President's Column: Mental health is often not a policing issue

Wed August 1st, 2018

The perilous state of our mental health system is having an unacceptable impact on policing. By default, police officers are the first line of help for tens of thousands of New Zealanders in mental health distress, and that’s not good enough.

It is not fair to the people involved and it is not fair to cops. Our worry about the toll that mental health calls are having on officers was exacerbated last month when we found out the Government had canned a pilot scheme to trial having mental health workers accompany police attending crisis calls.

Because the idea for the pilot had been National’s, and Labour has decided not to implement it, an inevitable political tit-for-tat blame game ensued. Not a single person needing mental health care was helped by that.

I doubt the proposed pilot would have been the ultimate panacea, but I do know that there is a crisis and that the status quo has, by stealth, co-opted frontline police to deal with incidents that actually require fully trained mental health professionals.

The situation is so critical that it is not unreasonable to take the view that anything, even a pilot scheme that could run while the Government’s Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction does its work, would be better than nothing.

There has been alarm expressed about the fact that police recruits have only four hours of training for dealing with people in mental health distress. The reality is, this is just one of a vast array of subjects that must be covered in their 16 weeks at Police College.

The increase in mental health-related calls for service is truly astounding, and should be of concern to all New Zealanders. In the past four years, there has been a near 50 per cent increase in reports of threatened or attempted suicides. In 2017, there were 50,000 mental health events reported to Police.

This means 20 per cent of a frontline officer’s time is spent attending mental health callouts. Add to that the 50 per cent of time spent responding to family harm incidents and it is easy to see why the public is frustrated at the lack of visibility of police in the community responding to other types of calls for service.

Members tell us how exasperated they are with repeated callouts to the same people, an inability to get those people the help they need and the waste of police resources when they have to wait hours in hospital emergency rooms until an overworked mental health specialist is available.

Yes, that is better than taking an unwell person to a police cell, where I think we can all agree they do not belong, but it does mean that police officer is not out in the community preventing and solving crimes.

The Government’s inquiry is due to report back at the end of October. I sincerely hope there is acknowledgment that a police uniform is not the ideal first sight for people going through a mental health incident, and it certainly is no substitute for a medical professional.

We are looking for a firm acknowledgment that police officers are shouldering too much of the burden when, in the majority of cases, mental health is not a policing issue.

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