It’s not often I agree with the National Party on mental health issues, but the announcement late last week by Police Minister Stuart Nash that extra training for police recruits in mental health issues had been scrapped, had me searching for my blue cardigan for the first time in many years.
The move seemed particularly short-sighted, even stupid, in light of the release a day earlier of the Govt’s own Mental Health Inquiry report, where a huge gap in support of people facing moderate mental health issues in the community was identified. With Health Minister David Clark stating that the Govt would take at least three months to take on board the findings of the Inquiry, and announce what it would do about them, I wonder what Police are expected to do in the period before any new policies, not to mention an expanded mental health workforce, can begin to take effect?
By various counts, Police attend 35,000 – 50,000 callouts annually relating to mental health issues, up to 20% of the time frontline officers spend on the job. National’s Police spokesperson Chris Bishop pointed out the plan to train police officers more in this area, and to pair them with mental health professionals was a good move that should not be scrapped – indeed, I would say it was a no-brainer, and should be enhanced!
Of course cops are not, and never should be, the primary mental health professionals. But given the first and/or emergency response nature of their jobs, they will always be among the first on the scene of any community problems, many of which relate to mental health crises. The more training and resources they have in this area, the better they will be able to deal with what they find, and the more relevant support they will be able to provide affected people, and affected communities.
My own family’s experience of the interface between the cops and people with mental health issues would be described as ‘appalling’ – if in fact there had been any interface at all in the 3 days after my son disappeared! A police force with a good understanding of the issues arising when someone disappears from a mental health institution might have actually realised the seriousness of the situation and swung into action.
Ideally, police should not have to be the first responders in mental health situations, but this country is a very long way from being able to have a well-trained and well-resourced community-based mental health workforce that can themselves handle these situations – in the meantime we all – including the cops – will have to step into the breach and provide the needed support; a little bit of training and help will go some way towards holding the line in this rapidly growing problem area.
Turning my mind to the above-mentioned minimum three months’ delay in informing the country what would be done about the Mental Health Inquiry’s recommendations, I noted the comment in the NZ Herald by one of NZ’s best columnists, Lizzie Marvelly, “I don’t buy that the Government can’t respond to any part of the report until March, Certainly it will take time to deliver a full response, but some of the areas of concern presented by the report are too urgent to delay for three months. How many people will die duing that time? The suicide prevention recommendations presented by the inquiry should be fast-tracked. Lives depend on it.”
I couldn’t agree with Lizzie more. And I’m left wondering if the cutting of police mental health training might be the only change in mental health support announced in the next three months?
Dave Macpherson is TDB’s mental health blogger. He became a Waikato DHB member after his son died from mental health negligence.