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Problems ‘down-under’ same as ‘up here’


November 27, 2015
By Corrie Sloot

998 words – MR

Problems ‘down-under’ same as ‘up here’

There is a saying that misery loves company; another one notes that similar birds flock together… or something.

I’m not really sure either of these are actually true but it can be reassuring sometimes to find that other people are having the same problems you are – as long as you don’t use that as an excuse not to do anything about them.

I was just reading a report written by a member of the Queensland (Australia) Police about the dilemmas they face in interacting with people with mental illnesses, particularly situations involving indigenous people. Sound familiar?

It seems that one Sgt. Michael Moloney spent some time wondering around the US, Canada and New Zealand, checking out how police interact with people with mental illnesses. In Canada, he spoke to various people from Vancouver, Surrey, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal. It likely won’t surprise you to learn that most of what he says will not surprise you. Among other things, he noted that:

• Police are and will be required to manage mental health related events;
• Mental health as an issue will grow, especially when viewed through the prism of drug co-morbidity;
• While the issue is extremely complex, good organisational structure, policy, procedures and training deliver measurable results;
• A tiered response is most applicable to the Queensland situation;
• Mental health consumers, family members and advocates need to be involved at all levels: forming law, policy, procedures and training;
• Police response in crisis situations makes a real difference to lives, families, communities and public confidence in police;
• Communication and de-escalation training needs to be delivered as part of, not in isolation, from police operational survival skills and tactics;
• There are simple and cost effective strategies, training and support that can overcome issues of culture in remote, isolated areas;
• Police specific training in communication and de-escalation is vitally important, but training for communication must not be done in isolated ‘silos,’ and;
• Communications operators (dispatchers) must be included in the police response.

I was particularly pleased to see his analysis of the need for a tiered system of response. I think most of us used to feel that if we just added on some specific type of response – like a crisis intervention or co-response team or a specialized mental health officer – that life would be good and we’d all live happily ever after.

It would have been nice if that had been true but as most police services have discovered, it just ain’t so. We see people with mental illnesses in a whole variety of contexts, for a whole variety of reasons. It isn’t just MHA apprehensions or incidents of crime; there are times (many, actually) when people with mental illnesses are victims of crime, and when they need help with activities of everyday life.

You need to be able to respond to all sorts of situations. This means a variety of possible response initiatives, a comprehensive strategy, organized and systematic policy.

I also really liked how Moloney talked about the problem of stigma and false assumptions, and how that can influence our behaviour.

However, Australia is not Canada, and there were a few things in the report that I don’t think you’d ever find in writing in Canada – even though we likely often think these things. My informal observation about Australians over the years has been that they do not take themselves as seriously as Canadians take themselves – and as a result, they are a little more willing to be politically incorrect.

One finds a great deal of discussion in the report about how the police are kind of screwed, often in no-win situations when interacting with people with mental illnesses. No matter how many situations they handle correctly, they will be hung out to dry when even one interaction goes bad. The report also notes that the public generally does not really understand or appreciate the job police do, the media is out to get them and everyone hates them.

When Moloney talks about stigma, he also means the stigma associated with being a police officer. It is an interesting perspective – and one that most non-police people do not have a lot of sympathy toward (which is exactly his point). For example, one thing Moloney says in his report is “For police, the primary goal has and will always be officer survival and safety. To expect anything else is a denial of the reality of human nature and an unachievable goal.”

I am not sure what I think about that. I completely agree that going home intact at the end of each shift is a good idea, whatever your line of work, but is the primary goal really survival? If that were true, there’d be a lot more police people wanting to specialize in fraud investigations and begging to sit in the office writing policy as opposed to trying to get on the ERT.

I actually do not think the GOAL is survival. I think (hope?) the goal is to do whatever it is you are supposed to be doing, like keeping the community safe and looking after the vulnerable, without getting off’ed in the process.

My disagreement with Moloney on this point notwithstanding, I think his discussion about the mixed feelings of police, the stigmatizing attitudes that sometimes cause less than optimal response, and the fear that often drives aggressive behaviour (by police) is right on the mark. I think he also accurately talks about the role that education and training plays, the importance of communication skills, and the need to address false beliefs are all ways to reduce the likelihood that either party gets injured in these interactions.

I think it was in some ways easier a few decades back when we thought the answer was simply a lecture on mental illness, and a special team or officer who would deal with these kinds of calls.

Alas. Like I said, it ain’t so.

You can download the report from http://tinyurl.com/cep2979


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