Schizophrenia stories from people on the front lines: Mental Health Training for Police Officers

Despite a myriad of challenges, these people within the network of care have been able to make a meaningful impact.

Mental health and the criminal justice system — Hear James’ story

With a decade of service as a patrol officer, James has encountered many people living with schizophrenia. He discusses how mental health training for police officers helped him learn to communicate calmly and manage each situation toward the desired resolution.


I was sitting at the chief’s desk, and I was in my interview for the position and every police officer—or mostly every police officer—can relate to this and they’re asked the one question: why do you want this job? And I can guarantee you that every one of them answered because I want to help people. And it’s such a generic answer, but the reality of it is that’s why we take this job. We take this job to help people.

My name is James, I’m a police officer, and I’m part of the network of care. The more we know about someone who is struggling with schizophrenia, and the more we can educate ourselves as a police department, the better service we can provide.

If I can share that information with my colleagues, now I know, moving forward, that any time one of my colleagues does have to go to that specific address, they’re gonna be educated, and they’re gonna be aware that there is someone struggling with schizophrenia who does live there, which drastically changes our approach, and can put them in the mindset of knowing what they’re going to have to deal with so that they can actually provide the best care possible to that individual. There’s a very clear distinction between someone who needs help, and someone who’s a prisoner.

Both people are gonna get treated with courtesy, professionalism, and respect, because as law enforcement it’s our duty to treat everyone that way. However, treating someone with a special need, we have a duty and an obligation to treat them as such and find the ways that we can help them best, because they do need a different type of attention, geared more towards helping them, and getting on the same level as them, and that’s very, very different than dealing with someone who is under arrest, or in custody for that matter.

I can recall an incident when I dealt with a male struggling with schizophrenia. We were requested to respond to a residence to assist a mental health screener in a transport to a local hospital. We’re about a mile from the hospital and in the backseat the gentleman just gets completely irate and out of control. And right away, the first thing going through my mind is safety. His safety, and my safety. So I start reverting to my training and instantaneously I think find common ground. So I just start talking to this gentleman, and I go What’s your favorite color? Are you into sports? “What’s your favorite team? Anything to get him to get back to the state that he was in. And I was fortunate that whatever it was, he came back. He was cool, he was calm, he was collected. We get to the hospital, we get out, escort him inside and I meet with the mental health professionals. The gentleman’s not a criminal, he’s not going to jail, he’s going to get treatment, he’s going to get help. So the approach to find what’s best for him, and find that common ground, that’s the way that situations like that should be handled.

It is very important for the law enforcement community, and the healthcare community to work together. It comes down to safety, and it’s not only our safety as police officers, it’s the patient’s safety as well. The more we can work together and the more we can educate each other, and the law enforcement end can understand the healthcare provider end, and vice versa. From the law enforcement perspective, ideally, what we need is an open relationship with the healthcare providers. They have the knowledge, they have the training, they have the education so we turn to them for our training, and having that open relationship and allowing us to be involved in their circle essentially makes things better for the patient. They’re the professionals, and they’re the ones who know exactly how to handle situations. They just have to share the information with us, and we just have to work together to make things best for the patient.

Some current challenges with mental health and the criminal justice system

With specialized mental health training, police officers can help people with schizophrenia find appropriate resources.1

  • It is estimated that around 3,000 of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies—just 16%—have active partnerships offering effective crisis intervention strategies2
  • Approximately 21% to 46% of people with schizophrenia have had at least 1 involvement with the criminal justice system. One study showed that in 67% of those encounters they were victims of crime3,4

The corrections system is not designed or equipped to provide mental health services.5

  • In 2012, there were estimated to be over 356,000 people living with severe mental illness in jails and prisons6
  • The prevalence of schizophrenia in US state prisons is estimated to be in the range of 2% to 6.5%5

Mental health courts—specialized, treatment-oriented, problem-solving courts—help divert people living with mental illness from the criminal justice system to court-mandated, community-based treatment programs.7

  • Compared with the traditional criminal court system, some mental health courts have led to lower rates of recidivism and arrests for new crimes8
  • Mental health courts have shown to be more effective than the traditional court system and jails in connecting participants with the appropriate mental health treatment services8