Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters

Dec 01, 2015
Categories:
  • Description

An estimated 7.9 million adults in the United States live with a severe mental illness that disorders their thinking. Treatment in most cases can control psychiatric symptoms common to these diseases, but the system that once delivered psychiatric care for them has been systematically dismantled over the last half-century. Today, half the population with these diseases is not taking medication or receiving other care on any given day.

Individuals with mental illness also make up a disproportionate number of those killed at the very first step of the criminal justice process: while being approached or stopped by law enforcement in the community. Enormous official and public attention has become focused on the official undercounting of fatal police shootings; barely noted in the uproar has been the role of severe mental illness – a medical condition that, when treated, demonstrably reduces the likelihood of interacting with police or being arrested, much less dying in the process.

By all accounts – official and unofficial – a minimum of 1 in 4 fatal police encounters ends the life of an individual with severe mental illness.