Stuart Gordon, J.D., Director of Policy and Communications at NASMHPD, connected us with musician Keith England who last week did what people working in mental health wish everyone would do. Here is his story.
Singer Keith England was finished with his Sunday evening gig at the Standing Room on Hermosa Ave. in Hermosa Beach, California. It was about 9:30 p.m., and the sound of electric guitars was still ringing in his ears, and he was tired. A good tired, though, that he gets after a set but one that makes him exhausted and in need of food and solitude. England was walking toward his car on Pier Ave. when he crossed paths with a young man who mumbled something to him. Unable to hear him and presuming he was asking for money, England kept walking and said, “Sorry, man, I can’t help you.” The young man, named Vincent, spoke a bit louder and said, “No, I need your help.” Slowing down, England turned around and asked what he needed. Vincent told England, “I need you to please call an ambulance.” England did, and the dispatcher told him help would be arriving shortly, and in less than five minutes, two police cruisers and an ambulance followed by a fire truck arrived on the scene.
Sitting on a bus stop bench on Pier Ave., England and Vincent talked. When the police officers arrived, they asked Vincent what was wrong. He told them that he cuts himself, and the voices in his head were telling him to do it again. They asked Vincent if he had any weapons on him. He said no. The officers asked if Vincent would mind if they checked. This was a moment when England felt apprehension: would they handcuff the young man, throw him in the back of their cruiser? He was relieved when one officer gently held Vincents’ wrists as he quickly frisked him, releasing them when he finished. Vincent told them he’d been on a few medications, but the voices were coming back, and he was scared. The paramedics brought out a seated gurney. England stood to say goodbye to Vincent, and the two men hugged and shook hands.
It’s so easy, says England, to keep walking, and he almost did. He credits Vincent. The way he said, “No, I need your help.” It pulled England out of the moment he was in and into Vincent’s. “I just wanted to get something to eat and chill out. My head was pounding. I was asking myself, ‘What does this guy want?’” The experience was eye-opening. England says people need to listen. That’s it. When Vincent first said he needed an ambulance, England looked him over, checking for wounds or blood. “He didn’t appear to be in physical distress, and it turns out he wasn’t. He was in serious psychological distress.” England says people are conditioned to turn away when someone is experiencing a psychotic episode but wouldn’t do so if the person was having a heart attack. “We’d call for help. We shouldn’t ignore anyone in crisis. Tragedy would have happened if Vincent hadn’t asked for help, or I hadn’t listened.”
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