Medical Interpreters: Understanding Law Enforcement Role In Mental Health Crises


There are several situations when law enforcement involvement overlaps with medical services (child abuse, motor vehicle accident, assault, etc.). This post focuses on law enforcement’s involvement in a mental health crisis intervention. These are unique situations for many reasons, but it can be particularly helpful for the medical interpreter to understand the role and professional training of the officer who is present at the facility.

Let’s start with a pop quiz:

Q: What is law enforcement’s purpose?

A: To serve and protect. 

With that answer in mind, the officer’s involvement in a mental health crisis is to ensure the individual’s welfare, not necessarily to issue a citation or detain the individual in the county jail, unless there was some additional incident that took place.

However, when responding to a mental health crisis – usually this happens in the community or private residence, not at the medical facility – the officer’s training might only cause the situation to escalate even more – the exact opposite of what the officer would expect to happen.

This is because many officers have little or no training with regard to identifying and responding to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. In some cases, the training that they have received in order to contain and control volatile situations is the exact opposite of what should be done in a situation involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis, and the officer’s actions only cause the situation to escalate further. The officer’s intentions are good, but the techniques are not, at least not for these situations.

Officers, like anyone else, can have prejudice and misunderstanding with regard to mental illness. Personal beliefs coupled with a lack of appropriate training might lead to awkward situations in the best of cases, and escalated crises in the worst of cases.

As the medical interpreter, you might be confused or downright appalled at how the officer interacts with others, including the patient, during a mental health crisis. In much the same way that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking the law, ignorance of mental illness is not an excuse for behaving poorly. Still, it might help the interpreter to view the officer’s behavior as a result of ignorance as opposed to malicious intent. 

So, what can be done to improve how law enforcement officers deal with these situations?  Proper training and education for these situations is key. As the interpreter, you might not be able to train up the officer, but you can share resources for officers to get training specific to these situations.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has an excellent training program (Crisis Intervention Team) specific for law enforcement officers to learn how to identify and respond to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.  

Interested in this course, but not a law enforcement officer?  Check out NAMI’s modified version of this program (Crisis Intervention Partners) for non-law enforcement community members. Check with your local NAMI chapter for program availability. I took the course in 2010, and I highly recommend it.

To learn more about what happens during a crisis intervention, check out this recent news article: Suicide Incidents Set Off Vast Crisis Network
Note: The specific services available and governing laws might be different for your local community.

Want to learn techniques for medical interpreters to interact successfully with law enforcement officers involved in emergency department situations? Join us for Stop! It’s the Police! an online continuing education course for medical interpreters.

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