People with Mental Illness are Human Beings, Not a Threat

Recently a young African-American mother named Miriam Carey (34) was driving erratically close to the Washington DC capitol and police were trying to stop her. Imagining the worst case scenario — that she possibly had a bomb inside her car — they feared she may be a threat. However, the real threat was the police, who shot Miriam dead (even after she exited her car without a weapon), with her one-year-old daughter in the back seat.

It turns out Miriam had a mental illness and had active delusions about President Obama. Many people lack a fundamental understanding of mental illness and how it can operate. As someone who has a major mental illness (bipolar I disorder), and is a social worker, I understand it first-hand.

When someone is psychotic and/or delusional, they often do not have much or any control over their thoughts and actions. It is hard to imagine a person losing touch with reality to that degree, but our brains are very powerful. When a person is in that state of mind, they are very vulnerable. In fact, contrary to popular belief, people with severe mental illness are more likely to harm themselves or be harmed by others, than to be dangerous to other people.

The danger from others is often because of the lack of understanding people about mental illness. Lack of information coupled with the stigma of mental illness keeps people from knowing accurate and important information that could save lives.

It’s important that people know that mental illness is very common. It is estimated that half of all people will develop a mental illness in their lifetime. Currently, 50 million people (1 in 5) have a diagnosed mental illness in America (not to mention all those who are undiagnosed).

So for something seen as so taboo and “weird,” mental illness is actually fairly normal and part of many people’s everyday lives. People tend to not talk about it due to shame, but it’s time we started talking about it. As fellow social worker and shame and resiliency researcher, Brene’ Brown, says, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.”

People with mental illnesses do not deserve mistreatment.

The Miriam Carey’s of the world are deserving of respect and should be viewed as having worth and value. I often imagine if I were in the middle of a manic episode and out on the street if any one of these people could be me, and, if so, how I would want people to interact with me. Would I want someone to draw a gun on me and start screaming at me? Would I want someone to threaten me or try to subdue me with force? I imagine those things being very scary and threatening. I imagine, with great dread, being killed, through no fault of my own, simply because I have a mental illness.

I think the police’s approach to people with mental illness needs a lot of work. Their “shoot first, ask questions later” policy leads to excessive force. I understand in emergency situations that police sometimes become panicked due to stress, but that is why proper and extensive training is needed, as well as clear and structured protocols to intervene and diffuse situations properly. Police should protect those with mental illnesses, not view them as suspect and dangerous.

Although mental illness is biological, genetic, environmental, and social-cultural, we know capitalism creates social alienation and enormous amounts of interpersonal, relational, and social stress on individuals and families.

Under socialism we would have a universal single-payer socialized healthcare system, where everyone could get proper mental health care. Under socialism, we would structure society differently so people would no longer work a 40+ hour week, and would have more time to devote to self-care. Under socialism we would provide for each other so no one would live in poverty, violence, be homeless or hungry, and would be less likely to experience trauma or stress, which contribute greatly to mental illness.

I believe if we lived in a democratic socialist society we could see a drastic reduction in mental illness and could even prevent a lot of it. Socialism would treat people with mental illness as human beings, not as a threat to be managed.


Tina Phillips

is a social worker who enjoys writing, advocacy, good food, and thrifting. She lives in Oakland, CA with her partner, Rachel, four cats, and their dog, Miss Piggy. You can read more of her writing on her blog at

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