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Police disappointed after mental health pilot dropped

Craig McCulloch, Political Reporter

Police officers are upset a proposal to improve 111 callouts has been dumped and mental health advocates hope it may yet be salvaged.

Photo: RNZ /
Richard Tindiller

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The former National government last year announced an $8 million pilot scheme where mental health workers would attend crisis calls along with police and ambulance staff.

The trial was due to start in September, but police headquarters said the new government had "re-allocated" the funding and so the pilot had been dropped.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said the decision was "disappointing" and officers needed practical support "sooner rather than later".

"It's all good to have inquiries and to have think-tanks, but people need help now. They're crying out for it."

Front-line officers were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls relating to mental health, he said.

"Police aren't the best equipped to do this. It needs to be people in mental health services who look after them. It's a medical issue, not a policing issue."

Earlier this month, RNZ revealed a spike in suicide-related calls to police of more than 50 percent over the past five year - from 14,500 in 2013 to 21,700 last year.

Health Minister David Clark turned down an interview request, but in a statement said the proposal "was never fully developed" and it appeared National had cobbled it together in a hurry.

He expected the government's mental health inquiry, announced in January, would include advice on how to improve the emergency response, he said.

National MP Chris Bishop said it was nonsense to suggest the proposal was a rushed job.

"The pilot was based on expert advice from people in the field, [it was] designed by police alongside mental health experts."

Photo: RNZ /
Richard Tindiller

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

He said the mental health review was a poor excuse to put off "evidence-based interventions and programmes".

"I'd be willing to bet a large sum of money that the mental health inquiry will recommend ... something exactly similar to what is meant to start happening in two months or so time," he said.

"They should just get on with it now."

The Mental Health Foundation had been supportive of the scheme and its chief executive Shaun Robinson said it was a shame to see it fall by the wayside.

"The police have unfortunately been left to be the mental health service of last resort."

Mr Robinson said he would be keeping a close eye on the inquiry's findings and was hopeful it would come up with a similar or even better idea.

"We would really hope to see that there's something significant in the crisis response area," he said.

"It may be a short-term loss for a longer-term gain."

Fiona Howard, from Mental Health Advocacy and Peer Support in Christchurch, also hoped the inquiry would report back with a similar project.

She said she empathised with police frustration, but understood the government's approach to first assess the entire mental health system.

"What I hope is that we can sort of pause - even though I know it's hard to wait - to make sure that we get all the results from that inquiry in to make sure all parts of our system that are under stress get the resourcing and new initiatives they need."

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.
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
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.


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