Amicus Curiae: Police, Anti-Depressants, and Mental Health – Have We Missed the Point?

By Sabrina Sachs

Controversy has been swirling around recent police policy not to allow new recruits based on their use of anti-depressant medication.

Are people on anti-depressants stable enough to be on the police force? Is it unethical to exclude these people from serving? Some will argue that to allow people on these types of medication serve on the police force is dangerous to the individual and those around them. Others will say that it is discriminatory and ableist to exclude on the basis of mental illness. These might all be considered valid points in isolation, but contextualising them in the broader prison industrial complex brings to light a different analysis.

The argument for exclusion of those on anti-depressants is based around conceptions of people on these kinds of medications as being “unstable” and thus unsuited for high stress, volatile jobs such as the police. Others argue that this kind of discourse paints mental illness and those suffering from it as violent and unstable, stigmatising mental illness further and preventing people from seeking help.

Certain groups are over-represented in our prisons. One only needs to look at the demographics of the prison population. Studies have consistently shown that those with mental health problems and neurological disabilities are over-represented in prison, with those who are homeless and mentally ill more likely to be incarcerated for misdemeanours than their able bodied and non-homeless counterparts, and for longer periods of time. Furthermore, bylaws and regulations of public space often operate to exclude the homeless from these spaces, in a move that punishes poverty and mental illness (as homelessness and mental illness are intimately linked).

It could be argued Neoliberalism has reduced government support for those with mental illness, leaving those dependant upon these services to fend for themselves. Any effective action to help the neurologically disabled and mentally ill needs to be preventative rather than punitive. Resources need to be put into effective mental health services and adequate housing. Until we strive to make material changes, any action outside of this is a symbolic and empty one.

These are alarming facts, bringing to light a pervasive intolerance of mental health problems and disabilities. Yes, the failure to allow those who have suffered from mental illness into the police force is a discriminatory act, albeit one that could be considered legal under Section 29 of the Human Rights Act , which establishes an exemption to Section 22 (which prohibits employers from denying work based on age, gender, race, disability etc), in cases where employment of the disabled would be detrimental to the carrying out of certain duties.

Ultimately, in fighting for the inclusion of the mentally ill within the police the point has been missed entirely. One cannot put an end to vilified notions of the mentally ill by having more mentally ill people represented in the institutional body acting to incarcerate them.

Questions of representation are important in a democratic society. But what representation actually means is not often explored. Representation is more than a simple quota and a ticking of boxes. As feminist studies of representation of women in parliament has shown, a descriptive representation in parliament, (i.e. where there is a gender balance) does not guarantee substantive representation. In short, women in parliament does not automatically result in fair representation of women’s needs. This same principle applies to the police force. More women or people of colour in the police force will do nothing to combat the high incarceration of Maori and specifically Maori women, and a higher representation of mentally ill persons does not stop the systemic violence faced by mentally ill people in society.

It does not need to be said that discrimination is something we as a society should strive to eradicate, especially those forms that operate institutionally. On this level, the exclusion of police officers on anti-depressants is a move that fundamentally goes against the principles underpinning the Human Rights Act. Yet, attention needs to be drawn to the fact that the police force often behaves in a discriminatory way, due to some structural issues. The solution does not lie in simply including more mentally ill in the police force, it lies in a fundamental change to the way we as a society deal with mental health.

For more information on this topic, be sure to check out EJP’s symposium report on the issues of neurodisability and therapeutic justice in our legal system here.

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.