Carers’ experiences of police, crisis intervention and coercion

This Talking Point is about carers’ perspectives on the times when the person being cared for came into contact with the police. Police are sometimes involved when a person is in a mental health crisis and an emergency response is initiated, perhaps by a carer or a mental health practitioner. The police can take a person into custody if they have a reasonable belief that the person has attempted to seriously hurt themselves or someone else. The police may be involved in transporting the person to a psychiatric hospital or an emergency department for assessment by a mental health practitioner.

We also talk here about the role of the Crisis Assessment and Treatment team (CAT team). CAT offers a 24 hour service for urgent community-based assistance for people who have been diagnosed with ‘mental illness’. They can provide short-term treatment and visit a person in their home.

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Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team (CAT team)
Involving the police

Carers we interviewed said that the police and CAT teams often worked together, and could provide a very important service and support for carers and the person being cared for. Many carers talked about difficult times when they struggled with helping the person cared for and it could be a relief for them to know their CAT team or local police were there. However, involving the police could also put the person cared for in danger and most carers had mixed experiences of involving the police.

Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team (CAT team)

Some carers talked about times when they had called their local mental health service or CAT team because they were worried the person being cared for was going to hurt themselves or someone else. The CAT team seemed to be the first place many turned to in a crisis.

The CAT team could intervene quickly but not long term.

Iris described the CAT team as ‘very good’ and said her son responded well when they visited him at home. But when the CAT team thought he was ‘stabilised’ they left.

A few carers said the person being cared for responded badly when the CAT team was called because they thought the CAT team would bring them to hospital, and they did not want to go there.

Even though her son didn’t like it, Katherine said she never hesitated to call the CAT team when she thought that was in his ‘best interest’. But the CAT team didn’t always respond quickly.

Involving the police

People called the police for different reasons. Many carers, like Bronwyn, Ballagh, Bev, Alexia and Marta, described how they had involved the police when they had been afraid for the safety of the person being cared for. Ballagh called the police to do a ‘welfare check’ on her son when she was worried he was self-harming. Bev called the police when her son was discharged from the hospital, which was an hour from their home, where she said he had been ‘drugged up to almost a zombie’ and she did not know where he was.

Marta explained her relief when the police or CAT team took her daughter to hospital. When she was there, Marta ‘knew she was in a safe place’.

Police could also be asked by the mental health services to transport carers’ loved ones between hospitals or clinics for assessment and treatment. Elizabeth explained that she was surprised when her son told her that the police had taken him in their van, from the clinic where he was being treated, to hospital, when he was admitted for compulsory treatment: ‘I didn’t think the police would be involved’.

Some carers felt uneasy about involving the police in the care of the person cared for and were unsure what the police’s role was. The first time Alexia called the CAT team about her son and they told her to call the police, she hung up on them: ‘I was terrified. How am I going to call the police on my son?’ She later said she had not realised it was the potential role of the police to take him to hospital.

Some carers believed police were not prepared to deal with people who experienced severe mental health problems. Several carers said they were afraid to call the police in case the police saw the person being cared for as a threat, and harmed them. George described how, after he called the police following an incident at home involving his son, he was fearful that the police might harm his son: ‘What I was terribly conscious of was police shooting him. So I kept him within my distance. So if he moved away, I moved towards him, and if he moved towards me, I’d move back. I just kept him in a range … until the police came, and I just ran at the police and said, just, “Don’t shoot”. That’s tough’.

Although Jeannie had concerns about her son’s safety, she was reluctant to call the police.

Although some carers said police intervention could at times be ‘dignified’ (when Marta’s daughter was taken to hospital, Marta described how no handcuffs were used), at other times the scale of intervention seemed to some carers, to be extreme, heavy-handed or over the top. Marta said there were five police cars chasing her daughter (who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) for speeding and when her daughter eventually stopped the car and would not open the window, they ‘smashed’ it ‘while she was sitting in there’. A few carers described, in detail, incidents when they had called the police. They talked about how the police spent hours trying to take the person cared for to hospital or to the police station, cordoning off areas around the house and even using force.

When Bronwyn called triage and they told her to call the police she was unsure whether the police were needed. Her son was ‘terrified’ when the police came to the house, and they eventually shot him with rubber bullets.

A few carers were very upset about times when the police had been involved with the person cared for.

Kay remembered being very upset when her son was taken to hospital by police in handcuffs for involuntary treatment.

Ballagh described an incident when she believed her son, a minor at the time, was badly beaten police in custody.

Quite a few carers felt that sometimes the police intervened when it was not really necessary to do so.

Bev’s ex-husband called the police, after he had an argument with their son, without telling her. The police put her son in a cell, which Bev thought could have been avoided if they had spoken to her first.


A few carers spoke about times when the person being cared for had been kept by the police in a police cell or put in jail. Ballagh described how, when her son was homeless and committed a minor offence, he was incarcerated for three months in a remand centre because he did not have an address.

Jeannie talked about how ‘treatment not time in jail’ was needed when people like her son broke the law.

Courts and judges were, however, sometimes seen by some carers to be more understanding of the impact of mental health problems on peoples’ behaviour. When Dianne’s son was sentenced for attempted theft, at a time when he was not taking his medication, she said the judge was ‘excellent’ and gave him a ‘suspended sentence on condition that he took his medication’.