Make the Kalief Browder Tragedy Mean Something

We have the Choice to do the Right Thing

I’m angry. I’m angry that mental health is a topic that people don’t want to discuss. I’m angry that mental health is pushed aside for other less sensitive topics. I’m angry that people don’t feel as ashamed to talk about their addictions with sex, substance abuse, gambling. I’m angry of the cone of silence over mental health.

So let’s put a face and a name to someone who was brave enough to allow his story to be told so that others would not have to suffer as he did. Kalief Browder shared his story with the New Yorker of being incarcerated at Riker’s Island for three years while waiting in vain for a chance to tell a judge that he did not steal a backpack when he was 16. He told of his mental abuse in solitary confinement for two years and the physical abuse at the hands of other inmates and corrections officers. He tried to commit suicide several times while incarcerated and was committed twice to a mental hospital. On release (charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence) he re-enrolled in community college, no longer suffered from panic attacks and was recognized by people as diverse as Rand Paul, Rose O’Donnell and Jay Z.

Earlier this week, he finally succeeded in committing suicide.

As angry as I am about Kalief’s story, as the executive director of Galaxy Counseling Centers, I know that countless unnamed young people without his connections are trapped in a confluence of the kind of bad luck, bad public policy and bad timing that tests their sanity. If we don’t recognize the importance mental wellness has in cases such as these and provide easy access to help, this story will be just another statistic, another sad tale of another young person gone too soon.

Despite the fact that mental illness is common and varying degrees of the ailment is experienced by all of us during our lifetime, it is dismissed at worse and under-diagnosed at best. We have the choice not to judge.

I suggest we start with the most vulnerable, our children. Childhood is fraught with challenges, but it is also a phase with the opportunity to make the most difference. What if we had a “vaccination” that could shield our children and make it easier for them to navigate the trials they will face AND help them to become better adjusted adults? Meeting mental and behavioral health needs before they become severe can, in the long run, be valuable in both personal and economic terms.

We must respond to a child’s emotional needs. They are as critical to their cognitive and social development as attending to their physical needs. An individual’s development stems from both environment and biology, and mental health problems arise from stressors on the interaction of these two factors. Studies have shown a lasting impact on the lives of children that experience sadness, grief and disruption in response to trauma, neglect and loss. According to the U.S. Public Health Service, mental illness is now the leading cause of disability for persons 5 years of age and older; and “the long-term consequences of untreated childhood disorders are costly in both human and monetary terms”.

The pervasive stigma about mental illness and the desire to avoid “labeling” children contributes to the lack of prevention, early identification and adequate services for all children. Risk factors such as violence and poverty, prenatal exposure harmful substances, and poor mental health in parents can result in children with a 50 percent greater chance of continuing to struggle with mental health problems into adolescence and adulthood.

Mental health needs in children are often linked to poor academic performance, social isolation, behavior issues (self-harm or injury to others), substance abuse, suicide, and criminal activity. It is clear that inappropriate behaviors such as these seldom resolve themselves without systematic intervention.

We must identify problems in formative years. Research confirms that early psychological intervention such as play therapy with family involvement tailored to children’s maturity level is extremely effective.

Let’s find ways to maximize the positive and minimize the negative by providing the tools for emotional, social, and cognitive development. Are we more afraid of what others will think than helping our children? We need to openly seek these services and utilize therapy as they would treat any physical illness.

Our challenge is to start a revolution and raise a generation that is mindful of mental health needs in the formative and dynamic pre-school years. There’s lots of research on what works, now we just have to do it.

Lynette Payne is the Executive Director of Galaxy Counseling Center, and a member of The OpEd Project’s Dallas Public Voices Greenhouse.