9 ways for cops to fight mental health stigma

We adapted the National Alliance on Mental Illness suggestions for fighting mental health stigma to the unique demands and challenges of being a police officer


The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reached out to their Facebook community to elicit suggestions for fighting mental health stigma. From the responses, NAMI created a list of nine suggestions that we’ve taken the liberty of adopting for the law enforcement community.

1. Talk openly about mental health.
Making the conversation about mental health normal and routine goes a long way toward erasing stigma. Cops have a high degree of contact with the mentally ill yet many still see themselves as out of their element in this setting.  Cops are often uncomfortable with direct contact or prefer to see themselves as strictly crime fighters. Familiarize yourself by joining in the conversation and becoming fluent in the language of mental health care.

2. Educate yourself and others about mental health.
Seek out training above and beyond what you may have received in the academy or as mandated within your department. Accept that understanding, working with, serving, and, yes, arresting and holding accountable the mentally ill is an essential job junction of police officers and take responsibility to be the best you can be at it. 

3. Be conscious of your language.
Use appropriate and sensitive language to avoid the stigmatization so common of the mentally ill. Even in the confines of the station house or car-to-car conversations, understand your words may hurt. Colleagues sitting next to you may be in treatment or have family members or friends who are under care. =Even if they are not undergoing treatment, hearing your belief that the mentally ill are whack jobs or nutcases may be all it takes to prevent them from seeking help or opening up about their pain.

4. Encourage equality in how people perceive physical and mental illness.
Many physical illnesses are symptomatic of an organic malfunction of one or more of the body’s organs. The brain is an organ that is far more complex in its function than any other organ and susceptible to disease or dysfunction. Respect that.

5. Show empathy and compassion for those living with a mental health condition.
Empathy doesn’t cost a thing and what it can do for someone in pain or crisis pays huge dividends. Also, imagine how someone who lives with mental illness in your department must feel when they see their peers equate it with character flaws.

6. Avoid criminalizing mental illness.  
Although we’ve come a long way toward understanding mental illness in law enforcement, a lot of officers see arrest as the first or only response to minor crimes committed by someone who may be acting out for lack of better options. This is not to say persons with mental illness do not commit crimes, they do and sometimes arrest is the best, most effective way to force the issue and get them the help they need. But when you are clearly dealing with someone who is mentally ill, consider alternatives to arrest when feasible.

7. Push back against how persons who live with mental illness are portrayed in the media.  
Stigma grows where stereotypes and misinformation are rampant.  Politicians, pundits, and performers often perpetuate and even encourage stigma.

8. See the person, not the illness.
Human beings are complex, complicated, whole individuals bigger than any one aspect of their personality. Forcing yourself to see the person rather than the illness is the key to maintaining empathy.

9. Become an advocate for mental health reform.  
Push reform in how your colleagues and departments treat the mentally ill… Encourage funding for services, treatments and beds. Ask for (or demand) more regular and comprehensive training for dealing with the mentally ill, especially for recognizing and helping other cops who may be in vulnerable places emotionally.  Advocate for departmental services for wounded officers, even if those wounds aren’t the kind that bleed or bruise.

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