Law Enforcement and Mental Health: Insanity rules the day

Westborough, MA August 30, 2018 In the process of writing the Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness: Mental Health Emergencies, Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. my co-author and I quickly discovered that it is often not easy to identify people experiencing mental health crisis or emergency.  Many are not forthcoming with the specific underpinning of their particular disorder because of embarrassment and shame associated with mental disability. For many the stigma of being labelled “mentally ill” is more than they can bear. Nevertheless, “the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that studies topics related to mental health, has calculated that the odds of being killed during a police encounter are 16 times as high for individuals with untreated serious mental illness as they are for people in the broader population” according to Nathaniel Morris, M.D. in an article espousing the benefits of having psychiatric physicians under contract to provide consultation for police encounters with the mentally ill.
A program in Albuquerque, NM does just this by having a full-time physician on the staff for both training and face-to-face consultation. This is a costly endeavor whereas the average psychiatrist earns nearly $ 200,000 annually. The thought is that as a medical doctor greater acumen in distinguishing organic syndromes like dementia from more common disorders such has depression or anxiety. I agree but other clinicians when properly trained may provide similar expertise at a more cost effective salary. Many co-responder programs have master’s level clinicians riding with law enforcement. Generally a physician is employed when you expect patients or such clientele to be prescribed medication and follow up.  My sense of the New Mexico program does not include medication management in its charge. Yet even physicians have difficulty differentiating the sane from the psychologically unwell.
In a famous study, Rosenhan suggests that the label associated with being schizophrenic causes the hospital staff to make misguided assumptions about the patients’ behavior through no fault of their own.  When someone is seen as mentally ill, everything they do may be interpreted as symptomatic of their disorder.
The psychological autopsy method entails reconstructing a biography of the deceased through psychological information gathered from personal documents; police, medical, and coroner records; and first-person accounts, either through depositions or interviews with family, friends, coworkers, school associates, and physicians. One of the major contributions of psychological autopsies “has been to introduce the psychosocial context into decisions about the cause of death since examination of postmortem remains tell only what lesions the patient died with, not what he died from.”
”Studies have shown that there are certain commonalities to suicide completers. Indeed, “they found that persons who commit suicide are likely to be unmarried, unemployed, living alone, and depressed”. Clark et al. found that suicide completers are twice as likely to be male, almost always qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis, and more often than not communicate intent. Sanborn et al found that the protoypical suicidal individual is not currently employed, is experiencing acute stress and frustration in areas apart from work, and has an alcohol problem. Moreover, such risk factors for suicide have been found to vary by age group. Adolescent suicide completers often have a history of physical and sexual abuse, parental psychiatric problems, and commit suicide in the context of an acute disciplinary crisis, elderly suicide completers often have a history of chronic or terminal disease. Persons who are addicted to alcohol or drugs and are having suicidal ideation are more likely to harm themselves. Some call the police officers who are set up to use lethal force when facing an intoxicated subject who is armed with a weapon.  When faced with lethal force, law enforcement is trained to use strategies to slow the scene and de-escalate whenever possible. Suicide by cop is a known phenomena. Family members frequently call the police when a family member arms himself with a firearm of knife expecting the police to simply disarm the subject. But in truth, the subjects actions are what guide police behavior not the other way around. Someone under the influence does not understand these principles and had they been unarmed and sober some might have been spared. No police officer ever wants this situation to become a reality.
Essays, UK. (November 2013). On Being Sane In Insane Places. Retrieved from Taken July 26, 2018
Polizotti, L and Sefton, M (2018) The Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies. Decision Press.