Wednesday, November 27, 1996

Mental Health Act increases powers of WA police

By Chris Latham

PERTH — Police in Western Australia are to receive increased power to detain mentally ill individuals and seize their possessions as part of the Mental Health Act 1996, which had its second reading in the Legislative Council on November 13.

The act allows police to enter a building to apprehend a person suspected of being mentally ill and seize any items found in the possession of or near the person, without a warrant. It will require psychiatric assessment of individuals only after the fourth day of detention. These amendments, which will bring WA's legislation in line with other states, raise questions regarding the treatment of individuals suffering from mental illnesses and the civil rights of everyone.

Dr Donna Fruin, clinical psychologist and lecturer at Curtin University, expressed concern at the beliefs underlying these changes, saying, "The use of mental illness as a label is an inappropriate way to decide whether to detain an individual".

"It should be their behaviour, not their mental state, that is the criterion for detention by police, and they currently have sufficient power in this area", Fruin said.

Fruin also expressed concern that the act is an attempt to cut costs in mental health, by shifting the emphasis away from psychologists and psychiatrists trained to treat individuals with psychological problems and onto individuals untrained in the area.

Professor Don Thomson, lecturer in forensic psychology at Edith Cowan University, said, "If someone is mentally or emotionally ill, it is necessary that the individual be taken to, or is seen by, a doctor". Professor Thomson expressed concern as to whether police possessed the correct disposition or adequate training and support to make on-the-spot decisions regarding the mental health of an individual.

He also suggested that police undertake training and be exposed to the mentally ill so as to reduce fear of them. Thomson suggested that the shootings of mentally ill individuals in Victoria in the last two years were situations where such fears would be a factor.

Thomson, commenting on his experiences with the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, expressed concern "that the bill could enable the use of the Mental Health Act to extend the criminal code". Such an extension is dangerous as the Mental Health Act has less regard for civil liberties, an example of which is the individual's not having a right to legal defence.

The extension is also a concern considering the history of the label "mentally ill" being used as means of social control. The exclusion of anti-social behaviour, sexual promiscuity, political and religious beliefs as a basis for diagnosing mental illness serves as a protection against the institutionalisation of individuals. But these exceptions do not stop an individual from being detained for the four-day period. This leaves the legislation open for abuse by the police.

The West Australian editorialised on November 13 that "it is a curious time to be giving police more powers when there are widespread concerns in the community that some officers abuse the powers they have now".

If the Mental Health Act 1996 aimed only at improving the quality of mental health, it should not have included provisions for increased police power.

From Green Left Weekly #256.

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