First port of call in mental health crisis

Police are often the first point of contact for a person suffering a mental health emergency.
Police are often the first point of contact for a person suffering a mental health emergency.
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On the Beat with Inspector Jim Tyner

I often say that recorded crime is down and yet the demand for police

services is as high as ever.

These weekly columns are an opportunity to share with you some of the types of incidents that we deal with that aren’t crimes and aren’t measured on any pie chart or graph.

Most police officers will be familiar with this scenario: the police are often the first point of contact for a person suffering a mental health emergency.

Across England and Wales it is estimated that up to 15 per cent of incidents which we deal with have links to mental health issues.

It’s a Monday evening; you are driving one of the emergency response cars, working 3pm to midnight. You have already dealt with an incident of anti-social behavior on a housing estate and moved on some street drinkers from the town centre.

At 6pm the control room receives a call that a 57 year-old woman called Sheila has gone missing.

There are concerns because Sheila suffers from delusions and paranoia and appears to be suffering a breakdown. Sheila has gone missing in the past and her family is very concerned that she may harm herself.

A description is passed and all available units start a search of the area while one officer visits the family to get more details. This is a priority: no one likes the thought of a vulnerable person being in danger. The clock is ticking and your stomach knots as the minutes turn in to hours and Sheila hasn’t been found.

Meantime some other incidents have to wait until Sheila has been located.

At 8:30pm you are driving along the A16 when you notice Sheila’s car parked up in a lay-by. Thankfully, Sheila is in the car, so you don’t have to request a police dog to search the area. Sheila is safe and she hasn’t harmed herself but now a new dilemma begins....

All cops are familiar with Section 136 of the Mental Health Act.

This states that when we come across someone who appears to be suffering a mental health problem and is in immediate need of care or control we can detain them and take them to a “place of safety”.

It is clear that Sheila needs help.

The problem is that, unless there is space at the designated place of safety in Lincoln, Sheila will have to be taken to the custody suite at Boston Police Station.

This is never ideal:

Sheila hasn’t committed a crime but sometimes the police station is the only place to go.

This time, however, you’re in luck. Unlike many people suffering a mental health crisis, Sheila isn’t violent and isn’t drunk.

You know from experience that more police officers are injured by people suffering from mental health emergencies than from criminal acts.

Your luck get’s even better....., there is a space available at the assessment centre in Lincoln.

You are joined by another officer and together you take Sheila to Lincoln.

This is a frightening time for Sheila: she is vulnerable and upset.

You do your best to put Sheila at ease but you’re a cop trying to deal with what is clearly a medical issue.

You have very little training beyond your police powers.

You, your colleague and Sheila arrive at the assessment centre at 10pm.

The clinical staff at the assessment centre are fantastic, but they are just as short staffed and stretched as every other organisation.

Sheila has to wait her turn, so you and your colleague have to wait as well.

Your packed lunch is back at Spalding, but at least you get a cup of tea!

While you are waiting, you hear on the police radio that other incidents are being reported in the Spalding area, but right this minute Sheila has to be your priority.

Just before 11pm Sheila is assessed and admitted. This is good news because Sheila will now get the help she needs.

Had she not been admitted, the alternative would have been to take Sheila back to her family, and ask them to arrange for her to see her GP in the hope that she wouldn’t go missing again in the meantime.

So, you and your colleague wend your way the 50 miles back to Spalding.

You get back at midnight: the night shift officers are out on patrol which means that you can complete the necessary paperwork relating to Sheila.

By the time you finish its 1am and you’re late off again. It’s not exciting or heroic; you haven’t locked up a criminal or detected a crime, but what you’ve done is helped a vulnerable person in crisis.

Yet again, you have been the safety net for society.

As you book off duty and leave the police station you glance up at the blue lamp that shines brightly in the darkness. Your work is done and it’s time for home.