Australian Institute of Criminology

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Police detainees and mental health

Media Release

10 July 2012

The Australian Institute of Criminology today released an important paper highlighting a high prevalence of mental disorders among police detainees, in contrast with the general Australian population.

The report analysed interviews and mental health screening tests of 778 detainees across five Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) collection sites: the Brisbane, Southport, Kings Cross, Bankstown and East Perth watch houses.

Altogether,  almost half (49%) of the detainees who were given a screening test were experiencing a diagnosable mental disorder, which may well be an underestimate, as in some jurisdictions police officers take people who appear mentally unwell directly to mental health facilities.

Report author, Ms Lubica Forsythe said that detainees were also asked whether they had ever been diagnosed with a mental health problem by a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist or nurse. Of the 668 detainees who answered this question, 281 (41%) reported having been previously diagnosed. Of these, 272 were able to recall at least one diagnosis, 23 reported two diagnoses and five reported three diagnoses.

Of those who did not report a previous diagnosis, 42 percent of women were diagnosed with possible current disorders through the screening test, compared with 28 percent of men.

“Understanding the extent of mental illness among those who come into contact with the criminal justice system is extremely important for policing and government policy development and resourcing,” Ms Forsythe said.

The AIC recently estimated that out of approximately 360,000 police responses per year, approximately 148,000 incidents involved a person with a mental illness.

While the most common mental disorders found to be experienced by the general population were anxiety (11% of men and 18% of women), mood disorders (5% of men and 7% of women) and substance use disorders (7% men and 3% women), in contrast, among detainees, mood disorders such as depression and bipolar were reported at very high rates: 28 percent of male and 44 percent of female detainees.

Of detainees who had used at least one illicit drug during the previous month, 51 percent reported having been diagnosed with a mental disorder compared to 37 percent of detainees who had not used illicit drugs — in women, the link between drug use and diagnosis of mental disorder was even stronger. Sixty six percent of women who used drugs in the previous month reported having been diagnosed, compared with 40 percent of those who had not recently used illicit drugs.

The report can be found here: www.aic.gov.au

For comment: Colin  Campbell 0418 159 525