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Better Educating Law Enforcement on Mental Illness

Ben Selkow wrote an interesting piece over at the Huffington Post earlier this week about his experience with traveling with a friend who has bipolar disorder. But it wasn’t by car or on a bus he was traveling. It was on a U.S. domestic flight back in 2002, just nine months after 9/11. And his friend wasn’t simply sad or a little anxious — he was in a full-fledged manic (and apparently, paranoid) state.

Selkow uses this example as some type of rationale for the need to better educate prison and law enforcement officers about mental illness and its many and varied symptoms (there are literally hundreds). What Selkow fails to understand, however, is that many law enforcement agents — especially at the large municipality and airport level — already have had education and training on mental illness and people with such disorders. Supervisors and senior officers especially have typically had to undergo such training.

Such training doesn’t mean that a person in a full-fledged manic episode can simply be ignored or excused. Nor would I expect such training to help a police officer — who is not a mental health professional or doctor — to accurately or reliably arm-chair diagnose, on-the-fly, an escalating, threatening and potentially violent situation.

Selkow describes his friend’s state:

He has spent the last two hours with his shirt off, genuflecting in front of the jetway, praising God, and swaying back and forth. He’s 6’7″ and weighs 300 pounds.

When we finally board another flight, I spend the next seven hours trying to contain his psychological torrent. Sam praises Osama bin Laden (in the context of fighting for what he believes, however unpopular). He accuses passengers of being armed federal air marshals sent to capture him. […]

Eventually, we finally arrive in Los Angeles where five policemen are waiting to take Sam into custody for his alarming behavior.

Or, having talked to him directly, realized he was not mentally competent in his current state and taken him directly to a mental health facility. One doesn’t know, since Selkow intervened first on his friend’s behalf.

Because for every horror story the news plays up about how police have over-reacted with what appears to be too much force, there are dozens of stories that occur everyday that don’t make the news where trained officers recognize someone is not in a competent mental state, and act accordingly. You don’t hear about these stories because they are run-of-the-mill and ordinary. I wonder, does Selkow believe the police currently arrest people who are suicidal and jail them, or instead have them admitted to a hospital? Because while the latter occurs dozens of time every day, we rarely hear about the former.

I’m all for greater awareness and education about mental disorders. But let’s not over-generalize and put blame on officers who are there to protect the public safety, not act as crisis counselors or diagnosticians. Extreme acting-out behaviors in public, no matter what the cause, will always gain law enforcement’s attention. I also suspect that most people who cope with a mental illness don’t want to wear a label around their neck that says, “Excuse my behavior, I’m mentally ill.”

I hope police and prison officials will continue to act in the best interests of both the public and the individual — and always with respect for the individual’s human rights — no matter what the situation.

Read the article: Our Brush with Homeland Security: Can Better Understanding of Mental Illness be Legislated?

Better Educating Law Enforcement on Mental Illness

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Better Educating Law Enforcement on Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Oct 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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