Psychiatrists in blue? A study of police officers’ perceptions of their role with persons with mental illness

Ms Jerneja Sveticic1, Prof  Susan Dennison1, Dr Carleen  Thompson1, Prof Anna Stewart1

1Griffith University, Mount Gravatt 4122, Australia

The conflict between ‘force’ and ‘service’ is often felt during police involvement in incidents which simultaneously require legalistic and service-oriented responses, such as mental health related calls.

This study explored police officers’ perception of this element of their role through the framework of role theory, specifically the role episode model. Officers from Queensland Police Service (N = 242) were surveyed on the scope of and attitudes toward their involvement with persons with mental illness (PMIs). The survey also identified relevant role senders (people or groups who impact officers’ role performance with PMIs), their role expectations, and role-related stress as a potential outcome of incongruent role expectations.

Participating officers estimated they spend around 25% of their time resolving incidents involving PMIs; the majority indicated this is more than police should be spending on these incidents. Officers on average identified four role senders, most commonly themselves, colleagues, and immediate supervisors. Significant discrepancies were noted between officers’ personal role expectations and a variety of external role senders. Officers reported experiencing low levels of role conflict and role ambiguity in relation to their involvement with PMIs; though the former was more frequent than the latter. Finally, almost 40% of officers stated that working with PMIs negatively influences their overall job satisfaction.

Results of this study fill a gap in the theoretical knowledge-base on mental health policing. Further, timely identification of incongruences between officers’ expectations and the realities of police duties can prevent role-related stress and thus contribute towards better outcomes for PMIs and police officers.


Jerneja Sveticic BSc, MSc Psych (Hons) has worked as a mental health and suicide prevention researcher for over 10 years, with previous employments including academic and community settings. She currently works as a research officer at Gold Coast Mental Health and Specialist Services. She has a strong interest in exploring links between psychology and criminology, which has also guided her PhD studies. In her thesis, she explored police officers’ perceptions of the role they play in responding to calls for service involving people experiencing mental health crisis.

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