Police Say They Are Willing to Help the “Mentally Ill”—But Still Seek to Avoid Them and View Them as “Dangerous”

Police in Spain report more feelings of sympathy and willingness to help those with a mental health diagnosis, but still seek to avoid them, associate them with more danger, and endorse isolation and involuntary treatment.

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Police are often called on to respond to people experiencing difficult mental states. In a new article published in BMC Psychiatry, researchers from the University of Murcia, Spain, explore the attitudes of police in Spain towards people with a psychiatric diagnosis.

The officers were asked about their attitudes towards people diagnosed with schizophrenia or depression in four different positions: someone in need of assistance, a victim of a crime, a witness, and a suspect. Officers indicated they had more sympathy and willingness to help people with these diagnoses, and attributed them less responsibility for their actions. However, they also reported an increased impulse to avoid such people, heightened perception of danger, and a belief in the necessity for isolation and involuntary treatment.

The authors conclude that officers likely hold some stigmatizing attitudes towards people with mental health diagnoses that can be combated by training programs. They write:

“Police officers may hold certain stigmatizing attitudes towards persons with mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, that require special attention, as they may negatively affect police action. We found several factors associated with the persistence of these stigmatizing attitudes among police officers that may guide us when implementing training programs for promoting attitude change, especially at the beginning of an officer’s professional career.”

Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.The violence of police officers in the United States has come under increasing scrutiny after the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd sparked massive protests across the country. While much of the focus has been on racism in policing, many authors have noted that people with mental health issues are also often the victims of police violence. One writer reported in 2015, in what they call a “national crisis,” that American police officers shot and killed someone in a mental health crisis every 36 hours.

North Carolina officers shot and killed a teenager diagnosed with schizophrenia when his parents called for help. Utah police shot a 13-year-old autistic child several times after his mother called for help. Two Colorado officers assaulted a 73-year-old dementia patient, and later laughed when watching video of themselves breaking her arm. Pennsylvania officers killed two men suffering mental health crises at the end of 2020, both after their families and neighbors called police for help. Arizona police fatally shot a mental health patient at a mental health facility. These examples, as well as the numerous other headlines just like them, have given authors a reason to call for an end to police “wellness checks” and sent some states looking for non-police interventions for people experiencing difficult mental states.

While police officers and their unions commonly blame a state they call “excited delirium” for their extrajudicial killings of people suffering mental health crises, experts have called their claims pseudoscience. Other authors have noted that the state of “excited delirium” was in part popularized by stun gun manufacturers in an effort to attribute taser-related deaths to other possible causes.

The authors begin by noting the improvements to Spain’s mental healthcare over the past two decades. However, many people (including many psy-professionals) still hold negative attitudes towards those with mental health diagnoses. Increasingly, communities are depending on police officers to respond to mental health crises. As they are often the first responders to mental health crises, the current work seeks to better understand police officer attitude towards people diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression.

In the current study, 927 police officers were recruited from Spain’s National Police School. Officers that had completed some training courses the year before were recruited to participate in the current study. The participants completed a self-report survey over a month-long period and returned the survey to researchers.

The researchers measured how gender, age, educational level, familiarity with mental illness, and number of encounters with mentally ill people affected the officers’ hypothetical treatment of someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or depression. The officers were presented vignettes in which a person was described as someone in need of assistance, a victim, a witness, or a suspect. The researchers measured how attitudes were different when the victims, witnesses, etc. were described as having a diagnosis of schizophrenia or depression versus when they were given no mental health diagnosis.

Female officers and those more familiar with mental health problems expressed more pity and a stronger desire to help those with a diagnosis than male officers and those less familiar with mental health issues. Younger officers (under 31 years old) were more prone to interpret a mental health diagnosis as a sign that the person may be dangerous and more likely to avoid people with diagnoses than their older counterparts (over 41 years old). Officers that were more experienced associated mental illness less with danger and did not express as much desire to avoid those diagnosed with a mental illness.

Overall, when officers were told the subject had a mental health diagnosis, they showed an increased willingness to help, more feelings of pity, and a belief that the subjects were less responsible for their own actions. However, they also demonstrated a greater desire for avoidance, assumed more danger, and endorsed a need to isolate and treat mentally ill subjects against their will.

The authors conclude that although police officers are often aware of mental illness, negative attitudes are common. Once a person is labeled as having a mental illness (especially schizophrenia), police officer’s decisions are often negatively affected.

They write, “Patients with a severe psychiatric illness may be more vulnerable than others when interacting with the police in the sense that their speech and behaviour may be misunderstood. Improving law enforcement training and protocols should be able to reduce manifestations on the part of police of unwarranted bias and stigma.”

 

 

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Mengual-Pujante, M., Morán-Sánchez, I., Luna-Ruiz Cabello, A., & Pérez-Cárceles, M. D. (2022, September 19). Attitudes of the police towards individuals with a known psychiatric diagnosis. BMC Psychiatry, 22(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-022-04234-1 (Full text)

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Richard Sears
Richard Sears teaches psychology at West Georgia Technical College and is studying to receive a PhD in consciousness and society from the University of West Georgia. He has previously worked in crisis stabilization units as an intake assessor and crisis line operator. His current research interests include the delineation between institutions and the individuals that make them up, dehumanization and its relationship to exaltation, and natural substitutes for potentially harmful psychopharmacological interventions.

14 COMMENTS

  1. If these cops don’t know what’s going on when they meet mental patients, they may need psychiatric chieu hois to go on calls with them to explain what patients are doing as well as initiating interactions with such individuals when the cops are called about their activities and don’t know what to do.

  2. “Police Say They Are Willing to Help the ‘Mentally Ill’—But Still Seek to Avoid Them and View Them as ‘Dangerous’

    Who taught the police that classifying someone as ‘mentally ill’ is acceptable or valid behavior, as opposed to just stigmatizing? Especially given the fact that psychiatry’s DSM “bible,” of so called “mental illnesses,” was debunked as “invalid” almost 10 years ago.

    http://psychrights.org/2013/130429NIMHTransformingDiagnosis.htm

    And, in much as it’s true that the psychiatric drugs can make people “suicidal” and/or “dangerous.” It is UNTRUE that those stigmatized as “mentally ill” are more “dangerous” than the majority of the public. (Look it up for yourself.) For goodness sakes, the vast majority of those stigmatized as “mentally ill” are actually victims of an incompetent police force, and child abuse survivors … NOT dangerous criminals.

    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/
    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo

    And given the fact that we’re all now living in a “pedophile empire,” due to the systemic incompetence of the police.

    https://www.amazon.com/Pedophilia-Empire-Chapter-Introduction-Disorder-ebook/dp/B0773QHGPT

    Perhaps the police should garner insight into reality … and psychiatry’s – and big Pharma’s – lies and fraud. And actually start arresting the real “dangerous” criminals … the pedophiles. And those who systemically cover up child abuse … like the psychological and psychiatric industries, and their pastor and bishop child abuse covering up “partners.”

    https://books.google.com/books?id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

  3. In defense of the police, the people who are calling them for ‘assistance’ have a tendency to over state the threat posed by the person they wish to have incarcerated and force drugged.

    So in my instance they planted a knife on me in case police felt a need to shoot me as my behavior after being ‘spiked’ with date rape drugs was an unknown. The Community Nurse ‘verballing’ a threat to cause police to feel apprehension rather than have them at ease.

    The use of police as a weapon by mental health professionals not even given a mention in the article above. I mean consider the man in this video who, after being labelled ‘mental patient’ can be forced to comply with the wishes of the nurse who called police to have him ‘helped’.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZ9UQKBUrsg&t=4s

    Now consider this as a means to arbitrarily detain (the nurse need only tell police he is an “Outpatient” and would not be held to account for that offense [create a false belief] should it not be “edited” out of documentation post hoc) and torture citizens, and then have them ‘snowed’ (the induced coma spoken about by the journalist) should they complain, while the documented legal narrative is “edited” to ensure that the after the fact due process was followed? Imagine that the man in the video could be ‘spiked’ with date rape drugs before being subjected to this form of ‘help’ and the date rape drugs would become his “regular medications” once he was incarcerated in the Emergency Dept and subjected to hours of questioning…… and your government and Chief Psychiatrist doesn’t see a problem with this occurring?

    Imagine a Corruption watchdog that only has hearings in secret because it may cause “reputational damage” to the people doing these sorts of things? Which are, after all “not in the public interest”….. and journalists will be charged should they publish anything without State sanction. An integrity watchdog with no integrity because the Federal Government wishes to follow suit with the ‘cover up’ bodies enjoyed by the States?

    The fact that our ‘hospitals’ are being used for purposes other than designed certainly not something our elected representatives want exposed to the ‘disinfectant of sunlight’.

    I note that Amnesty Int. speaks about the problems for indigenous youth in the Police State….. and seems to prefer the methods employed by the Therapeutic State concealed as ‘medicine’ and removes any comments pointing out the facts related to the use of ‘chemical’ solutions to problems faced by the State.

  4. You know what, first responders of all uniforms, from paramedics to police and firemen, see and experience Extremely traumatizing experiences, an Entire Career OF IT EVERY SINGLE TIME THEY PUNCH THE TIME CLOCK. They do a remarkable job considering what they experience every single day. But just like the men and women we send over seas to do our dirty work, if they mess up even a little bit, they get their job security, retirement, and lives stolen from them, Permanently, just like US!

    We claim trauma and sometimes rightly so for certain instances of a specific number that happens to us during the course of our lives. Can you imagine, having to leave your house everyday and deal with the worse of human and natural disasters expression, murder and mahem, keep your cool, not loose your shit even once, do everything by the book (even when you know the book is BS too). I can barely handle fielding a CSR position on the telephone, these men and women have to experience shit that would drive me mad in the first 2 hours of the shift. Its not all sitting around eating fucking donuts or watching rom coms at the fire house! It effects them too!

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