Co-occurring Illness: Effecting change at times of crisis

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WESTBOROUGH, MA  – April 24, 2017 There is no magic solution for de-escalating someone who is in “crisis” or emotionally distraught.  The loss of control may signal a failure of reality testing that can signal a diminished capacity to appreciate the consequence of their behavior.  This occurs frequently when people who have mental illness have co-occurring drug and alcohol addiction. It is true that the correctional system has more than its share of mentally ill prisoners but for many being in jail is the only way to stay sober.  The full capability to provide mental health services in the correctional system here in Massachusetts has not been realized.  The courts are reluctant to require that someone receive treatment for mental illness and/or substance abuse in lieu of going to jail.

Criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive so there will always be a high number of incarcerated persons with chronic underlying psychiatric diagnoses.  The prevalence of mental illness in the general population may range from 5-15 percent. The degree of mental illness in the correctional system may be as high as 40 percent by some accounting but the number is misleading. One needs to consider treating mental illness when it becomes a barrier to functioning such as in schizophrenia or bipolar depression where the symptom profile interferes with reality testing. Only then may a contract for treatment may be constructed to include medication and psychotherapy depending upon the diagnosis.  In cases where mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse exist a determination about primary diagnoses and treatment options must be considered.

“The consequences of dual diagnosis include poor medication compliance, physical comorbidities, poor health, poor self-care, increased risk of suicide or risky behavior, and even possible incarceration” according to Buckley and Brown, 2006

In many cases of emotional crisis those in need can be diffused with recognition of their struggle – such as death of family member or loss of employment.  By showing empathy for their emotional burden police officers and mental health providers can intervene and make a real difference.  But effecting change takes time and a consistent message that personal responsibility begins at home.  Instead of placing blame on a “system” that is filled with holes individuals need resilience and family support to get the help they require. teachinginprisonBefore I am criticized for being insensitive, I point to the 12-step programs in alcohol and drug recovery.  They are free and in many cases provide 24-hour support and mentoring at times of crisis. I strongly believe that if people can remain clean and sober than the need for crisis intervention will decrease.  Ostensibly, this is a perfect first step toward recovery and will bring forth a palpable reduction in emotion and reduce the potential for violence.  When substance abuse is stopped emotional growth is more able to take hold.  Healthy, more effective problem solving may result from prospering emotional maturity allowing for resilience and enhanced coping.

Stress can engulf individuals and families for a variety of reasons and should not be judged. People cope with stress differently and in many cases achieve emotional relief by having someone to talk to.  Some clinicians believe great personal change may be possible when coping skills are most frail.  But in too many instances, drug and alcohol abuse present a confounding variable when working with person’s diagnosed with mental illness. At the same time this raises the risk to law enforcement exponentially. Why?

One response to stress is the increase in substance use and with that increase there is often a worsening of any underlying mental health disorder such as depression and anxiety.  “There could be a common factor that accounts for both, primary psychiatric disorder causing secondary substance abuse, primary substance abuse causing secondary psychiatric disorder, or a bidirectional problem, where each contributes to the other.” (Buckley and Brown, 2006) Unemployment, early childhood trauma, financial burdens, and random emotional baggage result in a range of actions that foreshadow regression and failure of coping mechanisms that put us all at risk.  Some people are able to endure extreme levels of stress with little to no outward sign of distress while others boil over at the first sign of conflict or emotional ripple.

JAIL DIVERSION

There is a growing push toward alternative restitution and jail diversion for those with mental health and substance abuse problems.  In San Antonio, TX, the Bexar County jail had been filled to capacity for many years.  As a jail diversion and mental health program evolved the population dropped by 20-25 percent from 5000 inmates to 3800.  Data suggests that over one quarter of all prisoners may experience mental illness or substance dependence/abuse and are not receiving treatment.  But here in Massachusetts the systems are not available to make this innovation an effective reality in any scale.  Many departments are using jail diversion options such as drug treatment and counseling but here in Massachusetts psychiatric treatment cannot be court mandated. Arrest may not be indicated simply because a person is in crisis but those in crisis may be involved in some type of criminality such as assault, criminal threatening, domestic violence and property crimes. So what options are available? The drop out rate for patients suffering from major mental illness is quite high. They often stop taking prescribed medication and do not attend counseling sessions.

MENTAL ILLNESS, CRIMINALITY AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

bigstock-Mental-illness-in-word-collage-072313As a police officer I found jail diversion a discretionary tool that was used a great deal. Nevertheless there are times when arrest is the proper course of action but jail diversion remains a possible negotiating point for those charged with some crimes.  The correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath follow-up and intervention when the immediate crisis has settled from the events that brought police to this dangerous threshold. Arrest is mandated by state statute when one spouse has visible injuries. Whenever possible using a restorative justice model – often limited to incarcerated individuals – may allow those arrested for crimes against persons to reconstruct their encounters with police and gain concrete understanding of events and the impact substance abuse may have had on the actions taken by themselves and law enforcement. Some never attain empathy for victims, family members including action taken by police and wind up behind bars.  Police encounters with persons having co-occurring mental health and substance abuse are frequently violent and often result in charges for assault on a police officer and more. In the aftermath of these encounters offenders may be sent to treatment in lieu of formal charges with the understanding that sobriety and psychotherapy are indicated.  In cases of treatment avoidance police have the option to file charges later on.

Techniques for understanding mental illness may facilitate mutual understanding and establish the needed bridge to facilitate treatment as published in 2015 (Sefton, 2015). Those seeking diversion from incarceration must demonstrate the willingness to change and take responsibility for their actions.  The relationship between law enforcement and community agencies is one that requires a strong foundation and mutual understanding of the framework for reducing recidivism, criminality, and managing mental illness.


Buckley, P. F., & Brown, E. S. (2006). Prevalence and consequences of dual diagnosis. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 67(7), e01-e01.

Sefton, M. (2015) Emotionally distraught – nearly one-quarter of all officer-involved shootings go fatal. https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/emotionally-distraught-nearly-one-quarter-of-all-officer-involved-shootings-that-go-fatal/. Taken March 5, 2017.

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