Take Another Look: Police Response to Seizures and Epilepsy
This is an overview of the demographics of seizure disorders in the population. It is designed to increase officer's understanding of why they may encounter people with epilepsy in many different settings.
How is epilepsy defined?
Epilepsy is a recurring susceptibility to seizures. Seizures are temporary changes in the normal activity of the brain. These changes interrupt normal awareness and produce a variety of movements which are beyond conscious control. The seizures can be tracked by changes in brain wave patterns on an EEG machine indicating excessive electrical discharges, rather like the changes recorded on a seismograph when an earthquake takes place. After the discharge slows down, the brain slowly recovers and consciousness returns.
What causes seizures?
A seizure can occur for any number of reasons. Anything that injures the brain, or poisons it, or deprives it of needed substances can disturb its delicate electrical system and produce a seizure. Causes of seizures in people who may not have epilepsy include:
- very high fever
- alcohol withdrawal
- cocaine of other drug use
- near drowning or lack of oxygen from other causes
- gunshot wounds or other severe injury to the head
- complications of pregnancy
- severe infections of the brain (meningitis, encephalitis)
- other neurological illnesses
When seizures continue to occur either as a result of some earlier injury or an inborn susceptibility, or a long-term medical problem that cannot be corrected, the condition is called epilepsy (also referred to as a seizure disorder).
But whatever the cause, a seizure calls for the same kind of response from law enforcement. The only exception is that a seizure with a recognized immediate cause such as injury or serious illness requires emergency medical care, whereas one caused by epilepsy usually does not.
How many people in the United States have epilepsy?
Nearly three million, or approximately one percent (1 in 100) of the population.
Who are people with epilepsy?
They are nearly three million of our fellow citizens, of all ages, all races, and from all walks of life.
They are middle class homemakers, artists, construction workers, professional people, lawyers, doctors, children, alcoholics, people with cerebral palsy, people with retardation, geniuses, athletes, clergymen, TV executives, criminals, people with mental illnesses, teenagers, restaurant workers, members of Congress, homeless people, drug abusers and teachers.
Epilepsy occurs at any time of life. However, the greatest number of new cases develop in early childhood and old age.
Where do people with epilepsy live?
They live in a variety of settings, including:
- private homes or apartments, with their families, roommates, or by themselves
- halfway or group houses if their seizures are too severe to live alone
- single room occupancy hotels if they are unemployed and without much family support
- jails and prisons
- homeless shelters
Some of these living arrangements do not provide adequate support for those people with epilepsy who, because of their condition or because of other disabilities, cannot work.
Typically, hotels and shelters do not provide support services such as counseling, job training, and medication maintenance. Irregular use or inability to buy seizure medications lead to additional seizures which may increase exposure to the police, especially if the seizures occur in the vicinity of hotels or shelters in high crime areas.
In these circumstances some people with epilepsy may be eligible for other assistance from local agencies to which the police may refer them.
Some people with epilepsy are homeless, and some homeless people with epilepsy may also be mentally ill. In such cases, all the problems of epilepsy and poverty are compounded by the additional burden of mental illness.