Better services for mental health issues could help to reduce crime

Too many people with mental illness are ending up in police custody after reaching a crisis because of a lack of appropriate emergency care, according to a leading psychologist who spoke at the Australian Psychological Society College of Forensic Psychologists National Conference, in Noosa this weekend.

Professor James Ogloff, a fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and the Director of the Centre of Behavioural Science at Monash University – who revealed results from a new study at the Conference – said almost half of those arrested and taken into custody by police have had previous contact with mental health services and one in five is a current patient. Many had been in contact with mental health services since they were children or adolescents, yet the current system was unable to fully respond at points of crisis.

He said: “Time and again police express their frustrations that they apprehend someone who is in obvious need of mental health support, but they are unable to secure a place in a hospital for them, or they are released shortly afterwards because they do not fit the criteria of having a serious mental health disorder. But police report that it is a range of mental health issues, or a combination of them, that can contribute to problems coping and instances of antisocial behaviour.”

Professor Ogloff has been leading the study – initiated by, and in partnership with, Victoria Police – which is measuring the prevalence of those with mental health issues in the criminal justice system and the factors that contribute to this over-representation. One aim of the study is to help police develop and adopt practices to improve their interactions with people suffering mental health problems.

He said: “Many people with mental illnesses end up in the criminal justice system at their time of greatest need and it is only once they are in prison that they are assessed and begin to receive appropriate treatment. But when you review these cases, it is apparent that the most acute need for intervention was the point leading to their arrest. If effective emergency help had been available, their circumstances may not have spiralled out of control.”

Professor Ogloff has suggested the introduction of a system of emergency protective custody, like that in the US, could help alleviate the problem, allowing people to receive help with their mental health problems in a safe environment before being returned to the community.

He said: “There is not a great deal of sympathy in the community about the mental health problems of offenders, but this is tragic because so many of these people are in this position because of a failure of society to provide an emergency service to allow them to overcome mental health problems, or their difficult combination of challenges and disorders. By committing to address this, we can reduce crime, help sufferers lead a safe and fulfilling life and improve the safety of the community.”

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The Australian Psychological Society College of Forensic Psychologists National Conference was on August 4-6 in Noosa. More information is available at http://www.groups.psychology.org.au/cfp/2011-conference/

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