“Suicide by Cop”—Mental Illness and Law Enforcement Response

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Georgia Tech engineering student and Pride Alliance president Scout Schultz phoned 911 at 11:17 p.m. Eastern last Saturday night to report a dangerous, armed individual—Scout Shultz. All indications are that the call was a suicide attempt, which the police, lamentably, completed.

In the world of crisis intervention and suicide prevention, we routinely assess for plan, means, and intent. In other words, we ask if someone expressing suicidal ideation has a plan to harm themself; if so, we ask if they have the means to carry out the plan; and we also seek to determine how determined the suicidal person is to actually go through with the plan.

For instance, if an adult male says he is suicidal and has a plan to shoot himself, but he has no access to a gun, there is a plan but no means. If that same person has a plan to shoot himself, and access to a gun, but says he is not going to do it because he would never do that to his family or has religious reasons for avoiding suicide, then he has a plan and means, but the intent is absent or lacking. If that same person has a plan to shoot himself as soon as he finishes his drink, access to a gun, and no reasons he identifies for not shooting himself, then plan, means and intent have all come together in a rather urgent fashion.

In the case of Schultz, the plan, means, and intent might be characterized in the following way.

Plan: suicide by cop; means: a call to 911 to anonymously report self (in the third person) as an armed danger to the community; intent: plenty enough to make the call and brandish a weapon at the police.

Scout and the cops

Crisis intervention or crisis escalation?

Schultz apparently knew enough to indicate the possible presence of a gun, rather than just reporting the knife (which turned out to be a “multipurpose tool”—something that is generally less fatal than a gun, or even, say, a hunting knife or kitchen knife). The threat of a firearm is likely to put officers in a different frame of mind prior to even arriving on scene, even if protocols are still essentially the same.

Even so, it is puzzling that an officer, with a second officer nearby who was also aiming a gun at the allegedly dangerous individual, would choose to stop said multipurpose-tool-wielding individual with a bullet to the chest. Granted, even with the best training available, professionals can panic in novel situations, or situations where they feel threatened. And, generally speaking, the sense of feeling threatened is the main criteria for police officers to be excused for fatally shooting anybody, regardless of what that anybody may be armed with, or why they may be engaging in some form of threatening behavior.

For those not familiar with the dynamic, I suppose there could be questions about how being shot by the police is a form of suicide. But for people in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, and, I suspect, for a majority of law enforcement officers out there, it’s far more common than one might imagine. Deliberately provoking an armed person into killing you is, arguably, less difficult than taking the steps yourself. For instance, if you don’t have access to a gun, shooting yourself is rather difficult. Getting shot by someone else is, perhaps, more within reach.

Beyond that, any method of suicide where you have to push yourself into that final, fatal act forces you to overcome eons of ingrained animal behavior that drives you to keep yourself alive. With the right threats, a suicidal person can turn that same instinct in someone else into a means for suicide completion.

When it comes to crisis intervention, and 911 dispatch, suicide by cop is also a bit of a conundrum. If a person calls to report suicidal ideation and refuses to ‘contract for safety’ (essentially, agree to do something other than killing him/herself), the person can report any of a number of intended means of suicide, including “suicide by cop”, knowing that the standard protocol in any report of intent to complete suicide is to send police out for a ‘welfare check’. Whether or not the person reports “suicide by cop” as the intended means, he/she is likely to know that the right provocation can lead to the use of deadly force. The police will get almost always get dispatched one way or another, because of the threat of suicide, and the directives to get suicidal people to an Emergency Room for a mental health assessment.

Schultz found a way to bypass some of the usual protocols by going straight to 911 and exaggerating the threat. No crisis counselors engaging in a clinical assessment. Deliberately misleading information provided to 911 dispatchers, which was, in turn, relayed to police.

But the entire situation begs plenty of questions about how Schultz’s plan, assuming Schultz was fully intending to die, could have been brought to fruition with what was essentially a minor manipulation of information.

Why was a shot to the chest the means the officer chose as self-preservation and to subdue the threat? If a gun needed to be the tool of choice, why wasn’t a debilitating, but non-fatal shot attempted instead? Why did the officers not use a taser or pepper spray to disable Schultz?

But, perhaps most of all, we need to ask if there are there police officers who aren’t trained to recognize and address attempts at suicide by cop? Police officers, so divorced from knowledge of mental health issues and basic human behavior that all threats are considered deadly? Police officers who are not trained to reasonably assess the threat level any given individual represents and to respond with non-lethal force in every instance possible?

Granted, when they are sent out on a call, law enforcement officers never know what they are walking into, or how any particular situation may unfold, and only have whatever information has been provided dispatchers, and then been filtered down to them. Such an information chain most certainly adds to the stress of police officers’ jobs, and the potential for error.

This post isn’t intended as an anti-police rant. In crisis intervention, mental health professionals have to work closely with the police in coordinating appropriate responses to potentially dangerous situations—which are most often about clients putting themselves at risk more than anyone else. That said, Police are the ones who put themselves in harm’s way as first responders, to ensure that nurses, doctors, social workers, and counselors can then step in to engage in assessments and treatment.

But we need to make sure that police aren’t bringing guns to a multipurpose-tool fight as part of a routine and accepted response, especially when that fight is against people struggling with mental illness—lest the need for mental health assessment and treatment is removed by a fatal, law-enforcement-administered gunshot.

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Yes, Breitbart, 33,000 People ARE Killed with Guns Each Year

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

There is absolutely nothing controversial about Hillary Clinton’s claim that, in the United States, “We have 33,000 people a year who die from guns”–except maybe to those who don’t understand how words and numbers work.

Yet, AWR Hawkins, breitbart.com’s “Second Amendment Columnist,” posted a “Fact-Check” column, titled “No, 33,000 Not Killed with Guns Each Year” following the third presidential debate, claiming that Clinton deliberately inflated the CDC numbers of firearm deaths by adding in suicides. This is not the first time Hawkins has posted similar complaints.

What Hawkins fails to do is explain how suicides by firearm somehow fall outside of the “33,000 people a year who die from guns.” Certainly, Hawkins must understand that somebody who uses a gun to kill him/herself is dead, and did use a gun in order to die—making that person someone who ‘died from a gun.’

Using Hawkins’ preferred language of people “killed with guns each year” still doesn’t change anything. A person who commits suicide with a firearm still was, in fact, killed with a gun.

suicide-gun-mouth

Hawkins also strikes out by putting the phrase “gun violence” in quotation marks, saying that the use of that phrase (which Clinton did not use in the quote he complains about) somehow plays into Clinton’s strategy of fooling the public. But, again, killing oneself with a firearm does qualify as “gun violence”–first of all, because it involves an act of violence; and secondly, because it involves a gun. Or you can reverse that so the gun is first and the violence is second—still doesn’t change anything.

I don’t want to get into speculation about things that Clinton didn’t say, but perhaps if she had used the phrase “gun crimes” or had referred to murders using guns, then Hawkins would have a better argument. But Clinton didn’t. So Hawkins doesn’t.

And, in case you’re wondering, the 33,000 figure is dead-on. Here’s a chart, showing the CDC numbers of gun deaths for the years 2010 to 2014 (2014 being the most recent year statistics are available) clearly showing that gun deaths have reached well above 33,000 per year for 2012, 2013, and 2014, and averaged 32,964 per year for the five-year period.

avg-gun-deaths-2010-to-2014

A handy chart of CDC statistics on gun deaths, lifted from Everytown for Gun Safety at  https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/

Now, I get that gun-loving Americans, including the Breitbart crowd, don’t like to believe anything negative about guns. They also don’t like to believe that they may, at some point, end up so distraught, or so deep in the throes of mental illness, that they might use their guns on themselves, and/or their family members or other loved ones—or perhaps even neighbors or random strangers.

By pushing the suicide statistics aside, or pretending they ‘don’t count’, Hawkins ignores a harsh reality here: that people who own guns tend to kill themselves with those guns far more than they kill an intruder in their home, or otherwise defend themselves from the big, bad, scary world out there. People who own guns kill themselves with those guns more often than criminals use guns to kill innocent citizens; and more frequently than ‘gang violence’ leads to gun deaths.

There is also considerable overlap in the “murder/suicide” category—where gun owners kill their significant others, family members, co-workers, or random strangers, prior to turning their guns on themselves. And because guns are such a quick and effective killing tool, the decision to use them in an act of violence on loved ones or oneself is often impulsive—a few too many bad days in a row, a bad argument following a few too many beers, or even a partner deciding they want out of a relationship, and the gun comes out as the ultimate way to put a stop to whatever is so aggravating.

As for mental illness, Hawkins’ argument becomes even less convincing in the face of all the clamoring about how we don’t have a gun problem in the U.S., but we have a mental health problem. Of course, people who make such an argument are usually talking about the mental health issues of mass shooters. Yet, if we (properly) view suicide as a mental health issue, then the numbers of firearm suicides become that much more disturbing. Gun owners kill themselves at a rate roughly twice as high as the rate of gun murders. That’s a vast mental health issue that’s not being addressed, and that is being exacerbated by guns.

Yes, I know that many of the people who want to argue in favor of guns like to point out that people who commit suicide will find the means to do so, even if you take their guns away–an argument which is demonstrably false in terms of overall lethality. There are many ways to map out the evidence showing this falsehood, including the high rate of suicide by firearm–roughly 50% of all suicides in the U.S. are completed using guns. Another way to conceptualize the difference in suicide methods is to compare suicide completion rates using firearms relative to suicide completion rates using other methods. For instance, plenty more people survive suicide attempts by overdosing on pills than survive suicide attempts using guns.

Those who are willing to brush off the connection between firearms and suicide also sometimes argue that suicide is a matter of personal freedom—of being allowed to end one’s life when one chooses. I will say that I’m not completely opposed to people being able to end their own lives on terms they choose. However, I’ve learned enough to know that people are least equipped to make that decision quickly, impulsively, or while in a deep depression (among many other factors). Very few people attempt suicide while they are thinking in the clearest of terms, or making a rational decision based on a comprehensive review of the facts.

Depression and many other forms of mental illness are notorious for their association with cognitive distortions, aka, “thinking errors”—misinterpreting the world around one, the impact one’s actions have on others, and the view other people have of one (again, among many other factors). As I’ve pointed out before, the idea that a gun keeps one safe is, itself, a cognitive distortion. The suicide-by-firearm statistics make that clear.

There is also, perhaps, a great irony here, in that Hawkins believes he is advocating for gun ownership, when the “mental health” approach to suicide prevention involves removing the means for suicide. That is, safety planning for suicide prevention involves taking away those means most likely to be used in a suicide attempt, while the person at risk for suicide gets treatment.

So, how do we address the mental health problems associated with guns and suicide? Take the guns away, at least until the person moves beyond risk for suicide. Of course, mental health treatment is not predictive. Risk factors can be weighed, and support systems assessed, but given the ease with which a person can use a gun to end her/his own life, a dip back into depression, a few more bad days, a drift away from regular engagement with one’s (positive) coping skills, and the risk can escalate once again.

Hawkins thinks he is supporting gun rights by poo-pooing the statistics on firearm deaths in the United States. But what he is actually doing is pointing out that suicide is twice as big a problem, where guns are concerned, as murder is. His solution is to pretend the people who commit suicide with guns aren’t really people who “die from guns.”

At base, he is arguing that people who commit suicide with guns aren’t really people…or perhaps aren’t really people who deserve the support to go on living.

 

Grousing Into The Void

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

I’m in one of those spells where everything writing-wise is coming out all wrong. It’s not writer’s block, as such. I’ve been writing—some. But I get partway into something and it ends up sounding muddled, or just heads off in its own direction.

When writing goes off in its own direction, it can be a pretty great thing—if it works or is at least interesting. Lately, though, it’s just been frustrating and boring. And all of the recent writing that’s chosen its own direction has just walked away. As in, it’s been very pedestrian.

For instance, a few weeks back, I started in on a piece about how the Fifty Shades of Grey movie promotes gross misunderstandings of human sexuality, along with committing the possibly worse sin of being bland. But what I managed to cobble together sounded almost as ill-informed as the screenplay, and nearly as tedious. Not to mention, Fifty Shades wasn’t exactly a hot topic by the time I got around to it.

Another piece on equating authenticity with a lack of personal growth came across as snobbish—and not in an entertaining way. I set it aside.

Writing on anti-Millennial stereotyping in the media led me to make generalizations nearly as pointless as the ones I was attempting to challenge.

The politically-motivated shootings at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Clinic, followed shortly thereafter by the politically-motivated mass murder in San Bernardino, might normally have prompted me to write pieces challenging pro-gun-violence myths. Instead, I squandered some of my time and energy arguing online with pro-gun-violence folks, some so completely irrational that I fear they might be Trump supporters.

Grouse

Grouse…

void

…meet void.

This is not to say that the time and energy I spend writing my blog is anything other than a squandering.  It’s just one that provides me with some focus and enjoyment—or, rather, some enjoyment when I can actually focus. At some level, we all know that if we stop whatever we’re doing, the world will continue on—although we hope a part of the world might be impacted, or at least notice.

Of course, as I’m puzzling through all of this, perhaps I should mention that I got a promotion at work. I love the new role, but it came with a major upheaval in my schedule. I’m still struggling to functionally organize my time away from the job.  That said, the writing travails started to take hold before I was even offered the new position.

At base, I think it might come down to a fear that the time spent writing is wasted, or at least that its standing in the way of me getting other, more practical things done. More and more lately, the writing sessions, have ended up with frustration, leading me to move on, with the intent of doing something ‘productive.’ Unfortunately, that productivity hasn’t exactly materialized.

So for now, I’m going to go do something really productive—like stringing up Christmas lights (much later in the season than I intended) that I’ll have to take down in a few weeks’ time.

Anyway, thanks for reading.

 

Another Round: American Roulette

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Pour another round.

Put another round in the chamber.

And let’s play another round of American Roulette.

Dizzy?  Go ahead and get off.

Dizzy? Go ahead and get off.

I’m not talking about felt and chips and all that. I’m talking about American Roulette—where we add more and more rounds, to more and more chambers, in more and more guns, point them all at our own collective head, squeeze the collective trigger, then act all surprised when anybody dies.

Then as the bodies are cooling, we start in on a round of all our favorite follow-up games.

Of course it starts with a round of “America’s Next Top Mass Murderer.” This is where media outlets decide what becomes a national story. It’s a complex formula, involving body count, victim age/status, and location. We have so many shots fired so often, in so many places, that we just can’t let any old killings grab hold of the public imagination.

Hell, the public doesn’t have enough imagination to keep up.

Adult males getting gunned down in the “bad part” of town—doesn’t rate unless there’s an insanely high body count. Okay, that’s pretty much true of any killings in the “bad part” of town.

Nightclubs—the same.

Men wiping out their families? Pffbbt! We’ve grown surprisingly numb to the idea of an “estranged husband” gunning down his wife, kids, and maybe a few additional members of his extended family. But moms gunning down their families? That just might work.

Schools—you can maybe get some traction there, although college shootings are getting pretty passé, as are high schools. Elementary schools—still pretty damn shocking.

Churches—those rate pretty high.

Movie theaters—those practically ARE churches.

So, how about grocery stores? public parks? malls? restaurants? Maybe a library or a museum? How about a nursing home? But, really, I have to defer to the experts for how to rank all of those.

Then, once we’ve determined that a mass-shooting is heinous enough to warrant a spot in the public imagination, we move to a round of “Wheel of Blame,” sponsored by the good, pro-murder folks at the National Rifle Association.

Really, it’s just another form of rigged roulette—38 spaces on the spinning wheel, at least 30 marked “mental health” or “mental illness.” When we get lucky, the wheel stops on one of the random spots marked with something we can really get mad at—like racism, or pop culture, or some “foreign” religion.

Because when the wheel lands on something we can get mad at, then we can do something symbolic in lieu of doing something that might actually lower the body count—like take down a flag that hasn’t had any business being associated with any part of ‘the government’ in the 150 years since that cluster of slavery-supporting traitors failed in their effort to destroy the Union. Or we can blame some movie, or some TV show, or some rock star for inspiring a murder spree. Or we can yell at the President to bomb ISIS, or to stop talking to Iran—because that will fix problems right here at home, where we like to kill our own.

Of course, the Wheel mostly lands on “mental health” or “mental illness” and we don’t have to do anything except say “fix the mental health system”—as if there is some magical way to grant psychotherapists the ability to pluck out those who are going to commit mass murder, plop them into a treatment program, and prevent them from ever getting their hands on all the readily-available guns and ammo out there.

But remember that when you spin that Wheel of Blame, you absolutely must avoid the spaces marked “guns”—those spots just go to the house—instant bankruptcy. Go ahead and say guns and lax laws that allow easy access to guns had a role in gun violence. You’ll get nowhere. Our gracious NRA sponsors, the politicians and media they own, and the screaming devotees of the Cult of the Shiny Metal Bang Bang will all see to that.

And even though it’s gotten pretty tired and unnecessary, we’ll run another round of “Not the Time”—wherein such insightful luminaries as draft-dodging, teen-loving, rock-n-roll has-been Ted Nugent, along with other NRA pets, can tell us that now is not the time to talk about gun control—not in the wake of such a tragedy—as they question the patriotism of anyone who would politicize the deaths of people killed by guns—oops, I mean killed by people with guns—oops, I mean killed by bad people with guns.

What’s so great about “Not the Time”—even though it’s getting really tired—is that we’re almost never more than a few days away from a mass murder, even if we are more than a few days away from a mass murder that really caught the public’s attention.

Oh, hey!  Now give it up for a round of our newest game show: “Open Carry Chucklehead Brigade”—y’know, that trending ritual where gun enthusiasts decide to go stand outside recruitment centers, or in malls, or near schools, or wherever the latest killing took place, brandishing their big, long weapons out of some bizarre sense that such behavior is supportive of those who are suffering the aftermath of gun violence. Hey…uh…guys…we’ve all been talking, and…uh…nobody feels safer because of your presence. For most people, a group of sweaty guys standing around with big guns does not look like safety. It looks like a meeting of the local chapter of the Future Mass Murderers of America.

I know there are plenty of rounds of plenty of other games I’ve left out—like the obligatory round of “False Equivalencies” (people die from using cars, and knives, and dental floss, and ice cream, and…), and the round of “Enforce The Laws That Already Exist” (as if the NRA hasn’t already made sure that most of those laws have no teeth), and the round of “There Are Already Too Many Guns Out There to Fix the Problem” (got it–too tough, don’t try!). But, damn! Those games are getting so dreadfully boring.

So, where were we?

Oh, yeah—pour another round.

Somebody else is picking up the tab.

Or maybe you are.