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Friday, June 26, 2009

Tasering of mental patients shocks Queensland (Australia) health experts

June 26, 2009
Christine Kellett, Brisbane Times

Queensland mental health advocates have expressed horror at revelations patients threatening suicide in overseas hospitals are being Tasered to calm them down.

An international medical conference in Darwin yesterday heard security guards at a single US hospital used Taser stun guns on 27 people, including a woman who held a knife to her own throat, during a 12-month trial.

In the majority of cases, their violent behaviour improved.

Queensland Alliance CEO Jeff Cheverton said Taser stun guns were not the way to deal with people suffering from a mental illness or those in the grip of psychosis.

"It is absolutely shocking to hear that Tasers are being used in what is supposed to be a therapeutic environment," Mr Chevers said.

"People are admitted to hospital for treatment - it is absolutely not a place for weapons to be used."

The news comes after the death of 39-year-old north Queensland man Antonio Galeano, who was shot up to 28 times with a Taser during a violent stand-off with police on June 12.

The Queensland Police Union has maintined he would likely have been shot with a pistol if the Taser had not been available to officers at the time.

But Mr Chevers said the electric shock devices were unlikely to have a calming effect on mental illness sufferers and could actually make the situation more dangerous.

"When working with people who are mentally ill, the focus needs to be on de-escalation,'' Mr Chevers said.

"Turning up with lights and sirens flashing, banging on someone's door and shouting at them in a loud voice is not going to calm that person down.

"I accept that police have a difficult job, but just giving them another weapon to use does not give them a message to try and diffuse a heightened situation."

Mental health consultant to the Canadian government, Neasa Martin - in Brisbane for a mental illness conference this week - said police access to Tasers was a barrier to the development other methods of negotiation.

"I think the way Tasers have been sold to law enforcement is `oh great, these things allow us to neutralise mentally ill people and get them to care' but it doesn't always work out that way, as we have seen recently," Ms Martin said.

"Before these things came along, police needed other skills to deal with difficult situations - skills that take a longer time to develop. Giving people a Taser means those other skills are put aside."

Ms Martin is advocating a joint response to seiges and stand-offs involving mental illness sufferers that sees police team up with trained mental health clinicans and peer support workers to negotiate in tense or violent situations.

She said told the Altering States conference in Brisbane today a Canadian police trial was acheiving positive results.

A major inquiry is currently underway in Canada, where a mentally-ill man died after being shot with a Taser at an airport.

In Queensland, Tasers have come under increasing scrutiny since their introduction to frontline policing in December.

Several complaints of misuse have been referred to the Crime and Misconduct Commission for investigation, including the Tasering of an unarmed teen girl at Brisbane's South Bank.

The State Government announced a four week review of the weapons in the days following Mr Galeano's death, after data downloaded from the Taser used in the stand off showed the weapon had been fired 28 times.

Authorities have not ruled out a malfunction.

Recently released surveillance footage has also sparked debate in New South Wales - where Tasers will soon be introduced - after it showed a Sydney man shot from behind with a Taser for apparently jay-walking.

Australian hospital emergency departments are unlikely to follow the US's lead on stun guns, and Mr Chevers said he was confident Queensland Health would never approve such a trial.

"I can't imagine a situation where Queensland Health would tolerate that."

He said Queensland hospital staff were often criticised for discharging or turning away mentally-ill patients when better access to support services immediately after their release could prevent tragedies occurring.

"(Antonio Galeano) is not the first person to be discharged from hospital only to come to the attention of police and then be involved in a fatal incident.

"The I think people in mental health units work very hard, but their training is limited to a clinical setting.

"It is important to the safety of all of us...that more in-home and community support services are made available for people as soon as they are released from hospital."

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