Get rid of behavioral health stigma once and for all

This video is about an introduction to a post that will be forthcoming in a short while it is reference to law enforcement officers and the suicide death of officers who carry trauma. The video tells about LEO stigma associated with officer behavioral health and its decline. In it, Michael Sefton, Ph.D. describes the need for understanding fluctuating moods among mid-career law enforcement officers – those most at risk for trauma-related crisis. Sefton implores departments everywhere to analyze deaths by suicide for consideration of “line of duty” designation. In stigma, behavioral health problems are a product of centuries of police culture in which perceived weakness is stigmatized. Cops know their brothers have their back, no matter what, but they still don’t want to be seen as the one who’s vulnerable” according to a recent Men’s Health article written by Jack Crosbie. He published a report about suicide in the NYPD during Mental Health Awareness month in May 2018. Over 300 clinicians and law enforcement personnel came together at police headquarters in Manhattan in April 2019 in an effort to take on law enforcement suicide. I sat amongst a row of NYPD sergeants and enjoyed their company as we learned about how to let go of the stigma and understand the impact of personal job-related experience.

In order to be considered for line of duty status following suicide, law enforcement must offer annual stress assessments and tracking and defusing after high lethality incidents. This will link any stress and behavioral health issues to calls for service that officers had during the reporting period. Just as psychological screening is done pre-employment, so too should annual stress assessments be undertaken for officer longevity and career satisfaction. Men and women found to have an elevated stress response and symptoms may rotate to other roles in the department while receiving support. After a period of time they return to their prior status and duty. This is more difficult to achieve in smaller or more rural agencies.

“The NYPD is making use of psychological autopsies, a research-based approach that attempts to better understand why someone took his or her life.” 

According to Hartley, et.al., 2007, “repeated exposures to acute work stressors (e.g., violent criminal acts, sad and disturbing situations, and physically demanding responses), in addition to contending with negative life events (e.g., divorce, serious family or personal illness, and financial difficulties), can affect both the psychological and physiological well-being of the LEO population.” This is well known. But there are factors that interfere with coping as stress increases. These factors must be studied and applied to law enforcement officers who are most at risk. Those officers who grow more distant and see fewer and fewer options for life. It is in this decoupling of frontal decision making and problem solving circuits and the narrowing of focus that suicidal behavior becomes a plausible next step. At some point, a suicidal person believes there are no other choices and that the world would be a better place without him or her.

The run away fight/flight mechanism that keeps us on guard plays a primary role on how people feel after episodes of high stress, both normal and abnormal. Career longevity depends upon developing healthy coping skills to deal with all life has to give including accumulated traumatic experiences. Feelings of frustration, irritability, lack of focus, chronic fatigue, and even depression can result from an over reliance on social media stimuli like an unfed addiction. 

On Police Identification of the mentally abnormal

How to recognizeWestborough, The police-mental health interaction continues to be one that neither party exhibit great confidence nor take great pride in.  Myths abound about how to treat those so afflicted – especially among law enforcement personnel. I have provided classes for LEO’s and generally they are not well attended and tend to bore the average officer. In Maine, LEO’s are required to have regular training in working with the mentally ill in order to maintain their LEO credentials. Other states in New England have similar requirements and now focus on psychological first aid and deescalation protocols.  I have presented on topics of assessment of risk and dangerousness with some success.  In- service training must be short and to the point or students will quickly lose interest.
The photograph above shows the cover of a guide book first written in 1954 that was instructional for police officers.  It was written to teach the law enforcement officers of the day to recognize signs of mental illness then defined as “abnormal people”.  It was written by 2 Louisiana State University psychologists and first used by a police agencies in the late 1950’s.  I have been trying to find a copy of this early version that was re-published in 1979 and now costs over $100.  It was written because police officers needed training and experience identifying features of psychiatric emergency. This was thought to reduce the uncertainty, fear and confusion around handling these cases by providing education including signs and symptoms.
After nearly 60 years, law enforcement is not significantly closer to understanding the mentally ill than they were in 1954. A colleague, police psychologist Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. has an original copy of this booklet although I have not seen it as yet.  Dr. Polizoti provides consultation to law enforcement, officer selection interviews, and teaches a proactive approach psychological resilience to police officers that can afford them greater career satisfaction, professionalism, and longevity. Dr. Polizoti is tasked with supporting officers who are exposed to the daily grind of violence, suicide, homelessness, and its cumulative impact on a cop’s personal narrative.  His model suggests a fundamental change in how police officers interpret their experiences over time and acceptance of what cannot change and healthy adaptation.  He is a great asset to the Central Massachusetts community and across New England and espouses a model of stress resistance through adaptation.
“In 1954, the National Association for Mental Health first issued the book “How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer.” Included were techniques on dealing with all kinds of “abnormal persons,” from psychopaths, drug addicts, and the “mentally retarded” to civil protestors and those involved in family disturbances.”  Posted by David Pescovitz, 2015
Text from 1954 How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer is provided below.  It points out many of the outward signs of disturbed thinking often an underlying feature of those with mental illness – in this case something called ideas of reference. These signs are common among persons with early paranoia and are sometimes missed – even by members of the immediate family. This is still a common symptom of mental illness today and is considered to be the prodrome to a more serious loss of contact with reality. Ultimately, it comes down to who is at more risk for violence?  And how can we be sure?
It takes a healthy and educated police officer to observe, understand, and control unpredictable situations. Officers are required to adapt to the demands of individual calls for service.  A colleague Dr. Leo Polizoti has identified a model for coping with the strain of police service.  He cites the importance of avoiding apathy, withdrawal and bitterness on the job.  “Understanding the 3 C’s of hardiness, Challenge / Commitment and Control will assist officers to manage stress more effectively, resulting in fewer emotional and medical problems. By viewing each new situation as a challenge, instead of a threat, you become committed to that challenge. You can readily see yourself in control and better able to deal with the situation. You will enhance your “hardiness” or resistance to stress” Polizoti, 2018.   
“He may think, for example, that announcements made over the radio have something to do with him personally. He may even hear his name mentioned. These are called ideas of reference which, of course, means that the patient thinks people are referring to him in one way or another. In the beginning, ideas of reference may occur only occasionally, but they gradually become the rule rather than the exception, and finally they may develop into definite delusions of persecution or grandeur.”
The list below are the signs of “abnormal persons” that are printed in the booklet published in 1954:
  • He shows big changes in his behavior.
  • He has strange /losses of memory, such as where he is or what day it is.
  • He thinks people are plotting against him, or has grand ideas about himself.
  • He talks to himself or hears voices.
  • He thinks people are watching him or talking about him.
  • He sees visions or smells strange odors or has peculiar tastes.
  • He has complaints of bodily ailments that are not possible.
  • He behaves in a way which is dangerous to himself or others.
Interestingly, the bullet points above remain accurate today with the understanding that too many individuals suffering with a major mental illness also have substance abuse/dependence.  It is this fact that confounds most LEO – mentally ill encounters.  “Beyond the rigors of police work, lie the demands of a personal life, specifically a wife or husband and children. Maintaining a healthy and happy family life is on its own a demanding responsibility. Add these powerful life stressors and demands to the burdens of police work and  an officer may begin to feel the weight upon his or her shoulders.” Polizotti, 2018.  Emotional and physical strength and endurance requires hardiness that comes from personal responsibility and comittment to excellence and peak performance.  Greater focus on sobriety – including opioid and alcohol dependence is essential. If this can be maintained mental illness may remit to the extent that subjects can remain in the community. Programs like A.A., N.A., and other 12-step groups are free and often afford subjects great support.  In most cities there are 12-step meetings every day morning, noon and night.  The problem is getting people to realize they have a problem.  Even airports hold A.A. meetings for travelers in need of the 12-steps. We are working on a replacement manual like the one cited in this post.


Polizoti, L. (2018) Personal Life Demands. Presentation – Direct Decision Institute.
How To Recognize and Handle Abnormal People: A Manual for the Police Officer (1954) Matthews, R. M.D. and Rowland, L. Ph.D. NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR MENTAL HEALTH, INC. 10 COLUMBUS CIRCLE, NEW YORK 19, N. Y.

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