Editor's note: A jury recently found a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer negligent in the 2013 shooting death of Spencer Mims III during a confrontation on Mims' front porch. Mims had bipolar disorder. His father, sister and brother-in-law live in Raleigh. Here are excerpts from a talk given in December by his brother-in-law, John Poetzsch, to a church group.
Ron Powers has written a book titled, "No One Cares about Crazy People." He states: “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book. I hope you are wounded ... wounded to act, to intervene.” I hope you don’t enjoy my story and that it will cause you to act.
"Damaged by a dysfunctional system, determined to alter it." That was the title of a newspaper article that caught my attention. The article was about two families that each had a child who struggled to enjoy the fullness of their lives due to periods of mental illness. That article was enough to draw me to a meeting of a new group called Stand by Me NC, to hear and maybe discuss my personal concerns with the perception of mental illness and the stigma placed on those with mental illness and their families.
I knew I had a story to tell for my family and especially for my brother-in-law. His name was Spencer R. Mims III. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He was a good and kind man. Spencer and I were good friends – like brothers. He was godfather to both of my children. The reason I am standing here before you tonight to talk about mental illness is because on January 6, 2013, Spencer died on the way to the hospital — at the age of 55 — after being shot by the police on his own front porch in front of his father.
Talking about mental illness is admittedly uncomfortable. We, the church, need to look for those opportunities to listen to our own family members, our friends, and our church members who are struggling with life issues.
Spencer was diagnosed in college with mental illness. He suffered with bipolar with periods of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and periods of excessive spending. Spencer worked hard to maintain his mental wellness. Like many other illnesses of our body, his kept coming back.
This illness in no way defined who Spencer was. Spencer was very intelligent with a depth of information on a multitude of subjects. He was outgoing, friendly, sensitive and humorous. He was a loving son, brother and very close to my children who never called him uncle. They always called him “Ace.”
Spencer’s family was very involved in their Methodist church. His father was the choir director at their church for over 40 years. His mother taught at the preschool. The parents formed close bonds with ministers who served the church through these years.
Despite these activities and relationships, very few church members knew of Spencer’s struggles. How can the church help when they are not even aware there is a problem? In stark contrast, when Spencer’s mother, Mattie, was diagnosed with cancer, everyone knew; extended family, church members, friends, and neighbors. Mattie and her family received the support and love they needed to survive a difficult ordeal.
There was no stigma that Mattie had cancer because of how she was raised. There were no suggestions that Mattie should have been able to cure herself. Spencer was in the hospital twice for treatment and no one knew but his family. The stigma that we have attached to mental illness prevented Spencer from receiving support.
In our church there is a time during the service to express the concerns of the congregations. Every illness the human body has been mentioned and we prayed to our Lord to ease the member’s suffering, except, I believe, when the suffering was mental illness.
You may be thinking, but the family often does not want the underlying problem of mental illness discussed. It is not comfortable for us to discuss mental illness. There is an alternative way to have the discussion. It is to have it on the front page of the paper and on the news as the lead story. It is time to talk about mental illness for what it is, an illness, before it is a headline for any more members in our church.
Our organization, Stand by Me NC, wants to change the perception of mental illness. Perception is defined as, “the way you think about or understand someone or something.” As an individual, as the church and as a community we can, at least, learn to understand that mental illness is an illness.
I would like each of you to think of ways you can help change the perceptions and the stigma placed on individuals with mental illness and their families. Some possible ways for you to consider are: Be a speaker to tell your story as appropriate or encourage others; host speakers with your Sunday school class or community groups to educate on mental illness.
It is initially hard to discuss mental illness at the time for concerns at your church service. I think you will find that once you get them talking it will be hard to get them to stop.