Irvo Otieno’s brutal death is a reminder of mental illness exploitation.

Part 1. People living with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to various forms of exploitation. Research has demonstrated that they are more likely than the general population, to be victims of criminal activity and abuse. They are stigmatized, frequently alienated from family and members of society respond to them with fear. By Katherine Packowski

March 19, 2023

Irvo Otieno, 28, died March 6 as he was being admitted to Central State Hospital south of Richmond, Virginia.(Ben Crump Law via CNN Newsource)

By Adam Musa, Tranquility News correspondent, North America

Irvo Otieno, 28, of Richmond, Virginia suffered from mental illness, but sheriff deputies and some hospital staff mishandled him because he was considered a threat. He died at Central State Hospital south of Richmond on March 6, 2023, while in custody.

To add salt in injury, Otieno’s biological mother, Caroline Ouko, saw how her son was viciously handled before dying. Ouko was helpless, distraught and left in state of shock and despair; she couldn’t do anything to stop the mighty power of state machinery that was pouncing on her son like predators on a lone prey. 

A few questions to ask: Was it because he was another powerless black man, worthy dehumanization that led to his death? Or was this a typical example of mental illness exploitation by less equipped state machinery. There is no straight answer for now, though I will stick to the latter as the discussion proceeds.

Although, police made its public statement that officers encountered Otieno while responding to a report of a possible burglary in suburban Richmond, and that based on his behavior, they put him under an emergency custody order and took him to a local hospital for evaluation.

AP reported that, Mark Krudys, one of Ouko’s attorney, said that Otieno was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time. He said a neighbor called police over concerns about him gathering lawn lights from a yard.

Yes, as usual, the officers swung into action and performed their duty of enforcing law and order in the interest of public safety. But it is the performance of their very duty that has led them to charges. Apparently the situation begs for more questions than answers; the case has blown into a full trial.

Charged with second-degree murder in the death of Irvo Noel Otieno were: (top row, from left) Henrico County Sheriff’s Deputies Bradley Disse, Brandon Rodgers, Dwayne Bramble, Tabitha Levere, Jermaine Branch (bottom row, from left), Kaiyell Sanders and Randy Boyer, Central State Hospital workers Darian Blackwell, Sadarius Williams and Wavie Jones.
Meherrin River Regional Jail

CNN reported the Facebook post made by The Henrico Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, the local law enforcement officers union: “Policing in America today is difficult, made even more so by the possibility of being criminally charged while performing their duty,” the group said. “The death of Mr. Otieno was tragic, and we express our condolences to his family. We also stand behind the seven accused deputies now charged with murder by the Dwinddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Baskervill.”

Katherine Packowski, a psychiatrist and professor at Brandon University California – mentions that people living with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to various forms of exploitation. Research has demonstrated that they are more likely than the general population, to be victims of criminal activity and abuse. They are stigmatized, frequently alienated from family and members of society respond to them with fear.

Additionally, 2022 World Health Organization (WHO) report on mental illness highlights the magnitude of the problem – it is very alarming, at least over 1 billion people suffer from different types of mental illness with no access to proper medical care and support system. The goodwill of all stakeholders is urgently needed to address this renewed challenge coming into public light.

© WHO/Pierre Albouy | Dr Tedros, Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks following his re-election during the 75th World Health Assembly at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Everyone’s life touches someone with a mental health condition.” said WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyes. Good mental health translates to good physical health and this new report makes a compelling case for change.

“The inextricable links between mental health and public health, human rights and social economic development mean that transforming policy and practice in mental health can deliver real, substantive benefits for individuals. Communities and countries everywhere. Investment into mental health is an investment into a better life and future for all.”

Meanwhile, according to Pachkowski: unfortunately, exploitation of persons with mental illness is surprisingly unrepresented in scholarly research and few formal guidelines exist for government employees and health care workers who encounter this form of abuse among their clients.

Otieno’s brutal death reminds anyone concerned on how prudent it is for one to acknowledge that fear, mistrust, and greed are among the things that pave way for mental illness exploitation. Had proper guidelines, training and applicable policy been in place, his life would still be flourishing with dreams and hope for a better future.

Let’s stop assuming that based on one’s prejudice or biases, every suspicious activity/scenario warrants the full force of police/law enforcement. That is tantamount to role overload for a good cop on duty. By the way I’m not talking about the bad cops(thugs hiding in uniform).

The AP reported: A distraught Ouko said that “when they took away my baby… they took him away from his brother. They took him away from his friends. And they took him away from a community that cared (for) and loved him.”

So, in order to save another life in our neighborhood, school, work place and streets – a holistic intervention needs to be conducted in addressing mental illness exploitation. It could be more funding for scholarly research; enforceable laws/policies on how to approach and deal with mentally handicapped people; community sensitization; media training and collaboration amongst all stakeholders on how to approach this silent pandemic. 

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