The People

Paton Blough

Greenville man uses his troubled past to train police
Paton Blough

It’s hard to describe mania to someone who has never experienced it. One minute I’m so high that my mind and body enter a nirvana-like state with feelings of ultimate power and supreme authority. And then in the next minute I feel so paranoid and scared that I think my heart will thump out of my chest.

In 2005, my mania escalated to the level that I believed a police officer was trying to pull me over to murder me. I took the police on a high-speed chase and was arrested for the first time in my life. A couple of days later, I believed I was waging nuclear war with China and President Bush was obeying my signals from my jail cell. I thought a microchip was implanted in my lung and the evil forces of the government were trying to control my actions. I was eventually placed in a mental health hospital and remained there for nearly a month.

My stay in jail and the hospital set off a chain of rapid-cycling; I was experiencing a manic high every six months alternating with depressions so severe I would beg God to end my life. I experienced severe delusional paranoia during the high times, and every time the police confronted me I was convinced they were there to kill me. People would inevitably call the police because of my erratic behavior during my times of psychosis, and I was arrested six times during those three years. I never had a criminal record before my manic episodes, but I ended up receiving multiple misdemeanor and two felony convictions—one for assaulting (spitting on) a jail intake officer and a second for threatening the life of a public official, both while incarcerated.

When I got out of jail, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greenville allowed me to share my stories of police interaction and to act out scenarios as part of a 40-hour crisis intervention team class. When I present, I want the officers to understand how bizarre psychosis can be. I go into detail about how your head gets to that point. I don’t want to scare anyone, but there are so many people who have had this happen to them and don’t want to talk about it. I want the officers to have this insight into psychosis so they can keep themselves safe, but keep people like me safe too.

Perhaps the biggest turning point in my recovery story was in 2009, when 30 officers applauded after my first ever presentation in a Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) class. One of the officers who had previously arrested me was in that class and we hugged in front of everyone. Since that time I have been involved in the training of more than 250 officers.

Over the last two years I’ve worked with South Carolina State Senator Vincent Sheheen and other South Carolina elected officials on bills to reform and expand mental health courts and a bill that mandates CIT and de-escalation training every three years for police officers. The mental health court bill passed overwhelmingly and was signed into law, while the CIT bill is currently moving through the legislature. Those bills felt like big trees to fell in improving the system in my state.

I also travel regularly to speak for NAMI and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and am working on a memoir and videos that could be used for CIT training.

A huge part of my recovery continues to be my desire to give back and the acknowledgement that this isn’t the work of a couple of months or years, but of a lifetime.

Paton Blough is a mental health advocate living in Greenville, South Carolina. Paton is the founder of and on the board of NAMI South Carolina. He lives with bipolar disorder.


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