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.

Photo: Minnesota Department of Correction.

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.”

Photo: St. Paul Police Department.

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)