Law Enforcement as First Responders in Mental Health Crisis

On December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza murdered his mother before heading to Sandy Hook Elementary, where he gunned down six adults and 20 first graders. The next day, as a gun control debate raged, a mother in Boise, Idaho, sat down and wrote an article entitled "I am Adam Lanza's Mother." In it, Liza Long details her experience as the mother of a child with serious and violent mental illness, and she explains how very, very difficult it is to find help for her son.

After the deadly massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine's Day this year, Long's article again began circulating the internet and social media. The alleged Florida school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, apparently exhibited signs of serious mental instability in the months prior to the shooting, yet even the FBI ignored a tip that Cruz was violent and likely to wreak unthinkable savagery on the school.

Clearly, this country has been unable to adequately address mental health care, and by ignoring problems and denying help, we are simply biding time until the next tragedy.

In Liza Long's article, she talks about how it is next to impossible to find help for her son and her family. She writes, "We still don't know what's wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He's been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work."

She further states that, for those without insurance, the difficulty in finding help is much, much more limited: "At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You'll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing."

But one thing stands out: in each instance of a violent outburst by her son, Long writes, the police are the first line of defense:

  • "That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn't have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist."
  • "I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. 'Call the police,' I said. 'Hurry.' . . .The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital."

Remember--in these situations, the police are dealing with a child: a 13-year-old child with mental illness. And yet, the mental hospital is "full," and the only places for this child are jail or the hospital, neither of which is equipped to deal with him.

And the same is true for adults with mental illness. Often, the first line of defense is law enforcement, who are not adequately trained to deal with these situations. There aren't enough beds in mental health facilities, there aren't enough crisis interventionists, there aren't enough resources in jails . . . it's not enough, not enough, not enough.

"Why Mental Health Training is So Important for Law Enforcement" by Erica Hoffman spotlights the dangerous situations that can occur when law enforcement has to take on the role of first responders in a mental health crisis. The article, published by Mental Health First Aid USA, a project of the National Council for Behavioral Health, says that law enforcement encounters with those who are experiencing a cognitive break can often turn deadly. As of the writing of the article in October 2017, there were 730 deaths so far that year resulting from law enforcement encounters. Hoffman writes that a quarter of those deaths involve mental illness.

It should not be the role of the criminal justice system to provide mental health services. However, with increasing budget cuts slashing valuable resources from mental health services, the criminal justice system will continue to become more and more involved. It is imperative that this state and this country prioritize mental health, not only for those with mental illness, but for their families, their classmates, and their colleagues.

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