It all started with a ruptured appendix.
In hospital at the end of last year, Constable Ashleigh Champion noticed that most of the beds were being taken up by mental health patients where privacy was scarce and patients were scared.
“I could see a need for change,” she says. “Mental health is one of the most sensitive things to go through and they are not in a private space.”
That’s what the Police, Ambulance and Clinician Early Response (PACER) program she signed up for is trying to do.
The program runs between 2 pm and midnight every day of the week and treats mental health patients in the community, with the aim of keeping them out of the emergency department where they can.
Constable Champion wanted a change of pace and looked for a way to incorporate her background in community services with her role as an officer.
Prior to joining the Australian Federal Police, she had worked for drug and alcohol services, employment services supporting people with mental health issues, and for Relationships Australia in Queensland, which helps families and children rehabilitate their relationships if they have gone through a separation.
Out of the 1249 mental health callouts the PACER team attended in 2020, 963 Canberrans were able to receive care in their home and remain in the community, as opposed to being hospitalised.
“Having this option empowers these people to stay at home and take control of their health,” says Constable Champion.
By starting her first shift as the only female police officer in the program, in early December 2020, she accidentally signified a historic moment for the ACT, creating the first all-female PACER crew from the 29-strong roster.
“It is always exciting to see who you are going to end up working with on shifts,” says Constable Champion. “I am all for girl power, but I want to stress that we have the best people for the job.
“We are dignifying the process in terms of giving patients the power about how they address their mental health.”
Prior to the introduction of the PACER team in December 2019, there was little else police could do when receiving a mental health callout for people who were suffering or severely distressed apart from detaining them to take them to hospital under emergency apprehension (EA) orders.
While officers undergo a significant amount of mental health and community engagement training, a patrol response can often be met with hostility where there are complex mental health issues involved.
ACT Ambulance PACER coordinator Megan Davis says having an ambulance officer and mental health clinician in the program has significantly changed this.
“This is a fantastic initiative to treat people in the community,” she says. “With a mental clinician in the team, they can do a really thorough mental health assessment because they are the experts in that field which means the person does not necessarily need to be placed on an EA to go to the emergency department.
“The community, in general, has really embraced PACER turning up once they understood what it is all about. Once they understand everyone’s roles, [we] are warmly embraced and invited into their lives at that time.”
The ACT Government has just announced a further $14 million to keep the PACER program running seven days a week until 2024, but Ms Davis says she would love to see an expansion of the program, both in terms of the timeframe and being able to put a second vehicle on the road.
“Both policing and ambulance have received an increase in calls; it is steadily increasing every year for mental health cases, and PACER really does make a great difference to those people,” she says.
“We would absolutely love to extend it because at the moment we are currently not getting to all mental health cases that come through the triple zero network with PACER.
“PACER can only do one job at a time so there are other jobs where police or ambulance are attending mental health cases in the community.”
A submission to expand the program will be made for the next ACT Budget, which is set to be delivered in August 2020.