by Robert Parmer

We live in a country still unfortunately filled with some social, physical health, and mental health stigmas. America doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to these types of shaming behaviors and that is, to put it lightly, disappointing. When it comes to the way our country’s police force deals with people struggling with mental health illnesses, the problem is one that has bloomed into something almost unimaginable.

abcd3When American citizens think of who is responsible for violent crimes in society, then often attribute it to people with mental problems. This is a huge misconception. The majority of these people are not dangerous, they are suffering. It’s easy for people that are cognitively healthy to look right past these issues and continue to take a judgmental and incriminating approach.

American police forces definitely struggle with this on the daily. Giving whole new meaning to incrimination of the unstable, officers have had countless controversies that have been made public over the years. Police officers have no problem using forces that are considered “less lethal” than simply beating or shooting citizens. Yes, ‘less-lethal’ rather than ‘non-lethal.’ They tase the homeless to force them to leave areas, as well as people with severe mental issues, although it’s unclear whether or not the victims of this treatment can even understand officers’ instructions in the first place. It is important to note that mental symptoms impact physical health and preying on the homeless and unstable is of zero validity.

abcd2Lets take a look at a direct example of this that has made headlines recently. The case of 17-year-old Kristiana Coignard from Longview, TX is completely nonsensical. Coignard suffered from extreme depression and bipolar disorder, while trying to cope with the fact that her mother died when she was only four. She was shot and killed by police officers in the lobby of her local police station. Coignard entered the police station on her own terms as a cry for help, and the claim is that she was wielding a weapon, a small knife. Keep in mind that the facts of this case have remained very vague, and the fact also stands that she was a small teenage girl.

Depression and bipolar disorder are not easy illnesses to cope with, but it’s worth pointing out that they are still somewhat mild compared to people that are facing disorders such as schizophrenia, antisocial, or other delusional disorders.

abcd4Studies have been conducted on whether or not there is a significant link to mental illnesses and crime. An article on the American Psychological Association’s website points out that only about 7.5 percent of violent crimes committed have a connection to people showing symptoms of cognitive dysfunction. The lead researcher at APA, Jillian Peterson, PhD, takes the following stance:

 “When we hear about crimes committed by people with mental illnesses, they tend to be big headline-making crimes so they get stuck in people’s heads. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, not criminal, and not dangerous.”

As a whole, our country is over-criminalizing individuals that fit these types of demographics. It’s an easy way out for the police and it is both avoiding and pigeonholing the real issues. While researching this topic, I recognized that there are some police forces trying to reform their standardized opinions and tactics. I found a short documentary that was very insightful. It is titled Why Are We Using Prisons to Treat Mental Illness? A point that was brought up in this documentary really stands out. It states that police officers are not typically equipped with the knowledge to deal with situations regarding mental struggles. They barge in with force and intimidation, rather than using subtler communication techniques and a spirit of compromise that might actually help. A San Antonio police officer made this statement:

abcd5 “I would get calls all the time when I was on patrol, for a person who was in a mental health crisis. I had no clue how to handle it. I would just keep getting the repeat calls every couple days or every week to the same house, to the same person, and I just accepted that this person is going to be a repeat caller.”

He follows up by explaining that his police department has made huge headway with this issue by utilizing psychological education and integrating this into officer requirements. Far too many American citizens are struggling with being made prisoners when in reality they should be patients. The San Antonio PD is aiming to change that. They are making changes to typical protocol that involve showing up to calls involving people with cognitive problems in a much more calm, collected manner. Oftentimes, they will show up these scenarios in street clothes rather than being armed to the teeth and wearing intimidating uniforms.

Other police forces need to take note of the San Antonio’s unique perspective on this relevant issue. They are advocating change to what up to now has been an uncaring system, and that is a giant step in the right direction. Using proper communication and an understanding attitude, and discarding seemingly standard intimidation techniques will drastically improve the society we live in. We can offer counseling programs and therapy rather than wasting tax payers’ resources on the costs of incriminating and imprisoning misunderstood victims.


Please click here to view Robert Parmer’s earlier post:

Five Best Modern Crime Movies: Five Standout Films

Robert Parmer is a freelance web writer and student of Boise State University. Outside of writing and reading adamantly he enjoys creating and recording music, caring for his pet cat, and commuting by bicycle whenever possible.


6 Responses to Mental Health Stigmas and Over-Criminalization: Our Nation Searches for Answers

  1. James Hinton says:

    This is really a fantastic piece. Being someone who also has concerns about how mental illness is stigmatized (particularly in out PTSD suffering veteran population) I can only agree with what you’ve said here. Our police don’t receive the training they need to deal with those suffering from a mental health issue, and this has the unfortunate effect of costing lives and only goes to further stigmatize those who most need our help. Thank you for writing this piece and helping to fight the stigma.

    • Robert Parmer says:

      Thank you James! I am glad you share the same views and understand the dire effects of stigmas on those suffering from mental illnesses. The San Antonio PD is definitely one of the police forces out there that seems to be making huge progressive changes.

  2. Rick says:

    Great post, Robert! Thanks for shedding light on this important topic. All across the country, every day, police officers untrained on how to handle interactions with mentally-health challenged citizens use tactics that are ineffective and such confrontations sometimes lead to tragic results. That fact is indicated by the vicious beating and killing of Kelly Thomas by the police a few years ago in Fullerton, CA.

  3. Darcia Helle says:

    Excellent piece, Robert. Police, as well as correctional officers, don’t have the training to deal with mental illness. Often, they also lack empathy and patience. (Though this is certainly not true of all cops.) Having psychological impairment should not be treated as a crime.

  4. […] fact, police forces typically don’t take mental health into account. They usually don’t have proper training and misinterpret encounters with people who have mental illnesses. This creates a ripple effect […]

  5. […] fact, police forces typically don’t take mental health into account. They usually don’t have proper training and misinterpret encounters with people who have mental illnesses. This creates a ripple effect […]

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