Emotionally Disturbed Persons: Strategies for Dealing With EDPs

Mental Health (MH) issues are a reality in our society. It is estimated that nearly one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental health issue. That’s over 47 million people. They vary in severity from mild to moderate to severe. In some cases, like the Emotionally Disturbed Person, or EDP described below, they can be a significant, frequently unpredictable, threat.

Widespread Concerns

On the extreme end this can significantly increase the threat level of an encounter or confrontation. Severe mental illness can make people extremely difficult to deal with, to the point of being dangerous. Because there is a significant percentage of our population who suffer from this, our chances of having to deal with someone who has mental issues at some point is fairly high. This does not mean someone with such an issue is automatically a threat, but specific individuals under certain circumstances certainly can be. We would do well to have an idea how to deal with such a person ahead of time. This, and the proper application of other soft skills, may preempt an unpleasant or dangerous encounter.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll mainly be talking about individuals who are Seriously Mentally Ill (SMI). They are the most likely to act out in a violent manner.

Note: nothing in this article should be construed as an attempt to belittle or vilify someone suffering from mental illness; this information is tailored intentionally to deal with threats. 

Enraged man.
An Emotionally Disturbed Person (EDP) can sometimes act out in rage. Photo: Ethan Cunningham.

A person who is suffering from some depression or anxiety, or who has something such as OCD (Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder) is not a prime candidate for violent outbursts. As such, we’ll not concern ourselves with such levels of mental illness. They will normally be on the “milder” side.

This article is not a formal medical opinion; it relays opinions and observations based on many years of personal (albeit niche) experience.

The Emotionally Disturbed Person (EDP)

Emotionally Disturbed Persons, or EDPs, are people who are suffering from severe mental illness (SMI). Some characteristics of this is when people have auditory hallucinations (hearing voices) or visual hallucinations (seeing things that are not there). In lay terms, they may be delusional, in that they believe they hear and see things that are not there, and they respond to these non-existent entities.

The problem is that we don’t know what the voices in their head are telling them to do. This can make an EDP extremely unpredictable. One moment, we can be talking to them calmly, and the next instant, they are swinging their fists at us and we have no clue why. All we know is that we are being attacked.

This unpredictability is the scary and worrisome part because there is sometimes no way to predict when or if it will happen. The level of violence with which it can be suddenly released is also a concern because once it begins, it may not abate.

How do you deal with someone who is emotionally disturbed?

To deal with someone who is emotionally disturbed (EDP) you must should try to understand how their illness presents and know what potential physical and behavioral changes might manifest.

EDPs in the System

For many years, I worked in my state’s prison system. While working there, I had occasion to work with a very high number of EDPs. I’m not sure exactly what the stats are for mental health in our prison system, but it is incredibly high – a large percentage of inmates have some sort of mental illness. Many of those are not mild, but in fact are rather extreme.

Prison gun tower.
The author’s experience with mentally ill people largely took place inside of these walls.

In the prisons, there are at least some provisions for dealing with mental illness. Unfortunately they are, by and large, rather ineffective. Many individuals must be heavily medicated in order to keep them from acting out against others or even themselves.

The most dangerous inmates I’ve ever worked with were those with serious mental illness, not least because they are so unpredictable. I’ve been physically attacked numerous times by people with an SMI condition.

Wavelengths

For lack of a better term let’s describe the way a typical person operates as a “wavelength”. Most of us operate, more or less, on the same wavelength. We are grounded in reality, in that we are oriented in Person, Time, and Place.

If we are not oriented in those three categories, then we are out of touch with reality. And many people I dealt with were decidedly not oriented in reality. They were not mentally/emotionally working on our time or in our universe.

During my career, I witnessed some of the most bizarre behavior that you cannot begin to imagine. I’ll throw out a few examples here:

One individual, in particular, believed that he was dealing with Adolf Hitler and Nikita Khruschev. He would often blurt out bizarre statements that made absolutely no sense. It would have been almost amusing had he not been a homicidal madman in prison for cutting people up into pieces. He walked around all day long threatening to kill everyone around him and was completely paranoid.

Another individual would make little figurines in his cell. This wouldn’t have been all that strange, save for the fact that he made them out of a mixture of feces and peanut butter. He’d adorn them with his own pubic hair (he was a stickler for realism). After he’d finished a masterpiece (I called them “Dung Dollies”), he’d place it on the shelf inside of his cell to admire for a few days. After the admiration period had expired (I’m not sure how he decided when that was complete), he would then eat the figurine.

Prison mental health unit.
One of the Mental Health Units inside the prison where the author used to work.

One inmate, when he became upset, would rip the porcelain toilet out of the floor of his cell in the Mental Health Unit. He’d hurl the toilet against the wall of his cell, where it would shatter into dozens of both large and small pieces. Then he would pick up the shards of porcelain and either eat them or use them as blades to attack other people. Because of his behavior, all the porcelain toilets in our Mental Health Units were replaced with stainless steel models.

I knew another inmate who would break the handles off of the plastic prison eating utensils and shove them up his nose. He was also so flexible that he was able to bend himself in half and…I’m trying to be delicate here…pleasure himself with his own mouth. It did not matter where he was walking in the prison when the urge struck him; he would drop to the floor and commence oral self-gratification right then and there, regardless of who might be present. He also had a strong connection to a soccer ball. If anyone tried to take that ball from him, he would erupt into the most violent outburst imaginable. Without fail, it would take over a half-dozen prison staff to subdue him, and there were guaranteed to be injuries.

• I personally observed two inmates (one each on separate occasions) cut off their own testicles.

These are just a very few of the treats that I bore witness to during my time working inside. I use them to make the point that you likely have no idea just how disturbed some people can be — and there are no obvious indicators to warn you ahead of time what you might be dealing with.

Prison mental health unit.
Here is another Mental Health Unit (MHU) inside of a prison. The accommodations were often not very hospitable.

High Pain Tolerance/Imperviousness

A normal person realizes that certain actions will result in pain. For the most part, we do not want to inflict pain upon ourselves. This is not necessarily so with EDPs.

These folks may have no concept of pain. It is similar to “mind over matter”. If it’s not in their mind, it does not matter. This could obviously affect the outcome of a fight. For instance, the two individuals that sliced off their testicles — they did not appear to be in any pain at all. Would either of them have succumbed to a groin kick in a street fight?

Custody and control techniques, pressure points, the application of strikes, use of Tasers or OC spray…an Emotionally Disturbed Person can be effectively “immune” to one or all measures.

Our World

So how does all of this prison madness translate into the Real World where the rest of us live?

Well, people are people. Wherever we happen to find ourselves.

The EDPs mentioned above were all out in the world of everyday life before they were locked up. Many were just as disturbed before prison as during, and large numbers of them remain disturbed after release.

It’s possible they might become a problem again. Perhaps it is an encounter with you on the street that puts an EDP back in prison. And for each EDP in a correctional facility there are others who have not committed actions that would put them in an institution — but the potential is there.

Fighting with an EDP.
EDPs can become very violent. Mental Health is a growing, challenging crisis within our system, especially with so many Mental Health facilities being shut down. Photo: Kialo.

Mental health treatment costs a lot of money, and consequently, many mental health facilities in various states have been shut down. The people who could desperately use these services do not have access to them. Thus, mental conditions go untreated and tend to intensify.

Recognition

We need to be able to recognize mental conditions and know what to do in the event we encounter someone acting under their influence.

Most of us can generally tell when another person is a bit “off.” Beyond that, let’s look at some indicators that a person is experiencing serious mental illness.

For the purposes of this article we include possible drug reactions. It makes little difference in the person we’re dealing with is experience psychosis due to a mental condition or because of a substance.

Woman being stalked.
Listen to your gut. If it’s telling you that something is wrong, it probably is! Photo: AETV.

By themselves, a number of these signs do not necessarily indicate mental illness. However, in combinations, they might. Our job isn’t to diagnose people; rather, it is to keep ourselves safe.

Signs

  • Lack of eye contact. The person might be reluctant to make eye contact with us. That itself is not an absolute – perhaps they are just shy or embarrassed for some reason.
  • Too much eye contact. Staring could be either mental illness or a predatory sign. Either way, not good news for us.
  • Repetitive motions.
  • Overly aggressive behavior.
  • Talking to oneself or to entities who aren’t actually there (not necessarily “people).
  • Unsteady walk, pacing.
  • Wild or bizarre gestures.
  • A wild expression in the eyes. This is difficult to describe, but most times, you will know it when you see it.
  • Trust your gut – if something seems to be amiss, it likely is!
  • Openly angry or distraught.
  • Paranoia, looking around in an exaggerated manner.

Strategies

  • Always maintain Situational Awareness. Be aware, not paranoid.
  • First and foremost, avoid threats whenever possible. They cannot attack you if you’re not available.
  • Watch the hands! This is a huge one if you do find yourself in a confrontation, and I can’t emphasize it too much. If you cannot see the other person’s hands, maintain a distance so you will have a reactionary gap and/or time to take evasive action.
  • Be nice. Politeness will go a long way in not provoking the other party. You can always be not nice later on, or better yet avoid interaction completely.
  • If you are not in a place where there are others, try to get to a location with lots of people present. If nothing else, they might make a phone call if you find yourself being attacked.
  • Attempt to avoid eye contact. Making eye contact can sometimes provoke an EDP, as it may be seen as a challenge.  Do, however, keep the person under keen observation using peripheral vision.
  • If confronted, remain firm but friendly. Avoid sarcasm.
  • Sometimes friendliness is taken as a weakness, in which case you may need to present yourself in a stronger manner. Use firm tones but don’t be abrasive.
  • “Expect the unexpected”, i.e., accept the possibility of surprise; EDPs can react spontaneously. Do not become complacent and never turn your back on them (literally).
  • Use distractions. “I have to take this important phone call, please excuse me,” while pretending that your cell phone is on silent and ringing. Use it as an excuse to break contact. Claim that you have an emergency to tend to. That phone call is a great distraction for this.
  • Don’t be afraid to summon the police – they are more trained and equipped to deal with EDPs than you are.
Injured police officer.
Police are better trained and equipped to deal with EDPs than most of us are. Still, they are often injured when dealing with this challenge. Photo: Shouse Law Group.

Other Considerations

Be aware that if you do have to use force against an Emotionally Disturbed Person, it may very well be the fight of your life.  You and I have a rational mind that reminds us of our physical limitations; that might not be the case with someone who is seriously mentally ill. They might not have the thought process or physiological constraints necessary to remind them they are only human. As a result, in addition to feeling little to no pain, they are often immensely strong.

I’ve seen instances in the prison where it took over a half dozen staff members to gain control of an EDP. It often turns bloody.

When a “more normal” person is placed in, say, an arm bar, pain compliance will frequently immobilize them. An EDP might suffer a broken elbow and show no signs of giving up the fight.

That brings me to some of the Use Of Force Options. Many people think very highly of these, but their efficacy against an Emotionally Disturbed Person should be considered suspect at best.

  • OC Spray. Oleoresin Capsicum, or “Pepper Spray.” There are those who believe this is the best thing since sliced bread, that it will take down people, grizzly bears, even low-flying aircraft. A calm or non-disturbed individual might indeed drop to their knees in a snotty mess, but it’s often ineffective against people acting under the influence of various substances or while suffering mental issues. OC spray often fails; I’ve seen it happen.
Woman sprayed with OC.
OC spray can and does fail more than most people think. Its track record against people with mental problems is not that great. Photo: The New Yorker.
  • Tasers/Stun Guns. These are the next “wonder devices” that people often think are infallible. I mean, who could withstand 150,000 volts running through their body? Well, actually, quite a few people can. As with OC Spray, there is the a good chance of failure when used against EDPs and those who are on substances. There are also many people that are just naturally resistant.
Cop with a Taser.
Tasers are not infallible either, and do have a substantial failure rate, especially among people who have mental issues. Photo: The Guardian.
  • Firearms. Even firearms have a higher chance of failing when used on EDPs and people who are under the influence of substances.
S&W 642 .38 revolver.
Even handguns can fail to stop an Emotionally Disturbed Person. There is no magic solution.

Should an encounter degenerate to a fight, do not presume your physical defense measures will be effective. Don’t carry all your eggs, as they say, in one basket. Having all one’s faith in a single magical solution is not a good plan, and not just when dealing with EDPs.

Avoidance of a threat is and always well be the best strategy you can employ, but it’s not always possible. Failing avoidance, an understanding of the potential dangers, a mindset of awareness, a judicious retreat, and occasionally the use of conversational/body language creativity may help deter or deflect violence.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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