Police Violence, Race-Based Trauma, and Mental Health among Filipina/x/o Americans
By E.J.R. David and Kevin L. Nadal
On Saturday February 20, 2021, as the night was winding down, we came across a news story about Angelo Quinto — a 30 year-old Filipino American man from Antioch, California. The article states that on December 23, 2020, Mr. Quinto experienced what seems like a mental health-related episode. Not knowing how to handle the situation, his sister and mother called 911 for help.
Police officers and emergency medical technicians were dispatched to the scene, but police officers arrived first. His mother and sister reported that Mr. Quinto had already calmed down when the police arrived and that he laid on the floor in his mother’s embrace. Nevertheless, the police still grabbed him off his mother, pinned him face down to the floor, and handcuffed him. One of the officers kneeled on his neck and back, while another officer held down his legs. Mr. Quinto’s sister and mother said he was not resisting or fighting back, but instead twice uttered: “Please don’t kill me”. After several minutes, he spat up blood from his mouth and lost consciousness. A cell phone video taken by his sister captured his limp body being taken away. Mr. Quinto died 3 days later.
Though this story may be new or surprising to some, it is not so for many communities of color, especially for those with mental illness. For Black People, Indigenous People, Latinx People, and Pacific Islander People — the list is long. And even for the Filipino American community, police killings of unarmed people, people with mental illness, or people who were having substance-induced episodes aren’t new either.
Recent examples include 33 year-old Laudemer Arboleda, whose “suspiciousness” caused Danville, CA residents to call 911. Though he was not engaging in any criminal activity, nor was he armed, police chased him and shot him while in his car without any verbal warning. Warren Ragudo was a 34 year-old man in Daly City, CA, whose family called 911 after he began acting strangely. Upon using a taser gun on him twice, Ragudo stopped breathing and died. Family members say the officers did not even perform CPR on him. In Anaheim, CA, 36 year-old Bernie Villegas was killed by police after reports of a “suspected drug dealer” wielding a shotgun; after killing him, it was discovered that Villegas was carrying a BB gun. Then there were AJ Devillena (a 22 year-old war veteran in Palm Springs, CA) — who was believed to be drunk — and Mharloun Verdejo Saycon (a 39 year-old in Long Beach, CA) — a person diagnosed with schizophrenia described as “acting erratically” — who were both shot and killed by police officers. There was also Mylene de Leon Scott, a 38 year-old Filipina American from Virginia who was shot by police after her coworkers called 911 for her “strange” behavior.
Angelo Quinto is just the latest of these tragic examples.
And as we know from the entire history of the US, the systemic infliction of trauma on communities of color isn’t just a modern-day phenomenon. It’s an American tradition. Racism-based trauma among Filipinos isn’t new, either. This is also American tradition.
Like when Americans regarded Filipinos as uncivilized savages needing to be tamed, taught, and enlightened by the US during the late 1800s to the early 1900s to justify the colonization of the Philippines. Or when thousands — some say over a million — Filipinos were killed by American soldiers during the Philippines-US war from 1899–1913. Or when white men shot, maimed, burned to death, beat to death, murdered, and hanged Filipinos during the early 1900s because they thought Filipinos were stealing their jobs and their women. Or during the great depression of the 1930s when mobs of white men — perhaps with collaboration or complicity of police — bombed, torched, and threw dynamites into buildings where Filipinos lived, worked, and played. Indeed, the infliction of violence — state-sanctioned and otherwise — on the Filipino body and mind is not new.
So how do these historical and contemporary cases of police violence and race-based trauma relate to mental health? There are at least three ways.
1. We must understand how race-based trauma negatively impacts our mental health
The research on how race-based trauma affects Peoples of Color is clear: it can lead to poor mental health, poor self-esteem, lower life satisfaction, depression, substance use, and even suicidal ideation. But Peoples of Color don’t just deal with the racism or trauma we directly experience. We also are forced to deal with the racist, traumatic experiences that our friends and family face. But not only that, we also feel the racist, traumatic experiences faced by other people who we don’t even know but who look like us. If we see someone who looks like us treated badly, that vicarious trauma affects us too. So when we see maltreatments of our people, when we see on TV how our people are dehumanized and othered and inferiorized, we feel that. It activates our fight or flight systems too. It makes us angry, anxious, stressed out, scared, depressed, and maybe even paranoid too. We don’t need to directly experience race-based trauma to be negatively affected by it.
And to take this concept of vicarious trauma even further, the traumatic experiences of our ancestors also affect us today. Historical trauma and its effects can be passed down to later generations. There’s some emerging epigenetic research that seems to support this. So all of those historical experiences of racism, of colonialism, of imperialism that regarded our communities as savages, as uncivilized, as inferior — those messages that damaged and messed up our ancestors — they can still inflict damages on us today several generations later. And the more modern-day examples of maltreatments, injustice, and dehumanization that we directly or vicariously experience not only further perpetuate the historical trauma, but they also continuously re-traumatize us.
So if you’re feeling angry, anxious, stressed out, scared, depressed, paranoid — or if you find yourself lacking energy, having no appetite, being irritable, having sleep problems, or not wanting to be with people — please know that these are completely legit and understandable reactions to race-based trauma. Having people who you can trust to lean on during these difficult times can be helpful, as these feelings tend to get better with time. However, if the feelings don’t go away, if they get more intense, or they begin to interfere with your daily functioning, please consider seeing a health professional, including some who specifically focus on serving Filipino Americans.
2. We must destigmatize mental illness and learn more about them.
Although we need more disaggregated data, the data we do have suggests that Filipino Americans might be experiencing high levels of mental distress. Community-based studies find that Filipino Americans are more likely than other Asian American groups (and often the general population) to exhibit greater instances of depression, substance use/abuse, and schizophrenia. Many scholars have described how the cultural value of hiya (shame) prohibits Filipino Americans from admitting to their mental health problems. In fact, some studies describe that Filipino Americans are less likely to seek therapy, or that they only seek treatment when their symptoms are severe, require hospitalization, or both.
This hiya has also led Filipino Americans to develop negative biases and stereotypes against people living with mental illness — even those from their own families and communities. For example, it is common for Filipino Americans to be scared of people with mental illness; to presume they are dangerous or violent; to label them as “crazy” or “loko loko”; or to even be embarrassed of them. Some Filipino Americans may hide family members with mental illness from the general community; others may avoid acknowledging the presence of substance abuse or psychological disorders in their family members.
As a community, we need to do a better job of supporting each other in addressing mental health issues. Let’s talk about our mental health openly — even sharing with our loved ones when we are feeling depressed or anxious (emotions that are common for all people, particularly for all of us amidst the current pandemic). Let’s normalize mental health treatment in similar ways that we normalize everyday tasks like going to the dentist or getting a haircut. We can encourage people to seek treatment when they feel overwhelmed and we can be vulnerable in describing our experiences with therapy. Let’s also pay attention to our language and the ways that we perpetuate biases and stereotypes about people with mental illness. Finally, let’s understand how our mental health is linked to physical health — and that sometimes our bodies may feel tired, stressed, or in pain, because we don’t address our mental health issues.
3. We need better ways to respond to mental health crises.
The data is clear: only 1 to 10 percent of emergency calls involve violence. Therefore, a large majority of emergency situations — 90–99 percent — do not require police. Nevertheless, police are almost always present in any emergencies. And when police show-up, Peoples of Color are in danger because data shows that Peoples of Color in general are more likely to be killed by police than white people. This is especially true for those with mental illness, as data also shows that the risk of getting killed by police is 16 times higher for those with mental illness than those without.
Despite these data, however, society has heavily trained us to call the police when we need help. This is where a serious dilemma can come in. In fact, Mr. Quinto’s sister Bella — who called 911 — states that her brother’s “biggest fear was death and his second biggest fear was the police. That’s where my guilt comes from.” Like Bella and her family, many families of color are probably conflicted in times of crises. On one hand, we have been socialized all our lives to call police for “help”, but on the other hand we are also well aware of how dangerous this is.
This is why we need alternative ways of seeking help. If you find yourself in a situation where you need help because someone in your life is having a mental health issue (e.g., a schizophrenic episode, a manic episode), please do not call the police — especially if the person is not demonstrating any violence or a desire to commit violence towards oneself or others. Instead, please consider calling “mobile crisis” teams, which are groups of unarmed psychologists, social workers, and other clinicians who are trained to handle mental health emergencies. These individuals have spent their entire careers learning about different mental illness and mental health treatments — as opposed to police officers who are typically required to only undergo one-day training sessions on mental health emergencies. And because police officers are trained to always think tactically (or ways to handle violent or dangerous situations), they often may reach for their guns, instead of trying to deescalate emergencies with their words or empathy.
Supporting mobile crisis units is just one way that we can “defund the police” — or reallocating governmental monies to other services that would be more effective. For instance, perhaps more funding can be funneled into Filipino American community organizations, who can possibly teach their constituents about mental illness, so that families can seek mental health treatment at the onset of a psychological issue (instead of when a situation seems more dire or out of control). Similarly, perhaps more funding can be funneled into scholarship programs for Filipino Americans and other Peoples of Color to enter social work or psychology graduate programs, so that more Peoples of Color can be trained to effectively treat people in their communities. Finally, perhaps more funding can be allocated more into community policing efforts — in which community members themselves decide how to proactively address issues like crime and mental illness, instead of relying on systems and outsiders who may not understand the cultures, realities, or dynamics of each neighborhood or community.
Although this piece focuses on police violence and mental health as they impact Filipino Americans, it is imperative that we also do work to address racial oppression on a much broader level. Filipino Americans must work with the Black community and see how our struggles and our liberation are tied to each other. We must work with the Latinx community in our fights for decolonization. We must work with the Indigenous Peoples of these lands.
As colonized peoples ourselves, while also now being one the largest settler groups in a colonized land, we are in a unique position to see how our historical and contemporary experiences of oppression are connected to other colonized and oppressed peoples. As Filipino Americans, we have a responsibility to make sure that we do not simply become tools to further oppress indigenous peoples and other Peoples of Color. We must not be complicit to the further erasure and forgetting of indigenous peoples and the oppression of other Peoples of Color.
As a largely immigrant (and children of immigrants) community, many of us have this mentality and drive to become successful in this country in our pursuit of a “better life”, but we must go beyond thinking of success and “better life” simply in economic terms. We must stop measuring success and “better life” in terms of how close we are to Whiteness. We must think of success and “better life” in terms of how healthy and well our society and our world is. And one of the more important — if not the most important — ways to keep these lands we now call home healthy is to make sure that injustice and oppression does not happen here. We must work with our indigenous relatives and other Peoples of Color to make sure that we keep these lands healthy and well and free of injustice and free of oppression.
E. J. R. David, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His work on the psychological experiences of marginalized peoples has resulted into four books, “Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups” , “Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino American Postcolonial Psychology,” “The Psychology of Oppression,” and “We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet.” Learn more about his work here or follow him on twitter.
Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at both John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Graduate Center at the City University of New York. He received his doctorate in counseling psychology from Columbia University in New York City and is one of the leading researchers in understanding the impacts of microaggressions, or subtle forms of discrimination, on the mental and physical health of people of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people; and other marginalized groups. He has published 10 books including “Filipino American Psychology” and “Microaggressions and Traumatic Stress” and “Queering Law and Order”. Learn more about his work here or follow him on twitter.