Dutch police gain tools to help mentally ill

Police in the Netherlands are being equipped to deal specially with people exhibiting signs of mental disturbance.

The Volkskrant reported Monday that in Utrecht and several other Dutch cities, police departments have begun testing different ways of handling people with psychological problems who are exhibiting violent, threatening or criminal behaviour.

Trauma before treatment

According to Henk van Dijk, chairman of the National Platform for Mental Health, mentally-ill people who pose a danger to others or themselves are likely to end up in the care of the Dutch healthcare system rather than a police cell.

In 30 per cent of such cases, the disturbed individual is escorted directly to a relevant care institution by police.

It is only very recently that Dutch police have begun to treat mentally-ill people differently from other suspects while responding initially to a crime. Though most sufferers would eventually make it to a doctor or care centre, this usually followed a lengthy process involving arrest and solitary confinement - in some cases for hours - in a police cell.

Psychiatric nurse Carina Stigter told the Volkskrant that such experiences are often extremely traumatic for people with psychological disturbances.

Emphasizing care, not criminality

Stigter works for Utrecht-based mental health institution Altrecht, which has been cooperating with regional police since 2014 to provide them with support in handling the mentally ill. If a police officer encounters someone exhibiting signs of a psychological disturbance, he or she can call Altrecht’s hotline and speak to a mental health expert.

If the suspect is not behaving violently, the officer may bring him directly to Altrecht’s care centre without having to first detain him in a police cell.

Altrecht’s work has proven so successful in Utrecht that the organisation is expanding its reach to the nearby towns of Woerden and Nieuwegein.

There is a similar initiative at work in Rotterdam, while in The Hague, a special area has been set up in the police detention centre for suspects where mental care institution Parnassia can help those with special needs.

In Amsterdam, police themselves have been trained since December to determine whether a suspect is mentally ill, and if so to contact the local emergency psychiatry centre, where the individual will be placed in care.

In both Amsterdam and Rotterdam, efforts are underway to have a mental health line available via the 112 (emergency telephone) control room alongside police, fire and ambulance services. According to Van Dijk, this would allow for more effective first responding, as dispatchers would be able to glean some information about the nature of the problem before sending in aid.

Mental health-related incidents on the rise

A nation-wide review by the Dutch police shows that the number of officer-reported incidents involving "confused" suspects increased by almost 50 per cent between 2011 and 2014.

Though the reason for the increase is unknown, many of those who advocate a greater focus on mental illness see these numbers as underscoring the need for more initiatives.

Emily McCallum


Emily McCallum

Emily grew up in a small coastal town in western Canada and moved to Utrecht in 2014, after completing her studies in Vancouver and Germany. So far, she has been...

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