What I Want Police Officers to Know About People Who've Experienced Trauma


In my experience, members of the police force I’ve come across have been helpful and understanding. However, it is unreasonable to expect people without mental health training to be able to assist and avoid confrontation when someone is having a mental health crisis. Therefore, I thought it may be helpful for people with mental health problems to explain to police officers how their mental health issues might affect interactions with the police.

If you think something or someone is going to cause you harm, it makes sense to immediately be on the defensive and lash out. This’s what it can be like for a person who struggles with psychosis, who may be hearing voices telling them that you are a threat. Therefore, if they lash out at you it is not meant personally or aggressively, they genuinely believe they are at risk of harm. Also people with psychosis may be distracted by the voices they’re hearing in their head, so it helps if you speak slowly and calmly and are willing to calmly repeat yourself. That is very helpful.

I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), and it’s very closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of you may be aware that PTSD is associated with trauma experienced in combat,  but it has also been found in cases of systematic childhood sexual or physical abuse. In both cases there is significant evidence of brain damage in the hippocampus (a part of the brain) which affects a person’s ability to remember and process information. This means that although a person with PTSD and or BPD can physically hear you, they might have a harder time processing what you’ve said.

Another area of the brain called the amygdala often shows changes. The amygdala processes emotions and if this is damaged, then people have trouble managing and controlling their emotional responses, which are often more intense because the part of the brain that would normally control said emotions has changed.

Another common aspect of PTSD and BPD is hypervigilance. This means that, even years after the actually trauma took place, they often respond physically and mentally to what they perceive as a potential threat. For example; a reassuring pat on the shoulder can seem, to a former sexual abuse victim, to be a threat, leading to behavior which could be seen as aggressive, as they genuinely believe they must protect themselves.

It is also normal for victims of abuse to try and appease anyone they view as a potential abuser, so they may appear to be laughing and joking because as a child that could sometimes delay their abuse even for a little while. Therefore people will return to their childhood coping mechanisms, appearing relaxed when in reality they are very frightened. People who experience this may also seemed when they’re actually disassociating (shutting off reality) due to trauma, so their true emotional fear and distress are disguised, protecting them from further potential trauma. In reality, they might be more scared of you than you could ever imagine.

We trust you to help us remain safe and protected when our mental health issues mean we are unable to do it for ourselves. Please do not betray that trust.

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Thinkstock photo via aijohn784


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