How Mental Illness Affects Police Shooting Fatalities

A version of this post first appeared here on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, here.

In 2015, the Washington Post conducted the first ongoing tally of officer-involved shooting deaths of the mentally ill. Nationwide, at least 25% of people who are shot and killed by police officers suffer from acute mental illness at the time of their death. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be fatally shot during an encounter with police than people with their mental illnesses under control.

According to the Post’s 2018 tally, 1,165 civilians were fatally shot by police. Of those, more than 200 were confirmed to be mentally ill. Someone needs to be paying attention.

How Mental Illness Affects Police Shooting FatalitiesUnarguably, mental illness isn’t the only factor involved in fatal police encounters. Race is one that is often talked about. But the link of mental illness to police brutality doesn’t have the same publicity.

In 2015, the New York City Police Department responded to more than 400 mental health calls per day, more than 12,000 per month. But why do the police respond to mental health crises, and not EMTs? Historically and correctly, law enforcement has been paid to transport people suffering breakdowns to hospitals. And for many mental wards, police involvement is a requirement for involuntary admittance. In Washington state, for example, “under almost all circumstances police involvement is the primary factor in determining whether referral will result in commitment” (Carr, Durham, and Pierce 1984). This happens often enough that the state of Oklahoma’s mental health department includes a budget line item specifically for reimbursing police to transport patients.

The perception of people suffering mental illness as violent and dangerous is another reason police are called. Officers are the only people often perceived by the public to be able to deescalate mental health crises. According to the American Psychiatric Association, most people with mental illness are not violent, but using the law enforcement as a blunt instrument contributes to the stigma that they are. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely than others to be victims of a crime, not perpetuate them.

A Call to Action for Governments

The December 2015 report from The Treatment Advocacy Center, “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters,” urges lawmakers to make sweeping changes to this broken system. The authors recommended that the lawmakers:

  • Restore the mental health system so that people who suffer from mental illnesses will be treated before they end up in encounters with law enforcement;
  • Accurately count and report all situations involving deadly force by police officers;
  • Identify the number of times those with mental illnesses are fatally shot in an official report, so lawmakers can’t ignore the impact of police fatalities related to mental illness.

Since that study, there has been marginal progress. The 21st Century Cures Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in December 2016, mandated that data on the role of mental illness in fatal police encounters be collected and reported. Soon after, the Bureau of Justice Statistics started using a new methodology in reporting arrest-related death statistics. Using the new methodology, the number of arrest-related deaths that were verified and reported to the Department of Justice doubled.

But the act is not as robust as it could be. According to the Post’s tally, police killed about two dozen more people in 2017 than in 2016, and even more in 2018. The numbers don’t lie; things have not improved much, despite more accurate reporting.

What Can I Do?

Progress is slow, and this may feel like an insurmountable problem. But there are things you can do to help. Contact your House representative and let them know that you are concerned about fatal police shootings. Read books like Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry, which describes why psychotic patients need involuntary commitments. Champion police body cameras and mandated government reporting of the role of mental illness in shootings. Advocate for mental health funding at all levels of government. If you are a police officer, rely on your crisis training to deescalate crises involving the mentally ill.

Final Thoughts

Fatal police shootings, especially of when they involve people suffering from mental illness, are not new or rare. Nor are they going away. But there are things you can do to help. We’ve got to stop this trend. With consistent pressure on our lawmakers and law enforcement, we can fix this.

  1. Durham, Mary & Carr, Harold & Pierce, Glenn. (1984). Police Involvement and Influence in Involuntary Civil Commitment. Hospital & community psychiatry. 35. 580-4. 10.1176/ps.35.6.580.

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How Mental Illness Affects Police Shooting Fatalities - CassandraStout.com

 

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Crisis Hotline Numbers and Resources Master Post

Nearly 20% of American adults–up to 44 million–struggle with mental illness annually, including conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety, eating disorders, and a whole host of other issues. And sometimes, people end up in a

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A picture of a wireless phone with blue overtones. Credit to flickr.com user Synwell. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

mental health crisis, which is any situation where a person’s mood and behaviors impair functioning to the point where he or she can no longer care for himself or herself or perform his or her role in the community at large. This crisis can lead them to hurt himself or herself or others, so it needs to be addressed.

If you or a loved one are in a metal health crisis and need to talk to someone immediately, pick up the phone. You can call a crisis hotline and talk to a line operator who will be able to connect you with resources to tackle your current challenge. Hotlines are available to you whether you have insurance or not, and they are private. Some crisis lines won’t even appear on a phone bill, ensuring the confidentiality of the caller. Thoroughly-trained hotline operators will be able connect you with treatment providers in your area.

What Should I Ask the Hotline Operator?

Calling a mental health hotline doesn’t have to be intimidating. Hotline operators have a wealth of information to answer your questions about your issues  Consider asking some of these questions:

  • How do I get diagnosed? (For a post covering this topic from the Bipolar Parent, click here.)
  • Are there special techniques will work better for me, based on my diagnosis?
  • What happens if I have more than one condition?
  • How are metal health conditions treated?
  • What treatments are available in my area?
  • How do I know which type of doctor to see? (For a post covering this topic from the Bipolar Parent, click here.)
  • How long will I have to be in treatment?
  • Will I have to take medications, and can I ever stop taking them?
  • What is my next step?

If you are calling a hotline because you are concerned about a loved one, your questions may include:

  • How can I talk to my loved one about his or her diagnosis without upsetting him or her?
  • How can I help his or her recovery?
  • How do I know if his or her diagnosis is correct?
  • How do I get my loved one diagnosed?
  • What treatments are available in my area for my loved one, based on his or her diagnosis?
  • How can I encourage him or her to seek treatment?
  • What should I do in a crisis?
  • How do I ensure healthy boundaries while still caring for my loved one?

Mental Health Crisis Lines

If you need a warmline, which is a line run by volunteer peers who will listen to you vent your troubles confidentially before you hit a crisis, please see the previous post on the Bipolar Parent.

In any crisis, if you are in immediate danger, call 911. Make sure to let the operator know that you are in a psychiatric crisis and ask for officers trained in crisis intervention.

If you are looking for support, resources, and knowledge from an highly-trained hotline operator, call one of these nationwide crisis hotlines:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): (800) 950-6264. NAMI’s hotline’s hours of operation are weekdays from 10am to 6pm EST. Hotline operators can provide resources for support groups, legal support, and treatment centers, as well as information about mental illness.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): (800) 662-4357. SAMHSA operates a 24-hour mental health hotline. They provide connections to treatment, education, and support for mental health crises. They also run an online Behaviorial Treatment Locator to help you find treatment centers.
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): (866) 615-6464. NIMH also runs a live chat option, just in case you didn’t want to call. The telephone hotline and the chat are available Monday through Friday, 8:30am to 5pm EST.
  • Mental Health America Hotline: Text MHA to 741741. MHA provides support through texts. You’ll be connected to an operator who can give you support through crises or just information.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255. This 24-hour Lifeline also provides a live chat.
  • Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741. You can also text NAMI to 741741. If you are in Canada, you can text HOME to 686868. If in the UK, text HOME to 85258. These are free, 24-hour crisis hotlines. These messages do not appear on a phone bill.
  • Veterans Crisis Line: (800) 273-8255. Text a message to 838255. Operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, this hotline offers help to military veterans and can connect them with the VA in their area.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-SAFE (7233), (800) 787-3224 (TTY), (800) 942-6908 (Spanish).
    This 24/7 Trained operators are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to victims of domestic violence. Spanish and other languages are supported.
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: (800) 656-HOPE (4673). A sexual assault service provider in your area will provide you with a variety of free resources. 24/7.
  • ChildHelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline: (800) 4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453) or (800)2-A-CHILD (800-222-4453, TDD for hearing impaired). Multilingual ChildHelp operators can refer you to social services offering counseling for child abuse, as well as offer brief counseling over the phone. 24/7.
  • Boys Town Crisis and Suicide Hotline: (800) 448-3000 or (800) 448-1833 (TDD). Boys Town operators are trained to counsel you through parent-child conflicts, marital issues, pregnancy, suicide, runaways, and abuse. 24/7.
  • Covenant House Hotline: (800) 999-9999
    This crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for teens and adolescents, as well as their families. Topics covered range from drugs and homelessness to abuse and runaway children.
  • Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 829-1122.
  • STAND Against Domestic Violence Crisis Hotline: (888) 215-5555.
  • SafeQuest Crisis Line: (866) 487-7233 (4UR-SAFE). This 24-hour crisis line counsels victims of violence or sexual abuse. The line is nationwide, but California residents may receive state-certified emergency shelter support.
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders (ANAD): (847) 831-3438 (long distance).
  • Elder Abuse Hotline: (800) 252-8966.
  • Alzheimer’s Association Hotline: (800) 621-0379. Available Monday through Friday, 8:30am to 4pm EST.
  • Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Prevention Information Network: (800) 458-5231. Operators are available Monday through Friday, 9am to 6pm EST, to answer question about HIV and AIDS.
  • National Sexually Transmitted Disease Hotline: (800) 227-8922. Available Monday-Friday, 8am to 11pm EST, to answer questions and provide referrals to free and low-cost clinics in your area.
  • Parent Hotline: (800) 840-6537. Parent Hotline is dedicated to helping parents in crisis. They offer a questionnaire to determine if a child is need of intervention.
  • Poison Control: (800) 222-1222.
  • Poison Control for any kind of substance: (800) 662-9886.
  • Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN) Crisis Hotline: (800) 656-4673.
  • National Teen Dating Helpline: (866) 331-9474. Operators will counsel teens who have been abused.
  • Missing Children Network: (800) 235-3535.
  • Hopeline: (800) SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).
  • SOS Teen Hotline: (800) 949-0057.
  • Grief Recovery Helpline: (800) 445-4808.
  • National Safe Haven Alliance Crisis Hotline: (888) 510-BABY. If you are pregnant and have questions about how “Safe Surrendered Baby” laws can help you, or if you want to surrender your baby, call this toll-free number 24/7. There are many safe surrender sites around the US where you can safely hand over your baby with no questions asked, such as hospitals, fire stations, or lifeguard stations. If you are in crisis, you and your baby will be protected. Don’t abandon your baby in an unsafe place.
  • SOS Teen Hotline: (800) 949-0057.
  • National Youth Crisis Hotline: (800) 448-4663. Available 24/7 to provide short-term counseling and referrals to shelters, therapeutic services, and drug treatment centers. Aids youth dealing with pregnancy, physical and sexual abuse, and suicide.

Final Thoughts

If you or a loved one are suffering from a crisis, especially a mental health crisis, you don’t have to suffer alone. There are resources available to help you. Trained operators are standing by, waiting for your call. Pick up the phone and take the first steps out of despair.

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Mental Illness in the Media–An Incomplete Picture

The mass media has a horrible track record when it comes to factually portraying mental illnesses. Television, movies, and newspapers all characterize suffers of mental health issues as violent, slovenly, and unpredictable. Unfortunately, many misconceptions about mental conditions are born here, because this is where many people get their information about mental conditions.

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Credit to flickr.com user Magnus Karlsson. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Up to 73% of sufferers of mental illnesses in television shows are portrayed as violent, compared to roughly 40% of “normal” characters. And, to make matters worse, only 24% of female characters without mental health issues are violent, which makes the 71% of violent female characters with disorders even more shocking.

Films are just as bad. The most typical example is Psycho, where mild-mannered Norman Bates is dominated by his “mother-half,” a homicidal split in his personality run by his deceased mother. Even if the director has the best intentions and portrays bipolar disorder accurately, like in Silver Linings Playbook, having the two main characters’ issues washed away because they end up together is highly inaccurate and almost insulting.

Print media gets it wrong as well. In 2011, 14% of articles referred to suffers of mental illness as a “danger to others.” Tabloid newspapers especially focus on violence, using graphic descriptions and terms like “crazed” in the headlines to attract attention. Most newspapers engage in armchair diagnoses, which means they speculate on the mental state of article subjects without evidence to back up their claims.

But the fact is, people with mental illnesses just aren’t more bloodthirsty than the general population. A new study published in the scientific journal JAMA found that only 8% of those with schizophrenia and no substance abuse were violent, compared to 5% of the general public, a statistically insignificant number. Research demonstrates time and time again that the media is dead wrong in its estimation of violence among the mentally ill.

So how can you sift through the information presented and gain a critical eye, and instill that in your children as well? First, you can ask why you’re being told something. What bias do reporters lean toward, and, if applicable, what are they trying to sell you?

Second, recognize that crimes are more reported on than everyday, slice-of-life stories. Violence sells, and mental illnesses, when involved, become the focus of the story. Very few stories about recovery are published on a daily basis, because therapy is boring to read about.

Third, seek other sources, especially first-hand accounts. There are several reputable websites available, like nami.org, the official site of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and nimh.nih.gov, the site for the National Institute of Mental Health.

What about your kids? Train them by following the first three steps, with the addition of asking them why they think people with mental illnesses are portrayed the way they are.

With these steps, you can learn to filter the mass media you consume, and help combat the stigma that sufferers of mental illness face everyday.

What sorts of portrayals of mental illness have you seen in the media? 

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8 Myths About Mental Illness

Mental illness is widely misunderstood by the general public. People who suffer from mental disorders can find that many myths surround their condition. These misconceptions contribute to stigma, making it more difficult to seek treatment and manage disorders. We’d like to dispel some of these fictions.

1. People Can Use Willpower to Recover

While there is no definite cure-all for mental illness, it definitely can’t be treated by willpower alone. People can’t just “snap out of it.” If only managing a condition were that easy! Conversely, treatment such as medication, psychotherapy, and Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) actually works. Scientists are frequently discovering new advances in treatment, and with them, sufferers of mental illness can manage their disorders and lead healthy, productive lives.

2. Mentally Ill People Can’t Work

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Credit to flickr.com user Cat Branchman. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Nope, this is bogus as well. People with mental disorders can and do contribute to the workplace and home. Most of the time, the mentally ill are excellent at “covering” for their illnesses, which basically means that they can successfully pretend that all is well. They can be so good at covering, friends and family don’t even recognize that the disordered are mentally ill.

3. It’s Just Bad Parenting

No, no, no. The causes of mental illness are varied, including genetics, physiological changes, and environmental stressors. Neglect and unusual stress in the home tend to exacerbate underlying conditions which have biological causes. It’s not the parent’s fault that a child develops mental illnesses. Which leads us into our next point…

4. Children Can’t Be Mentally Ill

Children make up a great percentage of the mentally ill. More than half of all mental illnesses show up before a child turns fourteen, and three-quarters of them appear before the age of twenty-four. Even very young children can demonstrate symptoms of mental disorders.

5. Mentally Ill People Are Violent

Dead wrong. Suffers of mental illness make up a meager 3-5% of the incidences of violent acts in society. Hollywood has a terrible habit of stereotyping the mentally ill as violent, from Norman Bates in Psycho to Jim Carrey’s character in Me, Myself, and Irene. In fact, disordered people are ten times more likely to experience violence than the general population.

6. Mental Illnesses are Uncommon

This is absolutely not the case. One in five adult Americans endure mental illnesses each year. Roughly six percent of the population suffers from a debilitating disorder. You’re not alone if you have a mental health problem.

7. Most Mentally Ill People are White

Actually, most mentally ill people are minorities. African Americans are the most at-risk group, vulnerable to mental disorders such as depression due to increased stress from economic disadvantages.

8. People Can Recover With Drugs Alone

Medications and ECT are only part of the equation. The rest is talk therapy, which most people prefer to use rather than drugs, and peer support groups. These latter strategies try to lessen the effect of environmental stressors, which can trigger or exacerbate underlying conditions.

These myths are damaging to the mentally ill. By educating yourself about mental disorders, and spreading the truth about them, you can help combat dangerous misconceptions which stigmatize sufferers of mental health issues.

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