponry, or the seemingly random and counterintuitive destruction of property and businesses - are marked by panic, irrationality, and fear.

I'm not a psychologist; I'm a mental health advocate whose experience has afforded me a certain degree of visibility. (Or notoriety, depending on which NBA executive you ask, but that's a story for another day.) But as someone who also deals with anxiety disorder every day, I know all about panic attacks and the inability to breathe. As a black male, I'm particularly attuned to that same feeling of being closed in and smothered - the African American community remains widely underserved by our vast national resources, viewed by a significant portion of our population as undeserving of basic regard.

I know how counterproductive it is to lack a basic protocol when it comes to an employee's psychological well-being. My quest to establish a clear protocol in the NBA got me labeled as everything from a Prima donna to a locker room problem, and I suspect it has left me unofficially blackballed from the league despite my being a first-round draft pick. In that way, I'm a smaller metaphor for societal discourse around mental health: rather than deal with the issue, people in positions of authority would rather ignore it until it goes away.

Only, it won't.

That problem isn't restricted to team owners and CEOs, by any means. When it comes to issues of mental illness and mental health - whether in the most impoverished and traumatized communities, or even within the departments that employ those who police those streets - discussing fear, anxiety, stress and depression remains stigmatized. The attitude is we'd rather not know.

Why? Because mental health is an issue that requires and amplifies our individual and collective responsibility to ourselves and others. It's a mirror that reflects who we really are - yet we keep running from our reflections.

We can debate cause and effect, but the facts allow for minimal wiggle room: our most downtrodden communities are entrenched in a cycle of social dysfunction; our police employ brutal and sometimes deadly tactics in their interactions with these communities; and within the debate about who and what is right or wrong, the most significant aspect of the discussion is - as usual - absent. Our culture inspires and subsequently neglects serious mental illness in too many of its citizens. We can no longer afford to perpetuate this problem by stubbornly refusing to address it.

As a conscientious citizen of this great nation, I have sympathy for our police. Their job is dangerous and often thankless, and many of them are overworked and underpaid in relation to the vital function they serve in our communities. Officers like Darren Wilson are humans; susceptible to the same stresses, fears, and other mental issues as any of us. Given the combination of their fallibility and the dangers of their jobs, it's unfathomable that we still lack universal policies on psychological evaluations for police officers. It says something frightening about our culture that we'd rather increase the scope and sophistication of police weaponry than take steps that ensure the health of both police and those they serve.

We've chosen fear over understanding, antagonism over sympathy, and brute force over humane concern.

These choices have dire consequences. It is obvious that some of our police officers now view themselves as soldiers rather than peacekeepers - a grave consequence of the increasing militarization of the police. The danger of this view - one that transforms communities into combat zones and engenders in police a sense of at-all-cost self-preservation rather than de-escalation - is that there's an ever-increasing breakdown in trust and communication between police and citizens. Both sides have become inhuman in the eyes of the other, and no productive, progressive dialogue can exist within such a dynamic.

There aren't easy answers to issues of criminality, cultural and financial poverty, and police brutality, but without an approach grounded in the acknowledgment and treatment of mental illness, progress will be limited.

When I was a student athlete at Iowa State, I felt basketball was a job. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the environment in Ames, or that playing the game I loved was a chore - quite the opposite, in fact. I loved my life on campus, felt kinship with my fellow students and fans, and to this day, I still have a deep and abiding affection for Coach Hoiberg and my teammates.

To be clear, I mean that any pursuit that requires the effort and time a Division I athlete puts in on weekly basis is tantamount to having a full-time job on top of schoolwork. Within that "work" environment, a coach and his staff are similar to employers/supervisors in that they must not only convince and motivate a group to buy into a common goal, but also that they have to create a healthy and comfortable culture for their players if they want any real long-term success.

At Iowa State, I felt very supported from the moment I arrived. Even minor indications of acknowledgement and understanding are immeasurably important to someone who struggles with mental health in any capacity. The more support one receives, the more encouraged employees/players feel to be open and honest with superiors/coaches.

Due to my anxiety, I wouldn't eat before games, ever. My stomach would be too nervous. The team always met together to eat breakfast in a huge conference room, and it was awkward for me to sit there while everyone but me ate. Coach Hoiberg recognized this, and simply allowed me to skip breakfast. Even that small gesture built trust between us, and made me more communicative about other issues.

When I had legitimate concerns, the staff at Iowa State remained flexible and thoughtful. They were proactive rather than reactive. I never felt stigmatized or judged as deficient because of my anxiety disorder. That level of respect, trust, and understanding is the reason I was able to go into my first game against Kansas in front of that intimidating crowd at Allen Fieldhouse and feel the same natural anxiety as my teammates, rather than a full-on panic related to my disorder. It's also why I went on to lead my team in points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals (the only player in the country to do so), earning a unanimous Big 12 First Team selection and making the All-American honorable mention list in the process.

Sure, I am proud of what I did on the court, but the truth is that without the support network provided by the university and its basketball program - which was in place for me at inception - I would not have been able to excel. This should be one of the primary concerns for any corporation or department, because a healthier work force is a more productive and effective work force.

We would never send a police officer out into the field without access to backup, but as I discovered at Iowa State, the best backup often comes before we go out into the territories we work. Preemptive counseling and periodic psychological evaluations are invaluable to professionals who see the worst of societal dysfunction with abnormal frequency. An officer has to be able to identify and admit his anxieties and fears to his colleagues and superiors in order to sustain his sanity, as well as his effectiveness.

When the NFL found itself immersed in a domestic abuse scandal, I thought this is exactly why I advocated for a basic protocol for handling mental health in the NBA. It's not hard to conjure a link between the NFL's culture of on-field brutality, head injuries, overzealous use of prescription drugs, and spousal/domestic abuse.

I also wasn't shocked to learn "several studies have found that the romantic partners of police officers suffer domestic abuse at rates significantly higher than the general population." Police officers, like football players, desperately need consistent counseling so their professional lives don't bleed into their personal lives.

Norm Stamper, a former Seattle Police Chief and an advocate for a return to community policing, believes "there is more fear in policing today. It operates on a sublimated level. Police officers don't really talk about fear." I'm not surprised. That kind of talk is discouraged and stigmatized. My own experience with initiating open discussion about mental illness in the NBA left me believing that people in power care more about the bottom line than productive dialogue about their employees' mental health. Even common aspects of life, like fear and anxiety, are taboo topics. As a result, fear festers and boils beneath the surface, and the results are often tragic.

The recent facts and footage of police employing deadly force are horrific and inexplicable - a mentally-ill man shot 14 times (several in the back), from a distance; a 12-year-old child shot dead within seconds of police arriving to the scene, without aid administered while his life slipped away; an innocent man shot dead in a stairwell, the offending officer texting his union rep before calling for an ambulance; a man choked to death as he repeatedly warns he cannot breathe.

Inexplicably, some of us still aren't seeing clearly what's right in front of us. Instead, we see only what we want to see; what we are pre-programmed to see through the lenses of bias and racism. It's the sort of warped vision that allows people to view pictures of Darren Wilson with barely a scratch on him, but still conclude his life was in danger and his shooting of Michael Brown was therefore justified; meanwhile, some of those same people see photos of citizens whose eyes have been blackened and beaten shut, but feel no sympathy.

Neither are the police seeing clearly what's right in front of them. Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney, who shot Dontre Hamilton those 14 times, claimed Hamilton had a "muscular build" and "most definitely would have overpowered ... me or pretty much any officer I can think of, to tell you the truth. He was just that big, that muscular ... I would say he would be impossible to control if you were one man." Manney also claimed Hamilton was "considerably younger than me, in much better shape than me, and much stronger and more muscular than me." In reality, Hamilton was 5-foot-7, 169 pounds, and slightly overweight.

In the wake of Tamir Rice's shooting, the officer who called it in described Rice as a 20-year-old black male. He was 12. Darren Wilson - who himself is 6-foot-4, 210 pounds - depicted Michael Brown in his grand jury testimony as some unholy hybrid of the Incredible Hulk and Sasquatch.

While it's easy to point to racism as the cause for this chasm between what these officers saw in their minds and who was actually in front of them, even that simplifies something much more complex than a single label. And in any case, even racism is a disease of the mind - or as Toni Morrison deemed it, "a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is."

Indeed, the extreme inflation of the age and size of black boys is epidemic. Several studies indicate both the general public and the police tend to evaluate black males as threats regardless of their innocence, size, or age. To wit, a recent study published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found a correlation between white male cops with records of using force on black children in custody and "dehumanization bias." That same study found a tendency among white female college students to perceive black youth 10 and older as "significantly less innocent" than their white peers.

In other words, our society sees large, young blacks as less innocent and more threatening than similarly aged whites; within the police force, the same holds true, with brutal and potentially deadly results.

As a young black man who deals with an anxiety disorder and stands at 6-foot-8, 270 pounds, this bias gives me legitimate reason for concern. While I've rarely felt fearful in the presence of police officers, it strikes me that many are predisposed to feel fearful in my presence, regardless of my innocence or intent.

The police need to see me clearly for who I am - and I need to do my best to see them as well. Far too much is at stake to do otherwise.

The events of 2014 are not unique. Not the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton or John Crawford, among others. They are part and parcel of an extended pattern of many decades of neglect: both of our poorest communities and our police. Each of which is traumatized, and each which is poorly served in terms of mental health resources. It's a toxic mix, and one that will continue to produce noxious results.

We cannot afford to be naïve any longer. We know there is racism - individual and institutional - within our police departments. We strongly suspect that many officers must be suffering from some form of PTSD due to their experiences on the job. Likewise, we know that members of impoverished communities are often mired in cyclical dysfunction that has complicated historical and sociological foundations, and this produces a litany of mental illnesses that worsen as they go untreated.

We need structural reform.

We need a national conversation about mental health. We need policies and resources completely revamped to keep in step with the diseases of the mind our police grapple with and bring to work each day. Improved diversity training and periodic psychological evaluations would be a good start. Police are not robots, they are human beings. Likewise, individuals in poorer sub-communities, often black, are not statistics, they also are human beings. And a society is not a business that must adhere to a bottom line, it's a collaborative human endeavor.

Our culture and employers need to respect this essential humanity. Mental health issues will never be resolved by neglect; we ignore their significance at our own expense. Mental illness is as real, treatable, and prevalent as physical illness.

It's painful to recall - so painful, in fact, that I hesitated several times before including the details here - losing two of my friends in a murder-suicide. Even though I didn't directly witness the tragedy, I felt the loss intensely. For months after, I had nightmares in which I observed the actual event, and I'd wake up shaken, confused and devastated.

If an individual can experience secondhand trauma so intensely, imagine what it's like for an police officer to see his partner shot in the line of duty? Or to be shot himself? Or even to arrive at a crime scene and view blood and gore on a regular basis? We can't reasonably expect officers - some of whom are younger than I am - to process this sort of extreme trauma without consistent psychological guidance.

Now imagine the communities to which Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and the countless other victims of excessive force belong. Their trauma is just as immediate, just as intense, yet the counseling they receive is non-existent. In this way, trauma begets trauma; the police and the dysfunctional communities they work in are locked in a horrific dance of mental health problems and inadequate resources to deal with them. As depressing as Michael Brown's and Eric Garner's murders are, what's more depressing is we can guarantee there will be many more to come, because our neglect of mental health issues remains both systemic and cultural.

If some of us can't see clearly, and others of us can't breathe, who among the rest of us will have the courage to step forward, and name and treat these afflictions for the betterment of us all?

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