Schizophrenia, psychosis and mood disorders are often misunderstood by the public. Though it only affects a small percentage of the population, stigmas fueled by the media have caused some people to view it as a disorder that triggers violence in the people it affects.¹ Law enforcement must be cautious not to fall for such stereotypes or make assumptions based on the diagnosis.
Schizophrenia, as stated before, only affects around 1% of the national population. An even smaller fraction of those affected by schizophrenia and similar disorders have a marked increase in violence. Data shows that people with schizophrenia are actually 14 times more likely to become a victim of a crime than be arrested. ² What may increase the chances of violence, however, are the use of drugs and alcohol in combination with any disorder.
So how can an officer – or anyone, really – tell if a person they are interacting with might have schizophrenia or a similar disorder? Everyone shows symptoms differently, but in order to have a true diagnosis, a person must display certain “positive” and “negative” symptoms. Positive and negative, in this case, don’t mean whether the symptoms are positively or negatively affecting someone, but rather about adding and subtracting symptoms.
• Hallucinations (false perceptions)
• Delusions (false beliefs that conflict with reality)
• Thought disorders
• Movement disorders
• Reduced expression of voice tone and facial expressions
• Reduced feelings of pleasure
• Difficulty beginning and sustaining activities
• Reduced speaking
Those experiencing schizophrenia may also express cognitive symptoms such as difficulty focusing, memory problems or decision-making.
For the V-VICTA™ curriculum “Mental Illness for Contact Professionals,” VirTra staff got a chance to speak with a woman who lives with schizoaffective disorder. M – a woman in her 20’s – takes medication to control the effects of her mental illness that cause her to experience visual and auditory hallucinations as well as paranoia.
One night, M was pulled over for speeding and was visibly nervous. Due to her shaking, the officer began to ask pressing questions and seemed to believe she was on drugs. After explaining what medication she was taking, the officer let her go, but she needed to go to the hospital later on due to the trauma it caused.
“I was having all these other voices, it’s just very overwhelming” M said about the incident. We asked M what she would want officers to know about her mental illness. “Really, we’re just trying to go about our lives, do our own thing and be normal,” she replied. “Of course, sometimes it can get dangerous, anyone can get dangerous. It just really bothers me that schizophrenia is painted as this monster mental illness, and it’s not that way at all.”
While it is important to be aware of potential dangers, remember to avoid falling into the traps of stereotypes and stigmas. The first step to doing this is to understand the types of mental illness that can affect people from all walks of life – not only schizophrenia. By using the “Mental Illness for Contact Professionals” V-VICTA course, VirTra aims to prepare law enforcement for any kind of interaction.
1. Wehring, H. J., & Carpenter, W. T. (2011). Violence and schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin, 37(5), 877–878. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbr094
2. Brekke JS, Prindle C, Bae SW, Long JD. Risks for individuals with schizophrenia who are living in the community. Psychiatry Serv. 2001;52:1358–1366.
3. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Schizophrenia. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Schizophrenia