People living with mental illness have an important role to play in collaborating with law enforcement and service providers. They may have many types of experiences interacting with law enforcement. Tami’s story, below, describes some challenging interactions. These stories are a starting point for learning about the perspectives and concerns of people living with mental illness. To learn more, reach out to people living with mental illness and their organizations in your community.
Tami Smith is a Certified Peer Specialist in Georgia, with credentials for mental health, addiction, whole health management and parent support. She’s served as a peer navigator for Georgia’s groundbreaking Opening Doors to Recovery project, a family navigator supporting families with a child in juvenile court, and a trainer for new employees at Georgia Regional Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Savannah. She is on the board of NAMI Savannah and helped pilot NAMI Georgia’s Recovery Council. She is the mother of four beautiful children.
As a little girl, I always felt different and I was always seeking out help. I felt things more strongly than other people. I went to a doctor for night terrors. I suffered with body dysmorphic disorder–I thought my body was ugly and gross. I had eating disorders. In junior high school, I went to therapists trying to figure out what was wrong. I experienced emotional and physical abuse as a girl, which was probably why I hated myself and thought about suicide all the time.
My family are high achievers and prominent in the community. I’m Jewish, and in my family, you really didn’t talk about difficult things. You just prayed to God. I always felt that I wasn’t good enough or strong enough. We tried a lot of medicines, but no one really listened to me, or talked with me about my emotions. I was extremely misunderstood, and I was really stuck inside myself.
When I was an adult, with a husband and four kids, I started to get sick again. I saw a psychiatrist and he said I had major depression. My husband and I knew we needed help. We had a small business, so we had some family members come and help us with the business. It was a disaster—a lot of dishonesty and loss of money. They went into business against us. We lost everything. We ended up on food stamps and Medicaid.
I had a complete nervous breakdown. I kept going to psychiatrists and they would give me different meds. Eventually I had a big bag of pills. I also had back pain, and was given a fentanyl patch for the pain.
During this time, I was arrested several times. I would leave home, and my husband and kids didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know where I was going. I would walk into stores and pick up things for my family and just walk out with them. I thought, “We don’t have any money, and my children don’t have anything,” and I was going to get them things they needed.
In my mind, I wasn’t stealing, I was just getting things that my family needed. Maybe I was also trying to create havoc and put myself in a dangerous situation; I was always looking for ways to die, because nothing could be worse than having this disease.
I don’t remember most of the arrests, but all the police reports are similar. I remember during one incident, I walked into a store in pajama bottoms and bedroom shoes. When I walked out, my arms were full of sheets. There was a group of policemen waiting for me. I walked right towards them. I didn’t even see them; I just remember a bunch of men in blue. Seven police officers knocked me down on the ground.
My husband and daughter were there, looking for me. They tried to tell the officers, ‘she’s not right, she’s not well.’ But they weren’t listening. They knocked me on the ground and took me to jail.
There was a detective who was really nasty to me. I told him I wasn’t well. I apologized. It fell on totally deaf ears. He said, “They all say that.” He had a real cockiness.
I was in jail for three months. I was on 15 psychotropic medications when I went to jail; they took me off them all, cold turkey. They gave me a brown paper bag to breathe in. I thought I was going to die.
After all those things happened to me, what helped me was the love of my children. I saw the love in their eyes, and realized they were terrified. I was terrified, too.
I finally got good care, and was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I’ve absolutely had since I was a little girl, because of the abuse I experienced. But the psychiatrists said there said something was still not right, so I went to a new specialist who diagnosed me with multiple sclerosis (MS). I have 30 lesions on the frontal lobe of my brain. MS profoundly affects mental health, and causes depression and anxiety.
I’ve changed everything about my life. Focusing on what’s right with me and helping other people is a gift to me. No one ever focused on what was right with me before. I’m grateful for the recovery model—which is peer-based and person-centered—that has allowed me to dedicate my life to serving others. I’ve seen that all people, despite their past challenges, can live lives of whole health, wellness and long-term recovery.
When I was a little girl, my daddy used to always say, how do you want to be remembered? I want to help people feel understood, and meet them where they are. I’ve gotten certificates in peer support so I can dedicate my life to the process of recovery for others. I want to help their light shine.