This is what it’s like to be arrested while suffering mental illness

Paton Blough has two labels he will have to bear for the rest of his life: “bipolar” and “convicted felon.” Having been arrested during his delusional episodes, Blough uses his experiences to help train police officers in crisis management when dealing with the mentally ill.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally tonight, as part of our Broken Justice series, we have a "NewsHour" essay.

    Paton Blough opens up about his bipolar disorder and frequent encounters with law enforcement.

  • PATON BLOUGH, Founder, Rehinge:

    I have two labels I will carry the rest of my life, bipolar and convicted felon. They're not mutually exclusive.

    I have been arrested six different times, all the while in a delusional, paranoid state of mind caused by my illness. What you know about society and how people typically behave doesn't apply to me. I enter a department store, and it feels right to immediately take off my shoes.

    I'm convinced the government is plotting to control me, playing carefully selected songs on the radio to persuade me into making a certain decision, so I change the station just to spite them. I throw three fingers up at a public security camera and tell President Obama to read between the lines.

    No, the rules of society don't apply to me, not when I'm having one of my episodes.

    I just raise my hand like this.

    My episodes, which are rare, can happen at any time and take many forms, from creating a piece of art, to aggressively accusing UPS employees of being government workers smuggling weapons through their delivery routes.

    I'm able to show you these pictures because my wife has documented these episodes, so that we can learn more about myself and ultimately help others learn.

  • WOMAN:

    My gosh, this is a mess. You created a studio up here, baby. You look like a true artist.

  • PATON BLOUGH:

    You see, I'm not alone.

    More than half of all prison and jail inmates have a mental health issue. You can imagine the kind of reaction someone like me might have when delusions trigger an incident in which a police officer wants to engage with me or, worse, arrest me.

    Three of my six arrests went relatively well, with police getting me into custody safely. The other three were extremely violent, because, in my head, I was fighting for my life.

    I was Tased in the back of the police car in our hospital parking lot with leg irons and handcuffs on. And one of my charges that night were destruction of county property, because I broke the leg irons.

    Thankfully, around six years ago, my recovery killed into high gear. I was asked to share my experiences with officers as part of something called crisis intervention training. In my experience, most officers want to help, but often simply lack the training to know what to do in these tough situations.

    One time, I was arrested by an officer who I believed naturally possess many of the things we train. He slowed down and didn't force the issue when I accused him of being an undercover agent. He waited for my brother to come from across town to bring my meds.

    When I accused him of giving me a poisoned bottle of water so I could take my pills, he immediately offered to take a sip to prove it was fine. There is no doubt we need more officers like this today.

    I came up with a training sheet which quickly describes for the police how to deal with someone like myself. Let the person think they're in control. Slow down and stay calm. One thing I always tell them is to imagine the person they're dealing they're dealing with is their brother, mother or good friend.

    The biggest shame of my life has been my criminal record, but now I get to take those experiences and help my community.

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