Union boss says police should be last people called to mental health incidents
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Union boss says police should be last people called to mental health incidents

The head of the Victorian police union says a "broken" mental health system has led to an alarming increase in the number of police called as first responders to incidents involving mental illness instead of trained health professionals and clinicians.

Officers are attending mental health incidents every 10 minutes when they should be the "last people called to support the community in these situations", Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt told The Age.

Police surround a man armed with a knife in Lilydale on Tuesday.

Police surround a man armed with a knife in Lilydale on Tuesday.

"We are effectively the first people called when it comes to mental health crises in the community. But in the context of clinical skills, we are the least equipped. That's the reality," he said.

"Police officers aren't street-corner psychiatrists, they are police. The escalation and indeed reliance on policing to fill the gap simply highlights what is a broken system that is not in any way coping with the surge in mental health illness in the community."

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His comments come after several high-profile incidents in the past week involving confrontations between police and individuals with mental illness.

The state's misconduct watchdog has launched a criminal investigation into the violent arrest of a man in Epping after he was rammed by a police car and stomped on the head by an officer.

The man, who has bipolar disorder, had been waiting for mental health treatment at the Northern Hospital for 19 hours before the incident.

Then on Tuesday, a 24-year-old man walking around a car park with a knife was shot by two officers in Lilydale, becoming the latest person with suspected mental health concerns to be injured during a hostile interaction with police.

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Police say new mental health training for frontline members, which hasn't yet been rolled out due to an "extraordinary" year of bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic, will take place in November.

But Mr Gatt said training was only part of the solution.

"Training will help police fashion their responses – police have been doing this for the last 20 years – and incrementally increasing and improving the response to people in mental health crisis but the fact remains training police to be something they are not is not the answer," he said.

"Other resources need to be supported for mental health in our community more broadly to minimise the amount of people who present in an irrational and dangerous way."

There are also renewed calls for more mental health specialists to respond to acute incidents.

Around 2013 police began rolling out police-led PACER units – Police, Ambulance, Clinician Emergency Response – in various parts of the state, which saw mental health clinicians attend acute mental illness and suicide callouts with police.

The aim was to reduce the number of patients being taken to hospital unnecessarily. The trial was so successful, the program was implemented in a number of areas from 2pm to 10pm, seven days a week.

The unit currently operates across parts of metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria, including Ballarat, St Kilda, Narre Warren, Geelong, Epping, Bendigo, Broadmeadows, Werribee, Morwell and Frankston police stations.

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In June this year, NSW followed suit and expanded a similar program to police stations across Sydney.

Andrew Carroll, forensic psychiatrist and adjunct associate professor at Swinburne University, said PACER drew on the relevant expertise of both professionals.

"The police can make the situation safe but mental health professionals can use their skills in assessment and de-escalation to make it less likely things would unfold in a dangerous way," he said.

"If there is a situation of an acute high risk of violence then clearly mental health professionals are not equipped to deal with that alone but if the situation is severe acute mental illness then police will be greatly assisted."

Premier Daniel Andrews said on Wednesday the government was doing everything it could to fix flaws in Victoria's mental health system, pointing to the creation of the royal commission which he said would give "the answers we need and a massive reform agenda".

He admitted there were "massive gaps" in the mental health system.

"We are doing everything we can to keep you safe and to make sure there's a system that's connected, a system that's efficient, a system that delivers you the care that you need. That's about dignity."

An interim report from the royal commission released in November last year found police and ambulance officers were increasingly the first responders to people experiencing mental health crises "due to the flow-on effects of system failures".

The commission was told that over time, crisis assessment and treatment teams became "staffed with people who had more limited experience and police have progressively resumed their role as the frontline response."

"Victoria Police emphasised that a police response will always be provided to critical incidents," the report read. "In its view, however, for many of these callouts and subsequent transfers – a health-based intervention rather than a law enforcement one – would probably have been the most beneficial response."

Other groups such as Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre's Police Accountability Project believe health professionals should be the primary responders to mental health crisis and welfare checks. They say police, if attending, should only do so in a support role, with only secondary or tertiary responsibility.

The incidents at Epping and Lilydale are the latest in a number of violent interactions between police and the state's mentally ill.

In May, a 53-year-old Narre Warren father who had a history of mental health concerns was gunned down on the Monash Freeway at Dandenong North after lunging at officers with a knife.

In July, Gabriel Messo was shot dead by police after attacking his mother in a Gladstone Park reserve.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue1300 224 636.

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