More disturbed people get treatment over jail time

File photo showing a police arrest. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Lionel Allorge)

Disturbed people who pose a threat to themselves or others are more often sent directly for treatment, instead of ending up in a police cell. In 30 percent of the cases the person is taken directly to a mental health institution, Henk van Dijk, chairman of the national platform mental health at the police, said to the Volkskrant on Monday.

The police are often the first to respond to reports of disturbed people threatening to harm themselves or cause a disturbance on the street. Until recently these people were arrested and taken into custody, as is done with "ordinary suspects". A disturbed person may spent hours in a cell before a doctor can start the process of getting  healthcare facility involved. This could be traumatic for the people involved, according to psychiatric nurse Carina Stigter. "At such a time people are at their most vulnerable", she said to the Volkskrant. Stigter performed a study on the experiences of patients and staff involved in such arrests for the mental health institution Altrecht. "Everyone I spoke to at the police and Altrecht thought it inappropriate that people who actually need care are treated as criminals."

A number of cities are running tests on how to improve the procedures in handling mentally disturbed people, though the approach varies by region. In Utrecht Altrecht has been working with the police since last year. If an officer suspects that a suspect is in need of mental care, he can call Altrecht's emergency service. The officer then describes the person's behavior to the service, on the basis of questions asked to the officer. If there is no question of aggression or an offence, the person can be taken directly to Altrecht without spending time in a cell.

The approach in Rotterdam is similar to that in Utrecht. In The Hague police station, a hallway with empty cells has been converted into a location where mental health care institution Parnassia can offer help to disturbed people. In Amsterdam officers assess suspects themselves and determine whether they have a disturbed person in need of help in their custody. In such cases the disturbed person is taken to the Emergency Psychiatry Amsterdam, where nurses take the patient in.

According to Henk van Dijk, the next step is that the 112 control room also has direct contact with mental health experts, in addition to the fire department, police and ambulance services. He told the Volkskrant that Rotterdam and Amsterdam are already busy with the first exploratory talks. "With this you will be able to earlier estimate what the problem is and what emergency service should be called in."