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Teenagers, Police, and Mental Health Problems: A Volatile Combination

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Guest Post By Sarah D. Sparks

Encounters with police are not always about crime. Nearly 1 in 5 of the teenagers fatally shot by police in the year since Michael Brown's death in Ferguson had histories of mental health problems, from bipolar disorder to depression.

In several cases, there is reason to suggest young people actively sought to bring about "suicide by cop." A 16-year-old in Florida shot at a highway patrol officer who stopped him during a drive as he was allegedly on his way to commit suicide with his girlfriend in another state. Three young people told police on the phone or in notes that they were armed when they were not, presumably in an effort to bring armed officers in. Two others reportedly asked police outright to shoot them, even as family members nearby begged both sides to stand down.

When police are confronted with a mentally ill young person, they likely know nothing about his or her struggles or progress: They only see the immediate threat. But teachers and school officials do see and know these students, and may have the chance to intervene before it becomes a matter of life or death.


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