Post 5: An Ethnographic Approach to the Law Enforcement and Mental Health

While secondary research has been quite valuable thus far in my research process, I’ve found that personal accounts of experiences with mental illness are much more engaging to read. Thus, I’ve taken it upon myself to interview a peer on the general subject of mental illness to garner their experiences and thoughts, as well as probing for their opinion on the law enforcement’s involvement with mental illness. I structured my interview with general questions about mental illness as well with some hypothetical questions thrown in to observe their thought process. Below are the questions I prepared:

  1. What do you think about our generation and mental health?
  2. Where do you draw the line between a natural occurrence and a diagnosed disorder?
  3. Would you tell your employer if you had a mental health problem? Why or why not?
  4. If you had/have mental health or know someone who has/had mental health, when do you think it’s okay to call a helpline/seek professional help?
  5. What level do you seek to help yourself and what level do you seek to help another?
  6. What are your thoughts on the law enforcement’s involvement with mental health?

My peer, a 21 year old female university design student, was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety at a very young age. Even now, she still takes prescribed medication for it. She detailed to me her experience with the illness and how throughout high school, she became someone who others would seek help from their own issues because of her experience with it. In regards to my particular focus of research into the law enforcement and mental health, she stated that “…there’s always scales in these things.” She had difficulty trying to differentiate and measure the innocence of a mentally ill person. While she described that there’s people “who have mental illnesses that can be managed… and improved with appropriate assistance,” and how “putting [mentally ill persons] in jail can have really bad mental health impacts,” she interjected with, “but what if they’re a murderer and they’re going to go out killing people?” Hence, this is why she believes there’s a scale to this. She feels if there’s opportunity for people to have a chance to engage with society again through appropriate assistance, then “I don’t see why you need to shoot them or lock them up forever.”

“If someone is able to be monitored— in a discreet way— and is able to have the appropriate resources to function again in society without causing harm to  other people, I’d really want that to happen.”

Another interesting point she described was how difficult it is to diagnose someone “because it’s hard to blur that line [between natural reaction and actual illness] since you can just ask someone questions, but you don’t know if what they’re saying is the truth.” This very idea of ‘truth’ in diagnosis of mental illness really struck with me because of what I’ve researched previously. I’ve read of police cases where they take a mentally ill person to the hospital for a mental health assessment, only to be let go the day after just because they say that they don’t feel suicidal anymore. It’s such an odd balance between the freedom of choice for the mentally ill person and the authority of a social worker who has to be the judge in these cases of treatment. I asked my peer what she thought about this particular case example, and she exclaimed that it abhorred her “that they would just let him go” and “they should have monitored him for a bit longer.” She described that it was possibly just a lack of training and that “better protocol” should be put in place.

The interview overall proved be a fairly fruitful experience, and became more of a casual, yet passionate discussion that lasted for around 30 minutes. I probably should have focused my questions specifically to my research focus, as topics drifted across diagnosis, stigma, the online space, self-esteem, trust, relationships and the law enforcement. However, in correlation with my probe, I didn’t want to discuss so much, and rather receive instinctive perspectives on the topic, letting them educate themselves like I did by using the probe I’ve given them. You can view the full transcript interview of it here.

The probe I gave to my interviewee was a simple search each day on different sites of their choosing using very general keywords relating to the police and mental health, and recording their thoughts and experiences. I encouraged them to find something positive in their search, to gauge how difficult it was to find something of praise due to general negative public opinion on the topic. You can view the full results document here.

Mental Health Probe Results 5a
A screen cap of a finding that my interviewee recorded in her Facebook search (Anonymous 2016)
Mental Health Probe Results 5e
A screen cap of a finding that my interviewee recorded in her Twitter search (Anonymous 2016)

Overall, the most valuable product I got from my probe was knowing that someone out there is a little more educated now in the topic of the law enforcement and mental health. While it didn’t necessarily change her perspective on what she had currently in regards to the topic, it asserted and made her more aware of the smaller things that need to change in order for larger society and systems to change. She noted in her findings how there was a lack of medical staff who “currently seem unable to handle the number of people that need help and how “the world needs clarification on laws regarding criminal acts verses acts by mentally ill.” Her perspective in contrast to the interview seems to have widened slightly, from instead of focusing on what the law enforcement needs to do, she looks at the larger picture into how governments and the public health systems fall into the scene.

Despite all this however, I don’t feel I’ve gained much of anything new from what I already know about my topic. So while my probe was successful in educating my peer, it wasn’t as successful in adding new information to my research. It would have made more sense if I interviewed someone from who was part of the law enforcement or part of the public health system to obtain better insights and firsthand accounts of incidents relating to my topic. Nonetheless, it was an interesting exercise to conduct, and has given me ideas for the future assessment tasks in this subject. The following is a five point summary of what I’ve gained from these exercises.

  1. People need to be educated on the law enforcement and mental health to see the larger picture.
  2. It’s difficult to measure the innocence of a mentally ill person in relation to the police.
  3. There is a definite lack of treatment for mentally ill persons.
  4. Truth plays a large factor in the diagnosis of a mental illness.
  5. Smaller things need to change in order for the larger society and system to change in regards to the law enforcement and mental health.

Interview conducted by Jasmine Mijares at the DAB Building 6, University of Technology Sydney on the 16th of August 2016.

Images included in this post were recorded by my interviewee who wishes to remain anonymous (2016) of the sites, Facebook and Twitter.

Header Image:
Malland, J. 2016, Range Ta Chambre (Clean Up Your Room), arrestedmotion, viewed 26 August 2016, <>.