Jul. 16, 2020

Law enforcement officers encounter individuals from all walks of life, sometimes all within a single day. Officers are instructed to keep diversity in mind, which includes physical and mental diversity. To help prepare and educate officers, VirTra created V-VICTA—Virtual Interactive Coursework Training Academy “Mental Illness Training: A Practical Approach.” This curriculum covers multiple mental illnesses and disorders officers need to be conscious of, including:

• Anxiety
• Dementia
• Depression
• Schizophrenia
• Substance use
• Suicide
• Traumatic Brain Injury

While officers are not trained to diagnose disorders, this valuable knowledge provides the ability to recognize symptoms, helping the officer know how to deploy the correct communication techniques. In addition to symptom awareness, there are a few critical ways officers can help those they encounter. These include: breaking stigmas, showing sympathy and knowing when to stage medical personnel. By doing so, officers increase the probability of these encounters ending on a positive note.

Breaking Stigmas

As with any group seen as ‘different’, there are stereotypes and stigmas that surround mental illness. The first is how these individuals may be thought of as slow or dull. Being diagnosed with a mental disability, illness or other deficiency does not equate to a lack of intelligence. While communication may need to be altered to increase understanding, these individuals are often very bright.

Another misconception relates to depression and suicidality. Many believe saying “suicide” or “ending your life” to a depressed and possibly suicidal person could put that idea into their head. However, the only way to find out if a person is considering suicide is to ask them, and people who openly discuss it may be reaching out for help.

Finally, the most harmful stigma is the swift assumption that mental disabilities leave a person prone to violence. Due to media coverage, certain illnesses such as schizophrenia are thought to cause subjects to behave unpredictably and sometimes violently. While certain sub-groups can exhibit violent behavior, it is not considered a common demeanor.1

Sympathy and Understanding

It is important to respond to subjects’ concerns with a level of understanding to ensure they feel valid. Be cautious when saying you “understand” what a person is going through, as it may be inadvertently inflammatory.2 By providing a listening ear and suggesting to get help, you may provide a solution instead.

A critical part of being sympathetic is not minimizing what the subject is going through. Do not tell them they are weak, not trying hard enough, etc. Even if a person is hallucinating, telling that individual what they are experiencing is “not real” will invalidate their experience.

An Officer’s Role

If a mentally ill person is in distress, it may be beneficial to stage medical personnel nearby should they need to be treated, evaluated or transported to a hospital. Remember: law enforcement should not attempt to diagnose. Recognizing symptoms and being familiar with symptoms is crucial to providing effective intervention, but should not be confused with a proper mental evaluation.

There are a few ways officers can help de-escalate a situation if it appears to be out of control.3, 4

• Speak in a low, calm voice
• Listen with empathy
• Respond to some aspects of communication with understanding
• Be clear but non-confrontational
• Use active listening skills

To take a deeper dive into this curriculum and to learn how your department can benefit from these training topics, contact a VirTra specialist here.


  1. Swanson JW, Borum R, Swartz MS, et al. Psychotic symptoms and disorders and the risk of violent behaviour in the community. Crim Behav Ment Health. 1996;6(4):309-329.
  2. Florisi, Nicole, 2019
  3. Weaver, C. M., Joseph, D., Dongon, S. N., Fairweather, A., & Ruzek, J. I. (2013). Enhancing services response to crisis incidents involving Veterans: A role for law enforcement and mental health collaboration. Psychological Services, 10, 66-72. doi:10.1037/a0029651
  4. National Institute for Mental Health. (n.d.) Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/ suicide-prevention/index.shtml

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