Advocates are urging decision-makers to move quickly on emergency mental health call-outs, saying getting away from the status quo is a matter of urgency.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said it was a “no-brainer” that a co-response team model should be rolled out nationally.

“We need to be able to do things smarter and this approach has prevented people being given the wrong sort of support being essentially dumped in emergency departments within hospitals.

“What the trial of the co-response team showed was that a significant number of people got a much better level of support without having to go to hospital and without having to go into police custody. So it’s a win win win.”

The co-response programme began as a pilot in Wellington under senior sergeant Matt Morris when he was managing the national mental health team.

“The three agencies at Wellington – ambulance, mental health professionals from the DHB and police – they have an office at Wellington, they all pretty much face each other almost like in a circle and when jobs come in through the 111 system they start talking about it.

“They look at the information. They’re looking at who’s called, they discuss what they each know about that person… and they make a decision on what they’re going to do now,” Morris said.

He said just by sharing information a lot of calls could be resolved without sending a police car or an ambulance to the scene.

An independent evaluation of the pilot by the University of Otago found on days when the co-response team was working a shift, fewer than a third of people in distress ended up in the emergency department compared with close to half when it wasn’t working. 

It also found those who had been dealt with by the team, and their whānau, reported a better experience than under the status quo.

“Co-response team users vastly preferred the co-response approach to business-as-usual. For some, past experiences with the business-as-usual model had led to them being frightened, detained, restrained, or ‘treated like a criminal’, whereas they perceived the CRT to be empathetic, non-judgmental, and helpful in sorting out the issues at hand,” the report said.

“We strongly recommend the co-response team service be continued and that other districts across New Zealand look at adopting similar models.”

This year’s budget set aside $27 million over four years for “community-based crisis services… such as co-response teams”, but it’s unclear exactly where that money will go with work still underway by health officials to identify the best place for it.

Robinson said the amount was nowhere near enough.

“It is encouraging that some money was allocated towards this but I wouldn’t want to describe that as adequate in any manner… you know, just over $6 million a year, spread across five different types of community-based initiatives and mental health.

“It’s really crumbs from the table when you consider that we’re talking about 60,000 call-outs and rising each year, but at least it is taking some steps in the right direction.”

Police figures report a 60 percent increase in mental health-related events over the past five years, forecast to rise a further 44 percent by 2025.

In 2021 police attended more than 70,000 events involving a person having a mental health crisis or threatening or attempting suicide – accounting for only about half of all the calls that came through due to responding to higher-priority calls.

Eight police districts, including Wellington, are trialling or have permanent co-response models in place with funding coming from each agency’s own operating budgets.

A similar model operating out of Whanganui was recently awarded $3.5m from the Proceeds of Crime Fund.

Morris said the demand to expand was certainly there, but it depended on what happened funding-wise under Health NZ.

“The critical component in these teams is the mental health, we can’t just throw more police staff into it we need them to do the same.

“From my perspective, there is a groundswell of support for this… we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing for years, we’ve got to change it up.”

Robinson urged officials to move as quickly as possible with making a decision.

“I definitely think that there should have been more gusto behind supporting this very successful pilot.”

Health NZ Mental Health and Addiction Commissioning interim director Philip Grady said if a community was to receive funding through the government’s budget investment and a co-response initiative was identified as a priority and a “good fit” then it would absolutely be considered. 

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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