Healthy New Jersey

New Jersey Governor's Council on Mental Health Stigma

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Law Enforcement

Mental health

In the field of law enforcement is two-fold. On one hand, there are the issues faced by the officer living with mental illness. On the other hand, there is the issue of law enforcement's understanding of individuals living with mental illness within the communities they serve. The common threads are mental health stigma and a lack of knowledge in regard to mental illness. There was an incident in New York some time ago where a man presented with mental illness, standing precariously on a ledge in what was perceived as extreme behavior. A special unit responded and made what they thought was a good choice, tasering the man to subdue him. The man fell to his death. Days later, the police officer in charge of the special unit committed suicide. This is a devastating, but fitting example of the impact of stigma. Had everyone involved - the man's family and the law enforcement involved - known more about mental illness, this double tragedy could very well have been prevented.

Members of law enforcement sometimes feel they cannot disclose

Their mental illness for fear of unemployment. The stigma and consequences of mental illness manifest similarly in both the military and law enforcement, presenting consequences that are often career ending. Because of the level of risk, danger, and associated stress inherent to their line of work, law enforcement officers face an extraordinarily high probability of developing post traumatic stress disorder, as well as other mental illnesses. It is important to have systems in place to embrace mental health and create a safe environment for addressing mental illness directly. Unfortunately, stigma and lack of understanding can create a culture of secrecy and denial, with officers rarely divulging the existence of a mental illness and therefore not seeking appropriate treatment. This lack of treatment allows a disorder to worsen, ultimately jeopardizing not only careers, but personal lives as well.

In addition to overcoming internal stigma, officers must

Possess an understanding of how to approach individuals living with mental illness when dealing with the public at large. Ideally, there should be a universal response strategy for officers for interacting with individuals with mental illness. To this end, partnerships between law enforcement and the mental health community are crucial. According to a commentary by Dr. Marilyn Price for the Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry: "Police are usually the first and often the only community resource called on to respond to crisis situations involving persons with mental illness and have been termed 'de facto' mental health providers. Officers are expected to act as the primary gatekeepers for the criminal justice and mental health systems. They must either recognize an individual's need for treatment and divert that person to an appropriate mental health facility or make the determination that the individual's illegal activity is the primary concern and that the person should be arrested. The task is typically accomplished with little training."

The stress of a career in law enforcement can be intense

Today's police force deals with issues beyond the neighborhood, including but not limited to the threat of global terrorism hitting home, raising stress levels to new highs. There is no way to predict which officers will develop mental illness, particularly when it comes to post traumatic stress disorder - whose onset is often subtle in nature and can present months after a traumatic event. Symptoms can range from irritability and over-vigilance to extreme anger toward friends, family, and colleagues. Awareness and early treatment of this disorder can make a profound impact on an officer's future. New Jersey has established a Police Suicide Prevention Task Force to address the serious issue of suicide in law enforcement. The Council has supported this effort with a new campaign: Tough Cops Ask for Help - Don't Remain Silent, Don't let Stigma Stand in Your Way. 

Recognizing and understanding symptoms

Is vital when relating to those in the community living with mental illness. In some cases, an individual might misunderstand or be unable to follow police orders because of symptoms that might be presenting. When an officer is not trained to recognize mental illness, he or she might misinterpret symptoms and respond inappropriately. Lack of understanding can result in the individual facing unnecessary aggression and incarceration. When law enforcement partners with the mental health community for education and training, they can combat stigma and save lives through respect and understanding.

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