News : One in 10 Calls to Police are Mental Health Cases
Canberra, Australia, Oct 14, 2016 -- It is a busy night in ACT Policing's call centre. Officers are responding to the 200-odd calls they receive each day. A policeman picks up a call from a family member of someone threatening to take their life.
Can they get there in time? How will the person react when police turn up? What extra support do they need?
Police often face challenges in attending a daily average of 10 mental health calls, but a senior officer is reminding the community that they can handle them and they are there to help.
Mental health calls make up 10 per cent of those received by ACT Police, or about 290 of the 6880 calls they receive in a month.
Detective Superintendent Francis Jamieson said people may be surprised that police work goes far beyond chasing criminals.
"We are not only called for law enforcement," he said.
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"Not all police work results in action where we have to prosecute someone and in fact a lot of the time we don't. We can help if you think someone is going to hurt someone else or themselves, or if they're worried about where a family member or friend is."
A lot of their jobs involve missing persons who are experiencing mental illness, welfare checks and tragically, suicides.
And while police officers are not mental health workers, Superintendent Jamieson said frontline officers were trained to understand how to recognise, relate and respond to mental health incidents and were often the first to arrive on scene.
He said details down to tone of voice, body language and whether they wear or hold their hat could determine whether someone in distress accepts or rejects the help of police.
"Not everyone will feel that way [intimidated] but we do things like ensuring we talk to someone in a negotiating rather than a direct manner," he said.
"Some incidents might require us to quickly get a team together, particularly if someone has been hurt, but a lot of time it is just talking to people and connecting them with the appropriate support."
One challenge for police officers was accepting their limits when dealing with mental health.
This is why mental health specialists were embedded in police operations, from assisting first responders in the call centre to advising frontline officers.
"It is not always obvious that a mental health situation is occurring and may not even be obvious to a consumer that they are having a mental illness or some sort of emotional problem," Superintendent Jamieson said.
"We try to help them realise that there is a mental health element and get them help."
While police are taught how to get them support, Superintendent Jamieson said it was also important for officers to foster their own mental health, with policing among the high-risk professions for developing PTSD.
"We have internal processes where we look after our members, we have a welfare team available for our officers to speak to, we have wellbeing services within the ACT and we have leave and other entitlements," he said.
"For everyone suffering a mental illness, it is about knowing there are people to talk to."
Mental Illness Education ACT was one community educator closely involved in educating and assisting police in the mental health of their own team and of members of the public.
Executive officer Samantha Davidson-Fuller said mental health consumers regularly volunteered to share their stories with police.
"For example, one person told officers they would be more relaxed if they walked towards them with their hands by their side rather that on their hips," Ms Davidson-Fuller said.
"It is incredible how keen they are to understand mental health issues and help the community understand that they are there to help."
If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
Only call 000 in emergencies. For all other non-emergencies, call 131 444
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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