Police perceptions of their encounters with individuals experiencing mental illness: a Victorian survey
Objectives: Police have long played a central role in the management of people experiencing mental illness. This study explored: (1) the frequency of contact between the police and people experiencing mental illness; (2) the way in which police officers' knowledge and the sources of information used relates to various dispositions; (3) the signs, symptoms and behaviours that police officers consider are associated with mental illness; and (4) the challenges police face in this respect when performing their duties. Method: A survey was completed by 3,534 police officers in Victoria, Australia. Canonical correlations were used to explore the 'approach styles' of police when responding to people with a mental illness. Thematic analyses, based on grounded theory, were utilized to examine and code open-ended responses. Results/conclusions: Police reported that a considerable amount of their time each week was spent dealing with people they believed to be mentally ill. These encounters were reportedly associated with considerable practical difficulties for police, both in terms of knowing how to deal with people experiencing mental illness and how to best find appropriate supports for them. The most common results of their encounters were instigating a mental health apprehension, followed by arrest, but decision-making was influenced by the differential weight police placed on different sources of information received at the scene. Recommendations for police training, while based on practical wisdom, need to be multi-modal and should engage mental health experts in design and delivery.