A kid, a stolen cellphone, and invisible faces of mental illness

[Update June 15, 2016] – Dejuan Montgomery, 19, is going to jail for 30 days for stealing girl’s cellphone, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports. Before the details of the incident were revealed, the media was quick to portray him as a monster. He wasn’t a monster; he was a kid who’s mentally ill.

Judge Gary W. Bastian ordered Montgomery to complete a chemical dependency evaluation and cooperate with mental health counseling and cognitive skills programming. A sentence of 21 months was stayed, on the condition Montgomery meets those and other standard probation requirements.

[This post was originally published on January 29, 2016]

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook — not necessarily something I recommend — then you already know what I’m about to say.

This may well be a face of mental illness.

It’s a monumentally sad story published in today’s Pioneer Press. He’s Dejuan Quashon Montgomery, and he’s probably heading back to prison soon because he stole a 9-year-old girl’s cellphone while she was standing on a street corner earlier this month talking to her father.

You might see it as a crime story. I see it as a health story.

The cops, in releasing a photo after the incident, called the thief “despicable.”

There’s no excuse for stealing a girl’s cellphone, and the incident plays into the pitchfork mentality that dominates the online world.

Earlier this week, I noted the growing controversy in Canada over the #BellLetsTalk Day in which mental health advocates encourage people to tell their stories of mental illness, stories that are dominated by generally well-off white people.

In fact, as I researched news coverage of mental health issues here in the last decade or so, I could find only one African-American whose story was publicized and whose story generated a fair amount of sympathy: Royce White, the former Mr. Basketball in Minnesota who had been drafted by the Houston Rockets of the NBA.

The strategy of trying to get you to care about mental illness is understandable. When people just like you tell a story of mental illness, you’re more likely to be sympathetic. Sympathy might even lead to understanding. Understanding might lead to change.

The problem is there’s another side of mental illness that should get sympathy too. It’s the despicable side, the side in which someone steals a 9-year-old’s cellphone.

Unless you have a child with mental illness, you can’t begin to understand the torture that, no doubt, plagues the unidentified mother of the man who did it.

Several days later, she returned the phone to the girl.

The kid lived in a group home, had mental health issues and mom was trying to make things right after seeing the story on the news.

She said after her son grabbed the phone — saying “ha ha, I took your phone” — he returned to the corner to give it back. But the girl was gone. That’s the story, anyway.

He’s been in prison before, something that’s not unusual for people with mental illness, and he’s probably going back. He’s not living in the group home anymore.

His story is actually a common one, but you don’t hear about it because it’s not a sympathetic one, as evidenced by this comment on the Pioneer Press, which abdicates its responsibility to elevate the public discourse by providing a soapbox for the ignorant.

Well, of course he’s “mentally ill”. That’s becoming a very popular excuse for doing disgusting things, without having to take responsibility for the actions. I think we need to start building “lock down” mental health facilities where these mentally ill people can be watched and protected.

They need to be protected from themselves. They can’t help themselves (ya right). Breaking the law is just a natural instinct. So they need to be heavily monitored so as to not have them land in jail.

More Oscar Mayer BOLOGNA

Prisons have already become the new asylums, Slate reported this month in its story on how the mentally ill are locked up, and their conditions made worse.

Ten times more mentally ill people are now in jails and prisons than in state psychiatric hospitals: In 2012, approximately 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness were in prisons and jails, while about 35,000 severely ill patients were in state psychiatric hospitals.

Many of these inmates would have been in hospitals prior to the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s, but now there are not enough beds, and many mental health hospitals have been closed down.

According to one report, the number of state psychiatric beds in the nation declined from a high of approximately 550,000 in 1960 to 40,000 today. So extremely sick people are locked up, often for trivial offenses, frequently without treatment, as their illnesses worsen. Upon release, they are more likely than other prisoners to recidivate and be incarcerated again.

This is the conversation worth having.

Mental illness — and its racial component — is also the story few people want to talk about in Flint, where the predominantly black population has been drinking lead.

“When children whose brains are actively developing are impacted by lead poisoning in particular…it can have a very deleterious effect on kids’ IQ and, ultimately, their behavior,” Frank Vandervort, clinical professor of law and co-founder of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Michigan, told ThinkProgress. “The kids who are likely to come in contact with the juvenile justice system tend to be kids who have had developmental disabilities, who have mental health problems.”

That’s the ticking time bomb that’s getting no attention.

Lead damages the brain. People with damaged brains sometimes steal kids’ cellphones, and society hasn’t figured out a way to give a damn about people with mental illness who aren’t white and well known.

African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience mental health issues, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Sometimes the face of mental illness doesn’t look like us. Someday, it may not matter.

Sadly, today is not that day.

Related: Jailing the Mentally Ill (American RadioWorks)

  • kevins

    Great story…thanks.

  • jsguntzel

    Amen. Taking this argument to a more extreme place, I am still haunted by my time spent visiting death row in Illinois (I made monthly visits as a volunteer when I was in my early-20s). On the tier there were the regular cells (bars for doors) and there were the solitary cells (solid door with a small, nearly opaque window and a food slot near the floor). Invariably, the most mentally ill of the death row prisoners were locked up in the solitary cells for behavior issues. And I am talking *profound* mental illness. I would have to converse with them through the lunch slot, which I would prop open with my hand. Sometimes the light was broken (and had been for weeks) and I could only see a silhouette. Sometimes they would try to get a leg or an arm close enough to the slot for me to examine a rash that had started small but spread up and down that leg or arm because in addition to a lack of any serious mental health services, they were also denied adequate physical health services. I was visiting one man when guards came to take him out for a rare shower. They told me to keep clear of him–that he might try to hurt me. Instead I walked next to him for as long as I could, continuing our conversation. He had of course done the worst kind of hurt to people–but it was absurd and inhumane to pretend that a man in cuffs and escorted by two armed guards could hurt me. It was the culture–and *is* the culture: These people are animals not humans. What did that culture do for this man? His arms were covered in scabs and scars from cutting himself with whatever cutting things he could get his hands on. After the shower, it was back to the solitary cell–which in my time there only seemed to make the symptoms of his illness worse. Talk about never going to be the face of mental illness…

  • Al

    Compassion is in short-order when it comes to the funding we need to care for–not incarcerate, but CARE for–our friends, family, and neighbors with mental illness.

    The tweet above from Jennifer Lawrence is SPOT. ON. It’s a massive barrier to treatment and acceptance of mental health issues.

    I’m not a fan of pharmaceutical companies advertising drugs directly to consumers–I think it circumvents the very necessary step of talking to health care providers and plays to consumers’ fears–but I wonder if more promotion of mental health drugs during prime time television (like you see for erectile dysfunction, HPCD, etc. etc. etc.) would help overcome some of this stigma.

  • crystals
  • chlost

    In my work with children (yes, they are children-which often times is forgotten as we attempt to hold them to adult standards) in the court system, I have found that many of them have hidden mental health issues which have not been picked up by family or schools. Their behaviors are often linked directly to untreated mental health issues. We have a choice-lock up every one of them or properly diagnose and treat them. The second option is much more cost-effective in the long run, but takes the will to acknowledge the issue. So far, we have opted for the “lock ’em up and get them outta our sight” option which allows us to feel morally superior and at least temporarily safe.

  • wjc

    This whole discussion is unspeakably sad. We generally know that mental health care is needed for a large number of kids and adults, whether they have reached the point of committing a crime or not. We generally know that they are not going to get that care due to insurance, stigma and availability issues.

  • Paul

    Thanks for stating the obvious that so many choose to overlook.

  • Fred, Just Fred

    Couple thoughts.

    We have become a society that not only refuses to acknowledge many of our neighbors are struggling with mental illness, but one that willingly and enthusiastically ties the definition of what it is to be mentally ill to the winds of popular opinion, rather than

    Our prisons are filled with people that to many, are clearly off the rails. But they have been adjudicated sane enough to know right from wrong. This fellow is, sadly, probably going to be joining their ranks soon.

    On the other edge of that coin are people who to many are clearly off the rails, but because of their place as politically protected class, are not only free to live out their
    delusions, but are held to be the new normal.

    You can’t have it both ways. If we are going to protect the truly vulnerable among us, we
    cannot allow those we trust to be the voices of scientific certainty to use their positions of trust as tools of a political agenda when it is convenient.

    As I understand it, this poor fellow was living in a group home. That tells me he is not capable of making rational decisions or fending for himself. It will be a damned shame to lock him up in prison, but there we are.

    • There’s a certain after-the-fact nature to a lot of this. OTOH, if we can develop a system that provides access to help before people go “off the rails”, it might be possible in future generations not to have jails and prisons be so full.

      • Fred, Just Fred

        Man, I’m struggling to work my feelings out on this.

        On one hand, I think we really need to expand mental health services in this country. And these services must be available irrespective of any insurance or ability to pay…the government would have to be involved, and heavily.

        On the other hand, with the political situation in this country being what it is, I don’t know if I can trust government (or sadly, the medical profession) to use this expanded opportunity wisely and without the Machiavellian skulduggery du jour. I can easily predict many political uses that could be made of a robust government run mental health machine.

  • Anna

    There is much we still do not understand about the human brain. It’s complexities are still being discovered by medical science.

    There are so many mentally ill patients who can benefit from therapy and medication but it can sometimes take many months, even years for a breakthrough to occur.

    For some patients their mental incapacity is so severe that nothing helps. These are the patients who need 24/7 supervised care. They cannot function on their own in society.

    Insurance companies want a quick fix. They don’t want to pay for an illness that might take years to cure or bring under control. They would rather pay for open heart surgery, appendectomies and knee replacements.

    We don’t talk about mental illness because it is a label that no one wants. It means you’re weak and lazy, as if somehow if you just tried harder you could overcome it and “snap” out of it.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Many disorders run in families including schizophrenia, bipolar and major depression. Through no fault of their own they have inherited a disabling illness and they are considered defective units to be locked away where no one can see them, beyond hope, beyond help.

    Mental illness is like diabetes. Once you have it you will always have it. With medication and proper support much of it can be controlled successfully.

    What we have to ask is how many more people will be incarcerated and punished before we accept it for what it is—-a disease process just like heart disease, asthma or diabetes.

    • Kurt O

      Unfortunately the brain is not considered to be an organ like the heart, lungs or pancreas.
      One could argue that some narrow-minded people’s brains are as useful as their appendices.

  • Kent Merkey

    Thanks Bob. Well written and the content appreciated. Not new, but needs to be articulated, which you did.

  • Kurt O

    What I find baffling about remarks like the ones made in the Pioneer Press is how uncompassionate some people can be while being adamant about the US being founded on Christian values. Although they say people can redeem themselves it’s not put into practice.

    The situation of John LaDue, the man in Waseca who had made plans to attack his high school, is another example. While in jail he was diagnosed as autistic with a fixation on violence. After completing his sentence he was supposed to be transferred to a treatment facility in GA. When that fell through and there was possibility of him returning home due to a lack of room in facilities in MN, some locals “expressed concerned”. It wasn’t even done anonymously:
    BTW: The “explosive device” they show is dry ice in a Gatorade bottle. Hopefully those weren’t the bomb making components he was convicted for possessing. .

  • essjayok

    Thank you for this thoughtful and articulate piece, Bob!!

  • Ben Chorn

    In Chicago the police killed a black man who called 911 multiple times before the cops came when his father called, saying his son was being dangerous. When Quintonio LeGrier called police he wouldn’t give his name… but when you listen to the 911 tapes it sounds like he’s having a mental breakdown rather than being uncooperative.

    Unfortunately the cops show up after the father told the dispatcher that his son was armed with a bat and he needed the help of police. He ended up swinging at the police and was shot 6 times and killed. A woman came to the front door and she was also shot in the chest and killed.

    There’s many parts to this story, but I can’t help thinking if the police originally came at the first 911 call and treated it as a mental health issue it might have ended differently.


  • Cameo Blaze

    The pitchfork mentality…excellent way of characterizing the attitudes that lead to the criminalization of mental illness. What I call the war on the insanity defense – which goes back to the victorian age is driven by this mentality. It seemed that sanity and civility was beginning to take hold until John Hinckley…that led to the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984. That, in concert with deinstitutionalization has cause so much devastation for people stricken with schizophrenia and other very serious brain diseases.

    People with schizophrenia and other diseases that cause psychosis have the right to have their brain disorders understood!!! – This is what can reduce stigma. Unless people understand severe mental illness they will not be receptive to any pleas for reduction of stigma…it offends their internal sense of logic that is rooted in miscomprehension.

    Everything hinges on comprehension. The pitchfork guy orgal quoted in the article shows the “pseudo-thought disorder” that plagues society. The commentary reveals this disordered thinking that is borne of ignorance not of biology (as it is in schizophrenia). He or she says ‘of course he is mentally ill., makes reference to what would be called a locked unit in the mental health system – then, illogically and in rank ignorance, calls what are actually symptomatic behaviors that are beyond the control of the sick person (which he or she mockingly spurns with ‘ya right’), an “excuse” – then, in further illogic, states that they need monitoring to keep them out of jail???? What is jail for???…for people who have criminal intent (not biologically induced autonomic thought generation and consciousness disorder) – and who have brains functioning such that self-auditing and impulse control is active. But the Pioneer Press writer “double-crosses” their own assertions with oppositional and illogical commentary about responsibility and incarceration. Moroever, in this commentary, there is a sort of “pseudo anosognosia” (anosognosia is a neurological disorder that blocks someone cognitively from knowing they have a disorder or medical condition). The writer has absolutely no idea that what they are saying is profoundly ignorant and illogical within the context of medical science.

    • Amy

      reduce a stigma? you want some to remain? how much? and why? Stigma is a feeling of shame. Why would you direct that onto someone with a diagnosis of mental illness? That used to happen to women re: rape until feminists said “No!!!” and society stopped doing it.

  • lindblomeagles

    Fabulous job Bob. I don’t support Republican Candidate Kasich, but he argued a similar valid powerful point regarding drug addiction too, specifically saying how so much of the compassion expressed for addicts today is because whites are the face of heroine addiction, while the country expressed disdain for Coke addicts because their faces for decades were Black.

  • Joe_Bob_the_III

    Two unrelated comments:

    1) Newspaper comment threads are almost always a cesspool. The PiPress is actually better than most because you have to log in with Facebook. Nonetheless, it is amazing what people will say even when their real name is attached to it, though obviously “Oscar Mayer Bologna” is a fake that made it past the FB monitors. If you regularly read the Strib you will notice that they often do not attach comment threads to stories with a racial component. They are such magnets for racist vitriol that moderating the threads is more effort than it is worth.

    2) Lack of mental health care is not for lack of resources. We gladly put mentally ill people in prison at a rate of $40,000/year and up. Ergo, the money to treat them is there if we chose to allocate it differently. Due to the politics of it, there is just more interest is punishing people than helping them – especially when the people in question are non-white. On the bright side, the fact that prison is very expensive and alternatives may be both cheaper and more effective is finally beginning to enter the consciousness of those naturally inclined to punitive law and order approaches.

  • KTFoley

    Unrelated – the comment counter is displaying a number again. It doesn’t tally with the number of comments in the thread (26 vs. 21 right now — did you delete 5 posts, by any chance?) but at least there’s an indicator of something going on.

    • This is a repost of post from last January. When the system worked.

      • Jeff

        Yep, it’s that

        This logic works:


        • Jeff

          This code from your previous article doesn’t work:


          If you’re using a front end you can manually go in and edit the code too…odd that WordPress wouldn’t let you go in and customize the logic…Matlab lets you do that.

  • Kurt O

    As an aside, most of the job applications I’ve been filling out have a set of “confidential self-identification” questions for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They do list major depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders as disabilities. Even though they are classified as being eligible for reasonable accommodations I don’t know if I want to bring anything up with a new employer, even if they are minor things like alternate work schedules or flexibility with scheduling travel.

  • Jeff

    So what can we do? Tighten down on mentally ill people having free movement? Do we need insane asylums like we had in the 1960s (ala One Flew over the Coo Coo’s Nest)? I mean there has to be some kind of a balance, maybe we need more group homes and keep close tabs on each person…I’m not sure why we can’t do that today…but it does mean restricted movement and keeping track of these people at all times. I don’t like to see mentally ill people getting hurt or hurting others, let’s get these people under observation and being watched over but we already have these programs…why aren’t we using them???

    Perhaps an in depth story about this specific person would be interesting, why was no one with him? Why was he on his own? Was anyone supposed to be responsible for him? Is he being taken care of today, if so where is he and who’s taking care of him?