14 Feb 2024

Advocates warn more resources needed if police pull back from mental heath callouts

3:19 pm on 14 February 2024
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand chief executive Shaun Robinson.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Mental health advocates warn support services will need more investment to cope if police pull back from responding to mental health crisis callouts.

In a briefing to the police minister, the top brass outlined plans to "transition" from a police-led response for people in mental distress to a multi-agency approach within five years.

And Minister for Mental Health Matt Doocey on Monday floated the idea of having a specific mental health option when people call 111.

Such an option would not have worked for actor Rob Mokaraka, who survived being shot in the chest by police during a mental breakdown in 2009.

"I made the call to 111 and I said someone has broken into my house and he's armed. "Then I described myself."

Dressed in camouflage gear from a stage show and brandishing a meat cleaver and a soup ladle wrapped in a tea towel, he advanced on the armed police surrounding his home.

This elaborate plan to end his life failed, when the police bullet missed his heart by millimetres.

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Actor Rob Mokaraka created a one-man pay Shot Bro: Confessions of a Depressed Bullet from his traumatic during mental health breakdown. Photo: Vanessa Patea

He has since turned this traumatic experience into a one-man play called Shot Bro: Confessions of a Depressed Bullet, which he has performed in community halls, prisons and high schools nation-wide, urging people to seek help early.

"A 14-year-old girl, about the same age as my daughter at the time, asked 'What would have happened if your Mum had arrived on the scene?'. "And I said, 'I probably would have dropped the meat cleaver and cried'."

In his case, the police response was appropriate because as far as they were concerned, he was a violent intruder - but most people in mental distress needed a different approach, Mokaraka said.

"The police are following their protocols, which are to 'confine the risk'. But when you're confining someone, they're like a caged animal and their impulse is fight or flight."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said it remained to be seen which agencies would be able to step into the gap left by police.

"It's the right thing to happen...

"But even better would be if we didn't have people getting to the point where they are in crisis in the first place.

"It's the same thing we have been hearing for years - a key finding of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction in 2018 was that people should be able to get help before they get very ill, we need more prevention and early intervention."

Police Association president Chris Cahill said police attended more than 77,000 call-outs last year involving people having a mental health crisis, in distress, or threatening suicide.

"Of those 77,000, only four to five percent had any criminal offending linked to them. So it's a very small number.

"And the reality is these people need health professionals - and it's not the police who should be the first port of call for people who need help."

Overall, calls to 111 involving mental distress are up 152 percent in the last decade while suicide threats and attempts have nearly doubled.

Police had become "the default responders" because they were a 24-hour service, Cahill said.

He was enthusiastic about the new co-response teams, include mental health specialists, paramedics and iwi-liaison now working alongside police in seven districts -but noted there were limitations on them.

"When they're available, they work really well. I've heard reports of them freeing up as much as 20 percent of police time - but that's when they're available. "They tend to work Monday to Friday, 8 to 4, so of course that's limited how effective they can be when most of these calls are outside of that time."

Shaun Robinson agreed clinical staff were in short supply.

The solution could be trained peer support workers - people who have suffered mental illness themselves, he suggested.

"The more those people can look like, sound like, be like that person who's in distress, the more calming that's going to be. As opposed to - with the best will in the world - police turning up in uniform. That's not going to be a calming thing for that person in distress."

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said where people were threatening to harm themselves or others, it was appropriate for police to respond, make the situation safe and then hand the person on to the appropriate care.

But the "retrenchment" of mental health services in recent years had made that more difficult.

"Right now our people are off the road for a very long time, waiting to hand over to mental health services. And what they are doing essentially is providing a care service, while the [health] system very slowly mobilises a response.

"The co-responder model is a step forward, a stepping stone, but the best model would be that we have a mental health system that is ready to receive and provide assistance to people having a mental health crisis to free police up after we have attended."

He was hoping cabinet would next month consider the police's plan for a multi-agency model to deal with mental distress calls to 111 - one that is not led by police.