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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).
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How to Talk to the Mentally Ill

Some of the people that we deal with are just plain crazy, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to communicate with them.

March 28, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

The following is a real conversation that I had with a mentally ill person:
"You s*** your pants."
"I did not!"
"Yes, you did. You s*** your pants!"
"No, I didn't."
"Oh, yeah? Drop your pants.”
(Does as told.)
"Eeewww! See? I told you."
"Oh, I thought you were talking about today."

Working patrol, you are apt to encounter any number of pathetic souls whose emotional states are not what they should be. For my part, I found myself occasionally rolling to one of our local mental health facilities. Usually, it was in response to some out of control non-conformist whose lapsed health insurance guaranteed her some cut-rate mental health intervention. I’d end up trying to talk the poor little wing nut out of killing herself; trying to beat the crap out of the mental health staff, or spewing verbal and physical assaults at my deputies, or—most importantly—me.

Having some success toward this end was counter-intuitive. I don't suffer fools gladly and will never be known for my interpersonal skills. But give me a dingbat, a wacko, a "51-50” per California code, and watch me rock and roll. Often, I was able to develop a rapport and persuade them to go along with the program.

Part of this may have been my ability to relate to them. Sharing the same warped wavelength, I don't understand the world; the world doesn't understand me. It's a convenient marriage.

Still, the inherent irony to the situation—authority figure and historical irritant to 51-50s the world over succeeding where the alleged experts failed—wasn’t lost on me.

And so I suspect that my undesired empathy with the emotionally compromised also played a role: my father was a paranoid schizophrenic. Dealing with his altered states of mind gave me some understanding for what many family members and doctors have to deal with.
What the hell does this have to do with you, oh, Keeper of the Peace? Well, for one, there’s not enough underpaid mental health professionals to go around, and family members eventually reach their own breaking points.

This leaves society’s de facto field shrinks—that’s you, my brothers and sisters—to deal with those who spend more time listening to the voices inside their head than they do voices of reason. It means more and more confrontations between cops and society’s more emotionally compromised—confrontations that lead to members of each side of the equation getting killed.

That’s why if you have a chance to engage these lost souls in a dialogue before the bad stuff hits the rotary oscillator, you should make the most of it.

Now, what I’m offering here hasn’t been signed off by the American Psychiatric Association, been deemed appropriate intervention techniques by the National Mental Health Association, or published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Indeed, ideally, such situations should be resolved by a Crisis Intervention Team (a sincere thank you to Memphis, Tenn.).

But, hey, these strategies have worked for me…

1. Contain the environment.
As what I’m offering here is predicated upon the understanding that the person isn’t armed, let’s keep it that way. Try to converse in an environment that has the fewest inherent dangers (Hint: chemical labs, knife shops, and gun ranges are out of the question). Have other personnel on hand should the need for physical intervention arise. Also, don’t try to have more than one person talk with the subject at a time. The person is already overwhelmed. Don’t make them more so.

2. Lower your voice.
Have as soothing a countenance as possible (hey, if I can do it, you sure as hell can, too).

3. Affect a non-threatening posture.
You’re already an authority figure, so you’ve got your work cut out for you in this area. Just remember, you don’t have to look like a shrinking violet, but try not to intimidate the person any more than necessary.

4. Find common ground.
This sometimes means humoring the disturbed individual about some of their delusions. If it seems that all they really want is for someone else to see where they are coming from, well, by God, do it (sometimes, it isn’t even a stretch).

5. Be as candid as you can be.
This rarely fails to 1) piss ‘em off, and 2) actually create some progress. When asked to do things that you can’t do, say, “I don’t want to lie to you. I can’t do that.” As disagreeable as that sounds, it actually fosters trust—and belief in you when you do tell them something else later. (Besides, if you subsequently *do* lie, you can still honestly say you didn’t want to…of course, you may have made things a little more difficult on the next roll out…).

6. Don’t patronize them.
“Just because I’m crazy doesn’t mean I’m stupid.” History will never lack for examples of the brilliantly compromised. But for a convenient contemporary reference point, the character portrayed by Tom Wilkinson in “Michael Clayton” is a great example (and, for the uninitiated, the film offers a good primer on the limitations for committing people against their will).

7. Ask them if they have any constructive solutions to their problems.
By allowing them to be part of the decision-making process, they may retain some impression of having some control of their circumstances. Note the emphasis on “constructive.” Note also that their definition of constructive may be different than yours.

8. Ask them to do you a favor.
Even if they’re not naturally predisposed to doing what you want them to do, the sensitivity of such individuals often means that they’re capable of some degree of sensitivity towards others. Putting them in the role of helping YOU can be empowering for them.

If you’re already practicing these strategies, great. I’ll not emulate the Verbal Judo guys and insult all the silver-tongued devils out there by proclaiming this a science and anointing it with its own nomenclature. Moreover, I’d really like to hear comments from others as to what has helped them handle such problems.

Finally, I don’t care if the guy is a 51-50 who’s having Vietnam flashbacks despite never having served in the armed forces. If he’s actively posing a threat to you or someone else, deal with him as you would any other person. Indeed, sometimes you might have to do a little more as they may be less vulnerable to the usual inducements.

Believe me, there’s something mutually pleasing when you find your little wing nut strapped down on a gurney, agreeably beaming with the semi-lucid understanding that he has successfully disrupted the daily lives of a few cops and firemen at minimum personal expense.

Your results may vary.

Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

[email protected] @ 3/28/2008 5:59 PM

Amen brother! Dealing with MDP's is like opening an umbrella during a knives shower, but it's a job that has to be done. Too many time there is no one else. I remember a case (all PC people butt out!) where a special-ed student was giving all kinds of trouble to the teacher and the other kids in the room. He was furious and combative, for a 10 year old. After every thing failed, the Sargent asked the kid for his opinion. His response? He wanted to go home handcuffed! She handcuffed him immediately, the kid instantly became quiet and went home peacefully. On the other side of the coin, the only police death in this town was caused by an MDP. As you rightfully say, this is a no packaged-solution problem. Do whatever you have to do, be safe, keep everyone safe and get the job done. Sometimes you win, sometimes you break even and sometimes you lose.

David Moore S-55 @ 3/28/2008 8:45 PM

Dean- Thanks, Once again this is excellent and SOLID-advice on this very serious/ and most dangerous topic, from within – first hand dealings. My dad (have not seen in 45 years...also fought battles from Korean War days of Sgt and (BAR) member, via the bottle and became quite violent, when under the influence of alcohol. Add two more paragraphs and you have your top Ten deadly sins for a book on this subject, like the Officer Down 10 deadly sins, Detective-Pierce R. Brooks, Motorola 1976. We have a fellow this way that goes to an appliance store (speakers outside) across from bus station/terminal and dances to the music from speakers. Usually he holds a cassette tape in his hand waving it while doing his dance routine. He stands out there all day (heat, cold, rain, snow very committed and never bothers anyone in his own little world. I have chased kids off that were teasing him before – Another two cases of a guy was that homeless and hung out in the (Albuquerque New Mexico, UNM area off Central or in Yale Park had bandanna’s hanging from belt loops dirty blonde hair). I remember Officer Friend telling me of an encounter with this individual in mid 70’s. One day he was sitting on sidewalk with a straw and coke bottle sucking ants into straw in putting them into the coke bottle, when asked by this Officer why, he said people where killing them stepping on them and he was protecting them. He slept in an alley way on an old mattress not far from this location if my memory serves me correctly. Another Yale park alumnus was a Vietnam Vet who crawled around the park with a stick fighting (VC), this usually resulted in a trip to VA hospital on (PC). The 8 items stated will go a very long ways in your and offender safety. Always – always, stay alert and watch hand gestures, facial expressions, if he/she needs something in a bag, sleeping bag, or clothes, put on the gloves on and get it for them or step back and watch hands closely and keep safe distance.

David Moore S-55 @ 3/29/2008 9:37 PM

Gcozart – Excellent Observations -I am very familiar with (Albuquerque) as I grew up in, and lived in South Valley until I came into military. The mean streets have become a challenge no doubt. The criminal justice and mental health systems are broken and need some intervention, action to fix. The streets have become a dumping ground for both and for those who really need institutional health, corrections to behavior. Sgt Dean Scoville’s 8 points - will provide additional safety buffer if followed, as in any training endeavor. Officer Safety is compromised by an all too private health system, when attempting to help resolve or respond to a crisis. Things can and often do go zero to sixty in no time flat. Add the potential influence of emotions, drugs, alcohol, and the location of incident IE a park, downtown, Apartments, you have a real challenge and potential of others with mob mentality or just for fun, inciting, instigating the Officers and the EDP. Officers of CIT, SWAT, ESU, when sent to a location with little to no information on weapons, previous violent encounters, history of offender, and if person has not been taking their prescribed medication, can spell disaster and often does! Officer’s King & Smith are hero’s who came back in service “10-8” from retirement to continue to serve their families, children, of the community – Why do the mental health systems ignore the cries of families, Law Enforcement, Public Safety, and wait until an act is committed then it’s too late?? A excellent resource is Management of Aggressive Behavior – MOAB by Roland Ouellette). The media must stop trying our officers in print or TV News and become informed. Empathy-Encouraging-Many-People-Acting-Together-Helps-YouLike a bullet proof vest, it needs only saving your life one-time, to instill the importance and value of wisdom of wearing - this wisdom of CHOICE is vital and it's yours most of the time!!

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