CW: mental health, suicide
In a world where every single aspect is recorded, some things are better left not.
Just a few weeks ago, Delta Police Department responded to a call on Alex Fraser Bridge regarding a mental health crisis of a distressed individual, which led to the bridge being closed for several hours to allow emergency services to de-escalate the situation.
The individual was reported to be on the other side of the safety railing, where he was considering taking his own life. Emergency services and the police were able to bring the individual safely back, but what happened in between these moments from the public was shocking.
Those stuck on the bridge began to intervene and display impulsive behaviour, further putting the individual’s life at risk.
Spectators contributing to the chaos
With the bridge closed, many frustrated drivers began to yell, honk, take a peek at what was going on or even drive by barricades that were set up by the police in order to leave the bridge. The barricades were placed to try to quiet the environment they were in so they could be able to communicate with the individual, but this clearly didn’t help as much as they would have liked considering what followed.
Drivers on the bridge lacked empathy towards the individual by physically approaching them and provoking them to engage in the harmful and life-threatening actions all because they couldn’t get to where they were going.
It was clear to many, given the situation, that this individual was struggling with suicidal ideation. However, the way people reacted further proves why those struggling with mental illness don’t often speak up and are often “othered” in society. Dealing with mental health crises in public spaces can be dehumanizing, given the harassment one can experience at the hands of unempathetic bystanders.
Unfortunately, many interfered further by recording or trying to engage with the police, adding more barriers and difficulties to those trained. The police were forced, during many times of this incident, to move their attention away from the individual and intervene with agitated spectators.
“You’ve got the police and the people who are trying to help that person live, send the message that people care, and then folks who are honking their horns are inadvertently sending the message that their commute home is more important,” said Stacy Ashton to the CBC—the Crisis Centre of BC executive director and one of the commuters on the bridge.
Many struggling with trauma and mental health issues may become hypersensitive to their surroundings, leading to a sensory overload and engage in behaviour that puts their life at risk, and it doesn’t help when people yell, shout, get frustrated, annoyed or even physically aggressive when mental breakdowns occur.
Whether these crises occur within a controlled environment or not, the complexity of de-escalating distressed individuals with mental health issues requires patience, skills, knowledge and experience in recognizing ways to recover those struggling as safely and thoroughly as possible. When frontline workers are put in these types of situations, their primary responsibility is the safety of the distressed individual, which can create a lot of panic and pressure for them.
We want to make space for those who are struggling, for them to feel seen, validated and respected.
Prioritizing engagement over empathy
Those on the bridge captured the incident through their phones which quickly found their way to social media.
Several social media users left derogatory and harmful comments that added to the stigmatization of the individual in crisis, and those dealing with mental illness in general.
This perpetuates further harm against mentally ill people since we shouldn’t feel the need to link videos to either prove or ridicule someone experiencing distress and suicidal thoughts.
When the news of this incident broke out, I found myself unplugging from social media because I didn’t want to come across the videos and images of the individual in distress, and I found myself re-traumatized from my own experiences with suicidal ideation. If this is something I was feeling, I’m sure others out there feel the same way.
Twitter users were quick to call out people who were retweeting, reposting or in any way engaging with the circulation of videos uploaded on the bird app. They were rightfully concerned, given the dangerous rhetoric people were engaging in.
Mental health stigma in communities
Our community, especially brown communities, do not recognize the harm and the lack of consent there is when posting sensitive material for millions of others to see. Many prioritize engagement—likes, comments, shares—over empathy and it isn’t just limited to this particular incident.
Mental health is not a trend. People think we genuinely lie about mental health, but there’s nothing fun about thinking your life would probably be better off in this world or that it’s the only solution to fix whatever you’re going through. We shouldn’t feel the need to “stick through it” and suppress what we’re feeling.
While it’s completely understandable for drivers and the general public to be informed on what was going on that day, it’s also our job to be informed and keep in mind that an at-risk individual needs all the support, attention, trauma-informed tools and culturally sensitive approach needed to help save their life.
The last thing on anyone’s mind was notifying the public about what was going on.
But, people were more worried about their own personal lives than the life of another human.
In many communities, mental health is already considered a highly taboo topic and the voices of those struggling are not heard. This continues to be an issue, and I can only imagine the belittling and degrading conversations on both a private and public level to shame those struggling further.
Seeking support and accessing resources continues to be a barrier for many, and while this distressed individual is currently safe, the way the public reacted only raises further questions regarding mental health stigma.
We can do so much better by educating ourselves and the people in our lives about the realities of mental illness and how to better handle mental health crises by listening to activists, following educational accounts on social media, watching documentaries, shows or movies, read books, listening to those sharing their struggles, all by being empathetic.
I truly believe we can do so much better on an individual and societal level. Here are some educational resources to better understand mental health and mental illness:
- Understanding Mental Illness in Your Family
- Mental Illness: The Basics
- Mental health and substance misuse support
- Supported Education Program
If you or a loved one are in need of mental health services, please visit BC211 for support.
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