Every five to seven minutes police across Victoria attend a mental health case. These officers, sometimes very junior police, will be confronted with volatile situations. Sometimes they have to convince someone not to throw themselves off a building or harm themselves or others.
They have to, in an instant, help a person find something to live for, Senior Sergeant Paul Maslunka says.
“We can’t give (police) enough training or enough support. Police can’t have too many tools in the bag,” Senior Sergeant Maslunka said. “We don’t just do crime, we do so much more than that.”
BeyondBlue says suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44, with about 2,500 people dying by suicide every year. It’s equal to eight people every day.
Police attend every one of those calls. For every suicide, there are tragic ripple effects for friends, families, colleagues and the broader community.
“The thing for us – we are all on the front line with those responses when people are in crisis and we get those calls,” Superintendent Andrew Allen said.
“Across the state there was a mental health related call through police relations every five or seven minutes – that’s how prevalent it is.”
Mental health cases are not an issue of criminality. Police are called to help a person who is showing signs of a crisis or who is threatening harm to themselves or others. The role of police is to connect those people with mental health services.
“We’re there when a person comes into crisis and our role is to facilitate getting them into the best care possible if needed, or to re-engage or ensure they have the support there,” Senior Sergeant Maslunka said.
Police work closely with other agencies, including Ambulance Victoria and Ballarat Health Services psychiatric services.
“The prevalence of mental health is a lot higher than people would like to acknowledge and it doesn’t differentiate, whether you’re male, female … your occupation, your level of wealth or comfort. It just selects randomly, and that, to a certain degree, scares people.”
Senior Sergeant Maslunka said police are often called to cases where a person’s bucket is simply too full. They have been unable to share their battles with anyone, potentially leading to the worst case scenario. This can only be solved by a greater community awareness and acceptance of mental illness.
“We have to start having conversations, mature conversations about mental health.”
“Once we as a community start to have the conversation, people feel comfortable talking about it and then they have the support base there – they have another level of support helping them with their ongoing treatment.
“When we as a community start seeing some people with mental health condition in the same light as someone with a broken leg or a broken arm, then we are on the right track.”
In some cases police take mental health patients to the emergency department where they undergo a mental health assessment. Sometimes, if the patient is violent or threatening the must remain with the agencies throughout the duration of the assessment.
Ballarat Health Services manager of aged community mental health Kevin Harris said a team of specially trained mental health staff completed a risk assessment to help make decisions on the future treatment for patients.
They look at the patient’s history, their background, previous treatment, mood, medication and determine a plan. Sometimes patients are admitted into hospital, other times they are referred to other services.
There is no Crisis and Assessment Treatment (CAT) team in Ballarat, but Mr Harris said the service was currently undergoing a review to determine if additional services are necessary.
What help is there?
FOR those grappling with mental illness, there is a plethora of support but sometimes it is hard to get those needing help to reach out.
Lifeline Ballarat Program Manager Michelle MacGillivray says the community must talk about suicide to combat the issue.
[TIME TO TALK. We must end the silence on suicide.]
TIME TO TALK. We must end the silence on suicide.
“One of the most effective things each of us can do is reach out to someone in distress and show them we care,” Ms MacGillivray said.
In coming months the Ballarat and District Suicide Prevention Network will hold a safeTalk workshop to prepare anyone over 15 to become a suicide alert helper. Residents are also urged to attend or hose a Mental Health First Aid workshop or attend or host an assist workshop to learn to recognise anyone who maybe at risk of suicide.
Senior Sergeant Maslunka has urged the community to visit the Primary Health Network toolkit online which highlights a diverse range of resources.
He has urged anyone who needs help to seek it, because seeking help can save lives.