My 22-year-old son, Zac, has schizophrenia, the paranoid type. Since February, he has phoned emergency services five times to ask for help for problems that he’s imagining. Sometimes it’s a heart attack, sometimes his throat is closing, and yesterday, it was to report a gunshot wound to his head.
He was certain he had been shot because earlier in the day, he’d heard a leader in his psychiatric rehab program say, “Who wants directions to Zac’s house?” That comment upset him and by night time, it had translated into him thinking that he’d been shot in the head.
He phoned 911 to report it.
I was worried when I found out what he’d done. The police have weapons and there is no shortage of news articles about tragic encounters when police are called to intervene during a psychiatric crisis.
Calling the police should not be the route that severely mentally ill individuals have to take to get to decent care, but it seems to be much more common. The new mental health page posted on the White House website advises you to call 911 if you have a mental illness and need help. That is its official recommendation — as bizarre and sickening as that seems.
We waited together for the police to arrive although my son asked me to let him do the talking. He didn’t want them to know he had a mental illness.
A female officer arrived. Her name-tag identified her as Officer Kim. My son met her outside on the sidewalk. She asked his name, shook his hand politely and asked him what was wrong. He told her he wanted to report being shot in the head.
“Where were you shot,” she asked. “Can you show me?”
He pointed to both temples. There was nothing there, of course.
She said, “I see what you mean. I do see a little spot right there.”
He told her that he was worried about losing brain cells. She asked him if he’d seen the weapon. He thought it was a pistol but he wasn’t sure. She asked when he’d been wounded; he wasn’t sure. He just wanted to report his gunshot wound.
She said, “Do you mind if I check your pockets? Do you have anything sharp on you that could hurt me?”
He gave her permission so she gently patted his pockets and then thanked him for letting her check.
She took a few steps toward me and I whispered: “My son has schizophrenia.”
Another officer arrived as backup. Before he could approach my son, Officer Kim called him over and whispered something. The officer approached me and softly asked, “Is your son taking medicine?”
I said, “Yes, faithfully.”
This second officer handed me a note with a hotline number to call in case of crisis. I asked him to introduce himself to my son since I feel it is important for us to know the police in our area (unfortunately). They shook hands and the officer introduced himself before leaving on another call.
What Officer Kim did next was miraculous.
Zac told her that a group leader at the hospital had given out his address. He was sure that he heard the leader say: “ Hey, who wants Zac’s address?”
Officer Langford said, “I’m going to go to the car now, and I’m going to check all our databases and see what it says. You wait right here while I find out who’s responsible, ok? I will check for you to see how this happened.”
My son agreed to wait.
When she looked at me, I said quietly, “There’s nothing wrong. What are you doing?”
She said, “I know, I’m just going to pretend to check…Ok?”
When she returned from her squad car, she told him: “I checked all the databases. We have a lot of them. I checked every single one, and I didn’t find anything at all. No one can get your address. Nobody can get your address, not your friends or people at the school, nobody. OK? You are safe now.”
When he told her that he was certain people were giving out his address, Officer Langford said, “You know sometimes people at school or your friends–they just like playing with you. They just tease or say things to cause trouble. I have kids at home, and I know how kids can be, they just like to say things and cause a little trouble. But you don’t have to worry about that. I just checked the databases for you, all of them, and nobody can get your address except us, and we are the police. Now you can laugh if that happens again. You can laugh because you know, they’re playing you. The police told you nobody can get your information. It can’t happen ok?”
He smiled and nodded.
Officer Kim then asked if there was anything else she could do to make my son feel better.
After a moment, he said, “Well, no. But should I get my head wound checked out?”
She looked at him carefully and said, “I don’t think so. I’ve seen gunshot wounds lots of times.” Reaching up, she rubbed the spot on his temple where he said the bullet had entered.
“Yep, I’ve seen that before, it should clear up by itself in a couple days. You will be fine, Ok?” she said.
He nodded but it was obvious that he was still worried so she repeated it a few more times: “I’ve seen that before, it should be ok, it’ll be fine in 4 or 5 days at the most.”
She told him that she had another call but she was absolutely certain that he would be fully recovered in a couple days.
I had braced myself for the worst when I learned that he had called the police. What I had just witnessed was the best. I’m not certain if Officer Kim had received Crisis Intervention Team Training but she was undoubtedly the most compassionate police officer who I’ve ever met and very skilled in handling psychiatric patients.
She was professional, she validated his concerns, she had an immediate solution for calming him, she asked how she could make him feel better, she addressed every worry he presented and she did that without once asking if he were sick and if he was taking his medicine. She did not ridicule him or make fun of his delusion or get angry because he was wasting her time.
This morning, I took great pleasure in phoning the Towson, Maryland precinct and asking that someone tell her sergeant, or captain, or whoever supervised her, to thank her. I have friends whose children with psychiatric illnesses have been tasered, beaten, even shot at… Officer Langford treated my son with respect, with incredible skill, with patience and compassion.
She made a fearful young man feel better, something I often cannot do.
My son came in the house after that experience, drank some juice, and got ready for bed. He knocked on my bedroom door. He had his pills in his hand and a glass of water. He took them in front of me, said good night, then lay down to sleep.
There are myriad ways the police visit could have gone wrong. But it didn’t because a police officer was willing to do whatever she had to, to make a scared and worried young man feel better, and she did.
She did it right!
by Laura Pogliano, Treatment Advocacy Center