SINGAPORE — A move to set out the powers of police officers to apprehend suspects with mental disorders has stirred up an intense debate, with mental health experts especially concerned that the proposed changes could lead to more wrongful apprehensions and deepen stigma. 

But the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and legal experts said the proposed amendments to the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act (MHCTA) are aimed at reducing the ambiguity of what police officers can do when in situations involving those who are mentally disordered, and allow them to intervene before harm occurs.

MHA also said that with these amendments, the powers of apprehension that the police have when dealing with those who have mental health conditions will be aligned with the powers of arrest and apprehension that they already have under the Code of Criminal Procedure and other laws. 

The proposals, set out in the Law Enforcement and Other Matters Bill, is likely to be debated in the next parliamentary sitting on April 2.

Under the MHCTA now, police officers can only apprehend a person with mental health conditions believed to be dangerous to themselves or other persons when such danger is “reasonably suspected” and “imminent”. 

Then, police officers must immediately take that person to a designated psychiatric institution for psychiatric assessment and treatment. 

But if the proposed amendments are passed, police officers will be able to apprehend a mentally disordered person as long as they have a “reasonable belief” that danger to the person or people around him is “reasonably likely to occur”. This danger “need not be imminent, and actual harm is not required”. 

The proposed change will also provide police officers with powers of search and restraint of subjects who are apprehended, similar to what they have when arresting criminal suspects, said MHA. 

The tabling of the bill is in response to a High Court case last year, when a mentally disordered man was awarded S$20,000 in damages, as the court found that he had been falsely imprisoned by the police.


Given the complexities of mental health conditions and how differently they manifest, mental health professionals are concerned that police officers will incorrectly diagnose someone with mental health conditions when apprehending them.

Mental health researcher Dr Jonathan Kuek said: “It takes years for mental health professionals to develop the competencies required to make good judgments on issues such as the diagnosis of mental health conditions or risks to self or others in relation to a mental health issue.”

Ms Ooi Sze Jin, founder and psychologist of A Kind Place, added: “Mental health conditions can manifest with varying degrees of severity. Distinguishing between a situational issue and a diagnosable condition requires a thorough assessment.”

Agreeing, Dr Kuek said the current MHTCA laws, which state that police officers can only apprehend people who pose “actual and imminent danger” to themselves or others, is fair. 

But if the law is changed such that danger need only be “reasonably likely”, this might mean police officers will have to make hasty diagnoses about the mental health of an individual, he added.

“(It) places an unfair burden on individuals who are not trained mental health professionals and are mostly likely not proficient in assessing risk since they’re not expected to from a legal standpoint,” said Dr Kuek.

But in response to queries from TODAY, MHA said frontline police officers are not trained nor expected to make any diagnosis of mental health conditions. 

Instead, they look out for signs of mental health conditions, and may apprehend individuals for conveyance to IMH if they assess that these individuals may pose a danger to themselves or to others. 

MHA added that frontline police officers are trained to manage different situations, including how to identify and handle persons with mental health conditions.  


With the proposed changes, there is a higher possibility of mistakes or wrongful apprehensions given the lower threshold that has to be met before an officer can apprehend someone, said Dr Kuek. 

“There is an argument, of course, that we can play it safe and doing so will allow the police to protect even more people, but we also need to factor in the potential trauma people arrested may undergo without actually being a risk to others,” he added.

“(The proposed changes) could lead police to be unsure of what to do when eccentric or disruptive, but not dangerous, behaviours occur and choose to apprehend to be on the safe side.”

But Mr Alexander Woon, a law lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), said that the threshold in the existing laws may be too high.

If indeed the requirement is that the danger be “imminent”, it means that the suspect must literally be about to commit an offence, and the police may be helpless in intervening until it might already be too late.

The amendments lower and make this threshold clearer by setting it at “reasonably likely to occur”, which is a good thing, as this means police officers can intervene earlier, he added.

Ms Edith Chen, a law lecturer from SUSS and consultant at law firm Sureshan LLC, said that with the proposed changes, the underlying premise remains that the police can only apprehend someone under the MHCTA if they reasonably believe that the person is endangering the life or personal safety of himself or another. 

“What it proposes to do is to offer certainty to what the police may do in carrying out such apprehension under the MHCTA,” she added.

“From this theoretical standpoint, the Bill should not change the way law enforcement treats individuals with mental health conditions in a fundamental way.”


But some mental health experts are not convinced, and think the wording of the law may deepen stigma against those with mental health conditions.

Ms Nisha Jhangiani, the founder of Mind Wellness Singapore, a company that provides counselling services, acknowledged that the law is essential in ensuring public safety in situations of imminent and potential threat. 

But she added: “It would be helpful to establish in greater detail the context in which this proposed law would apply, especially around the reasonable likelihood of harm.

“It would also focus the conversation and minimise inaccurate perceptions and associations people might make about individuals with more common mental health disorders and law enforcement involvement.”

Agreeing, Dr Kuek said the proposed changes have a negative subtext. 

“It assumes that people with mental health issues are dangerous above and beyond what is immediately apparent, which suggests that people with mental illnesses are inherently dangerous and we should always be on guard even if there’s no imminent danger.” 

“While I’m sure that’s not the intent, translating such a broad piece of legislation to operational settings will be challenging,” he added. 

MHA said those apprehended under section 7 of MHCTA are not arrested but sent to a medical practitioner.

Still, Dr Kuek and other mental health experts say the aftermath of police intervention can have the same effect as being arrested.

Ms Nisha added: “While clarifying the distinction between apprehension and arrest is helpful, the authorities do get involved, and so a threshold for this involvement as it is clarified further would help put people at ease.”


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