Stop the Stigma

Handcuffs to Protect Police from the Mentally Ill? That’s Stigma

That's Stigma - graphic of police badge and handcuffs

I’m pretty active on Pinterest, and sometimes I’ll create new pins related to older blog posts. Recently, I created a pin asking whether people in mental health crisis should be handcuffed, and linked to a post I’d done on that topic and the stigma inherent in it.

Once in a blue moon I’ll get a comment on one of my pins. Commenting doesn’t really seem to be a thing on Pinterest, and I’ve never left a comment on anyone’s pin. Anyway, a few minutes after I pinned the graphic for the handcuffing post, I got this comment:

Yes. It’s for their safety as much as the officer’s. The officer has the right to go home to their family and be as safe as possible.

That’s stigma

Beyond my initial WTF reaction, there were a few layers to unpack in that comment.

First off, there the across-the-board “yes”. Not “yes if…” or “yes, but only…”; just “yes”, full stop. The police attend a lot of mental health-related calls, and that would be a whole lot of handcuffing. That unqualified yes suggests that this should be a routine practice because crazy people are routinely scary-crazy.

Next we move on to “it’s for their safety as much as the officer’s.” It’s rather patronizing to suggest that impositions on basic freedoms are for the scary-crazy person’s own good. If we look through a trauma-informed lens, handcuffing is likely to create harm. But stigma doesn’t see that; stigma sees “us” and scary-crazy “them”, and there’s a massive border wall in between preventing any empathy from dribbling through.

“The officer has the right to go home to their family.” How would a mentally ill person get in the way of this? By killing or maiming them? If anyone’s going to be dying in a cop vs. scary-crazy person encounter, what do you think are the chances it’s going to be the scary-crazy person who ma be wanting to die? Isn’t that what we scary-crazy folks do?

“The officer has the right to… be as safe as possible.” How about the right of the mentally ill person to be as safe as possible? Being handcuffed without having committed a crime doesn’t sound all that safe to me. And it doesn’t seem like that much a leap to extend that to justifying police brutality by saying the police had a right to feel safe, so why not harm/kill anyone who’s scary for any reason, including the colour of their skin?

How to respond?

My approach online has been, for the past part, not to engage with people who appear to be ignorant by choice. It seems like that would frustrate me without actually accomplishing anything in terms of change. This comment, though, didn’t strike me as intentional ignorance. I wouldn’t be surprised if she has a partner in law enforcement whom she worries about.

My response to the comment:

Any other medical condition you’d like to see people handcuffed for? Heart attacks, perhaps? Or is it just mental illness? In that case, there’s a name for that: stigma.

I can’t think of any other type of health condition where people are liable to be handcuffed without having committed a crime or been violent. But when stigma’s in the picture, mental illness crisis looks less like a medical emergency and more like a behavioural problem. On a side note, that’s part of why I’m not a fan the American term “behavioural health.”

The original commenter didn’t reply to my comment, which is fine. I do hope, though, that it made her think critically, even just for a minute, about her point of view.

The bigger picture

The dangerousness stereotype associated with mental illness is quite deeply ingrained in our society. This person’s comment clearly buys into that stereotype. Yet most people who hold this belief don’t recognize what it is; they see it as fact rather than stigma.

That’s what’s so insidious about stigma. For people who don’t know better, those stereotypes seems reasonable, and it becomes easy to rationalize acting on the assumption that those stereotypes are valid.

And as with any other kind of social privilege, people with good mental health can’t see the problem when they look through their lens. To really see stigma, you need to look through our lens, the crazy-scary person lens.

That’s why we need to keep talking, keep telling our stories, and call out stigma when it feels safe and productive to do so. Then instead of seeing stereotypes, more people might actually see us.

You may also be interested in these posts:

Mental illness: Stop the stigma - graphic of face and megaphone with the words "speak up"

You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

A Brief History of Stigma is the upcoming new release from Mental Health @ Home Books. It looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

Visit the book page for tips on how to be an effective advocate.

28 thoughts on “Handcuffs to Protect Police from the Mentally Ill? That’s Stigma”

  1. There is willful ignorance and there is ignorance. There is probably some inbetween as well. I hate ignorance in general. Especially when someone doesn’t appear to want to engage at all. As was the case with your commenter.

  2. I’ve seen it so many times while working as a mental health nurse. It would bug the heck out of me when the police would arrive at A&E, chests puffed out like they were proud, with a patient in cuffs. One young lad because he was being suggestive towards the female officers, and they didn’t want him to touch them! It was this young lad’s first presentation with bipolar and his sister was horrified. She’d called the police because she didn’t know what else to do, but the police arrived, cuffed him and dragged him screaming from her home. Six officers and one scrawny young lad, I ask you. There was no attempt at trying to understanding him, no empathy or compassion.

    I told the officer in charge, “you’re on our territory now — remove the damn cuffs and leave your name by the door on your way out!.

  3. I think I was guilty of mental health stigma before I became ill. Not to the extent of the ignorance in the comment on your pin but I definitely had a lack of understanding. Now my lense is unfiltered and I am very glad of that!

  4. Stigma is the reason I want to remain anonymous on my blog and social medias. I’m afraid if people know that I have depression and take medication they will judge me for it. But sometimes I think to myself I shouldn’t hide. People need to educate themselves on mental illnesses.

    That being said, when people have a mental health crisis I think it should be the ambulance/paramedics that respond. People with physical illnesses (i.e. heart attacks, etc) are treated with dignity and carried away by medical professionals. The same treatment should be afforded to people with mental illnesses.

    1. Yeah it can be hard to find that right balance between wanting to speak up and needing to protect yourself.

      And I agree, paramedics are in a much better position to deal with that kind of situation than police.

  5. I think it comes down to the big error of forgetting that all people are individuals. There may well be a few people with mental illness who resort to violence but overall I don’t believe most of us are violent at all. Yet, we are often all treated the same. On the other hand I know there are many good police officers out there but unfortunately there are quite a few bad ones also who give them all a bad name. They are often all treated the same too and that’s a tragedy.

  6. This is so disturbing. I was insulted before on such basis and by the people who were stigmatised based on other grounds. Sad. Especially when it is personal, which probably wasn’t the case here. Also, there are groups of people that annoy me, but you can’t handcuff them, those might fall into your category “ignorant by choice”. The sad part is, sometimes their family member becomes ill and yeah been there and seen these people tormented at home with no place to go.

  7. You handled that brilliantly! Stigma is a huge problem in the mental health community which is ridiculous in this open book age of expression and discussion.
    I use pinterest to relax with and once got a welfare check message! It was actually really good of them to notice my mental health content and be concerned, pins were probably reported.
    Fight the good fight, you’re a top warrior ⚔

  8. Growing up the term ‘mental’ always carried with it negative associations and I think because the term mental health is only really starting to be shown in a more positive light there are still plenty of people who still have the negative ingrained in them and they in turn pass it on.

  9. Stigma kills.

    On a positive note, a former colleague made a post promoting his podcast and saying to message him one’s depression story. I simplified mine a lot to “was depressed due to very violent family. Didn’t think I could tell anyone because of stigma” and messaged him. He responded positively and to my surprise (because the stigma in Asian cultures is still huge), actually agreed with me that professional help AND caring friends are what’s needed!

  10. I love this. I have experience on both sides: as a caregiver and someone who’s postpartum depression manifested as anger (and was once treated like a threat because of it). It is entirely possible that people in a mental health crisis can be dangerous, but that isn’t always the case and even in those situations de-escalation should be the first response, not physical intervention.

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