The story of Christian Hall’s death tragically resembles that of West Philadelphia’s Walter Wallace. In 2020, Hall, age 19, amid Covid, following a depression diagnosis, felt he was in a mental health crisis and called 911 to report “a possible suicider.” When help arrived, the teenager was standing on a ledge of a highway overpass near his home in Stroudsburg, PA, holding a pellet gun. His hands were up in surrender when State Police shot him to death after a three-hour standoff.
Like with Wallace in 2021, the very professionals summoned to rescue Hall killed him instead. And, as with Wallace, Hall’s story made national news: Buzzfeed, NBC all reported on how the young man was shot down when he put his hands up.
We must ensure people are aware of 988. PEW found that only 13 percent of adults even know about the hotline — and of this 13 percent, awareness was lowest among non-White respondents.
This should not have happened. And yet, it does, again and again. Today, a person in the U.S. experiencing a mental health crisis is more likely to encounter law enforcement than to receive medical intervention. According to a Washington Post database, 20 percent of Americans who died at the hands of police were experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of their deaths.
Across PA and the U.S., mental health crises are too often met with misunderstanding and violence instead of compassion. These situations become more dire when the person suffering does not speak English as a first language or comes from a different culture or background than their helper. This was the case with Hall, who was Chinese American.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The life-saving importance of cultural competence
I’ve seen such a situation firsthand. In 2019, a dear friend, for whom English was not her first language, required urgent help during a breakdown. Police came and, instead of offering vital care and understanding, responded with hostility and meanness. My friend remains traumatized from the experience.
The work of law enforcement, it is often said, is to see people on the worst days of their lives. Perhaps the officers needed care themselves. But definitely, they needed training in mental health emergencies and how to help someone who does not speak English. At the very least, they should have known to send a mobile health unit.
My friend, like Christian Hall, should not have called 911. She should have been aware of 988, the suicide and crisis hotline. But 988 was unavailable during that time, and she missed out on the care of someone trained to meet her social, cultural and linguistic needs.
Let us build a future where everyone, including minorities, can find support and understanding when navigating the complexities of mental health.
Competent mental health services could have been her lifeline in this situation. The language barrier hindered her ability to communicate and feel understood.
The NIH has reported that culturally responsive psychotherapy — wherein the practitioner considers “religion and spiritual orientation, ethnic and racial identity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, indigenous heritage, national origin, and gender,” in addition to values and feelings about mental health — is far more effective in treating patients from minority communities. Such care is essential during these patients’ most emergent moments.
In 2017, I was diagnosed with a mental health illness, and as an Asian American, felt cultural pressure to hide my truth. I was afraid to seek help, not just for the stigma of my illness but also for my safety. According to SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), individuals who identify as Asian American are three times less likely to seek mental health services. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 46 percent of all Americans with mental illness receive treatment — and less than 21 percent of Asian Adults with a mental illness receive treatment.
I’m not here to explain what cultural factors are at play, only to say that we need to make access to care more accessible for minority communities because no one who needs urgent help should hide or be afraid to ask.
How can PA improve emergency mental health services — and 988?
In December, Pennsylvania state legislators took a step in the right direction by including language in a budget bill, with the urging of PA Sen. Rosemary Brown and Rep. Maureen Madden, which included a comprehensive study of the 988 and 911 systems. The study’s aim: Figure out how to strengthen the connection between emergency services and mental health crisis lifelines 988. How can these two systems work together when someone is experiencing a behavioral health emergency? How could 988’s trained counselors better connect with first responders, and vice versa?
Another bill seeks to ensure 988 is as strong locally as it was first intended. The federal government made initial investments in the service for its 2022 launch, but now, it’s up to states to provide ongoing funding for local call centers. In June, Rep. Stephen Kinsey, Chairman of the House Human Services Committee, introduced HB1305 to dedicate sustainable state funding to 988. That bill remains in limbo in the PA Senate.
Last, we must ensure people are aware of 988. PEW found that only 13 percent of adults even know about the hotline — and of this 13 percent, awareness was lowest among non-White respondents. (PEW’s study also found that once folks found out about the 988, 7 in 10 said they were somewhat likely or highly likely to use it.) Rep.Madden has introduced another bill to fund a robust 988 awareness campaign in multiple languages. If passed, this legislation could be not just a game changer. It could be a lifesaver.
Christian Hall’s legacy can become a catalyst for change. I urge you to contact your state senators and representatives about passing these bills. Let us build a future where everyone, including minorities, can find support and understanding when navigating the complexities of mental health.
Pennsylvania can replace fear with empathy, mutual respect, and a genuine desire to understand before we act.
If you are interested in helping bring better mental health care to minority communities, please join the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance (API PA) coalition’s Justice For Christian Hall Campaign.
Vanessa Meng is an educator, poet, and community organizer for Chinese Americans and lives and works in the Swarthmore area.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.
MORE OPINION IN THE PHILADELPHIA CITIZENFe Gareth and Christian Hall. Courtesy of the Hall family.