There is no doubt in my mind that we are going to return to a new normal. It is going to be the world after the pandemic. However, some elements of the past are another form of public health. We still have a mental health crisis in the country. One that we could argue has become worst due to the year-plus of social isolation. The other is the epidemic of guns and mass shootings. The third, finally, is the over-policing of black and brown bodies.
It is important to understand what is happening because a year of isolation has not made us think, or change some social habits. However, one thing has gotten worse. We have evidence that the pandemic has increased mental health challenges. These range from depression to substance abuse. We know this is especially the case with young people in school. We know there have been more visits to emergency rooms for psychiatric issues and domestic abuse. The pandemic was not easy on this aspect and once the country opens, this is not going to magically go away.
The use of psychiatric resources will increase, however in the United States mental health has never been a priority. This is a global disaster, and like all disasters, we are just starting to see the long-term effect. In effect, recovery from any disaster usually takes ten years. I suspect this one will take longer due to the global nature. It is not just the economy that we need to consider, but the mental resources that will be needed.
The first step for this to happen is that we need to stop demonizing this care. We must accept the need for it, and start redirecting resources into it. The best place to take care of mental issues is to do it in the off-hospital setting and within the community.
According to the State of Mental Health in America:
Youth mental health is worsening. 9.7% of youth in the U.S. have severe major depression, compared to 9.2% in last year’s dataset. This rate was highest among youth who identify as more than one race, at 12.4%.
Even before COVID-19, the prevalence of mental illness among adults was increasing. In 2017–2018, 19% of adults experienced a mental illness, an increase of 1.5 million people over last year’s dataset.
Suicidal ideation among adults is increasing. The percentage of adults in the U.S. who are experiencing serious thoughts of suicide increased 0.15% from 2016–2017 to 2017–2018 — an additional 460,000 people from last year’s dataset.
There is still unmet need for mental health treatment among youth and adults. 60% of youth with major depression did not receive any mental health treatment in 2017–2018. Even in states with the greatest access, over 38% are not receiving the mental health services they need. Among youth with severe depression, only 27.3% received consistent treatment. 23.6% of adults with a mental illness reported an unmet need for treatment in 2017–2018. This number has not declined since 2011.
The percentage of adults with a mental illness who are uninsured increased for the first time since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Nationally, 10.8% are uninsured, totaling 5.1 million adults. This figure differs dramatically across states — in New Jersey (ranked #1) 2.5% of adults with AMI are uninsured, compared to 23% in Wyoming (ranked #51).
So we need to deal with not just the current effects of the pandemic, but make plans for the long term. Our new normal has to include more resources and the treatment of people. We first need to acknowledge that we have a problem.
This brings me to the intersection with guns and mass shootings. As we reopen we are starting to see more mass shootings. Of course, that includes schools, as well as workplaces. Republicans in particular tend to blame mental health for mass shootings. They do have somewhat of a point. Yet, we do not see any investment in the public health system that would allow for good quality mental health. They also tend to blame video games, music, drugs, anything, so they don’t have to deal with the fact that we have way too many guns concentrated in a few hands.
We also know that background checks poll in very high numbers, but Republicans in the House and Senate are opposed to any form of regulation on the grounds that this is going to lead to the banning of guns. This is the slippery slope argument, one popularized by the National Rifle Association. It is bunk, and the NRA knows this. After all, it was the same NRA that was in favor of the national firearms act (NFA) of 1934. It is obvious that this was a different NRA ideologically from the present one. It was one that was in favor of some gun control to keep the nation safe.
There are parallels to that era, the roaring twenties. The Act came from a series of mass shootings, and the police getting outgunned regularly. It was an era when you could order your Thomson SMG over the mail. It was not illegal to own fully automatic weapons. However, semi-automatic pistols were so rare (in civilian hands) that this is why they were not included in the law. Officers were issued 38 specials, which were revolvers.
The Act came from a demand of citizens who were fed up. It has survived multiple challenges under the second amendment. At this point, it is considered established law. We have a similar demand for background checks and somewhat less, but still large majorities for licensing for gun owners. And two-thirds of Americans want a ban on assault weapons.
This is significant because Congress has a mandate to pass something similar to the NFA. A loud, but the smaller minority is the one still committed to keeping these weapons in the hands of civilians. Like the NFA, those who still own them could be grandfathered, but no new sales would come. In time this alone reduced the circulation of things like Thomson SMGs. It would also reduce, greatly, mass shootings. It would save lives
Of course, there are forces committed to keeping the status quo, that lead to more gun sales and more deaths. We are already back to this old normal. We already had several mass shootings, high-profile mass shootings. There is the political capital to do this. All polling says such. What we do not have is the political will, in particular from the Republican Party. The reason is simple. They have encouraged radicals over the years, and the far-right controls primaries.
Over-Policing in Communities of Color
This is the last element of the old normal coming back with a vengeance. It never truly left, since these communities have never seen a break in this. This goes all the way back to the colonial period. Some people have never been equal and have always been seen as both inferior and a threat. Whether these are slave patrols, black codes, Jim Crow, or mass incarceration, all these are means of social control. The idea that former slaves are not equal, and are not capable of civilized behavior is older than the country.
Daunte Wright is the latest of these incidents of police brutality. The list is long, and at this point, we should all consider what these incidents tell us about society. This is not about a traffic stop. It is about many traffic stops. This is not about one knee over somebody’s neck, but the use of force to maintain a knee over a community.
We know that there is specific targeting on these communities and that the reality is that these communities see police as an occupation force. There are many reasons for that. Because in reality blacks will face detention at traffic stops at a rate eight times higher than whites in Milwaukee for example. Never mind that whites have contraband on them more often. Or for that matter six times more often in DC than whites.
Then we have this via the Root in New York City:
The good news is that Stop and Frisk — the NYPD’s practice of stopping and patting down people in New York City — has dropped by more than 98 percent since its height and the rate of violent crime continues to drop.
The not-so-good but, frankly, not surprising news is that the percentage of people of color stopped — young black and Latino men in particular — continues to be at much higher rates than their population, regardless of the neighborhood they are stopped in.
It does not matter what community. This pattern repeats across the nation. Nobody is frankly surprised at these reports. Because at this point we know better. We also know that force is used eight times more often as well, in San Diego. This data is consistent nationwide.
What We Can Learn
As we emerge from the pandemic, we are coming into this normal that has existed. A combination of violence against certain percentages of the population. The use of firearms and mass shootings and increased mental health needs. These are all connected, to a point. The stress on over-policed communities leads to more needs for mental health, which is not available. When we add access to guns (especially by whites, who fear black and brown people who are asserting themselves), we see old patterns become new.
The death of Daunte Wright is a good example of this. Whether the officer made a mistake (there are too many questions as to how an officer could confuse a taser with a gun, for starters one is bright yellow, the other is black and they have different weights), why was this a hot stop? Why are black (and brown) men treated as enemy combatants with what feels to be an occupation force? Specific to Minnesota, why are officers from two neighboring departments, who are Field Training Officers, making these many mistakes that prove lethal? Are we having a regional training problem? Is this a law enforcement-wide problem? To be blunt? Were these two accidents? We know with Chauvin it was not. Was this a mistake from Kim Potter? Can we buy this explanation? I think a jury should determine this at this point. That is what justice looks like. And even it is was an accident, she should face some time behind bars. The lowest charge would be manslaughter. None of us would be able to walk if we accidentally killed a co-worker or a stranger. It is time to apply the same exact standard to law enforcement.
We need to ask those questions, and not hide our heads in the sand as we have done for hundreds of years. Police have a function in all societies. In American society, it is a tool of social control. It is clear at this point. In recent years, we have evidence that far-right groups like militias, white supremacists, and others have penetrated law enforcement and the military. These are not new problems, but they have become more acute.
The trial of Derek Chauvin is a rare example of starting to hold law enforcement accountable. Will that be an exception? Or will this be the new rule? Will this lead to a mass resignation from departments from people who fear the long arm of the law will finally catch to them? That is a lesson and a demand from the last year. We need a new attitude in law enforcement. As Cedric Alexander has written in the past, and the Obama Commission sought to do, we need guardians not warriors in law enforcement.
But we need more. We need to acknowledge that law enforcement is but the tip of the spear for the vast inequality we see in society. We need to expand not just access to mental health, but the true availability of mental health care. The pandemic has made these issues far more acute for people who already had problems. It has led to mental health challenges for people who did not, And we need to treat this as part of our society-wide, long-term response to the pandemic. We also need the same for all of the medical systems. We know that during the pandemic communities of color were vastly more affected, due to issues of access, as well as being essential workers. There is also racism within the medical system. Black and brown people are treated differently by the system, and for example, pain is not as widely treated as it is with whites.
We also need to see what is happening. One reason for the vast arsenals of guns in small numbers of hands, white hands, for the most part, is driven by fear. Fear of what, you might ask? American society is no longer going to be dominated by whites. We are becoming a multicultural society. In this society, we can either choose the road towards open apartheid, or equality. For some whites, the latter possess the prospect of a more competitive society, where they may have to openly compete with people they consider inferior. Yes, racism is baked into the cake. It was part of who we were starting in 1619.
Questions of reparations have been asked. This is well beyond this piece. Suffice it to say, reparation is far from enough. Reparations alone will not fix the system-wide issues we have. We must start with the tip of the spear. Traffic stops that regularly become hot stops with weapons drawn because people are black or brown need to stop. These could be seen as modern-day lynchings.
And for whites who say, but, but… let's face it, you will be asked for your driver's license, and proof of insurance in a calm professional way. Yes, you will be pissed for the ticket, or the talk you receive, maybe the fix-it ticket. But that will be the extent of it. Unless you are actually wanted, your chances of ending on the wrong end of a gun barrel are very small. Every stop for your black and brown neighbors is a roll of the dice, that would very well end in a funeral. It matters little what people behind the wheel do. For the officers, the stop-starts already at a perceived threat level that is much higher. Ergo, people are treated with far less respect, due to a melanin content issue, from the get-go, in any contact with law enforcement.
Body cams and cell phones have exposed this to the wider society. I had a conversation recently about Chauvin with a friend on Facebook, who had never heard of anything like what happened. I pointed to him this cruel reality. Without cell phone cameras, (and body cams) likely we would have never heard of it. It would have gone the way it usually did. Why? The officer is automatically believed, But these stories have been around for decades. Not precisely the exact same incident as what happened with Chauvin. But taking people to the yard (euphemism for beating them up) is old in the tooth, for example.
What changed with Jim Crow laws were photos of police rioting on black bodies during the civil rights movement, We are emerging from the pandemic into the heart of a second civil rights movement. This is why people took to the streets globally, for George Floyd last year. This is why people are still willing to take to the streets and risk police rioting on them again. This is why police sometimes demand media leave an area they are about to clear, with batons and CS gas, as happened overnight in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. This is via Sara Sidner from CNN:
In my 25 years as a reporter I have NEVER heard police in America actually say “journalists will be arrested” during a protests. But that happened in #BrooklynCenter last night. We stayed. The citizens are why we stay. I took this moments aft the announcement #DaunteWright
The tip of the spear needs to be followed with systemic changes society-wide.