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April 20, 2021

Police still in the frontline of mental health emergencies

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SCU academic Dr Joanne Bradbury says the use of police intervention in cases of people with severe mental disturbances is still too common.

Maleika Halpin

The use of police services should be the last resort for mental health patients, according to a recent report.

The report published by the Medical Journal of Australia entitled ‘Mental health emergency transport; the pot-holed road to care’, has found police intervention exposes patients to extremely distressing circumstances.

The research led by Dr Joanne Bradbury, at Southern Cross University (SCU) in Lismore, says recent changes to legislation in NSW aim to reduce police involvement in mental health by expanding state coercive powers to paramedics and registered mental health practitioners.

But according to Dr Bradbury the changes to the law do not seem to have substantially lessened the police involvement, particularly for people in rural and remote areas where mental health intervention teams are stretched, and particularly so after hours.

‘I think the main issue is the wording of the Mental Health Act: it is worded in such a way that it’s unlawful to intervene until someone becomes a high risk,’ said Bradbury.

‘Yet, if the person waits until they become a danger, the police are always the first port of call; it’s a catch 22 situation,’ she said.

Last year, NSW Police were called out to almost 43,000 mental health incidents – an 18 per cent rise from the previous year.

Yet Fairfax Media reported more than 90 per cent of frontline officers had never done mental health training despite being called out to suicides, threats of self-harm and violent incidents including so-called ‘death by cop’ incidents, where people try to provoke police into killing them.

Dr Bradbury said the intervention of emergency services in a mental health incident was not the most ethical or positive response, and an amendment should aim to refocus services on preventative care.

‘It’s such a complex area and when police come, they take them by force; they go in a caged paddy wagon, they’re handcuffed, it’s really very traumatising,’ said Bradbury.

‘Next time they’re sick, they might not want to tell anybody, because they feel like it’s a punishment. Ideally, it would be more ethical to intervene earlier and base it on the persons’ capacity to identify their own symptoms; it’s more about educating the person,’ she said.

The SCU report found reducing police involvement through increased access to consensual pathways of care, particularly for people in regional and remote areas, is desirable but unlikely in the foreseeable future.

‘Recent amendments to the Mental Health Act are limited by practicalities and fail to meet the complexities of real-world mental health emergencies,’ the report said.


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  1. Sadly I have to agree. Current legislation across Australia makes it difficult if not impossible for police and paramedics to get involved for treatment or help against someones will unless they are an immediate risk of physical harm to themselves or others.

    I wonder if the people who came up with this brilliant idea actually sat down and thought about it in a practical sense at all.

    I simply can not understand the logic. I mean – lets not act when someone is unwell and struggling mentally. Lets wait until they are .5 of a second from physically harmed themselves or someone else. But wait, oops, there is no one there at that exact time and now we have a situation where that person has done something. They have harmed someone and now become part of the legal system with a record and probably worse still, they have to live knowing what they did.

    It is not the fault of the person trying to do the best they can living with a mental health issue. These situations need to be laid at the feet of the person/s who wrote the legislation that fails to protect people when they are at their most vulnerable.

    I have personally been involved and campaigning on this issue for some time and have written extensively on the subject at http://www.QueenslandMentalHealth.com

    Luckily there is some possible good news with a recently released discussion paper on proposed changes to the Mental Health Act. I don’t agree with all the changes but certainly welcome the change of the word “and” to “or” when detailing the situations that Police and Paramedics need to evaluate.

    Fingers crossed that we are making progress


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