Psychobabble 101 for Law Enforcement

Let’s make this clear: psychiatric terms are confusing even to seasoned professionals. They are written by physicians, researchers and scholars.

You certainly learned quite a bit of information about mentally ill citizens and suspects in the academy. A couple months in a jail or in the field provided a lot more. APS, CPS, physicians, therapists, schools, concerned family members and friends call 911 regularly to request welfare checks on individuals who may have a mental illness. The lingo is very different from every caller. Let’s make this clear: psychiatric terms are confusing even to seasoned professionals. They are written by physicians, researchers and scholars. But, who writes the penal codes; lawyers; you get my point.

Police jargon isn’t easy either my friends. I remember my first day out with my Oceanside police officer. Ken took me to get some gear: a radio and holster, flashlight, cheat sheet for dispatch calls, and a spit sock. I understood the use of everything, except the spit sock. I asked Ken, “So I just put this over my head if someone is spitting at me”? He just shook his head; it was the running joke at the station for a good two weeks.

Distinguishing Between Illusions and Delusions

Even psychology students have a hard time recognizing the difference between illusions and delusions. You may ask yourself, “Who cares”? The truth is that understanding these symptoms should affect your interaction with individuals who suffer from these disorders; possibly preventing a violent encounter.


Quite simply an illusion is simply a misleading perception. Illusions are essentially seeing (most common), hearing, tasting, feeling, or smelling something that is there, but perceiving or interpreting it incorrectly. Optical illusions like this one from Müller-Lyer, is a perfect example. Which horizontal line is the longest?

Illusions deal with stimuli that are actually present, but they are misinterpreted or hard to interpret. Illusions are also what entertain us at magic shows. They are a perfect venue for con artists with sidewalk stands. A practical example of an illusion: You hang your spare uniform over the door jamb to air out; you come home late; as you walk down the hall you see a shadow and perceive it to be an intruder; your pulse races; only to discover your intruder is a hanger wearing pants and a shirt. Another example of an illusion is hearing one's name called when the radio is playing. Illusions can happen to anyone and everyone. They are not a sign of a mental illness, unless they become constant and interfere with your life.


Delusions are deeply fixed beliefs, which can be either false or fanciful. These beliefs are maintained by an individual despite contradictory information or evidence. In extreme forms, delusions are symptoms of psychosis. Delusional individuals cannot clearly distinguish what is real from what is not. Schizophrenics are particularly susceptible to the development of delusions. Delusions are also the hallmark of another psychiatric disorder called “delusional disorder”.

Delusions are categorized as either bizarre or non-bizarre. A bizarre delusion is a delusion that is very strange and completely implausible. For example, aliens have removed all of a person’s organs, or brain, and have replaced them with someone else’s. A non-bizarre delusion is where the content of the belief is mistaken, but it is at least possible. For example, it is possible for someone to be under constant police surveillance.

Delusions are also categorized according to their theme. Delusions of control, nihilistic delusions, and thought broadcasting/ insertion/withdrawal are generally considered bizarre delusions. Whereas, persecutory, somatic, grandiose, religious, jealousy, and mind being read delusions are considered non-bizarre.

10 of the Most Common Themed Delusions

1. Persecutory Delusions: This the most common type of delusions which involves the belief of being followed, harassed, cheated, poisoned or drugged, conspired against, spied on, tormented, attacked, etc. Delusions of persecution are suggestive of the paranoid type of schizophrenia.

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