The Dangers of Ignoring Mental Health and Developmental Issues: How Law Enforcement Continues to Fail the Most Vulnerable

December 22, 2016 | Tiffany High

The actions of police officers across the country are justifiably under a microscope. As we read almost daily about police-involved shootings, it seems they have now become the judge, jury and (far too often) the executioner. The time to thoroughly investigate their practices is long overdue. Officers’ use of lethal force is horrifying, but it is heartbreaking to know that a majority of these situations could be avoided with proper training.



Up to 20% of children experience some form of mental disorder in any given year, and in 2014, an estimated 18% of U.S. adults were living with a mental health illness. Unfortunately, many of those experiencing mental disorders do not get the help they need. Of children and adolescents 6-17 years old who were defined as needing mental health services, nearly 80% did not receive it. In 2008, approximately 58% of U.S. adults with a serious mental illness received treatment for a mental health problem. This includes all adults who received either inpatient or outpatient care and/or used prescription medication for mental or emotional problems. Consequently, this means that nearly 42% of adults were left untreated!


Adults with severe mental illness generate 1 in 10 of all law enforcement responses, and those interactions often do not end well. Mentally ill adults are the victims of 1 in 4 of all fatal police encounters. Using those stats for context, it is unconscionable that police in every city have not been trained to deal with these populations. But chances are, those numbers barely even scratch the surface. Departments are not required to gather or maintain statistics reflecting incidents of violence between officers and disabled people.

  • Police can be trained to recognize some of the following as possible signs of mental illness:
  • Being argumentative, belligerent, or unreasonably hostile
  • Sharing a combination of unrelated or abstract topics
  • Expressing thoughts of greatness
  • Indicating ideas of being harassed or threatened
  • Exhibiting a preoccupation with death, germs, guilt, or other similar ideas
  • Threatening (or committing) harm to self or others
  • Confusion about, or unawareness of surroundings
  • Physical appearance/clothing inappropriate to environment
  • Lack of, or an inappropriate emotional response
  • Unusual speech patterns, including: word repetition, nonsensical, overly excited, loud or extremely slow speaking
  • Any of the following body movements: strange postures or mannerisms, lethargy, pacing/agitation, repetitive or ritualistic movements
  • Environmental cues, such as: atypical home decor, misuse of household items, Evidence of hoarding, or “packratting”
  • Presence of feces or urine on the floor or walls
  • When coming into contact with police officers, individuals with a developmental disability may exhibit certain behaviors that appear more threatening or aggressive than they actually are. They may:
  • Run toward or away from police officers
  • Be drawn to shiny objects and reach for a badge or gun
  • Readily admit to a crime they did not commit
  • Have an absence of eye contact or odd body language that should not be viewed as an indication of guilt or as suspicious behavior
  • Have underdeveloped trunk muscles that could lead to positional asphyxiation and death with chest-down holds

While it is absurd to expect people to walk around with signs on their foreheads indicating their mental health status, just as easily as I began to explore behavioral indicators and possible responses to police interaction, law enforcement agencies can also take the time to familiarize themselves. Especially when that training could potentially save lives.

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