Should people in mental health crisis be handcuffed?

Mental Health @ Home - Should People in Mental Health Crisis be Handcuffed? - photo of person being handcuffed

When I showed up for my shift the other night at the concurrent disorders (mental health and addictions) transitional program where I work, I was told that one of the patients was being sent to hospital because she was having intense, active suicidal ideation.  Shortly after I arrived, paramedics and police showed up, and that’s when things began to go downhill.

The paramedics seemed reluctant to transport her to hospital, which is a whole other story.  Regardless, it was generally agreed that given the severity of her suicidal thinking, it was not appropriate for her to go to hospital on a voluntary basis.  There is a section of the Mental Health Act in my Canadian province that allows police to apprehend someone to hospital involuntarily if the person is clearly mentally ill and posing a risk to self or others.  The police and paramedics decided at that point decided that the patient would be taken to hospital in the back of a police car.

As I was trying to explain to the patient what was happening and why, she was clearly disturbed, and asked fearfully “will I have to go in handcuffs?”  My automatic response was “absolutely not”.  I was then informed that it is standard procedure for the police force in that city for people who are being transported to hospital under the Mental Health Act to be handcuffed.

Jaw.  Drop.  In the city where I live and have worked for most of my career, police do not transport mental health patients to hospital; ambulances do.  A police officer will ride along in the ambulance followed by their partner in the police car, and in my experience handcuffs are only used when the patient is highly agitated.  I personally have been apprehended by police under the Mental Health Act on one occasion, and at that time I was taken by ambulance with a police officer accompanying, with no mention of handcuffs.  I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to be cuffed and put in the back of a police car.

In a society with so much stigma against mental illness, the system needs to try harder and do more to respect people’s dignity.  To treat mentally ill people in crisis like criminals is a huge step backwards.  It disgusts me that police would consider it appropriate to routinely handcuff people who are in extreme mental distress.  If the poor mentally ill person wasn’t traumatized before, they sure as hell are now.  And if I was that patient of mine who was basically told that it was a special exception and privilege not to be handcuffed, I would never again disclose to care providers when I was having thoughts of suicide.  If police and being handcuffed are the consequences of disclosing suicidal thinking, why would anyone be motivated to share that information?  It is hard enough to get treatment for those with mental illness; to have that kind of disincentive is the sort of thing that can end up costing people their lives.

When society treats people with mental illness as criminals, we all lose.  While I won’t name the particular city where this happened, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police clearly has a lot of work to do.  This sort of routine practice is abhorrent, and needs to stop.



There’s more on stigma on my stop stigma page.

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62 thoughts on “Should people in mental health crisis be handcuffed?

  1. wraemsanders says:

    I don’t like the idea at all. I’ve worked in various facilities and that’s a terrible idea. It can trigger memories and make things a LOT worse, among other issues. There are ways to physically manage people if needed without handcuffs.

  2. Meg says:

    That’s awful! I hope you contact the police department and let them know how awful that is! I’m glad your patient had you to care for her! I’m sure it made a huge difference in her outlook!! A compassionate person can make such a difference when you’re in such dire straits. That makes me so sad.

    • ashleyleia says:

      I would probably do that if I thought the program I work for would support me, but I know they wouldn’t, so I think it would be even less likely to accomplish anything.

  3. says:

    That is probably the worse thing I have ever heard of doing to a mentally unstable (Suicidal) person. I feel so bad for that poor person that had cuffs placed on them. That probably only made the situation worse for that person… and they will always be reminded of this ordeal when they encounter the police again. Instant trigger!

  4. Johnzelle says:

    Great post! I definitely agree that being cuffed can be traumatic, which could result in a person not disclosing in the future, which increases risks for all involved. I live in Virginia, USA and usually an ambulance transports, from my understanding. With that being said, I do believe there are cases where restraining someone is for the best to protect the safety of themselves and others. As a clinician, I am taught to de-escalate and only use restraint techniques when all else fails (I’m not authorized to handcuff, obviously). So maybe the police there need to be trained in some basic mental health de-escalation skills to use before resulting to cuffing? This is a good topic.

    • ashleyleia says:

      De-escalation techniques are definitely important. I think what concerned me was that it would be routine practice to handcuff someone who was a risk of harm to no one but themself and wasn’t agitated. I’ve seen restraint and force used very effectively when de-escalation failed and it was the only safe option, but things like that should never become a routine go-to. Thanks for commenting.

  5. MandK says:

    “If police and handcuffs are the consequences of disclosing suicidal thinking, why would anyone be motivated to share that information? ” Exactly.

  6. MandK says:

    Reblogged this on Our Dissociative Identity Disorder Journey and commented:
    Gonna reblog this. We don’t reblog a lot but this one is close to our hearts. Lots of great points and questions brought up in this post.

    We quote ;

    “If police and handcuffs are the consequences of disclosing suicidal thinking, why would anyone be motivated to share that information? I”Exactly.

  7. Sara B says:

    Omg this is terrible. Nobody who is in crisis should be handcuffed unless they have committed a crime. I had an issue with an ambulance taking my Dad somewhere years ago because he was detoxing and it was a nightmare. I hate that they treat people this way 🙁

  8. marandarussell says:

    Wow, that is rough. I do know sometimes if a mental patient is extremely aggressive or immensely self-injurious that they use restraints, and I do understand why, even though I don’t like it, but handcuffs? That seems really overboard unless she was hurting someone.

  9. The Colour Of Madness says:

    This was one of the biggest reasons I never wanted to disclose my suicidal ideation- fear of being dragged off in handcuffs. The fear of this escalated with my level of unwellness, then paranoia sets in and I start planning how I can defend myself against the police if they try anything. So essentially this fear alone turns me from a non violent risk only to myself into a risk to others…
    The system/s need so much work.

  10. 4msbipolarmom says:

    I was confronted by the ‘non voluntary’ part of our Mental Healthcare Act too. It’s the same as yours, and because there is a dire shortage of ambulances, the police are all that is available. I know that when I’m suicidal, I’m super paranoid too… And the thought of going in a police van was horrid, let alone my children seeing me being ‘arrested’ for being ill.

  11. thebarefootsub says:

    How dare they? If the only person your patient was a risk to was herself what possible reason could they have for detaining her for being ill?

    There is so much fear surrounding dual diagnosis that it is perhaps unsurprising that they would be nervous but to openly discriminate in such a way is totally wrong.

    • ashleyleia says:

      I don’t take issue with her being taken to hospital involuntarily, because she was feeling quite actively suicidal, but there was no reason for any talk of handcuffs.

  12. seaofwordsx says:

    This is really rough. You are so right. They aren’t criminals. Having a mental illness is hard enough and being handcuffed will only make it look like they are criminals or something. I also don’t like that idea. I’m glad you are adressing this isue and so we can both end the stigma of mental health

  13. mentalhealthjourney says:

    I once after a a helpine had 2 police cars and a van turn up for jusy me in a suicidal crisis…..i was marched through a and e with a police officer on each arm. When i ran after being terrified i was chased – restrained and tokd i calm down or be taken to a police cell. I then had the big bag of tablets id had dumped on the desk in front of everyone while the whole situation was told to.the person behind the desk in a loud manner. It was horrific and NOT how should be treated.

  14. thebruceyexperiment says:

    It’s a safety and liability issue and handcuffs are supposed to protect both police officer and “arrested person”. FD ambulances and paramedics will not normally transport an uninjured suicidal person for involuntary evaluation, generally because of ambulance shortages. No one else wants do take this responsibility because of the potential dangers involved with people “in crisis”, so it is pushed onto police. Police handcuff all arrested persons as policy, and remember that their primary function is to arrest and transport criminals. Blame the idiots who want to save a few dollars by getting the police to do a job that should be carried out by mental health professionals.

    • ashleyleia says:

      Except people who are mentally ill and need to go to hospital aren’t under arrest. Ambulance shortages aren’t an excuse to treat mentally ill people like criminals.

      • thebruceyexperiment says:

        I agree with you but technically they are under arrest in my state. Ambulances would be wonderful but fire Dept staff where I am are told to let police transport to hospital. Ideally, a person can be taken to an evaluation center by a relative. The present situation has mainly come to pass by law suits from family members who have sued authorities after a suicide, suicidal people getting violent and police being expected to cover for trained mental health professionals

  15. demicouttsx says:

    this is absolutely outrageous! from someone that suffers from mental illness I can tell you now this would make me so much worse! when I went through a similar situation (but from home) the paramedics came out then my CPN nurse and I was transferred to the hospital in the ambulance and there was no involvement from the police. handcuffs are a last resort, unless the patient is attacking staff or anyone ese around them then handcuffs are not needed at all! its absolutely vile that people with mental illness have their dignity stripped away from them like they don’t matter! in my opinion mental illness is just as serious as cancer, they are both deadly and are both illnesses but mental health has never been made a priority.

  16. aliciajademx says:

    Absolutely disgusting practice, to be ill is not a crime so what difference does it make if the illness is mental. If the patient was aggressive then handcuffs may be justified as a last resort. It seems you would’ve atleast been of some comfort to the poor girl glad to see you’ve commented she was ok.

  17. Lydia Harris says:

    It happens in America too. Happened to me 6 weeks before I graduated college. Suicidal ideation, not even attempt, and the cops get called. No one explains anything to me, just told me they’re taking me “someplace safe”. They cuffed me, even though I was completely compliant. Got stuck in a psych center for 4 days. It was traumatic. I’m never going back there again.

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