Iam a police officer in an English police force and I’d like to apologise for the lack of support we can offer to people facing mental health problems. Cuts to NHS mental health services in recent years have put mounting pressure on the police force to pick up the slack and we aren’t trained or prepared to deal with it.
Recently I went to the home of a person who had been putting large lacerations across their arm, bad enough to need a couple of stitches, but not bad enough to bleed out. A friend had made the call to 999.
We stood in the living room in some kind of stalemate – my partner and I, the injured person who was self-harming and their friend. We tried to convince the person that things aren’t so bad, and that they can be fixed. Only now I’m not so sure they can be.
What can I do in a situation like that? I don’t have the authority to arrest someone in that situation and I can’t attempt to section them as they do not lack capacity. I would ideally like to call an ambulance or a mental health team but they simply aren’t available.
In the end I just had to sit for an hour or so and talk to them until I convinced them to come with us to A&E. It’s not a perfect solution by any stretch – the local A&E is at breaking point and, because of police cuts, if I commit to transporting someone I leave only one car in the area to respond to callouts. But what choice do I have?
There is also an increasing frequency of callouts that do not need to be attended by the police at all. There is one person, for example, who has mental health problems and calls us regularly about fictitious groups of people with masks, hiding in the bushes.
We still attend to make sure they are OK and that it isn’t a bunch of local teenagers scaring someone with mental health issues. But once again there will be nothing there. They will call again and we will attend – just in case it might be an emergency. The person has been waiting months for an initial mental health assessment and they are getting worse while they wait.
All I can do is attempt to convince them that we’ve checked the bushes and that everything is fine. I’ll have a quick chat about whether they have contacted their doctor and they will tell me they are still waiting on an appointment. They don’t have any friends or family to rely on and even if they did, how much could they do?
I feel sorry for the person I arrested recently who had caused criminal damage because they didn’t have the mental health help they needed. I know it is distressing for them – and their relatives, too.
I tell them that they can shout at me all they want, while two of my colleagues put them in the back of one of our cars and I try to explain what’s going to happen next. I know they have refused to take their medication, it’s been getting worse and nobody at the hospital has done anything.
The NHS is as understaffed as we are, especially in mental health. The control room staff who dispatch ambulances frequently say they are at “surge black” – the second highest level after a major incident.
Paramedics will do their best to get to us, but if someone is contained and being watched by police then they are considered safe and it could be several hours until they arrive to assess them and take them to hospital.
I can’t leave someone alone to wait for an ambulance, so if they are cooperative, calm and haven’t committed a crime then we just have to wait together. Once the ambulance crew is here they are free to go with them. Unfortunately, if someone has committed a crime or is being violent then they are going into custody either way. They can be watched in custody; they will be safe, can get some sleep and be assessed by our in-house mental health team in the morning.
But now the team only has the time to prioritise the most serious cases, so if someone puts on a reasonable show of being all right, they will likely just let them go. They will face charges for what they have done. And if next week they become distressed again and cause criminal damage or assault someone again, we’ll start the cycle all over from the beginning.
I’ll make the same referrals, I’ll take the same steps to try to make sure that person and those around them are safe and I’ll make the same apologies. I hope the situation improves, I really do.