by Jim Wagner

Not too long ago society dealt with the mentally deranged by putting them away in an asylum. This insolated citizens from having to deal with abnormal and sometimes dangerous behavior of the mentally ill. However, two decades ago a new policy of deinstitutionalization was adopted and the burden of handling these people fell onto the shoulders of law enforcement. Of course, law enforcement is very limited in their options when dealing with the mentally ill. When these people come into contact with the police they are imprisoned if they commit a crime, then released back into society after serving their time, or they are taken to community based treatment centers for short durations and released. Unfortunately, many of these people have no families to care for them, and a great number of them live on the streets (homeless).

As a martial artist, especially those of you who live or work in an urban environment, it is likely that you may one day find yourself in a confrontation with a mentally ill person. Although your martial arts training has prepared you for a self-defense situation with a rational person, albeit a criminal, has your training prepared you to deal with abnormals? Have your instructors given you the warning signs you should be aware of, or the appropriate courses of actions to take prior to using your fighting skills, and the proper use-of-force levels should violence erupts, against such a person? Most martial artists have never thought about such a scenario, let alone prepare for it. Yet, a fair number of people every year find themselves the victims of violent mentally ill persons. In this article we will explore what your options are, and how to prepare for such an encounter.

What Made Jim Wagner an Authority?
Before I give you the survival tools necessary to deal with abnormals, you are probably wondering how I became an "authority" on the subject of self-defense and the mentally ill. Fair enough, I'll explain. I have been in law enforcement for 14 years. I started my career working the first two years in a city jail in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It was there that I had my first contact with the mentally ill, and it is something that is pervasive through out the jails and prisons of the United States. When I went through the Corrections Officers Academy, back in 1989, our training included dealing with the mentally ill.

I then became a police officer patrolling the streets. In the Police Academy they again taught us about handling mentally ill people, and after this training I often found myself calming down situations, transporting some of them to homeless shelters or arresting others. On several occasions I even had to defend myself against a few mentally ill suspects that attacked me or others. Once, I even had to rescue some staff members at a mental institution from a patient that they could not control.

After the horrendous events of 911 (the terrorists attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001) I became a Special Agent with the United States Government and did counterterrorist operations for the remainder of that year and all of 2002 - completing 146 missions. Interesting enough, when I went through the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLTC), then later on counterterrorism school, they had a complete lesson titled HANDLING ABNORMALS (ST-4013 Rev: 8/94). So, as you can see, my involvement with the mentally ill does not come from the sterile environment of a clinic, or from a charity organization, but from actual hands-on experience. Thus, I have both a compassion for this group, and a high level of caution as well.

Although I have been training police and military units for the past 11 years, as a Defensive Tactics instructor, on how to deal with abnormals, within the past six months my civilian program, Reality-Based Martial Arts, has been spreading like a forest fire. The advice I'm about to give you are excerpts from my courses that are taught globally.

What is Abnormal?
What is abnormal human behavior? The definition that I teach my students comes from the American Psychiatric Association (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - DMS III-R, 1987), that defines any action taken by an individual which is:

Inappropriate for his or her position
Has no potential for achieving the stated goal of the action (confused or disoriented). Continues despite objective accurate information that such action is unlikely to be effective.

To put it in layman terms, abnormal behavior is inconsistent with the customs and mores of a specific society, perceptions not based on reality, and an exhibition of actions or verbalization that has no rational meaning (a mental process that rambles from one idea to another).

The causes of mental disorders are diverse, and often times unknown. Disorders may be biological, neurological, psychological, or even environmental in nature. However, the cause is not important here, rather, we need to know how can a martial artist can recognize and identify whether a potential attacker is mentally ill, and how to handle such a person?

Of course, there is no way to know a person's mental abnormality without observing a person's behavior. Like any human conflict, the triggering event can happen instantaneously or there can be an gradual or rapid escalation. If there is an escalation phase, this will afford you the opportunity to detect abnormal behavior, which ultimately, will help you formulate your course of action. Things that you should watch for in someone's behavior to determine abnormality is:

1. Delusions
The person's views are not based on reality. Some common forms are delusions of influence (the person feels they are being controlled by outside forces, such as the government or aliens from space, etc.), delusions of persecution (the person feels people are out to get them, such as the police, spies, etc.), delusions of reference (the person feels people are sending messages directly to them, such as radio waves from the government, voices, commands directly from God, etc.), somatic delusions (also known as hypochondria, the person feels that their body is rotting or dying when indeed it's not), and the list of delusions goes on.

2. Hallucinations
The person experiences, through their senses, things that do not exist. They may see you as a monster, they see spiders or snakes crawling on their skin, or even see worlds that don't exist. Obviously, if you are seen as a threatening image through the veil of their hallucination, this can be very dangerous since they are likely to respond to the perceived threat.

3. Emotionally Disturbed
The person's emotions may be extreme and fluctuate rapidly. One moment they may appear calm and stable, and the next moment they are violent, fearful, or depressed.

4. Failure to Respond to Physical Stimuli
The person does not respond to sound, touch, or visual cues. In a very real sense, they are "in their own world."

5. Memory Loss
The person forgets things that they were talking about just a short time before. They will also jump from one subject to another, and there will be absolutely no connection between them.

6. Unprovoked Anger
The person becomes extremely enraged without provocation or warning. They may be upset by something you said, that a "normal" person would find no offense in. They may fly into a range just because you look like someone they know and hate, such as is in the case of Family Resemblance Hazards.

7. Self-Inflicted Injury
The person mutilates self, and does not appear to feel or notice it. I once arrested a man who carved a satanic pentagram in his forearm, and felt no pain. He proceed to go into a shop, lay his bloody arm down on the glass of a copy machine, and make 300 copies of the newly carved symbol. He was arrested for trespassing.

8. Suicidal / Homicidal
The person is a threat to self or others. Often times if a person is suicidal they are homicidal, whether it is due to mental illness or an otherwise normal person who is at a low point in their life. (Note: several years ago I responded to man who wanted to commit suicide. As I was helping him off of his bed he took a kitchen knife from the back of his underwear and tried to stick the knife in my chest.

Another time I was approaching a man who had a fight with his girlfriend, he placed a gun to the side of his head, pulled the trigger, and the bullet fatally passed through his head and barely missed me. Thus, for me personally, anyone who is suicidal, even a loved one, may also try to take your life - BE CAREFUL).

9. Personality Disorder (Sociopath or Psychopath)
This person will not be as easily identifiable like those persons with other disorders. In fact, they may appear quite normal until you've had a chance for a longer observation or their actions make it quite evident they are mentally ill. Serial killers or mass murders fall into this category, and they are obviously extremely dangerous individuals. They are usually loners, easily angered, callous, unable to maintain relationships, blame others for their problems, no sense of guilt, deceptive, but may be very charming and intelligent.

10. Mental Retardation
Mental retardation and mental disorder are two different conditions, and should not be confused with each other. Mental retardation is a permanent development disability. Symptoms may include:
a. Below average intellectual functioning (an IQ at or below 70%)
b. Deficits or impairment of adaptive behavior
c. Onset before the age of 18 (diagnosis after 18 is dementia)

The majority of those with retardation are law abiding citizens. However, a mentally retarded individual may also have a mental disorder. So, as with any stranger you meet, you must always display caution.

Some people will display abnormal behavior, not because of a mental history, but from a physical condition producing abnormal symptoms such as:
a. Epilepsy (intermittent imbalance in the electrical activity of the brain that can result in a seizure, drunk-like appearance, derangement, or even violent behavior if they are experiencing a psychomotor seizure).

b. Hypoglycemia (symptoms may include nervousness, confusion, poor coordination, and slurred speech)
(Note: I chased a woman with my car who was trying to run everybody off of the road using her vehicle as a weapon. I even shot at her tires with my pistol to stop her. She crashed into a lamp post. It turns out that she was having a diabetic seizure, and did not remember anything. At the time though, she appeared to me as being mentally disturbed or under the influence of a controlled substance).

c. Multiple Sclerosis and Cerebral Palsy
This is a condition which may give the appearance that the person is under the influence of a controlled substance).

d. Head Injury or Brain Tumors
This may sometimes cause violent behavior, irritability and confusion). Severe infections (diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis or even influenza can cause some individuals to become confused, delirious or irritable).

12. Controlled Substance Induced Abnormal Behavior
Any person who introduces psychoactive substances (alcohol, narcotics, hallucinogens, stimulants, etc.) into their body will inevitably effect normal brain function. Any drug can facilitate violent thinking or behavior, including fear and panic reactions. Obviously, some the effects of some substances will be more obvious to the observer than others, such as intoxication by alcohol (slurred speech, loss of balance, the smell of alcohol on the breath, etc.)

Yet, others under the influence of a controlled substance will not be so easy to determine. It would be next to impossible to distinguish the difference between a person hallucinating from a dose of LSD, or someone who hallucinates due to a mental disorder. Ultimately it makes no difference to us in a self-defense situation. The cause will make a greater difference during the post-crisis phase for treatment and the judicial system.

Handling Abnormals
As you can see by the examples that I have given, there are a lot of disorders and conditions that may have its grip a would be attacker. Now that we are able to recognize and identify some of the behavior patterns, we need to know what action to take if confronted with abnormals who pose a threat (violence directed toward us).

If an abnormal confronts you, and violence is not imminent (that is to say, the person is not attacking you at that very moment), here are steps to take to diffuse the situation:

1. Keep a safe distance, maintain a reactionary distance Many mentally ill persons will get into your personal space without thinking anything of it (this is known as the red zone, and is the zone we let only our family and close friends into). Often times they lack the inhibitions that "normal" people have. If this happens, be firm and take the appropriate action: step back, put your arms up to create an imaginary barrier, or even push them back (into the orange zone, which is the distance where they would have to take a full step in order to get to you). Be firm, but non-threatening. The best place to keep unknowns (strangers) is in the yellow zone (all distances beyond the orange zone).

2. Assess the situation Most of the time you will be able to determine if a person is mentally ill by their words and actions. Once you have determined that you are dealing with such a person it is best to try and diffuse the situation by maintaining a confident demeanor and speaking to the person in a calm manner; loud speech or posturing can easily set these people off like an explosive. At all times you must remain alert and on your guard. Mentally ill people can strike without any warning. They may be nice and joking with you one moment, then violently attacking you the next. I can't tell you how many times I've seen this situation.

Once, when I was on night patrol, a mentally disturb person got hurt and was being transported to the hospital by an ambulance. The person had broken no laws and there was no police involvement, until all of a sudden he attacked the ambulance crew and they had to stop the ambulance and bail out for their own safety. Of course, I responded to the call and arrested the man, but not alone. It always takes a few officers to arrest an abnormal to maintain good officer safety.

3. Avoid Threats and Excitement Often times it does no good to threaten a mentally ill person to back away from you or to try to reason with him. If the person is not making sense, or they are accusing you of something, just go along with it - humor them. As long as you are not in immediate harm you need to be patient with them. On the other hand, do not fall for any deception, plan your escape, and be ready for conflict at any instant.

4. Suicidal Behavior
This is a category in and of itself, and one that anyone of us can find ourselves in. When dealing with suicidal behavior, even with people you know, remove the means for the person to commit suicide and keep them under close observation. Be empathetic (feeling their pain) when discussing the person's problems, and give them realistic alternatives. Let them be aware of the finality of their act, and do the best to talk them down. However, at ALL times, be prepared for them to take their own life and yours (remember: suicidal and homicidal often go hand in hand). If you are able to convince them against harming themselves, the next step is to immediately get them into professional counseling.

Training for Abnormals
How will you be adequately able to handle abnormals if you don't include it in your training? The answer is - you won't. The worst time to learn what you should do and not do is when you come face-to-face with the situation. You must incorporate abnormal behavior in your training now. The only way to do that is to have Crisis Rehearsal (also known as Scenario Training or Role Playing). Somebody within your training circle has to assume the role of the abnormal (the trainer), and start a conflict with the victim (the trainee) under the supervision of the instructor. The more realistic the acting and props, the greater the Mental Imprint (the feeling of having actually dealt with a crisis situation).

One easy scenario to implement would be for a "transient" (trainer) to approach a traveler (trainee) who is going onto the Underground. The transient comes up holding a sign that reads WILL WORK FOR FOOD and asks for some money. Whether the trainee gives any money or not, the transient keeps insisting that he needs more money because the CIA are after him because he knows too many state secrets told to him by the President.

Of course, such talk is pure rubbish, but that is a typical situation that one would face. If the trainee gives nothing or too little, the transient goes into a rage, pulls out a rubber training knife, and tries to stab the trainee. Now, the trainee must not only use diffusing techniques in the beginning, but has to immediately resort to defensive tactics when attacked.

The point of training like this, rather than the traditional way of bowing and sparring, is to get students used to handling crisis situations from A to Z. More important, such training gets students used to abnormal behavior. If it is done right in the training hall, it won't be such a shock when it happens out on the streets. If this kind of training is good enough for Police Academies and counterterrorist teams, then it is good enough for martial artists.


About the Author: Jim Wagner is a law enforcement officer, a Police & Military Defensive Tactics instructor, and the founder of the civilian Reality-Based Personal Protection system. For more information visit