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Illness with Dignity – Treating Mental Illness as a Health Issue…

The recent announcement by the Victorian government for a $15.1 million investment over the next four years to change the way mental health, police and emergency services across the state work to respond to mental health crises in the community, deserves further analysis.

Community mental health is indeed in a crisis and this injection of money is so badly needed. Indeed it could be trebled and it still wouldn’t fix the underlying problems, such as emergency triage, treatment and supported accommodation.

Remember, it was only last year when the Victoria Police reported that they are arresting suspected mentally ill people at the rate of one every two hours in Victoria.

This followed a report by the then Office of Police Integrity (OPI), which advised 17 of the 32 people fatally shot by Victoria Police between 1990 and 1996 were considered to have had a mental disorder at the time of the shooting.

When considered alongside the fact that more than 30% of people incarcerated in our prisons have a mental illness, it is a shocking indictment on any society that permits unwell people to be either shot or thrown in jail.

The OPI report, which was tabled in State Parliament revealed:

Ambulance Victoria was not fulfilling its obligation to transport suspected mentally ill people, with police being left to handle most of them.

Police experience such long delays in getting specialist crisis assessment and treatment (CAT) teams to attend incidents involving the mentally ill that they refer to them as “Call Again Tomorrow” teams (at least they have them, there are no CAT teams in Gippsland).

Almost half the incidents Victoria Police’s critical incident response team is called out to, are related to the mentally ill.

The OPI said the closure of mental health facilities in Victoria during the deinstitutionalisation process in the 1980s and 90s – and the subsequent inadequate provision of community based mental health services – had contributed to police having such regular encounters with the mentally ill.

The report recommended changes to free up police so they don’t need to spend as much time having to deal with the mentally ill.

The then Acting OPI Director Ron Bonighton, said the suspected mentally ill people detained by police were invariably taken to crowded hospital emergency departments or police cells, resulting in very long delays for police and the arrested person.

He recommended that the State Government set up a new dedicated facility so those arrested could be immediately psychiatrically assessed and cared for.

“The establishment of such a facility could promote better care and emergency treatment for people who have an acute mental episode in metropolitan Melbourne, while easing the strain on resources that police and some emergency departments currently experience,” Mr Bonighton said.

“The benefit for mentally ill persons is that such a facility can improve the care available during times of crisis.

“For police and emergency departments there are also tangible and efficient gains.

“The time that police spend waiting for mental health assessments to occur could be drastically reduced.

“Police could return to other jobs.

“The police transport of people who appear to be mentally ill is at odds with the rights, dignity and interests of people requiring mental health assessment.

“The safety of such people warrants transportation in an ambulance to an appropriate mental health facility.

“A person experiencing a mental health crisis does not belong in a police cell. Mental illness is a health problem.

“Safe, dignified and respectful transport for people with a mental health problem happens best in an ambulance, not in the back of a divisional van.”

So here is the Victoria Police saying the obvious – mental illness is a health problem. The fact is – our society should treat people with a mental illness with the same respect and concern as we do for people suffering cancer or any other illness.



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