Experts at Mental Health forum agree: we must change our response to people in crisis

On Thursday 20th June, we co-hosted a forum at NSW Parliament to discuss how we should respond to mental health emergencies.

With Redfern Legal Centre, National Justice Project and Aboriginal Legal Service, we brought together a panel of health and legal experts, mothers of people who have been killed by police and Rose Jackson, the NSW Minister for Mental Health. Their views were unanimous: the current system is not working.

There was broad consensus among panellists that police are ill-equipped to respond to mental health call-outs, and we must introduce a ‘health-first’ response.

‘The current arrangement is not working… and I do acknowledge it’s a systemic failure,’ Minister Jackson said.

‘The police… don’t want to be doing this work, and we know that it should be a health-led response.’

Panellists discussed different models in place around the world where mental health professionals lead the response. It was recognised police will inevitably continue to interact with people in the community with mental illness, but the training they currently receive is completely inadequate to prepare them for those interactions and must be improved.

Leesa Topic and Judy Deacon, mothers of people killed by police during a mental health crisis, both called for increased support for people with mental illness before an acute crisis occurs – including specialist accommodation. Dr Olav Nielssen, a psychiatrist working at St Vincent’s Hospital, highlighted a lack of suitable housing as a significant underlying issue hampering the efforts of mental health responders.  

‘Without housing people, it’s very hard to provide continuity of care,’ Dr Nielssen explained.

Audience members were invited to ask questions, and attendees and panellists acknowledged a need for community participation in developing a new response system. This must include people with lived experience of mental illness, affected families, Aboriginal people, and people with psycho-social disability.

We welcomed Minister Jackson’s commitment to developing a framework for an alternative model by the end of the year. This is an important first step towards ensuring our response to mental health crises is health-led.

We will continue to offer our expertise to the Government as an alternative model is developed and scrutinise any proposed model closely.

Our thanks to James O’Loghlin for moderating the discussion, and to Emily Suvaal MP, George Newhouse and Damian Griffis for their contributions.

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