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Why Are People With Mental Health Conditions More Likely To Be Abused By Police? Forensic Psychology Podcast Episode.

Why Are People With Mental Health Conditions More Likely To Be Abused By Police? A Forensic Psychology Podcast Episode.

There are countless numbers of cases where someone with a mental health condition has been abused by the police or other law enforcement professionals. This is wrong, dangerous and many of these cases end up with the person with the mental health condition being killed or dead. Therefore, in this forensic psychology podcast episode, we’ll look at why are people with mental health conditions more likely to be abused by police, what are the factors behind this abuse and if there is anything we can do to prevent police abuse. If you enjoy learning about forensic psychology, mental health and clinical psychology, then this is a great episode for you.

Today’s psychology podcast episode has been sponsored by Police Psychology: The Forensic Psychology Guide To Police Behaviour. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.

Examples Of Where People With Mental Health Conditions Have Been Abused

As the top two countries for listeners are the United States and the United Kingdom, I want to take an example from both countries to show why we seriously need to talk about this pressing issue.

Firstly, in the United States, an African American man called Jordan Neely was having a psychotic episode in the New York subway so a passenger strangled him to death to quiet down his psychotic episode.

Secondly, in the United Kingdom, independent scholar Saville-Smith who wrote about madness was wrestled into submission by police officers who cracked his ribs, gave him abrasions all over his arm and gave him nerve damage to his fingers. Then after this situation with the two police officers he was involuntarily hospitalised. This was all started because his wife was worried about him so she called a doctor and the doctor called the police, and Saville-Smith told the officers he didn’t want to be locked up because his own environment was safe for him and he knew how everything worked.

These situations where people with mental health conditions have violent interactions with the police are no secret, they’re common and this is just common knowledge at this point unfortunately. As well as anyone who experiences psychosis understands that they could be locked up and physically attacked if anything happened in public.

Furthermore, both of these cases that happened on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean involved a violent altercation that got worse, possibly because of intersectional forces. Since Saville-Smith was an older adult and Neely was black.

Whilst I’m trying to keep this podcast episode very focused on the issue of the police beating and killing people with serious mental health conditions, I’m realising the more I write about this topic the more additional topics it connects to. For example, you could argue this very much connects to mental health stigma and misconceptions because the majority of people believe individuals with psychosis are crazy, dangerous monsters that are a threat to people. That isn’t true. Also, this could connect to racial profiling and the stupid idea that black people are more dangerous or more criminal than white people.

No social group is more criminal than the other.

Those With Mental Health Conditions Being Overrepresented In The Prison Population

In addition, it’s concerning how people with mental health conditions are overrepresented in the prison population. For example between 2010 and 2013 in the state of New York, over 600,000 people were arrested and matched by public health records to have a serious mental health condition in the 12 months before they were arrested.

For New York during this time period, that means between 4% and 6% of the state’s prison population had a mental health condition. This is over presentation because you cannot tell me that between 4% and 6% of the entire population of New York State has a serious mental health condition, like psychosis.

And what’s even more concerning is that this number was associated with a 50% increase in the chance of these people being sentenced for misdemeanour arrests. Granted, it is good that having a mental health condition wasn’t associated with an increased chance of being charged with criminal offences.

Moreover, this number increases when we consider the world’s population because about 40% of people in prison could have a mental health condition according to work published in World Social Psychiatry. For example, people with psychotic disorders are between 2 and 16 times more likely, and people with depression are between two and six times more likely to develop in prison populations.

Whenever I write about forensic psychology, I always find this overrepresentation both interesting and rather heartbreaking. Since it doesn’t matter the overrepresentation comes from those with mental health conditions, different racial backgrounds or different socioeconomic backgrounds. These all reflect different flaws, biases and systemic problems engrained into the Criminal Justice System.

Of course those topics are beyond the scope of this podcast episode but I’m just trying to highlight additional topics or factors you might want to think about.

People With Mental Health Conditions Being Abused By Police

A 2018 study (reference at the bottom of the podcast episode) showed that 23% of people in 2015 who were killed by police during an altercation had a serious mental health condition. As well as the likelihood of them being killed was increased by factors like having a mental health condition and race. Also, people with a mental health condition were more likely to be killed in their own home.

Nonetheless, it’s important that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that even the prison system itself is safe for people with mental health conditions. Since yes, people with serious mental health conditions are attacked and killed in public and at home, but it isn’t the only place they’re abused and killed.

The prison system itself can lead people with severe schizophrenia to be abused and neglected.

An unfortunate example of this was Tammie Davenport who helped her son who had schizophrenia after she found out he was being abused in the Chatham County Jail where the jail couldn’t make medical decisions for him whilst he was in prison, and it led to a year-long quest for her to help her son. Thankfully, he’s doing better now according to the Facebook group, Justice for Justin.

In addition, the Valdosta Daily Times did a news article in 2022 where an inmate died within three months of being kept in the same jail as Tammie Davenport’s son because the jail staff denied medical care to him when he seemed to be suffering from cardiomyopathy. As well as the Senate Permanent Subcommittee in the USA had 20 hearings about nearly 1,000 different deaths that were unreported by the Department of Justice in 2021. Leading some to suggest that the constitutional rights of inmates aren’t being protected.

Personally, I just think this is all disgusting and outrageous. We all know and we have the empirical research that time and time again shows that rehabilitation works to reduce reoffending, and yes I understand there is not the political will needed in most areas to invest in rehabilitation. Since guess what, sounding tough on crime with long, pointless prison sentences that do nothing to decrease reoffending and criminal behaviour, sounds better to voters and it wins elections.

If we do not support offenders, give them skills they need to effectively turn over a new leaf and if we don’t support their mental health then society will suffer in the long term as we need to keep wasting money on trials, investigations and sentencing because the cycle of criminality continues. The only way to stop the cycle is by rehabilitating offenders and not killing or beating or abusing them in prison.

No one should ever be abused. There is never an excuse for it.

Forensic Psychology Conclusion

On the whole, the topic of police injustice is a major topic all over the world, and it is a topic that seriously needs reform. There needs to be some kind of training and scheme that helps social workers and mental health professionals to work with law enforcement during dispatch calls so these mental health professionals can help mitigate the extreme effects that happen when people with serious mental health conditions and law enforcement cross paths.

Overall, I hope over time different programmes will be developed, implemented and the rights of inmates will be protected. Since just because someone has a serious mental health condition, it doesn’t mean they deserve to die, be beaten or have their ribs broken. That is outrageous and unacceptable and it needs to stop immediately.

You could argue that people with serious mental health conditions represent so-called “risks” to the public, but I seriously doubt that is true. That is why mental health professionals need to be deployed so they can help law enforcement so killing and beating innocent people who are going through extremely scary mental health experiences can stop.

I always say the job of clinical psychology is to improve lives, decrease psychological distress and give clients more adaptive ways of coping. Now in this situation, I want to add another critical point.

The job of clinical psychology is to save lives and make sure more people don’t end up dead.


I really hope you enjoyed today’s forensic psychology podcast episode.

If you want to learn more, please check out:

Police Psychology: The Forensic Psychology Guide To Police Behaviour. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.

Have a great day.

Forensic Psychology References and Further Reading

Ashley, Asia. (2022). "Senate eyes unreported prison deaths." Valdosta Daily Times.

Borum, R., Swanson, J., Swartz, M., & Hiday, V. (1997). Substance abuse, violent behavior, and police encounters among persons with severe mental disorder. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 13(3), 236-250.

Dorn, T., Ceelen, M., Buster, M., Stirbu, I., Donker, G., & Das, K. (2014). Mental health and health-care use of detainees in police custody. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 26, 24-28.

Hails, J., & Borum, R. (2003). Police training and specialized approaches to respond to people with mental illnesses. Crime & delinquency, 49(1), 52-61.

Hall, D., Lee, L. W., Manseau, M. W., Pope, L., Watson, A. C., & Compton, M. T. (2019). Major mental illness as a risk factor for incarceration. Psychiatric services, 70(12), 1088-1093.

Jackson, A. N., Butler-Barnes, S. T., Stafford, J. D., Robinson, H., & Allen, P. C. (2020). “Can I live”: Black American adolescent boys’ reports of police abuse and the role of religiosity on mental health. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(12), 4330.

Lurigio, A. J., & Watson, A. C. (2010). The police and people with mental illness: New approaches to a longstanding problem. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, 10(1-2), 3-14.

Morabito, M. S. (2007). Horizons of context: Understanding the police decision to arrest people with mental illness. Psychiatric services, 58(12), 1582-1587.

Saleh, A. Z., Appelbaum, P. S., Liu, X., Stroup, T. S., & Wall, M. (2018). Deaths of people with mental illness during interactions with law enforcement. International journal of law and psychiatry, 58, 110-116.

Seo, C., Kim, B., & Kruis, N. E. (2021). Variation across police response models for handling encounters with people with mental illnesses: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of criminal justice, 72, 101752.

Varadarajulu, R. N., & Mahapatra, A. (2023). Prison mental health in the United States of America and India: A Dual perspective. World Social Psychiatry, 5(1), 42.

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