Police Brutality & Mental illness: some thoughts on social work and de-escalation

By an anonymous social worker

For the past year and a half, I have been a working professional with a nine to five schedule. What is different about my job is who I work with and the type of work I do.

I am employed by a mental health non-profit to be part of an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. Supported by federally distributed tax dollars, we see each of the people we help at least three times a week and base their appointments off their individualized needs. Some people need therapy, some need help with grocery shopping, some need to get a free HIV test, others need to be accompanied to 5 different doctors, and most need someone to take a walk in nature with them and encourage them to get away from their television set for a few moments.

At times, I will use the word client to refer to the people we help. I am not in love with this word, but I assure you that I am using it as a way to dictate my professional relationship with these people and not to imply that I feel I am above them or that I am handling them with figurative safety gloves.

Most were hospitalized involuntarily and/or voluntarily multiple times — usually diagnosed with Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder. Our world is not necessarily built in a way that makes sense even to many without a mental health diagnosis. For those with severe and chronic mental illnesses, navigating it all without a support system is nearly impossible and sends them back into unpleasant institutional settings in which they lose their autonomy.

Sometimes, their family and friends have passed on or have become burnt out and we are their entire support system. We do our best to facilitate and link our people to natural (non-professional) support systems, so that they do not become disempowered. Our job is to keep our “clients” out of the hospital and out of jail cells. Our goal is to teach and facilitate healing. We want to help them live as independently as possible.

Many of the people we work with have been some of the most wonderful people I have come into contact with. Regardless, they still go through cycles and phases in which they might present as inappropriate, threatening, suspicious, or sociopathic to the untrained eye. Unfortunately, the untrained eyes in our society often belong to people who wield power, such as police officers. They do not understand how little is needed to interact with someone who is making violent or threatening statements. They have often not been socialized to understand that validation and empathy can and will take us further than corporal punishment.

Some write statements like I just made off as hippie swill. It sounds too simple and too idealistic. I have grown up in a sick world and refuse to live in ignorance, yet I still believe it to be true with every ounce of my being.

I have been in situations in which I know many police officers would have drawn their guns. Once, I was at a tall and built young man’s house, alone with him for an appointment. This is not unusual for me. It was only my second time meeting with him.

He said that he wanted to shoot me. A police officer might have pulled out their gun, or made defensive and aggressive statements to reassert their power, escalating his paranoia. I noticed that he was sitting back against his couch with relaxed body posture. I wanted to help him maintain this. I chose to ask him if it was me, the social worker, that he wanted to shoot, or if it was the voices he was currently hearing that seemed to be causing him anguish.

He clarified, no, it is definitely you that I want to shoot. I remained calm. I stated, if I wanted to shoot someone in my house, it would probably mean that it’s because I don’t want them in my house anymore. Would you like me to leave?

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I really want you to leave.”

I honored his request and left. He did not follow me or chase me, so I did not have a need to involve anyone else in the situation. If I had called the police, he would have been endangered further in ways that one might not anticipate. Even if a police visit stayed peaceful, his lease terms stated that if the police came, his landlord would break the lease. The punishment for having a short period of decompensation at the hands of a biological brain disorder could have been homelessness, police brutality or death. By simply not making assumptions and asking what he wanted, we avoided a situation that could have turned violent.

I am a white woman in my mid/late 20s and weigh about half of what this person did. I am what many people call “tiny.” To me, the irony of police brutality is that the men who shoot innocent people are certainly much stronger than me and sometimes those they are violent towards. They are more capable than me of physically defending themselves. They are told to be fearless and expected to behave fearlessly. However, they are trained to treat everyone as a potential threat, drilling fear into their minds. Fear is a primary emotion, and anger is a secondary emotion born from fear, sadness, and pain. Our patriarchal structure dictates that masculine beings and masculine institutions jump straight to the secondary emotion of anger with violence to match it.

Society might tell you that I am weak, small, and hopelessly feminine. Yet, I believe that how I respond to a potential threat at my job shows that I, and all of my colleagues who do this work, are much stronger than those who shoot people who became sick, who made a mistake, or who simply existed at the wrong place at the wrong time. I have had men tell me that I must not really want to work, given my chosen career. Trust me – this is work. But this is the work I was made for. It is strange to exist in a world that desperately needs what I do, while undervaluing it.

Police brutality continues and each day I am sickened by the newest story of a situation that could have ended peacefully in three minutes instead of turning into a tragedy.

Let’s say I go into work tomorrow, and another client states that they want to shoot me, but this time they pull out a loaded gun. If I decide to respond by also drawing a gun, I would lose my job and have my license taken away at the very least. If I shot them, I would likely receive consequences far beyond that. Why are police officers not held to these standards? If I am expected to do my job, which is to listen, empathize, clarify, and validate, why are police officers not expected to do this also? Like me, they interact with people from all walks of life on a regular basis and they need to be trained to do what we do.

We need more social workers and less police officers. I do not find it a coincidence that social work, like teaching or being a primary caregiver, is primarily female dominated, and thus undervalued, understaffed and overworked, while the police force is male dominated and nurtured by the system. My coworkers and I regularly put our lives on the line to empower people, regardless of race, gender, class, etc., who are struggling on deeper levels than I could ever imagine. Police have repeatedly shown that they would rather oppress and physically harm people of color and those with low incomes simply for daring to exist or wanting to move freely.

This continues to be supported and perpetuated, while mental health workers everywhere experience burn out and high turn over because of lack of emotional, societal, and financial support. When a mental health worker quits and gets replaced, that is a brand new person that many will have to learn to trust again. Trusting others can be hard after a life of being brutalized. The system expects them to live off of $750 a month. Society calls them lazy because they don’t/can’t work and the system cuts assistance if they try. With all these hardships, that trust and connection with another human being can make an enormous difference in somebody’s life.

I encourage those interested in working or volunteering in mental health to engage in radical self-care and to remind yourselves that you are learning and using priceless skills, even if others try to convince you that it’s a waste of time – that you are worthless or weak. I am hopeful that one day, there will be more client-centered mental health workers than police officers and that we can train the police on how to de-escalate situations using communication.