People, by nature, fear what they do not understand. Mental illness is grossly misunderstood not only by the sufferers; but by the community at large, including law enforcement. This misunderstanding inevitably leads to misconception and results in stigmatization (stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace). More than 54 million Americans suffer from mental illness in any given year. 2/3rd of all people with a diagnosable mental disorder do not seek treatment. A majority of these individuals hesitate to get help for their mental health problems because of stigmatization. This is extremely unfortunate because effective treatment exists for almost all mental illnesses.
The stigma of mental health/illness in the field of law enforcement is twofold. First off, law enforcement officers are as susceptible to mental illness as is anyone else. Secondly, officers interact daily with mentally ill individuals in the community. Not only does an officer have to overcome an internal stigma, he/she must possess accurate knowledge of mental health and illness when dealing with citizens, victims, and/or suspects who have mental disorders. This is hugely significant considering that approximately 9% of all law enforcement emergency dispatch calls are related to a mental illness crisis. Misconceptions can only be corrected by educating yourself about mental health and illness. Dispelling common myths is an essential step toward abating the stigma and diminishing the fears associated with mental illness.
Top 10 Myths about Mental Illness for Law Enforcement Officers
Myth #1: Mental health problems are uncommon.
Fact: Mental illnesses are surprisingly common. In fact, mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26.2% of the population suffers from mental illness. Psychiatric disorders affect almost every family in America. Mental illnesses do not discriminate; they can affect anyone regardless of gender, race, age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. According to the World Health Organization, four of the ten leading causes of disability in the United States and other developed countries are mental disorders.
Myth #2: People with severe mental illness are dangerous and violent.
Fact: The vast majority of people with mental illnesses are no more violent than anyone else. In the cases when violence does occur, the incidence typically results from the same reasons as with the general public, such as feeling threatened or excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs. The media often sensationalizes accounts of crime by a mentally ill individual. Actually, people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be the victims of crime. More than 25% of persons with severe mental illness were victims of a violent crime in the past year, a rate more than 11 times that of the general population.
Myth #3: Mental illnesses are not real medical problems or diseases.
Fact: The definition of disease is A pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from various causes. The brain is an organ; lungs, the heart, liver, kidneys, skin, etc are examples of other organs. Mental illness is a disorder of the brain. Brain disorders are related to anomalies of the brain's chemistry at nerve cell junctions and metabolism in different brain regions. Brain disorders, like heart disease and diabetes, are legitimate medical illnesses. Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for psychiatric disorders, and they can be treated effectively.
Myth #4: People who talk about suicide do not commit suicide.
Fact: Few people commit suicide without first letting someone else know how they feel. 8 out of 10 people who commit suicide have spoken about their intent before killing themselves. Suicidal comments have to always be taken seriously as they often lead to plans, attempts, or completions.
Myth #5: Addiction is a lifestyle choice and shows a lack of willpower. People with a substance abuse problem are morally weak or "bad".
Fact: Addiction is a neurobiological disease that results from changes in the brain's chemistry. It is not the result of a character flaw or weakness. Addiction often results when a person with untreated mental illness tries to self-medicate using drugs and/or alcohol. Addiction may also mask additional underlying mental illnesses. It frequently results in behavioral and emotional problems. Addiction has nothing to do with being a bad person.
Myth #6: Mental health disorders are often life-long and difficult to treat.
Fact: Many times individuals, with a newly diagnosed disorder such as depression or anxiety, are prescribed medication. Yet, when they question their physician about how long they must remain on medication, they are only told As long as you need to be. Actually, most medications, with a few exceptions, (such as those prescribed for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) prescribed for mental disorders should be taken for short-term (under a year) symptom relief.
Myth #7: Persons with mental illness never recover.
Fact: Studies have shown that people with mental illnesses can recover and resume normal activities. Recovery refers to the process in which people are able to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities. With treatment and support most mentally ill individuals can lead productive lives, work, pursue education and religion, enjoy hobbies, recreational activities, and contribute actively to society. For others, recovery implies the reduction or complete remission of symptoms.
Myth #8: Mental health problems are best treated by my primary care physician.
Fact: Mental disorders should be taken as seriously as any potentially chronic and disabling medical condition; therefore, mental disorders are best treated by a trained specialist: a mental health professional; psychiatrist, psychologist, or other clinician specially trained to diagnose and treat mental health problems. If you were diagnosed with cancer, wouldn't you want to consult with an oncologist? Your primary care doctor is a good place to start to discuss your symptoms, rule out other medical conditions or medication side effects that may help explain your symptoms, and to get an appropriate mental health referral. It has been estimated that up to ½ of all visits to primary care physicians are due to conditions that are caused or exacerbated by mental illness.
Myth #9: Depression is a normal part of the aging process.
Fact: It is not normal for older adults to be depressed. Signs of depression in older people include a loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbances and lethargy. Depression in the elderly is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Depression is not synonymous with dementia. Elderly white males have the highest suicide rate when compared to all other groups (triple the overall rate). With treatment and support, depressed older individuals can enjoy their golden years.
Myth #10: I can handle my own mental health problems, and if I can't, I'm weak.
Fact: The first part of this statement may not be so much a myth; most people who have a mental health problem do not seek treatment. They rely on traditional coping mechanisms (exercise, socializing, working harder, etc.) to deal with their symptoms. Many diagnostic mental health problems may be mild enough for this type of self-care to be sufficient. Talking with friends, reading a self-help book on the subject, or visiting an online self-help support group may be enough to get you through tougher times. However, a serious mental illness cannot be willed away. When problems become chronic or even worsen despite your efforts to cope, you should take that as a strong indication that additional help is needed. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away. Getting treatment for a mental illness does not mean you are weak, weak-minded or weak-willed. It simply means that you realize and accept your human and natural limitations. It takes courage to seek professional help.
Implications for Law Enforcement Officers
Fact: If you deal with four people today, statistically, one of them will be suffering from a diagnostic mental illness.
When interacting with these individuals arm yourself with actual knowledge, not misguided assumptions about psychiatric disorders. In order to effectively communicate with mentally ill individuals, choose your words carefully. Use accurate and sensitive words when talking to anyone about the mentally ill. Your positive attitude can affect everyone with whom you have contact, including other officers and medical staff. Words like crazy, cuckoo, psycho, wacko and nutso are a few examples of words that keep the stigma of mental illness alive. Although these words are often used without intentional harm, they can be quite belittling and demeaning. They also perpetuate the stigma of mental illness. Stigmatization is the #1 reason people with a mental illness do not seek treatment.
If you believe you may have symptoms interfering with your mental health, seek appropriate treatment. Officers are susceptible to depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. Effective, confidential treatment is available. Usually the stigma of mental illness is far worse than the illness itself. Serve and protect yourself.