The ACT review of the Mental Health (treatment and care) Act 1994 is in its final stages. This review will ensure that the mental health act meets the needs of the community and is in line with important mental health reforms in other Australian states and globally. Many community organisations, stakeholders and interested groups like mental health consumers and carers have provided valuable input to bring the review into action.

The ACT government considered a series of changes that will allow paramedics to act in emergency situations.

“Paramedics in line for powers to arrest” is the heading of a story appearing in Canberra Timeson April 26, 2013. According to the news, it now appears that paramedics will have the power to arrest people for criminal offences. They will have the statutory authority to detain people who they suspect to be mentally ill and transfer them to a health institution for further assessment.

These changes would also mean that a mentally ill individual can be given treatment even if he is not capable of or is refusing consent. So this authority may give the paramedics some confidence that their actions are justified. It seems that these provisions only enhance the human rights protection of people with mental illnesses.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher suggests, “At the moment those powers [for emergency apprehension and transport to hospital] are largely provided by the police,” so the review will provide paramedics a chance to be of service if they are the first responders to a mental health emergency.

Presently this authority was provided to the police but as Ms Gallagher says, “Quite often ambulance officers can find themselves in the situation where that needs to occur, but they don’t have the legislative base for that. This provides them with that.” The good news is paramedics would not find their hands tied in emergency situations anymore because of this legislative backing.

But opposition leader Jeremy Hanson seems to bring up another argument. “It’s a fine line”, he says. On one hand it seems lucrative to imagine that paramedics will have powers to act when faced with such circumstances. But he argues, “We don’t want to have a situation where paramedics are put in harm’s way, doing potentially what the police are trained to do, and paramedics aren’t trained and equipped to do.” So now the question arises: are these powers really appropriate for their profession?

Transport Workers Union (TWU) strongly object to these changes and their spokesman Ben Sweaney suggest that, “Police provide an essential service, and part of the police essential service is that frontline response to mentally unwell members of the community,” He expresses the logic behind this argument as, We certainly believe that as training stands now officers aren’t equipped to role out these powers” and certainly he has a good point.

The Chief Minister said, “The government released an exposure draft for consultation in August 2012, which received a strong level of engagement from the relevant stakeholders,” But in face of the criticism that followed the government decided to release a second exposure draft, for consultation before introducing the bill in the assembly later this year.

photo credit: obLiterated