Hearing voices? Utah police learn how to help in simulation
The voices and random sounds were incessant, disturbing and, at times, loud.
"You stink. Stinky, stinky, stinky."
"You're filthy, you swine."
"Cha, cha, cha."
But about three dozen law enforcement officers from across the Salt Lake Valley listened for more than an hour through headphones as the voices filled their heads with insults, random words and phrases and obnoxious, repetitive noises.
Thursday's exercise was meant to simulate what some of Utah's mentally ill residents suffer daily auditory hallucinations due to a variety of psychoses, including schizophrenia. It was part of a weeklong Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) education program designed to leave officers more knowledgeable and empathetic when dealing with mental health calls because often they are the first emergency personnel to interact with an individual.
In addition to the Thursday simulation, officers this week visited the Utah State Hospital to hear from resident and learned how to distinguish between various types of mental illness.
Nationally, statistics show that about one in four people will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness each year, officials said. Health experts say only a tiny fraction of people with mental illness become violent.
The audio tapes that officers listened to Thursday were created by medical professionals after several doctors who have suffered from auditory hallucinations met and made recordings of what their internal voices had been telling them.
One man, who is currently in the state mental hospital, shared with officers what his voices said.
" 'My voices are not nice,' " presenter Liane Frederick, a detective with Salt Lake City Police Department, said the man told officers. " 'They're very mean. They're telling me to hurt people.' "
Even when the voices are more benign, they are distracting and distressing. Some even report dreaming about their voices.
"Can you imagine having to listen to this at a volume you can't control, 24 hours a day?" asked Frederick. "[When you hear voices], it's what you deal with every day."
But, ultimately, it's what's known as "command voices" that are scary for a mentally ill individual and those around them, said Ron Bruno, SLCPD detective and Utah Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) coordinator.
Those hallucinations order people to do bizarre things such as run into oncoming traffic, chop off limbs, dig out their own teeth or even hurt or kill another person, Bruno said.
"You can't tell someone who is hearing voices that's not real, because it is," Bruno said.
Those are also the voices that can cause an individual to develop paranoia, believing without cause that the police are after them, for example.
In recent months, several high-profile incidents have involved reportedly mentally ill people who said they had been hearing voices.
Kiet Thanh Ly allegedly told police that his voices ordered him to stab two people at random outside a Salt Lake City grocery store in April. He was in court Thursday on charges related to that attack.
In late September, a Salt Lake City police officer shot and killed Anthony Mayhew after he threatened to detonate a bomb at a downtown TRAX station. Court records indicate he was convinced that the FBI had planted a brain-computer interface inside his head and believed FBI agents were speaking in his mind.
Zachary Cole Weston, who has been charged with aggravated murder, allegedly stabbed his grandmother 111 times at her Avenues home on Oct. 3. Family members have said Weston had previously been treated for schizophrenia and told his mother that he was hearing voices.
Frederick said some people resort to self-help strategies in an effort to cope with auditory hallucinations because they can't afford medicine. Even if they do take medication, some drugs can take up to four weeks to start working, she said.
Police sometimes encounter people wearing headphones that are blasting loud music as they attempt to drown out the voices, she said. Others individuals have turned to substance abuse to help cope, she said.
"There is still a very big stigma attached to mental illness," she said. "Nobody wants to grow up to be mentally ill."
One challenge is identifying those who may be reacting to auditory hallucinations. Some people will lie about their symptoms when questioned by police, Bruno said. So it's up to officers to learn techniques to recognize the signs, he said.
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