De-escalating folks when psychotic or potentially violent

I have a few stories I’ve written about within the context of other posts here on Beyond Meds of times I’ve de-escalated people who might have otherwise become violent. I’m sharing them here just so that people can see what is possible and why I know that we can do much better than we do in many circumstances where people end up being re-traumatized unnecessarily when suffering in crisis. Other people, in general, are afraid when people act with hostility. This is a natural human instinct, of course. However, meeting people in crisis by returning fear and violence will often backfire. Finding a way to connect can instead be healing for everyone involved.

I talked about these experiences the other day when I participated the Crisis Intervention Team training with some of my local law enforcement. One of the officers had his own experiences of de-escalating armed and hostile distressed people and nodded in agreement as I talked about this. It was a powerful experience to share stories with those officers of the law. You can read about it here and I highly recommend you do. It was wonderfully encouraging to have the rapt attention of 6 sheriff deputies. They really wanted to know how to get better at helping people avoid losing their freedom in what is often a really difficult situation for everyone involved.

I made the suggestion to the officers that it’s worth always assuming that the situation can be de-escalated. And that relationship with another human being can happen in 30 seconds if one learns to connect. Once a relationship — a connection — is made with another person it’s possible to calm and create trust. And finally, if the assumption is always made that it’s possible to connect with our fellow human beings even when they’re in distress and fearful and hostile, then each time one is called to be in a crisis situation is a learning experience, an opportunity to learn more about relating to our fellow human beings. We may not always accomplish what we know is possible, but we will have done all we can to create a positive healing experience instead of exacerbating the situation. It’s about learning and being kind to both ourselves and others. Not about being perfect. Life is messy sometimes and that’s often really clear when facing people in emotional crisis of all kinds.

Below are the excerpts from prior posts when I’ve written about the times I’ve been able to help distressed human beings who were wielding weapons.

From having had a knife held to me by two psychotic individuals I speak from experience when I say psychotic people can be communicated with. They can be calmed. They can be disarmed (literally and figuratively.) I don’t hesitate to say that I imagine that 99.9% of agitated psychosis can be quelled with love.

I loved the people who held knives to me. It’s that sweet and simple. I had compassion for them. I saw their fear and I did not respond with fear. In one instance the man holding the knife was a client in my office. I was alone in the office with him. He got agitated while talking to me and stood up and drew out a long butcher knife and swung it ominously around in the air in front of me, threatening. I became very calm and I began to speak soothingly to him. “You don’t want to hurt me, S____. Give me the knife.” I repeated this a few times. He looked confused, hurt, pained–then he gave me the knife and apologized. I escorted him out of the building and he left.

The second guy who held me at knife point was someone out of his mind on LSD. We were on the street at 3 am. I was walking home from work. He jumped wildly about me, yelling, “I’m a crazy mother-f***king Indian on acid!! You better watch out.” I calmly started asking him questions. “When did you take the acid? Do you know that you’re scaring me? I don’t think you want to hurt me.” He too came down quickly. He backed off and also apologized. He went on his way. (read more – My Forced Psychiatric Treatment)

What might surprise you, is where I learned to do that. It was when I was in what many would call a “manic” and psychotic state. Mania (and psychosis in general) is simply (and perhaps sometimes not so simply) an unintegrated part of the psyche. Once it’s integrated it’s no longer a problem and in fact can deeply inform many aspects of life.

I wrote about it in the first post on this blog:

…I was having my first manic episode. The wonders of the world opened up to me–all things were possible — I was one with the universe. I was charismatic and people were drawn to me. I was not, at first, out of control. Instead I had a confidence I had never experienced before. I associated with people from all walks of life and felt a deep love for all of humanity. In this altered state I had many exceptional experiences. I will share one with you.

I came out of my suite one day to the sounds of people yelling. I looked down the hall and saw a young man wielding a gun pointed at someone who had done him wrong in a drug deal. A veil of peace came upon me. I calmly walked up to the man who was still yelling at his customer with gun in hand. I gently put my hand on his shoulder. He turned to look at me seemingly disarmed. I said “you don’t want to hurt anyone…come on let’s go.” I took his arm and led him away to the stairwell. We walked down to the first landing and stopped. I spoke to him about love and peace, we hugged and he left. I don’t remember exactly what I said and I know if sounds terribly cheesy, but it worked. I felt a huge sense of power and oneness with humankind. — (read more – The Beginning)

I’m not suggesting that all was peachy in my life when I first experienced that sort of connection with someone most people would have been (reasonably) frightened by. If you continue to read that post you’ll see I was having a difficult time in many ways. The out of control psyche ain’t  pretty, but it sure as heck can be tamed and integrated and healed if one gets the proper care and guidance.

We can become whole again and we can learn from what we know at the times when things are chaotic and scary. It’s not all wrong, it’s simply distorted. And what I learned, what I had access to when I helped that man leave the building before he hurt someone, has stayed with me always. My understanding of the nature of humanity has only deepened throughout the years. I am no longer manic, nor do I get manic anymore, but I learned a whole lot from when I was. This is something we should be helping all our troubled young people learn how to do. That is, we need to teach them to integrate their difficult mind states so that they become sources of strength and wisdom rather than pain and danger. This is very possible. I know 100s of people who’ve managed to do this. We need to make it part of systemic care for the most vulnerable in our society that they might have the opportunity to heal and thrive.

People heal from having had psychotic experiences all the time, in many different ways. The paths to wholeness are endlessly diverse.

For some such stories see:  Psychosis recovery: stories, information and resources

Important reminder: most people labeled with mental illness and psychosis and mania do not ever get violent. In fact statistics indicate that they are more often, in their vulnerability, subject to being targets of violence. 

This article is now on Mad in America too, where you can join the discussion.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: