The Grapevine: What Happens When Police are First Responders in a Mental Health Crisis?
Content note: this interview includes discussion of suicidality and violence. If you or someone you know needs help, you can reach out to Beyond Blue or Lifeline. Other support services are mentioned at the end of this page.
In Victoria, police respond to a mental health call-out every 12 minutes. But for participants in a recently-published research study, police were more often harmful than they were helpful.
Social worker and lawyer Dr Chris Maylea and PhD candidate Panos Karanikolas — both academics at LaTrobe University — joined Dylan on The Grapevine to talk about what happens when police respond to mental distress, and their proposals to change how these cases are managed.
Chris said that the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System included the suggestion that paramedics be first responders, but that emergency service workers across the board don't have time or resources to appropriately respond to people experiencing mental distress.
Lived experience researchers, including Panos, co-designed the research project and were involved in decisionmaking, interviews and analysis throughout. They found that the most common responses experienced by participants were intimidation, threats and physical restraints — experiences that were additionally distressing.
“It’s not just a few bad apples, this is government policy,” Chris said.
Chris acknowledged that some research participants had positive experiences with police, and that in some cases police are responding to people acting violently. But the majoriry of people were unlikely to act violently towards others.
"Sometimes people just need a cup of a tea and a chat," Panos said.
Chris says: "It’s possible for communities to provide support rather than a police car with a siren.”
In addition to crisis supports from Lifeline and the supports offered by Beyond Blue, Chris and Panos wanted to draw attention to lesser-known options like peer-run, non-coercive ‘Alternatives to Suicide’ groups. And though they're not widely-available, Safe spaces and 'warm rooms' can be located near hospitals for folks who don't need to be triaged by emergency services. Chris also pointed to the work of peak mental health bodies like VIMIAC who can advocate for consumers within mental health services.
To learn more about the research, you can read the report Police apprehension as a response to mental distress.