Police Training Increases Chance that People with Mental Illness will get Needed Care

Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With lawsuits and frequent allegations of brutal and insensitive treatment of people with mental illnesses, many communities and law-enforcement agencies are now, appropriately, discussing and/or implementing better training. According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, there are about 300 police departments around the country with active training programs. The Bazelon Center’s position is that what’s really needed are community services where people with mental illness can get treatment and support, so that crises can be avoided in the first place. That goal seems do-able and can be (and is) partially incorporated into some police training. For instance, police officers with Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training not only know more about mental illness than their untrained counterparts but are more likely to obtain professional help for people with mental disorders when encountering them in the course of their work.

police officer on motorcycle

police officer on motorcycle (Photo credit: Metropolitan Police)

Recent studies show that CIT training certainly improves officers’ knowledge, attitudes, and skills regarding mental illness, writes Michael Compton, M.D., M.P.H., of the Department of Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, and colleagues in two related online articles, here and here, in Psychiatric Services in Advance. The greatest effect size was for de-escalation skills, which are particularly important.

“The ‘criminalization’ of mental illnesses may be prominently related to impulsivity or emotionally motivated responses [by police] to perceived provocation, rather than to untreated symptoms alone.”

CIT-trained officers are also more likely after encounters to refer or transport subjects to treatment sites. This is a big step, and it is especially true when the officers needed physical force to control the individual. In those cases, they are more likely to refer to services rather than to arrest, suggesting CIT training serves its intended purpose as a form of prebooking diversion from the criminal justice system.

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