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Talking with Students about Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System
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When the subject of mental illness is discussed in my courses it is typically in the context of interactions with law enforcement. Usually the conversation starts with talking about what mental illnesses are and also making a differentiation between mental illness and developmental disabilities. I am not a certified psychiatrist or medical doctor, but I bring in my professional experience in social work to help identify misconceptions or educate students on the differences. I think it is important to start here because I find a lot of students believe that these groups are the same and that the terminology is interchangeable.


Here is a great chart * to help point out some key differences:


Intellectual disability

Mental illness

Thoughts are limited by cognitive ability and understanding.

Disturbances in thought processes and perception. May experience hallucinations and delusions.

Is lifelong and will not dissipate.

May be temporary, cyclical or episodic.

Onset occurs before 18 years of age.

Onset can occur at any stage of life.

Medication cannot restore cognitive ability.

Medication can be prescribed to control the symptoms.

Assessed by a psychologist.

Diagnosed by a psychiatrist.


I also show a quick clip of a simulation of possible schizophrenia symptoms to give students an auditory and visual example. I only use the first few minutes.



We then start to discuss different scenarios and situations where law enforcement would possibility encounter a mentally ill individual or I use real-life examples. Students tend to focus on atypical events where deadly force was involved and I try and steer them away from this since the majority of the time interactions are not going to use this level of use of force.


I then pose this question to my students:


What does de-escalation mean?

This starts a conversation of the different levels of use of force and also how de-escalation is contextual dependent on the situation.


Here is a chart that I think is a good student accessible breakdown on different levels for use of force as presented in Mesloh, Charles, Henych, Mark, & Wolf, Ross (2008). Less Lethal Weapon Effectiveness, Use of Force, and Suspect and Officer Injuries: A Five-year Analysis. Florida Gulf Coast University, Orlando.




Then I try to bring it all together and go back through the scenarios we discussed and have my students identify the level of force, how they think they would de-escalate it and also identify some symptoms of mental illness that could complicate their efforts.


The majority of my students have the goal of entering law enforcement so I believe this is an important discussion to have but always tricky because of material. I look forward to hopefully hearing more ideas on how others bring up this discussion in the classroom both from a research perspective and a practitioner perspective.


*This chart uses developmental and intellectual disability interchangeably, not all agencies or countries do this but I think this is a good breakdown.