Policing the Mentally Ill a ‘Drain on Resources’

VICTORIA Police apprehend a disturbed person in the community on average every two hours and transport them to a hospital emergency department, according to a study into the challenges of policing the mentally ill.

Such callouts do not often lead to criminal charges, with the bulk of people having threatened or attempted suicide or other self-harm. A ”significant proportion” of the incidents also needed a police presence due to acts of aggression and property damage.

For the first time in Victoria, the study tracked how often police use special powers under the Mental Health Act to apprehend people in the community who they believe are mentally ill and transport them to a medical facility, usually a hospital emergency department.

In the study period, between December 2009 and November 2010, there were 4798 such incidences statewide. Police spent on average about two hours dealing with each case – eight times longer than the duration of the usual police job – representing a ”considerable drain on police resources”, the Monash University-Victoria Police study found.

The data did not include call-outs involving disturbed people who engaged in serious offences and were detained in police custody. A separate study has determined that, overall, more than half the people police have contact with have a history of mental illness.

Forensic psychologist Professor James Ogloff, the lead researcher, said ”over-stretched” hospital departments were ill-equipped to deal with people presenting with such crises and police were also finding it hard to cope with the frequency of callouts.

”Once every two hours, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, someone who is having a mental health crisis is apprehended by police and typically they are taken to a local hospital for admission,” he said. ”Basically, hospitals struggle to accommodate these people, and emergency departments are not designed for them. Often, police are forced to ‘shop’ around for a hospital that can accommodate these individuals.”

There was an urgent need to establish a secure facility attached to a metropolitan public hospital to deal with such patients, Professor Ogloff said.

The study found in just over three-quarters of cases the people transported to a hospital by police were admitted to a mental health facility immediately or were assessed as needing further review by a psychiatrist.

However, one in five were also released back into the community because they did not meet strict conditions for involuntary admission to hospital. Further examination of this group found they were still ”needy”, with high rates of personality and drug abuse disorders, intellectual disabilities or acquired brain injuries.

Professor Ogloff, a director at Forensicare – the service dealing with the state’s mentally ill offenders – said police who were having to deal with these cases in the community had limited supports when facing ”highly challenging scenarios”.

Police ”often” sought support from other services, mainly Ambulance Victoria and or Crisis Assessment and Triage (CAT) teams. In one out of six requests by police for support from CAT teams, no response was available, the study found.

Farah Farouque
The Age
Thursday 24th May, 2012

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