Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

118P Interactions with the Police: Experiences of the Homeless In Mental Health Crisis

Saturday, January 14, 2012
Independence F - I (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Bart W. Miles, PhD, Assistant Professor, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Jessica K. Camp, LMSW, PhD Student, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Purpose: Police are frequently first responders in the event of a mental health emergency, which might account, in part, for the high incarceration rates among homeless individuals who have mental health diagnoses. Officers as first responders has the dual effect of creating a burden on limited police resources within a community while creating additional anxiety for those in crisis. This study's objectives are to (1) explore how homeless individuals experience a mental crisis and subsequent police intervention, (2) determine ways that mental health crisis could be averted, and (3) investigate improvements or alternatives to the involvement of law enforcement in responding to mental health crises.

Methods: This study was conducted with individuals experiencing homelessness at a non-profit service agency in the Detroit area. Inclusion criteria for participants was (1) identification as having interaction with law enforcement, (2) possibly having experienced difficulty with a mental health crisis at some point in time and (3) a mini-mental health examination score of above 20. Interested respondents were consented to a focus group or to a one-on-one interview. Focus groups and interviews were designed to bring forth topics related to homelessness, mental health crisis, and interaction with law enforcement. Interviews were transcribed and coded using Atlas TI.

Results: Eight African American men participated in the focus group while eight additional respondents, five men and three women, completed one on one interviews. Several preliminary themes emerged from the data. One unique theme that presented immediately was a strong stigma attached to mental health issues. Respondents were clearly often uncomfortable talking directly about topics surrounding mental health, although they were more willing to talk about these issues from the lens of treatment for substance abuse disorders and homeless crisis. Within this four main themes presented in the data (1)triggers for homelessness, (2)mental health crisis, (3)interaction with the police, and (4) desired changes. Participants who discussed experiences of a mental health emergency did not perceive officers as being optimal to provide care during a time of crisis. Instead, respondents discussed how it would be best to avert a mental health crisis through having needs met. Three mentioned needs were (1) a desire for supports and caring people to talk to, (2) having more places to go, and (3) gaining access to needed treatment. When a crisis occurred, respondents called for officers to treat them with greater respect and dignity. Participants noted that officers may benefit from training that allowed them to have a greater understanding of how a crisis is experienced. The role of officers may cause an individual in crisis to believe that they are going to taken to jail, to be further punished during a time they are distraught, rather than getting linked to needed services.

Implications: Through exploring how homeless individuals with mental health crisis experience police intervention, a number of important themes emerged. These themes provide suggestions for system and practice changes that can better serve individuals in crisis while freeing limited law enforcement resources that may be needed elsewhere in the community.