As a member of law enforcement, think for a moment about how many people you interact with daily and how many people you talk with in one shift. Effective communication is a critical piece of the job. We interact with individuals from all walks of life. That includes individuals who have mental illness. The key to effective communication is behavior recognition to choose the best communication style for the individual and the situation.
When it comes to interacting with individuals who have mental illness, choosing the communication style that best fits the situation is the best course of action. We do not communicate with a diagnosis, but with a human being.
The question we should ask ourselves: does the diagnosis itself matter? In most cases, it does not.
A diagnosis is informative at best. What is more important from a law enforcement perspective is we choose the right type of communication for an individual and the behavior exhibited at the time of interaction. The risk comes from misreading behaviors from individuals and not from whether a person has a diagnosis or not.
However, there is a large part of the population that has a diagnosis for a mental illness at any given time. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults in the U.S. have some type of mental illness. Mental illness is a broad term – there are many symptoms that accompany different diagnoses. Awareness of behavior is a key factor in how an officer interacts with any person, mental illness or not.
Types of Mental Illness & Disorders
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Some disorders are genetic and others are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. They can be influenced by many factors, environment included.
Law enforcement officers interact with individuals who may have one or more of the following diagnoses:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Crisis and crisis-like behavior
- Dementia and Neurocognitive Disorders
- Expression of suicidal ideation
- Substance Use
- Trauma & PTS
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Choosing the Best Communication Strategy
It is important to emphasize that members of law enforcement should not attempt to diagnose; the goal is familiarization of behaviors. Individuals who have a serious mental illness may find themselves more likely to have an encounter with police. In fact, persons who have a mental illness are more likely to be victims of a crime. That doesn’t mean there are not interactions that have violence, volatility, and instability. But that comes from anyone we deal with and is not relative to mental illness alone.
Some strategies for dealing with crisis or crisis-like behavior may include:
- Actively listen
- Speak calmly
- Be non-judgmental
- Allow individuals to express their emotions if safe to do so
- Try to distance a person from whatever or whoever is causing them distress (redirection)
Another critical component of understanding mental illness is intervention. When possible, encourage individuals to seek help. Knowing what is available and providing information lays a foundation for showing you care and that there is hope.
Never sacrifice safety for a behavioral health intervention. We have a responsibility to the individual, the public, and to ourselves. Abandoning sound tactics is never the answer.
Substance Use Disorders & Dual Diagnosis
Dual diagnosis is a known problem – one where a person experiences both a mental illness and a substance use disorder simultaneously. People use substances for various reasons. There is an correlation of trauma and substance use.
Some diagnoses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may have behaviors that mimic substance use. Recognizing the differences is not necessarily possible. That is why addressing behavior is the key.
Autism spectrum disorder affects the way a person socializes, speaks and acts. It is called a spectrum for a reason – there are some people with autism that have barely noticeable traits, while others are entirely nonverbal and rely on a caregiver to help them communicate.
There have been instances where a person on the autism spectrum have experienced difficulties and trauma as officers thought that drugs played a part in the behavior rather than there was a foundation of miscommunication. The number of similar incidents involving members on the spectrum creates the notion that there is a lack of training in this field.
Why Simulation Training Helps
When designed and tested correctly, simulation training provides a realistic environment for law enforcement members to practice in. Video-based simulation is even better, as it features real people and allows officers to pick up on subtle visual cues (such as facial expressions and small movements) that cannot be replicated with CGI.
The right kind of simulator has high-definition video, numerous scenario branching options and thorough debrief capabilities. When interacting with an on-screen subject, officers should practice to recognize various behaviors and choose the appropriate verbal techniques for that situation.
Much more than hardware, the vital part of simulation training is the quality of the content. Do officers truly learn something from what they are experiencing in the simulator? VirTra ensures content quality and skill transfer by submitting all curriculum – including our Mental Illness and Autism Awareness courses – to IADLEST for NCP certification.
Working and creating partnerships with industry experts has assisted VirTra in creating coursework that benefits law enforcement. With 15 hours of mental illness curriculum and 2 hours of autism curriculum, police trainers can have effective training at their fingertips. The pre-made curriculum doesn’t just include the scenarios, but also student handouts, instructor manuals, testing materials and more. It is intended to make the instructor’s job easier with coursework that can be used right out of the box.
In 2021, the state of Utah began requiring that law enforcement members obtain training hours solely dedicated to autism awareness, thanks to the Utah Attorney General’s Office. Some of the hours involve the use of a VirTra training simulator due to its immersive qualities and the detailed course structure.
“The beautiful thing about the system is that we can change the dialogue, we can change the reaction, the response and we can make it harder [or] better depending on how the officer is navigating this situation. We worked with families with children with autism spectrum disorder; we worked with experts in the education field, in the medical community, to behavioral scientists, to actually try to create and develop these modules.” – Sean Reyes, Utah Attorney General (Quote: ABC News)
By having the officers at your agency become familiar with the concepts of mental illness and autism spectrum disorder, they are keeping both themselves and their communities safe. It allows agencies to build trust and confidence from the community by making an effort to understand all members within it.
If you wish to learn more about VirTra’s coursework and how we combine simulation technology and adult learning, contact us.
Article originally published by Officer.com