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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New age cops – the future innovation of community policing

WESTBOROUGH, MA December 29, 2016 I have long been an advocate for prompt and comprehensive treatment for those afflicted with mental illness.  Now police are increasingly linking up with mental health agencies as a way of diverting mentally ill person’s from jails into treatment for their emotional affliction.  In my experience this is no easy task.  In some cases criminality and mental illness are not mutually exclusive.  Some who suffer with emotional issues like bipolar depression, drug addiction or anxiety may respond poorly to treatment and may need containment. Those most refractory to treatment often become most difficulty to manage in society.  The untreated mentally ill have a higher rate of violence than those in voluntary treatment.

psychology2As early as 1984, I served the pediatric population in Boston at the Boston City Hospital Pediatric Emergency Department as the on-call clinician in psychology. That same year I was appointed to the ED at Hale Hospital in Haverhill, MA for screening people in crisis.  Those who were stable and had support systems in place would be released – usually with an outpatient referral. Meanwhile, patients without at-home safe guards who could not plausibly answer the question “what brought you to the decision to harm yourself?” were admitted to the hospital.  Other mitigating factors like healthy living arrangements, employment, sobriety, and no history of suicidal behavior were positive indicators of future outcome.  It was a position I loved and is an important clinical role to this day across the United States.  Later as a community mental health psychologist in Long Beach, CA, I served the Children’s Service as someone charged with screening adolescents in crisis living across Los Angeles County. In each of these locations I worked closely with social workers, case managers, police and gatekeepers at state and county psychiatric units to find open beds for kids in need.

In 25 years since there has been very little innovation and fewer still treatment beds for those in need. Today’s depressed and emotionally wounded often spend days in emergency department hallways further wounded by a demoralizing system of delivery that is overwrought and has no place to send them.  This scenario was the case in 1985 and remains the case in 2016.  In Massachusetts and counties across the United States publicly funded hospital beds – including state hospital beds have been eliminated.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s the pendulum of advocacy swung toward community-based care and away from hospital-based treatment.  This left the chronically mentally ill without a support net for treatment, medication management and long range hope.  Many became homeless, unemployable and abusive of drugs and alcohol.

Police provide frontline intervention – often with little training

Police officers became the first line of defense as the hospital beds were eliminated. The mentally ill and those addicted to any number of drugs or alcohol grew homeless and sometimes menacing as they struggle with symptoms. Now police officers are being trained to intervene with these marginalized citizens with crisis management skills.  This poses a conundrum for the current zeitgeist of community policing theory in that the notion of dangerousness relies on critical scrutiny of the underpinnings of human behavior and often nonverbal indices of psychopathology. Some believe this is state of the art police science.  Departments from Augusta, Maine to Los Angeles, CA to San Antonio, TX are using frontline officers as crisis resolution specialists for police encounters with the acutely mentally ill. Many are paired with licensed clinicians while others are working the streets alone.

The collaboration between police and mental health personnel is not new.  But the use of police officers as crisis intervention specialists is innovative and gaining traction in many places around the country. Yet these officers must always be aware of the uncertainty of some encounters with police and those suffering with paranoia or psychotic, illogical delusions, PTSD, or traumatic brain injury that may not respond to verbal persuasion alone.  Decisions about when to utilize greater force for containment of a violent person is sometimes instantaneous.

The use of force must be fluid and officers in the field are expected to modulate the force they apply to the demands of the situation and be ready to respond to changing threat levels.             Michael Sefton, 2015

In 2002, I was appointed to a Massachusetts police department having once served in southern Maine right out of college.  As a psychologist I made an effort to bring mental health concepts into police work without much fanfare or interest.  Mental health topics are not as sexy as defensive tactics or firearm training, I was once told, so finding numbers was sometimes tenuous.  There are still many myths about intervening with those who are making suicidal and homicidal threats and training opportunities are taking on more importance.  Especially these days.  Suicide by cop became a phenomenon that no officer ever wants to confront. All violent police encounters guide officer behavior. “The degree of response intensity follows an expected path that is based on the actions of the perpetrator not the actions of the police” (Sefton, 2015).

Suicide by cop – predicting behavior

In the 2014 FBI Bulletin, Suicide by cop (SBC) is defined as “a situation where individuals deliberately place themselves or others at grave risk in a manner that compels the use of deadly force by police officers” according to Salvatore, 2014.  This happens more than one might expect and is often preceded by rehearsal events according to Salvatore.  “Suicide rehearsals are practice for the attempts that will follow within a few hours or days. SBCs may be tested. Officers should use caution when recontacted by an individual who previously presented signs of mental illness, had no need for assistance, was standoffish when asked what was needed, or was anxious to assure the officers that everything was fine. The initial contact may have been practice for an SBC.”

The best predictor of behavior is past behavior.  The prior demeanor that police have observed in those frequent flyers who pop up on police radar over and again often sets the stage for violent conflict later on. But not always.  Situations grow exponentially more grave in the presence of drugs and alcohol raising the level of lethal unpredictability. For many struggling with depression or other serious mental illness being sober or drug free can be the healthiest thing they can do for themselves.  The uncertainty of the SBC scenario makes the likelihood of a successful de-escalation a tenuous exercise in the life and death force continuum.

The motives for SBC are multifactorial and undeniably linked to poor impulse control associated with drug and alcohol intoxication.  The triggers are identified by Salvatore as “individuals who feel trapped, ashamed, hopeless, desperate, revengeful, or enraged and those who are seeking notoriety, assuring lethality, saving face, sending a message, or evading moral responsibility often attempt SBC”(2014).  Some believe they will become famous and earn large monetary settlements for their surviving families following a SBC scenario.  Other victims are tortured souls who make no demands and offer no insight into their suicidal motive and are killed when they advance on police or turn a weapon toward responding officers.

Training in police-mental health encounters has slowly taken hold.  This innovation in community policing offers hope for reducing fatal encounters.  No amount of training in crisis management will reduce incidence of SBC to zero but ongoing training to identify the behavioral indices of imminent violence, psychosis, and suicidal/homicidal ideation will reduce these lethal encounters.  Most officers are highly skilled at using their verbal skills to de-escalate a violent perpetrator without using lethal force – even when a higher level of force may have been warranted.


Salvatore, T. (2104), Suicide by Cop: Broadening our Understanding. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September. Taken 12-29-16 Bulletin website https://leb.fbi.gov/2014/september/suicide-by-cop-broadening-our-understanding.

Sefton, M (2015) Blog post Law Enforcement- Mental Health collaboration. Taken 12-28-16, https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/law-enforcement-mental-health-collaboration/

Aftermath Intervention: Police first to the threshold

Necessary first steps for bringing chaotic families in from the margins


NEW BRAINTREE, MA  Domestic violence happens in family systems that are secretive, chaotic, and dysfunctional.  This lifestyle pushes them into the margins of society – often detached from the communities in which they live.  More often than not, this is the way they choose to live.

The abusive spouse makes his efforts known within the system by his barbaric authoritarian demands.  He keeps his spouse isolated as a way of controlling and manipulating whatever truth exists among these disparate family members.  The consequence of this isolation leaves women without a sense of “self” – alone an emotional orphan vulnerable to his threat of abandonment and ultimately, annihilation.

In previous blogs, I have published some of the obvious psychosocial consequences of this coercion, including the lack of employment, a paucity of extended family support, no source of independent financial resources, and limited social contacts.  Any sign of independence, signals to the abuser that he has not done enough to demoralize his intimate partner.

Successful intervention for these families must slowly bring them back from the margins into the social milieu.  Sometimes this happens when teachers attempt to engage parents in a dialogue about the child’s particular needs or when children demonstrate an interest in team sports.  Arguably, the resistance to this is so intense that the violent spouse will pull up stakes and move his family at the first sign of public scrutiny.  Why?

The underlying threat to the status quo raises anger and resentment in a narcissistic abuser who, like Snow White, expects one hundred percent loyalty and compliance.  All signs of independence are squashed – usually punished out of fear and loathing that is always percolating.

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and DV.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray.  This affords them a window into the chaos and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.  In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold.  When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.

There are inherent problems with any notion that police officers will return to the scene of bad domestic calls where there may have been a violent arrest only days before.  This stems from the adversarial model that exists in most law enforcement agencies where follow-up to criminal activity is rarely conducted by front line officers.   Many departments delegate follow-up investigations to detectives or in rare case civilian personnel.  This schism lacks fundamental adherence to the community policing mantra of building relationships between the police and its citizenry.

Community policing has long espoused the partnership between police and citizens.  The positive benefits to this create bridges between the two that may benefit officers at times of need – including the de facto extra set of eyes when serious crimes are reported.  But the model goes two ways and requires that police return to their calls and establish protocols for defusing future events meanwhile processing and understanding the current actions of recent police encounters. When done effectively the most difficult families may be kept off the police radar screens for longer periods of time that can be a good thing when it comes to manpower deployment and officer safety.