SINGAPORE — Police officers will only intervene in situations involving people with mental health conditions when the person poses a danger to himself or others, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said on Tuesday (April 2). 

Under amendments to the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act, police officers will be able to apprehend a person with a mental disorder if 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 idea that the amendments to the act are for mental health management “is entirely mistaken”, said Mrs Teo during a parliamentary debate on amendments to the act, which were passed in Parliament on Tuesday. 

The changes 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. 

The move has stirred up intense debate among mental health experts who were especially concerned that the proposed changes could lead to more wrongful arrests and deepen stigma. 

During the debate, 10 Members of Parliament (MP) voiced their concerns about the changes to the law and how police officers will be trained to handle situations involving people with mental health disorder. 

POLICE INTERVENTION MIGHT BE NECESSARY IN SOME CASES 

During the most dire of circumstances, apprehension by police officers may be necessary to save a life, said Nominated Member of Parliament Syed Harun Alhabsyi.

The psychiatrist and Honorary Secretary of the Singapore Psychiatric Association said that in such circumstances, “time is of the essence”, especially where there are reasonable grounds to suggest a potential threat to the person with the mental health condition and others.

Agreeing, Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah, Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency, drew from his experience as a Singapore Civil Defence Force officer handling suicide calls.

He said that decisions often had to be made in “split seconds”.

“My experience tells me that sometimes you do not have the luxury of time,” said Dr Rizal.

Dr Syed added that for suicide risk assessment, even for psychiatrists, it is not a “perfect science”.  

As such, he said: “It is fair and appropriate for police officers to exercise reasonable judgement without waiting for a suicide to be imminently clear or after such attempt at lethal harm has been actualised.”

ADDRESSING CONCERNS AND MISUNDERSTANDINGS 

In her closing speech, Mrs Teo, who is also Minister for Communications and Information, addressed some of the concerns MPs had with the changes.

She said that the Government is “fully committed” to advancing mental health. “We recognise that persons with mental health conditions are part of our society, and we should do our best to help them.”

Deepening the social stigma 

A number of MPs were concerned that the changes to the law would accentuate the social stigma faced by those with mental health conditions. 

Mrs Teo said that she understood the concerns, stressing that the Government is actively working towards destigmatising mental health conditions so that people do not hesitate to seek help. 

When it comes to police intervention, she added that it is not the intention of the police to put an additional burden on persons with mental health conditions and their families. 

“As I explained at the start of the debate, police will not get involved unless called to prevent harm from happening,” she said.

Mrs Teo said in situations that require police intervention, they would “calibrate their responses” and let medical professionals take over as soon as practicable. 

Apprehension vs arrest

When it comes to apprehending those with mental health conditions, there has been some misunderstanding where it is thought to be the same as an arrest, said Dr Rizal. 

Mrs Teo clarified an apprehension and an arrest are not the same. When someone is apprehended under the law, he will be taken to a medical practitioner for assessment. 

Separately, when someone is arrested, he will be placed in a lockup, said Mrs Teo. 

Regarding the treatment of those being apprehended, Mrs Teo said the medical professionals will assess them at the Institute of Mental Health to determine the likely medical causes of their behaviour. 

Assessment of mental health conditions

Some MPs had asked how police officers would determine if the threat of physical harm is attributable to a mental disorder. 

The role of the police is not to assess or diagnose mental health conditions or disorders, said Mrs Teo. “They are not best placed to do so. Their role is to deal with the threat of harm and protect public safety.”

With regard to the possibility of a police officer abusing his powers, Mrs Teo said that safeguards such as body-worn cameras for ground response officers ensure accountability and transparency.

“Their actions can be audited very easily because it’s recorded,” she said. 

Mental health professionals on the scene and hospital overload

Some MPs have suggested that mental health professionals or community first responders accompany police officers when responding to such cases. 

For this suggestion to work, Mrs Teo said there needs to be sufficient numbers of such professionals on standby 24/7 and for them to respond immediately to “all cases at all parts of our island”.

“Unfortunately, I think this will be very difficult to accomplish,” she said. The more feasible approach is to refer such individuals to mental health professionals for treatment after dealing with the danger. 

Other concerns from MPs include whether clinics or mental health facilities would face an influx in patients. Mrs Teo does not think this would be the case, as the threshold for police officers to apprehend someone is “still quite high”. 

“It’s not a case where suddenly you’re going to go out to make apprehensions. So there is no anticipated increase in resourcing needs,” she said. 

She reiterated that the police would only intervene when a person poses a danger to himself and others around him.

“The police do not get involved in cases involving persons with mental health conditions but who do not pose any danger to himself or others,” she said.

Share.

Leave A Reply

© 2024 The News Singapore. All Rights Reserved.