Royce White: Neglected mental health issues at heart of police controversies

It’s been quite awhile since we heard from Royce White, the former Mr. Basketball in Minnesota who was the first person drafted into the NBA after publicly acknowledging he suffers from mental illness, before wearing out his welcome in Houston.

The fanboys who follow sports insisted he just shake it off, and things got pretty ugly between them.

He’s out of the league now, after playing just 9 minutes of regular season NBA basketball.

“My quest to establish a clear protocol in the NBA got me labeled as everything from a Prima donna to a locker room problem, and I suspect it has left me unofficially blackballed from the league despite my being a first-round draft pick,” he writes today on The Cauldron.

In his essay, he suggests some police officers have the same problems and struggles he has…

That problem isn’t restricted to team owners and CEOs, by any means. When it comes to issues of mental illness and mental health — whether in the most impoverished and traumatized communities, or even within the departments that employ those who police those streets — discussing fear, anxiety, stress and depression remains stigmatized. The attitude is we’d rather not know.

Why? Because mental health is an issue that requires and amplifies our individual and collective responsibility to ourselves and others. It’s a mirror that reflects who we really are — yet we keep running from our reflections.

We can debate cause and effect, but the facts allow for minimal wiggle room: our most downtrodden communities are entrenched in a cycle of social dysfunction; our police employ brutal and sometimes deadly tactics in their interactions with these communities; and within the debate about who and what is right or wrong, the most significant aspect of the discussion is — as usual — absent. Our culture inspires and subsequently neglects serious mental illness in too many of its citizens. We can no longer afford to perpetuate this problem by stubbornly refusing to address it.

As a conscientious citizen of this great nation, I have sympathy for our police. Their job is dangerous and often thankless, and many of them are overworked and underpaid in relation to the vital function they serve in our communities. Officers like Darren Wilson are humans; susceptible to the same stresses, fears, and other mental issues as any of us. Given the combination of their fallibility and the dangers of their jobs, it’s unfathomable that we still lack universal policies on psychological evaluations for police officers. It says something frightening about our culture that we’d rather increase the scope and sophistication of police weaponry than take steps that ensure the health of both police and those they serve.

White didn’t thrive at the University of Minnesota. He didn’t thrive in Houston. He didn’t thrive in Sacramento, his last NBA stop.

He thrived in Iowa, where he played for Iowa State and coach Fred Hoiberg, because — he says — the school and staff understood his illness.

We would never send a police officer out into the field without access to backup, but as I discovered at Iowa State, the best backup often comes before we go out into the territories we work. Preemptive counseling and periodic psychological evaluations are invaluable to professionals who see the worst of societal dysfunction with abnormal frequency. An officer has to be able to identify and admit his anxieties and fears to his colleagues and superiors in order to sustain his sanity, as well as his effectiveness.

White says the nation’s police departments — like other institutions (including you, NBA) need “structural reform.”

We need a national conversation about mental health. We need policies and resources completely revamped to keep in step with the diseases of the mind our police grapple with and bring to work each day. Improved diversity training and periodic psychological evaluations would be a good start. Police are not robots, they are human beings. Likewise, individuals in poorer sub-communities, often black, are not statistics, they also are human beings. And a society is not a business that must adhere to a bottom line, it’s a collaborative human endeavor.

“If some of us can’t see clearly, and others of us can’t breathe, who among the rest of us will have the courage to step forward, and name and treat these afflictions for the betterment of us all?” he writes.

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