Modern Day Samaritan Moral Dilemma

Van Gogh's art
What comes up when you Google images of mental illness?

I was riding my bike on the American River Parkway, just after the bike/pedestrian bridge crosses the river near C Street. I saw that someone had ripped open full trash bags from the public garbage cans and strewn them across the trail. As I wove my way through the trash I could smell feces and I realized there was a man in full mental breakdown talking to himself about 20 feet off the trail. When he saw me he started swearing the usual derogatory terms for women.

I kept riding, not because I felt at risk, but because I am not equipped to handle his crisis. In the last few years I know mental illness is not a character flaw or demon possession. For the first time I thought of it in the same terms as someone having a heart attack. I would not just keep pedaling. But, who do you call in such a situation?

The Sacramento papers have had too many stories about police responding to a call and shooting unarmed mentally ill persons. I did not want this person to come to harm. And he is not a criminal. Yet, I could not pass by without calling someone because I did worry he might hurt himself.

So I called my two friends who advocate for the mentally ill. I reached Stephanie and she had a couple of suggestions to try before calling 9-1-1.  Unfortunately, Loaves and Fishes that is located closest to the person in crisis is open from 8-3 Monday through Friday and not on a Saturday of a three-day weekend. I called 2-1-1, which is the 9-1-1 line for social services. From the menu choices I could tell that this is a great place to call for housing or food for your child under 5, but not for a full-blown meltdown. Then I called the mental health crisis hotline and the woman said she could only help if she could speak to the person directly and get their permission to offer services.

I believe this is the way the law is written to protect the rights of the mentally ill from being locked up in an asylum or forced into treatment. If you have lived in any urban center for long you know when there is someone who is talking incoherently and hitting themselves and walking around nonsensically, that this person is not in a position to talk into a phone to someone who is trying to find them the correct program. Clearly our system is effed up.

My only option remaining was to call 9-1-1. When I called the first operator established the reason for my call and the man’s location and then patched me through to Sacramento Police Department. I found myself holding my breath. I really was not sure I was doing the right thing for the man. I had a hard time explaining his location since the dispatcher was clearly unfamiliar with the bike trail. Ultimately she said she had the information she needed. I was a few miles away by now. Coincidentally I heard sirens immediately and it gave me chills. I would hope the responders who took the call would not use their sirens. I would like to think they have some kind of training for dealing with someone with mental illness.

Why is it that if someone on the trail was having a heart attack and I called 9-1-1 they would send an ambulance, but with mental illness they sent the police. And the police most often take the person to jail. This man, caucasian early 30s, was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother. And even if he is completely alone in the world, he is a child of God.

What is a good Samaritan to do?

P.S. I wrote this 5 months ago and waited to publish it. I wanted to be able to offer some kind of solution. Then today The Sacramento Bee started a series by Cynthia Hubert on homelessness and mental illness. I am going to move back some of my posts to focus on the issues brought up by this series.

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