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Recognizing Mental Illness: How to Work with Suspects Who Suffer from Mental Illness

NCJ Number
Law and Order Volume: 50 Issue: 4 Dated: April 2002 Pages: 48-51
John Bellah
Date Published
4 pages
This article reviews the need for law enforcement officers to be properly prepared and trained in recognizing and dealing with mentally disabled individuals to reduce the potential for injury to both the individual and the officer.
Due to advances in mental health care, many individuals suffering from mental health problems who would have been institutionalized are now living successful lives in their communities. However, there are incidents where medications may not be performing effectively due to either an imbalance in the medication, not taking the medication, or an individual’s refusal to take the medication. In addition, there are other non-mental health issues that create abnormal behavior such as diabetes, drug, and alcohol abuse. Law enforcement officers might be called in to intervene with suspects who suffer from mental illness. Persons with developmental disabilities are seen as seven times more likely to come into contact with law enforcement. Proper preparation and training is imperative in dealing with individuals suffering from a mental disability. Improper preparation and training can lead to potential personal complaints, use of excessive force, or suicide. This article discusses the need for law enforcement officers to receive training in dealing with people with disabilities as part of their basic training. The State of California instituted this into their basic training in 1990. However, the officer should not be expected to perform the function of psychologist or psychiatrist. The article presents the differences and difficulties when making an arrest of an individual with mental or developmental disabilities, such as poor communication skills. There is the need for law enforcement to assess the situation, request assistance if necessary, be patient but firm, use simple language, speak slowly and clearly, and be familiar with ADA provisions and laws.