Gardaí 'stumbling in the dark' when responding to children in mental health crises

Gardaí 'stumbling in the dark' when responding to children in mental health crises

Gardaí feel ill-equipped to deal with a child having a mental health crisis. Picture: iStock

Gardaí are often first to the scene in incidents of child mental health crises, but feel they are “stumbling around in the dark” without adequate training or guidance, reports the Policing Authority.

A report published by the authority on Wednesday examines the path children take to psychiatric care, via the criminal justice system, when gardaí are called to the scene of a crisis as first responders.

The study involved interviews with 18 gardaí, and 11 other professionals including psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, and a social worker.

The report reveals gardaí feel “an undercurrent of dread and fear” when dealing with a child in a mental health crisis, and anxiety after crisis events, as they feel professionally ill-equipped to deal with such cases, and that they could make the situation worse.

Those interviewed felt the Mental Health Act 2001 provided them with little guidance when it came to managing a youth crisis mental health event, in particular with children.

All Garda members interviewed were unaware of any specific protocols or HQ directives to guide practice when attending a mental health call-out involving a child.

Unintentional criminalisation of children

Gardaí described how they often opted to use the criminal law as a means of bringing the child back to the station for assessment by a doctor, which leads to the unintentional criminalisation of children during a mental health crisis.

Ian Power, chief executive of youth charity SpunOut, said this practice was “particularly concerning”.

“A child experiencing a mental health crisis requires a therapeutic intervention, not a criminal one, and it is particularly concerning to read in the report that children are being criminalised in order to detain them for assessment, rather than use the provisions of the Mental Health Act and transport the child to an approved centre,” he said.

“Garda management must urgently review the situation to determine whether legislative amendments to the Mental Health Act are required and if additional training for gardaí is required to support them to avail of the provisions of the Mental Health Act,” he added.

The Garda station was identified as one of the main environments that children in mental health crises have to progress through in order to reach psychiatric care, and all gardaí interviewed felt strongly it was not the appropriate place to manage a child experiencing a mental health crisis, as the child’s safety could not be ensured, and the environment could cause further psychological distress.

Policing Authority chairperson Bob Collins said the study offered a crucial insight into the demanding role of gardaí as first responders in a child mental health crisis.

“This study… offers recommendations regarding the pathway into appropriate and safe care for children in crisis. We hope that this research will assist the Garda Commissioner in improving policing services, and help provide better outcomes for children,” he said.

The report's recommendations include the implementation of a training programme for gardaí on child and adolescent mental health, in general and in crisis, mapping of a clear care pathway for youth in mental health crisis, the rollout of a clear mental health crisis intervention model, and a focus on the wellbeing of gardaí responding to mental health crises.

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