Police 'default' mental health service as attempted suicide call outs jump 30 per cent

Police data shows a 30 per cent increase in call outs for attempted suicides in the past four years.

Police data shows a 30 per cent increase in call outs for attempted suicides in the past four years.

A 30 per cent jump in the number of attempted suicides handled by police is an indictment on New Zealand's mental health system, the police union says.

Police responded to just over 18,000 calls coded as "threatens/attempts suicide" across the country in 2015-16, up from 14,000 in 2012-13.

Almost every region experienced an increase in such call outs over the last four years, with Bay of Plenty jumping 44 per cent and Auckland rising 16 per cent. 

Canterbury, Southern and Tasman reported increases of 40 per cent, 43 per cent and 36 per cent respectively. 

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NZ Police Association president Chris Cahill said the increases were an "indictment on New Zealand's mental health service", which left mentally unwell people to be cared for by police. 

"A lot of the time there's nowhere to take them so they get brought back to a police station and held while an authorised officer is called out to assess the person . . . this can take a large number of hours at times."

Police mental health national manager Senior Sergeant Matthew Morris said police set up a mental health unit four years ago in response to the increasing number of people they came across who needed help.

Police recruits and officers were undergoing more training, and the number of people detained in police cells while waiting for assessments by a health authority had nearly halved in the last three years.

Police were going to more attempted suicide call outs, but were finding "alternative resolutions", such as liaising better with district health boards (DHBs) and transporting people directly to hospital emergency departments for assessments, Morris said.

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Psychotherapist and mental health advocate Kyle MacDonald said the increasing number of police call outs for mental distress was a direct reflection of inadequate health services. 

"The obvious assumption – and I think a fair assumption – is that this directly reflects an increase in demand, along with services not being able to respond because when you can't get through to a crisis team you call 111."

More mental health crisis teams were desperately needed to help people in distress, he said.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman last year announced funding for a phone triage service, whereby people in crisis would be referred to health professionals when they called 111. The service was expected to benefit about 45,000 people a year and be available to all DHBs by the end of this year. 

Coleman said New Zealand was not alone in experiencing more demand for mental health services. 

"There's been a lot of work done to de-stigmatise mental health issues. Waiting times for mental health services have also decreased. However, there's always more to do."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said the police figures were disturbing and pointed to "very big gaps" in support for those in serious mental health distress. 

"It's not appropriate for the police to become a mental health service by default."

The Government needed to do a lot more to ensure people had access to appropriate support, he said.

"We will give them a chance to come up with some initiatives that take us forward and we would expect to see some strong initiatives in the Budget."

WHERE TO GET HELP:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

 - Stuff

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