Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

The bipolar activist wants to cure OC's problem with the homeless who are mentally ill

The occasional tragedies that occur when the police interact with the mentally ill are well-known. But the panelists talk of the opportunities the police have to make a positive impact, such as recommending where the individual can get treatment or the family help. As Scott puts it, "Communicating with family members can avoid possible police-brutality-complaint situations."

Scott, 54, was a homicide investigator with the Royal Canadian Mounties. At 40, his life changed thanks to PTSD and bipolar disorder. "I would be outside in the rain crying; you couldn't tell in the rain. Shania Twain songs had special messages for me. I was on a blessed mission from God to root out all evil. Not good if you're packing a semiautomatic pistol under your arm."

The speakers emphasize that society has pushed its mental-illness problem onto the police. "The hallucinatory voice can suppress the real one," Scott notes. "You're giving commands, and they can't hear you. It can sound to them as if you were talking through Jell-O." He argues that if police can properly identify mental illness in the field, they can reduce their own caseload and avoid tragic outcomes. "Early intervention is key—get them help when their behavior is a two instead of a nine."

Lisa Becker: "There's a war going on in here"
Riley Kern
Lisa Becker: "There's a war going on in here"
Becker's Project Q-Tip in action
Riley Kern
Becker's Project Q-Tip in action

The police in the audience are curious, engaged. One asks Woodard, "What was the first sign you saw in your son?"

"Disorganized thinking," he answers. "When customers at Carl's Jr. said, 'please,' he wanted to know what was the hidden meaning behind 'please.'"

Becker is the last speaker. Her sincerity, her story and a certain amount of sex appeal transfix the mostly male audience. "I tell them they have a tough job; we wish we knew what to tell you," she later explains. "I always shaped up when I saw them coming, but some people are combative and don't want to comply. Someone who's psychotic has to be taken to the hospital, whether they want to go or not. Mentally ill people can be tricky and unpredictable.

"You guys—law enforcement—get to deal with that guy screaming at the light pole," she tells the audience. "He's sick, he's high, he's hurting. You're going to see the mentally ill at their worst. You're going to run into the drug addicts and alcoholics who are mentally ill. I went from being quirky to annoying to dangerous. I ruined cars, got drugged, got kicked in the face. Losing control, losing my mind, didn't make me entertaining."Her father's eyes close. "But you're in a unique position to help," she concludes. "Everyone you meet under the bridge has a history. You can save those people. I was saved."

Becker estimates she's had "zillions" of forced hospitalizations. "I've been thrown down on the ground and had guns pointed at me," she says. "And not a lot of the hospitals that take 5150s are nice places. Underpaid mental-health-care workers who are sick of crazy people. You lose your clothes, your phone; I learned to memorize all my phone numbers. I've suffered and gone into trauma. I'd rather sleep under the stars than go into a mental hospital."

She tells the cops that one key to dealing with mentally ill people is simply to listen, as people living on the streets are often lonely. "If you run into a bipolar person, let them talk your ear off for 10 minutes. Sometimes, I'd get ahold of the police when I was lonely and wanted to talk. Be patient, deep-breathe, repeat their name to engage them."

The cops in attendance seem energized. Tom Byrd, of the OC Probation Department, says her presentation gave him insight into mental illness among his probationers. "More information can only help."

Another officer, who asked that her name not be used, says, "Awareness helps. Maybe I can get them referred to the right places." Working with juveniles, she says, "We try to determine whether they're actual criminals or if there's something else going on. Juvenile hall should be a last call for some."

"I think it is invaluable," adds OC Sheriff's Department Lieutenant Dan Dwyer, a watch commander. "On foot patrol, you know the people with mental-health issues. I've seen firsthand the devastation with the family unit. 'What's wrong with our son?' We go talk to them. Family members may not be aware their child has a mental issue—it may not be meth. We're not going to be the ones for the long term. But we have to deal with the person in crisis."

Dwyer believes the key to successfully handling mentally ill people in domestic situations is to not escalate the turmoil. "In one of my patrol areas, a family had a son with issues, so we'd take it slow, talk him down, get him evaluated," he explains. "Most will go cooperatively—the 5150 is the exception to the rule. If someone's running in the street, yelling, action has to be taken. But the key is communications before escalation. Try to build a rapport. Talk them down."

While police have become the tip of the spear in dealing with mental illness, they hardly remain unaffected. Yet the stigma is still so great the officers often feel they have no one to talk to. Becker says hard-bitten cops often pull her aside. "They'll say, 'My wife is acting funny' or, 'My sister is bipolar.' At one CIT, this guy pulled me outside. He told me his girlfriend was bipolar; she had to stop taking her meds because she was pregnant and was acting crazy."

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