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Improving Officer Safety in Interactions With Citizens Suffering From Mental Illness

Cara Altimus
Cara Altimus, former ASSS Fellow with NIJ, discusses the importance of law enforcement and first responders understanding mental illness, its causes, and how it affects the brain. She speaks about the correlation between drug addiction and mental illness. Altimus also addresses establishing procedures and systems so that police officers and first responders can safely and successfully interact with individuals with drug addiction and/or mental illness.

CARA ALTIMUS: My background as a scientist for the last decade has been really understanding how the brain is different in cases of mental illness. And when I was a fellow at NIJ, I realized that outside of an academic or medical environment, there's a lot misunderstanding about what mental illness is and what causes it, and even the fact that it is a physiological state, it's a difference in the brain. And so when I was asked to speak in this session, I was actually really excited because I viewed that as another opportunity to speak to an audience that deals with mental illness' — first responders — and to better explain and to reach those people to talk about what is mental illness and what causes that.

[ON SCREEN TEXT] What is the correlation between drug addiction and mental illness?

CARA ALTIMUS: Mental illness and drug addiction are actually really tightly connected. Both of them are states of the brain, they're changes in the brain. So, we know that almost twenty percent or one in five Americans suffer from mental illness. We know that — I believe it's one in ten-ish are suffering from substance use disorders. And that overall, when we put all of the people together that are suffering from mental illness or substance use disorders at any given time that it's about one and four, one quarter of the population. And in both of these cases, mental illness or substance use disorders, what you're dealing with are changes in the actual neural circuits, changes in the way a person's brain processes information.

[ON SCREEN TEXT] How might law enforcement be impacted when dealing with individuals suffering from an altered state?

CARA ALTIMUS: Law enforcement are often the first responders in cases of a call for your service that involves mental health. And so when people interact with each other, we have expectations of what that is going to be like. And in three quarters of the situations that we interact with somebody, we're interacting with someone that's not suffering from mental illness or substance use disorders and it's easy for us to predict what those interactions are going to be like. But in the one quarter of circumstances that a police officer or you are coming into contact with someone whose neural circuitry is actually physically different, it's going to be a lot harder to predict what that interaction is going to be like. And what that means is that we have to have structures and systems in place so that police officers and first responders can be successful in interacting with those people. And so we have a lot of programs right now that, you know, talk about de-escalation, and creating distance, and time, and, you know, lowering the tone of voice, all of that actually is happening. What we're talking about is changing the inputs so that as that information is processed by the brain, that person can respond better and keep everybody safer.

Date Created: May 16, 2017