Law Enforcement's Poor Mental Health Practices Investigated in New Series

August 26th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

The plight of mentally ill people in the U.S. criminal justice system is an ongoing problem. Law enforcement generally receives inadequate training in identifying those with mental health issues, and the consequence of that trend is often tragic. In the first of its three-part series, "This is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health," Brave New Films investigated the subject, reporting on the pattern of abuse and incarceration that affect thousands of patients who would be better served by mental health providers than police and prison guards.

Drawing on news reports as well as interviews with patients, psychologists, and mental health advocates, the film production company has called attention to many of the troubling police practices that have left more mentally ill sufferers behind bars than ever before in U.S. history. Caught in the trap of the nation's prison systems, the most vulnerable people increasingly find themselves without adequate treatment or mental health services.

"There are very, very limited treatment options," Vanessa Baden, Press and Digital Distribution Manager at Brave New Films, told ATTN:. "A lot of times, the issue is not just care but diagnosis. So unless you’ve had a huge break and you've seen a physician or a mental health professional about your condition, nobody would ever know that you have this issue."

"What’s more is that they might suspect that something's wrong, but as far as knowing what exactly the issue is—where it stems from, if it can be medicated, if it can be therapized [sic], whatever the case is—there’s just no way to get that diagnosis without having access to a mental healthcare professional," she added.

It used to be the case that those suffering from mental illness were systematically tossed into public psychiatric hospitals, where many patients were subjected to the inhumane conditions of institutions that were either ill-equipped or unwilling to treat them. In recent history, the 1950s marked a change in the system: advocates started pushing for a community-based approach to mental health in lieu of institutionalized treatment. In spite of its good intentions, however, the movement has not effectively changed the way this country engages its mentally ill population.

Due in part to inadequate law enforcement training in the U.S., police officers often fail to differentiate between people who pose serious threats to themselves and others and those suffering from mental health crises. Some departments have adopted Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which has shown promising results (CIT officers are 25 percent more likely to bring a person to a treatment center rather than jail, Brave New Films reported), but not enough departments have utilized the program.

"Police are not trained to do crisis intervention unless they have had CIT training, and so basically there are things that police are taught in the police academy that are very contradictory to how you deal with a mentally ill patients," Baden explained. "For instance, in the academy a police officer is taught to use their commanding voice... Well, when you’re dealing with somebody who’s having a psychotic break—who’s in the middle of a delusion or things of that nature—your command voice can very easily be, in their mind, seen as the voice of somebody trying to harm them because they’re not necessarily seeing things through a proper lens or through a proper perspective."

"Because so few have been trained, they go into these situations that could have easily been defused—not all but many could have been defused—and instead they exacerbate it to the point where the person who’s suffering from the mental health crisis then makes a threat, or then charges or something of that nature, and now it becomes a criminal act. So in a sense, where something could have been defused, they have now turned it into a crime by just not knowing how to handle it."

This translates into a disproportionate population of mentally ill people caught up in the prison system. American prisons and jails have, in essence, become the psychiatric hospitals of the 21st century. A 2012 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center found that these facilities housed an estimated 356,268 inmates with histories of mental illness. Only about one-tenth of that number—approximately 35,000 people—were represented in state psychiatric hospitals, the Washington Post Reported.

Baden says that there must be a balance between re-training efforts in law enforcement and improved mental health resources for patient treatment. "In these exact situations, you have people who are having psychotic breaks, schizophrenic episodes, just mental health breakdowns, and there is no place that they can go," she added.