The deadly truth of Black mental illness

Tarika Powell
4 min readMay 4, 2023

What happened to Jordan Neely is not an anomoly

Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

Jordan Neely, an unhoused 30-year old Black man who was a Michael Jackson impersonator, was killed in an NYC subway car on Monday, May 1, by a 24-year old white man. A witness says that prior to his death, Neely shouted that he didn’t have food or drink, and didn’t care if he died or went to prison.

According to a relative, Neely had struggled with his mental health ever since his mother, Christie Neely, was strangled to death by her boyfriend in 2007 and dumped on the roadside in a suitcase. Jordan was only 14 when the murder happened, and had lived with daily fighting between the boyfriend and his mother. He was likely in the home when the murder took place. Jordan testified in the trial and was apparently cross examined by the murderer, who represented himself in court. Neely’s father wasn’t involved in his life before or after his mother died, according to relatives.

According to Neely’s aunt Carolyn, after his mother’s death Neely developed depression that grew more severe over time, and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD. Neely used dance as a mental health outlet and was a well-known Jackson impersonator.

A friend of the family says that Neely "really started going downhill two years ago." As the news has pointed out at length, Neely had 42 prior arrests between 2013 (the year after his mother’s killer was convicted) and 2021. Thirty-eight were low-level offenses like transit fraud or having an open container.

Due to the abysmal state of mental health care in the US, people call the police to handle mental health issues. Mentally ill people are arrested and prosecuted rather than given care. And it’s a deadly arrangement: nearly 25% of people killed by police have a mental illness.

The Black Lives Matter movement has thus far seemed hesitant to highlight the connection to mental health in cases where it is a factor, preferring to minimize it so that people will identify with the victim in a police killing. This type of ableism is not actually helpful.

Indeed, the connection between mental health, Blackness, and police violence needs to be highlighted more. People with an untreated mental illnesses are 16x more likely to be killed by police, while Black and low income people are less likely to receive treatment.

Furthermore, rates of PTSD are significantly higher in low income, Black communities. According to a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association, Black youth who are exposed to violence have a 25% greater risk of developing PTSD due to lack of mental and behavioral health care.

Examples abound of Black people being killed because they have a mental illness. In 2020, Pennsylvania police shot Roxanne Moore, a Black trans woman in mental distress, 16 times. Charleena Lyles, who had a history of mental illness, homelessness, and experiencing domestic violence, was killed by police in her home in 2017. Sandra Bland, a mental health advocate with a history of depression and suicidal ideation, died of an apparent suicide in police custody after a violent arrest in Texas in 2015. Eleanor Bumpers, who displayed symptoms of mental illness, was killed in her home by police in 1984 at age 66.

There are many more examples of death at the intersection of Blackness and mental illness. But typically, people blame the mental illness for the death and not the general public’s propensity to commit violence against the mentally ill. People with a mental illness are more likely to experience violence than to be violent. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are 10x more likely to be victims of a violent crime than the general population, while only 3% to 5% of violent acts are attributed to people living with these illnesses.

While we would like to frame the subway vigilante as an anomoly, he is not. Our society abhors and villifies the mentally ill. The people who stood by and did nothing are a product of our society. The man who recorded the murder and is now villifying Neely in the media is too.

“People blame the mental illness for the death and not the general public’s propensity to commit violence against the mentally ill.”

As a Black person who has PTSD, I am shocked this week to see how many people care about Black mental illness. Where were you last week? Where will you be next week? What will you actually DO to help change the gross disparities in Black mental health care?

I can tell you this: giving more money to BLM nonprofits is not going to help us. The focus needs to be on healthcare and mental health education. What happened to Jordan Neely happens to Black mentally ill people all the time, and it is OUR misperception of and aversion to people with mental illness that sits by and watches it happen every single day. We are all guilty.

Tarika Powell is a writer, environmental policy wonk, and mental health advocate. You can find her on the web at tarikapowell.com or on Instagram and Patreon at TarikaWrites.

--

--

Tarika Powell

Environmental policy expert living with PTSD. Writes about environmental policy, mental health, DE&I, and abuse culture. https://tarikapowell.com