People with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed when approached or stopped by the police than are other civilians. While 1 in 50 people have a severe mental illness, at least 1 out of 4 people killed in police shootings have a mental illness (NAMI places this estimate at 1 out of 2).
These statistics, reported in Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters, illustrate the complicated relationship between mental illness and violence. And the complicated practice of policing and mental illness.
While encounters with people with severe mental illness are common and have the potential to end tragically, police training on mental illness and how to approach a person with mental illness without escalating the situation is infrequent and inconsistent across police departments.
People with mental illness often act in ways that officers can interpret as aggressive or threatening, or, because of fear, misunderstanding or past experience, they may be more likely to flee. Officers, on the other hand, are placed in situations where they have to interpret and respond to difficult behavior without much unique training on those encounters and the illnesses and behaviors that often underlie them.
The question that lingers is, why is this not being discussed in the current conversation about police violence? Mental illness appears to be the number one factor in episodes of police violence, but no one is carrying signs or demanding the training required to help those with mental illness in their encounters with police.
Also, it’s not a contradiction of the preceding points to include that police encounters with people who have mental illness that involve police use of force are rare. Half of police encounters that involve people with mental illness result in transport or referral to services, and 2 in 5 encounters between the police and people with mental illness are resolved informally.
While many encounters between police and people with severe mental illness end in violence, most encounters, which occur repeatedly each day, end peacefully and successfully.
In society today, mental illness and violence are often seen as inextricably linked, creating a harsh stigma for those with mental illness and an uncomfortable environment for the police.
While the point is often made that people with mental illness are the victims of violence at rates higher than the general population, it must be considered that people with severe mental illness like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder also commit violence at a higher rate.
What needs to be understood to mitigate this factor is when this violence most often occurs. The 10-week period following a hospitalization is when it is most common for mental illness and violence to appear together. This period is when it is most likely that a person with severe mental illness will commit a violent act, and when a person with severe mental illness will be involved in a violent encounter with police.
Better support during this period for the recently discharged and the availability of a mental healthcare worker to accompany police officers on calls involving a person with mental illness, especially post hospitalization, could significantly reduce violence perpetrated by and against those with mental illness.
When I reflect on my own experience, it is striking that every time I was discharged from the hospital I left with a follow up appointment and no other significant support. This time, post hospitalization, is desperate and confusing. I was lucky to have support from family, for without that support I could not have navigated the requirements to live well post-crisis.
Others without such support often find themselves in confusing situations. Sometimes these situations turn violent.
Incidences of violence between police and people with severe mental illness are well-researched and preventable. Both people with mental illness and police need more support, especially at key times.
Maybe this will finally come up in the current debates and demands concerning police violence.
Note: Much of the focus on this issue concerns attitudes about police departments, good and bad, toward people with mental illness. There is a fascinating report about attitudes of people with severe mental illness, good and bad, toward the police. See A Study of How People with Mental Illness Perceive and Interact with the Police here.
My book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available now.