Dave Macpherson: Bad call by Govt to scrap mental health training for cops


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.

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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.


  1. Well said, Dave.

    No fence at the top of the cliff and a very slow, overloaded ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Hence, New Zealand’s appallingly high suicide rate.

  2. I don’t agree with your proposition at all.

    Police became the pseudo cheap alternative under the National Government to dealing with mentally disturbed people because it meant not spending on mental health services. That meant tax cuts and Bill English balancing his books.

    Leaving poor bloody cops to try and deal with mentally disturbed people, often putting them through the criminal courts because there was such a void in mental health is NOT right and NOT the way to deal with it.

    Were I subscriber to the National Partys way of thinking, of course I would see the pure cost-benefit analysis of having exceedingly amateur psych nurses wearing blue uniforms. That is the real reason the Nats thought that such a good idea, it was their way of plastering over the ever-growing cracks whilst at the same time not caring less what happened to such inflicted persons.

    And when it goes wrong the police take the hit from the anti-squad even though they cannot ever hope to deal with such situations properly.

    To deal with and understand mental unwellness is a whole other training and vocation. Cops doing mental health first aid is all good and well if you want an exceedingly half arsed system but to me, it would only encourage the rot that had already set in.

    By the time police end up dealing with mentally disturbed persons, the system has failed. It should never get that far.

    So do we want to encourage this failure any further???

    Under this guise perhaps we should train police on obstrectrics and anethesia as well? Just imagine the savings from not employing specialists!

    • Short -sighted thinking; and wrong thinking to suggest that so-called mental health professionals are the only ones that can and should deal with mental health issues – next you will be saying whanau/family, or friend’s, or flat mates, shouldn’t involve themselves in helping someone with a mental health issue – leave it to the professionals, eh? That’s one if the major problems with the current MH system, and you would be exceedingly foolish to ignore the role that the cops inevitably have to take as first responders in emergencies – so let’s ensure they are well-enough trained to handle these situations; because you sure as hell will be waiting for a long time for enough MH professionals to be able to handle the first response alone!

      • If the Police have some understanding of mental illness it will go along way in assisting those who are having an episode. They don’t have to be trained as psych nurses or doctor. Understanding the stages and the types of mental illness and what the best action is to take. Some sufferers don’t take their medication and need reminding, some are past the stage of reason and are heightened and need to be admitted to hospital rather than to jail and locked up. Whatever the case Police need to be informed and resourced.

  3. They (the police) still need training cause often they have to pick people up. My whanau had to call the Police and report our sister missing she had stopped taking her meds and we were worried about her safety so in my view having utilised the NZ Police to find our sister and to admit her under the mental health act we would not have been able to do this without the help of the police. So I think Minister Nash is making a big mistake the more training our police have in this area the better.

  4. Everyone should have basic mental health training. Cops, teachers, you, me, all of us.

    Of COURSE noone should be expected to fulfill the work of qualified experts but just like we should all know how basic CPR we can also be trained in basic checkpoints with mental health related encounters. Particularly info re. how and where to refer them to said qualified experts.

  5. Thank you, Dave. Food for thought and I hope the minister’s office takes note of your comments. I’ve never been able to work out why The coalition govt dropped National’s plan. It seems to have been one of those rare moments when the Nats actually implemented something positive.

    So why was it dropped?

  6. Mental Health is poorly understood and was decimated in this country under the Labour/National Neoliberal Doctrine.

    We need to rebuild our Mental Health Service here in NZ, most criminals have mental health problems IMHO otherwise they would not be under the control of the Justice Department ?

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