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‘I Can’t Breathe:’ People with Mental Illness & the Police Response


The outrage for no one being held accountable for Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the police — for selling cigarettes on the street, a petty crime at best — is pouring over.

And it’s no wonder. The officers’ heavy-handed tactics in handling this nuisance crime were over-the-top. Garner repeatedly told the officers, “I can’t breathe,” even as they were suffocating him — apparently oblivious to his very real distress.

If anybody other than a police officer was responsible for Garner’s death, someone would have at least been indicted on a manslaughter charge. But because it was a police officer, no justice will apparently be had.

Sadly, Garner is just the latest in a long history of police “over-zealousness” when it comes to dealing with people who just won’t abide by their instructions. People with a mental illness have long been given short shrift when it comes to being treated with simple decency and restraint by police officers all across the country.

I wish I could say that Garner’s death was an isolated incident. Sadly, I cannot.

As we noted two years ago, half of police shootings involve a person with a mental illness.1 This isn’t because people with mental illness are more likely to commit a crime. It’s because people with mental illness are more likely to be homeless and less likely to understand and comply with a police officer’s instructions. This leads to an unnecessary confrontation when the police officer responding isn’t specifically trained in how to best communicate and deescalate such situations.

In July 2011, police in Fullerton, California beat a man — who apparently was mentally ill — to death. Where were the nationwide protests and outrage then? Except for a few local protests, nobody took much notice of this abuse. After all, he was homeless.

But it doesn’t just happen in big cities and the suburbs. The little town of Barre, Vermont (population: 9,291) tasered a senior citizen with mental illness who refused to obey a police officer’s commands. Her crime? She was apparently just loitering. So obviously she needed to be tasered.

cant-breatheThese are just a handful of cases over the past few years we’ve highlighted when police officers have used poor judgment in using uncalled-for force against minorities. Few of these cases involve non-minorities. There is apparently a systematic problem with too many police officers not understanding when restraint and patience will get more compliance than force and physical confrontation. There seems to simply be too little training in basic communication and persuasion skills among police officers.

Some might say, “Hey, you either comply with a police officer’s instruction or face the consequences.” Perhaps. But those consequences should never include the use of potentially deadly force when the suspect isn’t an imminent threat to an officer’s life or safety. In Eric Garner’s case, it’s pretty clear to every layperson that the police used a banned choke-hold technique on him. The coroner’s report confirmed he died due to suffocation. I think an 8 year old could connect the dots.

I’m appalled at what happened in New York City and in Ferguson, Missouri. Two unarmed men died for no good reason, outside of fear and over-reaction by police officers. I know that most police officers are not like these men. They are good, ethical, hard-working individuals who put their lives on the line everyday for our safety and protection. For that, I am thankful.

But we’re moving down a path in America that’s disturbing. I’m not sure it’s a legitimate trend, but these cases — and the hundreds more like them that go unreported — paint a picture of force being used too often, too quickly. Especially against those least likely to complain — minorities.

This holiday season, I hope we find a way to come together and find solutions to these nationwide problems. Communities deserve police officers who are well-trained and thoughtful enough to talk through a problem long before bringing out their guns or batons.

‘I Can’t Breathe:’ People with Mental Illness & the Police Response


  1. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not diagnosing Eric Garner or suggesting he had a mental illness. Just that police departments across the country have a history of discriminating against those in a minority. []

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). ‘I Can’t Breathe:’ People with Mental Illness & the Police Response. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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