News Release

Youths report negative interactions amid police response to their mental-health crises: study

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Pittsburgh

In a study that holds ramifications for mental-health policymakers regardless of any Defund the Police initiatives, a qualitative study of youths and young adults with mental health challenges reported mostly negative perceptions and experiences when faced with police involvement in the context of crisis intervention and the initiation of involuntary psychiatric holds.

A group of researchers, including from the University of Pittsburgh, Penn, NYU and the Yale School of Medicine, interviewed 40 youths and young adults aged 16-27 regarding incidences of crisis response; 28 experienced police involvement. The scientists found a majority of those who interacted with the police felt officer involvement contributed “to inappropriately punitive (or criminalizing) responses… that further stigmatize young people.”

Lead author Nev Jones, assistant professor in the Pitt School of Social Work, and her co-authors described the study as the first to directly interview youth about their experiences and perspectives on impact amid police responses without death or injury, but nevertheless with the potential to cause harm. The research was published in Psychiatric Services on December 16. The paper continues a project focused on the experience and impact of involuntary hospitalization among youth and young adults.

“Ultimately,” Jones said, “what this work really speaks to is the need for the field to listen to and learn from individuals, in this case youth and young adults, directly impacted by mainstream crisis response policies and practices. Their narratives are complex, and strongly suggestive of the need for deeper, structural reforms, including potentially fundamental changes to mental health provider practices and attitudes, especially in inpatient settings. Notably, providers involved in crisis response themselves invoked police involvement as  ‘threats’ to bring about compliance, a default that arguably underscores the need to rethink crisis response beyond the simple removal of law enforcement.

“Police involvement appears to contribute to, but is by no means the cause of, perceived coercion, moral judgement and stigma in crisis response.”

Rather than focus on police, the researchers wrote, the findings emphasized the need for a deeper dive into mental-health practices and policies — and “more fundamental policy change.”

Interviews were conducted between November 2017 — predating the George Floyd killing that created an upswing in the Defund the Police movement — and October 2019.

Thirty-nine percent of the study participants reporting police involvement were white, another 39% were Latinx and the remainder identified as Black, mixed race and Asian. Members of each group described negative experiences overall, but the co-authors noted the need for more expansive research on the role of race in such incidences.

More than half of the participants (57%) reported being involuntarily hospitalized while in high school.  Just 14% of the participants reported overall positive experiences, “characterized by perceived warmth, compassion, and genuine concern for their well-being,” the co-authors wrote. All incidents took place in Florida.

One out of five study participants were handcuffed as a number of the incidents happened in public, before peers and community members. That helps to explain the central theme of the group overall, the co-authors wrote: They felt “…treated as if they had committed a crime or done something wrong rather than experienced distress or mental health challenges outside their control.”

In addition to Jones, the research team also included: Becky Gius of the University of South Florida; Morgan Shields of the Perelman School of Medicine and Kelly Green of the Center for the Prevention of Suicide, both at Penn; Ana Florence of the Yale School of Medicine; Amy Watson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Michele Munson of New York University; and Shira Collings, a private-practice counselor in Philadelphia.


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