How should law enforcement react to mental illness?

March 13, 2012
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How should law enforcement react to mental illness?

Police officers deal with all sorts of people on a daily basis. But when they encounter someone living with a mental illness, how should they approach those interactions differently? And what do they need to know to handle them in the best possible way?

To get a better look at these interactions and how they might improve, the Mental Health Commission of Canada conducted a study that could  encourage more police officers to adopt a “more compassionate, empathetic, and respectful" approach.

Participants in the 20-month study included those who live with various mental disorders (including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) and have had direct contact with the police. Sixty people participated in interviews, 244 people completed surveys, and 28 people took part in focus groups.

According to Johann Brink, MD, a psychiatrist and clinical professor in the University of British Columbia’s psychiatry department, participants said police agencies could do a better job of educating, training and supporting officers.

But in addition to being held accountable for misconduct in these areas, participants also suggested that officers be acknowledged for situations that have been handled in a positive and constructive manner.

“[They are] calling for a transformation of police culture,” said Brink, “into one that discourages stigma and aggression, nurtures compassion, respect, and understanding toward people with mental illness.” 

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