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Dealing with the mentally ill: Five survival principles

Submitted by PoliceOne Staff

In light of this recent news report regarding loopholes letting mentally ill juveniles go free, as well as tightened budgets nationwide that have shuddered mental health clinics and put emotionally disturbed people on the streets, you must stay trained on tactics for dealing with the mentally ill. Here are five key survival principles to keep in mind when dealing with subjects who you know are, or suspect could be, suffering from mental illness:

1. Remember that mentally ill individuals can be extremely unpredictable. A seemingly calm encounter can suddenly explode into a violent, potentially lethal fight for your life in an eye blink. Always remain acutely aware of the subject’s demeanor and body language and stay alert for verbal cues that might tip you off to building anxiety and a diminishing level of cooperation. Also, when considering your DT options, remember that in some instances mentally ill individuals can demonstrate extraordinary strength and an immunity to pain.

2. Don’t use past encounters with a mentally ill subject as the sole basis for determining your level of tactical awareness during a current encounter. (“That’s Jimmy. I know that kid. He’s got some mental problems but he likes me and he’s always been cooperative. No reason to worry about him.”) People change. Mental illnesses and their levels of severity and treatment change. Foundational officer survival principles don’t change.

3. Stay educated on the signs and symptoms of certain mental illness and the things people suffering from them may be experiencing. Are you able to quickly pick up on the fact that someone is clinically paranoid? Are you prepared to deal with them appropriately while avoiding an approach that, although still tactically solid, steers clear of actions that can be triggers for an outburst? Can you spot red flag behavior that can tip you off to the fact that a person is hallucinating or in the midst of a psychotic episode? Do you know what to do in that situation…and more importantly, what not to do? If you’re not getting agency training on mental illnesses, be proactive and seek information from a local hospital or mental health clinic. They’ll have a ton of insight for you and will likely be extremely happy to see you.

4. If you’re responding to a call involving a mentally ill subject get as much background information as you can from every available source; family, physician, a friend trying to help, other law enforcement personnel who may have had encounters with this person. Time might be tight, but don’t miss an opportunity to tap into an information source if you have the chance. What is that person suffering from? What medications are they on? Have they mixed alcohol with prescription drugs? Have they made threatening statements (remember that those can be both suicidal and homicidal in nature)? Do they have access to weapons? Have they been violent in the past?

5. Be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to be kind and compassionate at the expense of being tactically wise. For example, a situation involving an armed, mentally ill teenager with a gun to his head and threatening suicide can be gut-wrenching. The parents are helpless and horrified. The subject is distraught, in emotional anguish and feeling like he’s at the end of his rope. You’re sitting there thinking that a few kind words and a gesture of kindness might help bring him to help. You decide to step out from behind cover and move closer. Maybe you can relax him and get him to hand over the gun. After all, he’s threatening to hurt himself, not you. BIG mistake. Think it can’t happen? It has and it does. Don’t let it happen to you.

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