Mental Health and Policing

I’m putting up front that I’m talking about police and mental health specifically here, I’m not getting into systemic racism and violence. Nor am I reaching the militarization of police departments leading to over-reactions to protest and ordinary acts of civil disobedience. Those are topics for another time.

As a trainee counselor, I was so fortunate to work for the Counseling and Psychological Services center at the public university where I received my master’s degree. I went to work each day and offered free counseling and group therapy to students and found it such a rewarding place to work and to learn.

But I remember the first time I saw police officers come into shabby, cosy, warm office space to escort a crying student out in handcuffs. I felt scared and overwhelmed. Worried for the student’s therapist – had the therapist been threatened? Was the therapist hurt? What could possibly have caused the police to need to come into our center and remove one of our clients like that?

The student was suicidal. They came to their therapist telling them of persistent suicidal thoughts that had progressed to plans. The student was terrified. Overwhelmed. Helpless in the face of their brain’s relentless attacks on their safety and sense of self. The student was willing, even eager, to be hospitalized and medicated. But university policy required that the police be involved. University policy required that they handcuff the student for transportation. University policy, enacted by well-meaning administrators and enforcement officers trying to keep students, therapists, and officers as safe as possible.

Imagine if that was your child. Imagine if that was you – terrified and overwhelmed by your own mind, being treated like a danger. The trauma. The humiliation.

This is what I kept thinking about when I read this article in the Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/24/police-huntsville-alabama-mental-health-call/?arc404=true

I read that article and a cold sense of dread settled in my stomach. This was an officer trained in the way that the President says he should be trained. An officer with good intentions. An officer who was extremely lucky in the situation he found himself in.

We are asking police to handle situations they are not equipped or meant to handle. A cop with a gun and a taser and handcuffs (among all the other tools to subdue someone breaking the law that we see as standard) on his belt is not a calming or soothing presence. No amount of training can allow them to handle someone having a break from reality because that person will see those things as terrifying and aggressive and often respond in kind.

These situations should be handled by social workers or counselors. Imagine if we shifted some of the funding from police to mental health professionals able to handle the situations described in this Washington Post story without having to warn a husband looking for help for his wife that they’ll have to shoot her if she behaves irrationally in the midst of a psychotic break. Note, the husband in this story did everything he could. He called the day before when his wife was calmer begging for help – trying desperately to get her the medication that she needed for her brain to allow her to be capable of dealing with police officers in a rational and calm way.

I have not treated Kanye West or even met him. I cannot diagnose him. But, I think any professional watching his twitter feed recognizes the similarities to a person in the midst of an unmedicated manic episode. I watched people on social media judge his wife for saying supportive things about his increasingly grandiose ideas. I watched smart people who I respect question his wife. I listened to news stories and podcasts blaming her for validating his ideas in public. But here’s the thing, a mental health professional knows that a person in the midst of a manic episode will turn on people who challenge them. If you challenge the validity of their beliefs you can forget about convincing them to take your medication or see your doctors or get into your ambulance. I felt hopeless because of course it seems that way if you haven’t lived with or worked with someone experiencing a mania. Police officers shouldn’t be asked to know this. It’s not their job. Just like it’s not really the job of twitter commentators or entertainment journalists.

A police officer is employed to challenge. Not validate. It’s a function of the job. It’s human instinct to challenge that which we don’t agree with. The officer in the story says that they would ALWAYS chase a person running away. Think about that for a person afraid that people are out to get them. For a person who believes that outsiders are trying to harm them. Chasing confirms their fears. It makes them real. Someone IS literally then out to get them.

I don’t blame the police, but I think there should be mental health professionals responding to that call described in the story. If that means fewer traditional cops (these professionals will have to be paid, after all and municipal budgets are not infinite) because funding will have to be allocated and there will be fewer calls requiring traditional cops, then I’m all for it. I think we tend to look at the defund the police movement in a black and white way. It is a reallocation movement. It’s talking about spending money on the things that will work in these situations. It’s ending the one stop shopping where we ask police to do too much.

I think about that student all the time and pray that they got the help they needed to not only cope with their suicidal thoughts but also to process the trauma of the process of their hospitalization. I saw several other students led away in much the same way. To be clear, I don’t blame the police. Their job is to keep that student alive and to get them to the hospital. But I blame the policy and the university for not having an alternative system in place to get them to the hospital in a less traumatic way.

Published by alexm1008

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Houston, Texas. I specialize in helping clients develop skills and strategies to feel more in control of their emotions and behaviors. I am also a wife and mother of two who loves to run and travel (particularly to Disney World with my kids and without).

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