hungry, thirsty, confused – and dead

last sunday, a man was killed at the vancouver airport. robert dziekanski died after he was tasered by police at vancouver international airport. police say he was agitated, screaming, shaking and throwing things. he had been at the airport for 10 hours.

i have no idea what exactly happened in this situation but it is reminiscent of other situations where an agitated individual who poses no real threat has been killed by police (like the death of paul boyd in august). in many of these cases, these people turn out to be people with a mental illness (and again, i do not know at all whether that was true for mr. dziekanski; i’m just taking this tragic event as an example for what i believe to be caused by underlying problems).

one thing that is often overlooked in understanding people with mental illness who behave in ways that seem threatening to bystanders is that mental health problems can be severely exacerbated by the kinds of stressors that others find unpleasant but can cope with.

a decrease in blood sugar levels is one. thirst is another (“he must have been thirsty,” said mr. dziekanski’s mother). add to that lack of sleep and the general stress that comes with a transatlantic flight – plus being in a foreign country for the first time and not speaking the language – and we already have a volatile cocktail that stretches the endurance of any healthy person.

if this cocktail is mixed with, say, the manic phase of bipolar disorder or acute symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, we have a recipe for disaster.

one of the reasons is that the physical manifestations of stressors such as low blood sugar, an interruption of the cicadian rhythm, and lack of sleep can be similar to the bodily-felt experience of mental illness. for example, the slightly numb feeling in the extremities that can come with low blood sugar is not dissimilar to the physical manifestation of dissociation that can accompany depression.

since the person may already be slightly disoriented because of the stress they are under, it can be hard for them to distinguish – on both conscious and below conscious levels – what is going on. just like the physical mechanics of a smile can produce feelings of happiness, any physical sensation that feels like a symptom of a mental health condition can trigger that condition to come to the surface.

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