“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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A Searchlight Soul

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Chester Bennington completed suicide by hanging on Chris Cornell’s birthday, just over a month after Chris Cornell completed suicide by hanging on the 37th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ suicide by hanging.

For those unfamiliar, Bennington was best known as the lead singer of Linkin Park; Chris Cornell was best known as the lead singer of Soundgarden; and Ian Curtis was best known as lead singer of Joy Division.

Now, Linkin Park’s music makes me want to grind my teeth, spit, and curse—and not in a good way. And I never got into Joy Division beyond owning a ‘greatest hits’ collection for a few years as an undergrad. I am, however, a big fan of Soundgarden, as well as another of Cornell’s bands, Audioslave—not such a big fan that I ever made it to a concert. But, living in Seattle, I would see members of the band at other bands’ shows around town in the way back of the early 90s.

cornell dark

How would I know?  Cornell from ‘Fell on Black Days.’

I have no idea if Cornell’s suicide was related to Curtis’ beyond coincidence. But Bennington’s was directly connected to Cornell’s. They were friends, and, from what I understand, Bennington took Cornell’s death particularly hard. Both Cornell and Bennington had struggled with addiction and mental health issues during their lives.

But the takeaway shouldn’t only be that a life marbled with addiction and mental health issues leads to suicide. That makes it too easy for people to distance themselves from suicide, its causes, and our potential susceptibility to its draw.

In the wake of a loved one’s death, thoughts of suicide can arise or increase, and suicide attempts climb.

In the wake of a loved one’s death from suicide, those thoughts and those attempts climb significantly higher.

There are those who have criticized Curtis’, Cornell’s, and Bennington’s suicides by pointing out that they had achieved success, or had spouses, friends, children…all of which should have somehow prevented them from committing suicide, much less having thoughts of such.

That’s a natural impulse—to want to point out why we never would have killed ourselves in similar circumstances. But it’s also false comfort.

Just try to imagine finding yourself in a space where money, success, and a loving family can be discounted as not providing enough impetus to go on living. Imagine finding yourself in a space where you actually feel the people who care about you most will be better off without you. Imagine being so deep into that thought process that you can’t find your way out—that it seems completely logical—that suicide actually seems like the only rational decision.

I could get into explanations of survivor guilt, or what grief can do to people, or the impact of knowing that a friend reached the conclusion that suicide was an appropriate response to the world around them–a world that you were part of.

But I’d rather you think on how declaring yourself immune to something, insisting you are completely separate from some problem, is the first step to blocking your understanding of that problem…or worse, blocking your compassion toward others affected by that problem. You can feel for the families and friends of those who complete suicide without feeling the need to condemn the dead. That condemnation does nothing to help the grieving, or anybody else, least of all you.

 

 

 

It’s World Suicide Prevention Day: Do You Know Where Your Mental Health Is?

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Just before I sat down to write this, around 8 p.m. my time, I lit some candles and placed them in the windows of my home–as was requested by the organizers of World Suicide Prevention Day–a small gesture that maybe nobody will notice–but a sign of solidarity nonetheless.

One might ask, ‘Solidarity with whom?’

With those who have died by suicide?

With those who have lived through a suicide attempt?

With those who have been impacted by the suicide of an important person in their lives?

How about just plain everybody?

None of us are immune to suicide, or the impacts of suicide.

A great many of us like to believe we’re immune.

But our mental health is not made up of absolutes.  It is not a simple either/or option: mentally healthy or mentally ill.

Suicidality itself exists on a scale of ‘definitely not going to happen today’ to ‘working on it right now.’

And perhaps the more we think we’re immune to issues with our mental health, the more we fail to recognize when we might be tilting toward trouble.

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Take a big enough hit to your self image–loss of your job, loss of a spouse or signficant other; maybe add on a string of other bad occurrences–financial troubles, illness, the death of a loved one; mix in a few too many drinks and easy access to means, and who knows what might happen?

More than half of the 40,000+ deaths by suicide in the United States each year involve a gun.  How many of those do you suppose were the result of, say, long-term depression, versus a fairly quick unravelling of the deceased’s sense of self, and a lack of knowledge about how to identify and utilize available support systems?  How many of those were a booze-fueled ‘screw it’ to a really bad month, or week, or day?

Of course, when one believes one is immune to such problems, when those problems arise, one will be that much less likely to seek out help.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  Many people who die by suicide have been struggling with mental illness for the bulk of their lives.  Many of them have made multiple attempts before they finally die by suicide.

But there are also plenty who die by suicide because they are overwhelmed by circumstances, and have no real idea what to do.  They have never given thought to what to do, or who to turn to.  They do not want others to think of them negatively–perhaps the same way they have thought of others in similar circumstances.

So we need to recognize that we’re all travelling on the same continuum, that we’re all forever in flux, rather than believing we are in two separate camps that will forever remain apart: the mentally healthy and the mentally ill.  Otherwise, we potentially block ourselves off from the need for compassion.  It’s much easier to look away when we can say, “Not me.”

candle

So maybe those candles will go unnoticed, or maybe not.

And at least they’re flickering away against the darkness of “Not me.”