Police policy on turning away recruits taking anti-depressants stigmatises mental illnesses: advocates
Police say new recruits on anti-depressants can't join the police force, a practice the Mental Health Foundation terms discriminatory and a top psychiatrist says promotes harmful myths.
Marty Fox, national manager of Wellness & Safety for police, confirmed the recruitment policy saying new recruits needed to be both medication and symptom free for a "period of two years before we will consider their medical suitability". He acknowledged this included anti-depressants.
"This is on entry so does not apply to existing staff."
Shaun Robinson, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said he wanted police to re-examine the policy.
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"This requirement is likely to deter anyone thinking of joining the police from asking for, and receiving medical help for, mental health issues out of fear it will jeopardise their career," Robinson said.
"'That's the way it's always been done' is not a good enough reason to continue contributing to the stigma that exists around mental illness."
Dr Mark Lawrence, chairman of Tu Te Akaaka Roa, the New Zealand body of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, said historic associations between mental illness and violence could be to blame for the policy, an association he said was unfair given that violent acts from people with mental health issues were "relatively uncommon".
"If you have someone that's in a stable condition on an SSRI [anti-depressant] and they want to go into the police force, then essentially what the police are saying is that 'well, for you to enter our club you need to stop your anti-depressant'," Lawrence said.
"It perpetuates the mythology that we need to be concerned and worried about people that have mental health concerns."
Fox said police would consider applicants who didn't meet medical requirements on a case-by-case basis.
A similar policy appears to be in place in the Queensland Police force with a requirement that recruits must show no signs of mental illness after being off medication for at least two years.
One person who applied to join the New Zealand Police force claimed to have presented police with letters of support from both a psychiatrist and a GP, but was told the rule was a blanket ban.
Lawrence was not aware of any clinical research that would support the two-year stand-down period, and said assessments at police college would "tease out those that aren't going to do well irrespective of whether they're on antidepressants or not".
"You've got a primary GP who knows the person a lot better, you've got a specialist that's given an opinion that they don't see any particular concern. I think there should be some flexibility in the system," Lawrence said.
"Having a blanket rule will discriminate against people."
Lawrence acknowledged there were restrictions on commercial pilots using anti-depressants but said there was no similar requirement for gun ownership or many other high-stress occupations.
"Before you can become a doctor, which is an important function and role, there's no policy that says you need to be off medication for two years."
Robinson said the police did "great work" supporting people experiencing mental distress.
"We would hope that they would be prioritising including people with lived experience into their workforce to ensure their work in this area continues to improve."