Mental health experts say that crimes involving an individual with a severe mental illness receive widespread media coverage, but most people with such issues never have contact with police officers.
Silvia Herman, administrator of Cumberland-Perry Mental Health/Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities — an alliance of three organizations sharing the mission of empowerment and community support — said that “is an important thing to remember.”
Herman said it’s a slippery slope to blame mental illness for crimes committed.
“Someone may have a mental illness, but that does not mean that they may not also be a criminal,” she said. She said many of these encounters come because of an increase in psychotic symptoms, which can be brought on by drug or alcohol use.
“They are very psychiatrically ill at the time,” she said.
In most of these situations, crimes involve nothing more than causing a disturbance.
“Many of the times, the crimes they commit that bring them in contact with police are nuisance crimes — folks going into a store or somewhere and kind of being for a lack of a better word a bother to customers and other people,” she said.
Lance LoRusso, former police officer and author of “When Cops Kill” said he does not believe that there is an increase in these types of interactions, but that media coverage of such instances has increased.
“I don’t accept the fact that there has been an increase,” he said. “I think there has been more publicity about the contacts that they have been having. Law enforcement since the late ’80s, early ’90s, when a lot of facilities for the mentally ill were closed, have been dealing with people who are mentally ill on a much more regular basis. ... In all types of environments, but I think the publicity has increased.”
While a percentage was not available, Herman said typically, there are 8,000-plus people a year who have some type of connection with the mental health system in the county, and of those, it is a relatively small percentage who have police interaction or contact.
Many times, in these interactions, a person will be in need of a mental health intervention, in order to get services they need.
Dr. Dan Bledsoe, medical director of emergency services for the West Shore Hospital, said there are important distinctions between a person voluntarily committing themselves for services, and an involuntary commitment.
Police often file mental health petitions in order to have an individual involuntarily committed for mental health evaluations, and these are evaluated by a physician at the receiving hospital in order to determine if the person should be committed for up to five days.
Civilians can also file petitions, which are reviewed by a county mental health and mental hygiene delegate, who reviews the concerns and decides if the individual is to be brought for evaluation.
A factor that plays into deciding whether or not someone is to be committed involuntarily is the threat of harm to themselves or someone else.
Substantial self-mutilation and the inability to obtain services without an intervention are also key factors in this determination, he said.