Diffusing crisis

Memphis police asked how an armed confrontation with a mentally ill individual might have been prevented, and found a unique answer


     Today, many criminal justice agencies are reaping the benefits of a CIT partnership. For those who've not yet taken that step and would like to know more about it, Cochran is happy to share. He can be reached at Sam.Cochran@memphistn.gov.

     A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention, criminal investigations and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at carolemoore@ec.rr.com.

A historical concern

     Mental illness often has a genetic basis, so it is not uncommon to find certain illnesses running in families. And, since the presence of mental illness often conjures up stigma, sufferers find themselves treated like lepers, their disease relegated to the shadows, a secret they must keep hidden. That is how mental illness has been traditionally been treated, although there are a few historical exceptions.

     History indicates the ancient Egyptians believed the mentally ill possessed special religious or spiritual connections. A facility near present-day Saqqara, Egypt, is thought to have been an early treatment center.

     In medieval times, it is said Muslims established mental hospitals where their mentally ill population was cared for with a compassion extraordinary for the times. A number of important pioneers in the early study of psychiatric disorders were also Islamic. While Europeans feared the mentally ill, enlightened Arabs were trying to understand their neurological roots.

     Treatment for psychiatric diseases during the Middle Ages was generally brutal. The mentally ill were often regarded as demonic and thrown into filthy, barbaric institutions to languish and die. It wasn't until the 19th century that mental illness began to receive sympathetic treatment in this country.

     Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was an activist who took up the cause of inhumane treatment of the insane. In a report she wrote following her investigation of Pennsylvania's system, where indigent individuals were treated worse than animals, she said, " Insane Persons (are) confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience."

     Dix's compassionate attitude toward the mentally ill led to the establishment of mental institutions across the country, but confinement to an institution was often at the whim of a family member. It was not unusual for someone to deteriorate in one for decades.

     Treatments for mental illness were often experimental and cruel. Physicians have tried approaches ranging from convulsive shock therapy to frontal lobotomies, but most of these approaches have been largely ineffective. It wasn't until the use of medication to treat mental illness came into large-spread use that many of the afflicted were able to lead lives with any semblance of normalcy.

     The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 10 million Americans suffer from bipolar disorder, evenly split between men and women. Formerly known as manic depression, both adults and children have the disease, and it often leads to substance abuse, depression and suicide.

     Schizophrenia affects 2 million individuals, and it's estimated that with 15 million sufferers major depression is the most prevalent mental illness of them all. Other mental disorders, ranging from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to Tourette's Syndrome afflict countless others.

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