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Siege review: ASIO to access suspects' mental health records

Former Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy, who presided over the court case of convicted terrorist and diagnosed schizophrenic, Khaled Sharrouf, and the nation’s leading counter-terrorism academic, Professor Greg Barton, have thrown their weight behind the key recommendation of the Martin Place Siege review that ASIO gain access to mental health records in the fight against terrorism.

But this would require enhanced information sharing, safeguarded policy to ensure mental illness is not stigmatised and proper legislation to balance patient confidentiality, they warned.

The ‘Martin Place Siege: Joint Commonwealth – New South Wales Review’ advised that state governments should “review legislation, in particular with respect to privacy” and report back to COAG (Council of Australian Governments) by mid-2015.

The review accessed the confidential mental health records of deceased siege gunman, Man Haron Monis, and reported he was treated at a community health centre in 2010 and 2011, yet an investigation of these records by the NSW Chief Psychiatrist found at no time was he deemed to represent a security risk.

The review further advised that “all Governments should support communities and front-line service providers in recognising signs that someone may be radicalising and adopting strategies for management.”

It comes as academics and policy-makers re-assess the role of mental illness in terrorism, particularly in relation to ‘lone wolf attacks’ and amid concerns that the terrorist organisation ISIS is recruiting vulnerable and mentally ill people to its cause. 

"Clear lines between mental health and radicalisation have been blurred"

– Professor Greg Barton, of Monash University

In a national security address at Australian Federal Police Headquarters in Canberra on Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott pointed to “sick individuals” that are “all too often alienated and unhappy people (who) brood quietly, feeling persecuted and looking for meaning.”

It could be the prelude to health records being accessed by the nation’s spy agency, but former Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy told The Point Magazine that “ASIO should only be able to exercise a warrant with the special permission of a court.”

“Proper legislation is needed to balance the need for confidentiality between patient and doctor with security issues,” which would require scrutiny before it was exercised, he said.

Anthony Whealy presided over the case of Khaled Sharrouf, a convicted member of the Pendennis Network who, after his release, left the country on his brother’s passport to fight for the terrorist organisation ISIS and later gained notoriety by posting a picture of his son holding a decapitated head on Twitter.

During the Pendennis trial Sharrouf’s mental health issues led him to be “found unfit to be tried for 10 to 12 months,” Whealy said.

“He had a mental illness of some dimensions for some amount of time – two to three years – which went untreated for a while. Everybody was agreed on that and there was no suggestion to the contrary.”

In a report tendered to the Supreme Court, Sharrouf’s psychiatrist, Stephen Allnutt, detailed the sustained drug use and delusions in his schizophrenia that had contributed to Sharrouf’s radicalisation.

Siege gunman Monis was another example of one who “couldn’t be pigeon-holed” and “would never qualify as the traditional, plotting terrorist,” Whealy said.

Both Sharrouf and Monis had been represented by defence lawyer Adam Houda, who told The Point Magazine, “We’re not dealing with rational human beings here.”

Houda described the “so-called sheikh”, Monis, as “completely and utterly mad” and “the craziest person who has ever walked into my office.”

“I’d ask him questions and he’d go off on a rant,” he said.

Another terrorist who had sustained drug abuse and mental health issues before becoming radicalised was former Kings Cross bouncer, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, who later became a key recruiter for ISIS’s arsenal of Australian foreign fighters before being killed in Syria.

An international academic paper, “The role of mental disorder in attacks on European politicians 1990-2004”, in the Acta Psychiatrica Scandanavica, investigated all 24 political attacks in the period and found that 10 attackers had a mental condition, 11 exhibited warning behaviour and concluded that early intervention should be sought for those with delusional preoccupations.

Heather Hurlburt, of the Washington-based think-tank New America, has warned that online recruiters are skilled at targeting the mentally vulnerable and recommended that mental health should be equal in focus to national security to counter this trend, but added future insights would need a community-centred focus to ensure communities weren’t polarised and alienated.

In the United States last week, the Whitehouse summit to counter violent extremism, which was attended by Attorney-General George Brandis, recommended partnerships between law enforcement agencies and social service providers, including education administrators, religious leaders and mental health professionals.

Australia’s leading counter-terrorism academic, Professor Greg Barton of Monash University, has warned that the “clear lines between mental health and radicalisation have been blurred” and the two are “not mutually exclusive.”

The anecdotal evidence that terrorists, including the perpetrators of ‘lone wolf attacks’, suffer mental health issues “suggests it’s a bigger factor than we have liked to acknowledge.”

“It’s a new trend, and a worrying trend,” Professor Barton said.

“Historically, terror groups have been very careful in their screening processes to exclude people with mental health issues. But (the terrorist organisation ISIS) is changing the rules a bit – they’re more interested in an indiscriminate acceptance.”

Terrorist organisation ISIS is using “damaged goods as weapons” and isn’t “worried about reputational damage in taking people that other groups reject,” he said.

Returning foreign fighters were likely to suffer a degree of post-traumatic stress, he added, and “if they begin with mental health issues, they’re likely to be exacerbated.”

Treatment focus should investigate “how we manage things to give the best result for everyone.”

“It makes sense that ASIO and people in counter-terrorism start investigating mental health issues,” he said, and suggested this should be in a “collaborative fashion.”

Unless you’re the director-general of ASIO, employees of the nation’s spy agency aren’t allowed to reveal their employer, which inhibits free and open conversations, information-sharing and the trust required between mental health professionals and religious workers, Professor Barton said.

We should encourage people to speak openly about their mental health issues, he said, but “if Muslim Australians started acknowledging their mental health issues, they don’t want ASIO knocking on their door.”

For advice and help, visit beyondblue.org.au or call on 1300 22 46 36; or lifeline.org.au can be reached on 13 11 14.

The Point

The Martin Place Siege Review has recommended that ASIO access the mental health records of terror suspects

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