Majority of police calls linked to mental health crisis, reveals Havering Police Sgt
07:00 23 September 2016
Police are facing growing pressure to respond to people in mental health crisis. Chloe Farand finds out more.
Inpatient mental health unit
The inpatient mental health unit at Goodmayes Hospital provides services for residents across Havering, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham and Waltham Forest.
The hospital, which is run by the North East London NHS Foundation Trust (Nelft), has 100 acute mental health beds for adults – 60 for men and 40 for women.
An additional 42 beds for older service users are located across Sunflowers Court in Goodmayes and Woodbury Unit in Waltham Forest.
More than 200 patients a year require an emergency admission to a place of safety under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act – an increase of 15per cent year on year.
A spokesman from the unit said: “We have never turned a patient away due to lack of beds, however there may be instances where there may be a delay of transfer from A&E to Goodmayes, or the patient may not be eligible for this unit due to their residency.
“We would then repatriate to their local mental health inpatient unit.”
A pilot scheme is also providing on-the-spot advice from trained mental health professionals to police officers or the London Ambulance Service when they are dealing with people with possible mental health problems in the community.
The street triage team trial aims to reduce the number of people being taken to a place of safety under Section 136 and/or A&E. It operates five nights a week from 5pm to 1am.
For most police officers, signing up to the force reflects their drive to help others.
But when confronted with people in mental health crises, the police are faced with a “growing challenge” – inside and outside the force.
Sgt Paul Storey became the mental health lead at Havering Police earlier this month and heads the force’s efforts to identify best practices, organise training and work with partners such as Mind and the London Ambulance Service.
Responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis has become part of their everyday job. “The majority of our calls have something to do with mental health – attempted suicides and overdoses are an important causes of calls,” he said. “It drains resources even if every call is important – because at that time, that call is important to them.”
Data reflecting this trend is difficult to compile since most incidents are reported under a range of other categories, such as domestic calls.
“Often parents ring us because they can’t control their teenager – they are at the end of their tether. They need help and don’t know what to do,” said Sgt Storey.
Police contact with people in crisis happens if they are putting themselves or others in danger. A person holding a knife and threatening to self-harm cannot be dealt with by ambulance crews – who are trained about mental health. Police have to intervene.
Sgt Storey said police officers are not trained to identify different symptoms of mental illness – “it’s not our role” – but are now regularly given safety training to deal with people in crisis.
When a person is arrested under the Mental Health Act, a doctor makes an assessment as to whether the person needs sectioning. If this happens, usually a minimum of four police officers in two cars must take the person to Goodmayes Hospital’s mental health unit.
But if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the inpatient unit will not accept them, and officers have to go to Queen’s Hospital A&E in Romford. “At the hospital, officers are often forced to stay on the premises to protect hospital staff and the patient in crisis,” he said.
“If we leave them, we are often called back because the person is insulting other patients or assaulting staff. It’s about creating a safe environment for people that need help.”
Officers can wait anything from a few hours to a whole night at the hospital. In some instances, officers have to drive to Newham, Hackney or further to find a unit that will accept the person in crisis.
“People join the police because they want to help others, but in some cases we cannot help them. Where does our role stop and someone else takes over?”
Alongside those challenges, recognising mental health symptoms among officers has become a priority for Havering Police. Managers are going through training to identify signs of stress within their team, and breaking the stigma of mental health problems inside the force is one of the tasks facing Sgt Storey, with many officers afraid of speaking out. Debrief sessions are now held after serious incidents for officers to discuss any harrowing experiences.
“We have perhaps let colleagues down in the past, not supporting them, but now the focus has changed. There is still an idea in the police that you have to be tough and just get on with it – but we are humans,” said Sgt Storey.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a growing consequence of the “appalling stuff” some officers are confronted with.
“One of our chaps recently had to deal with three suicides and give CPR to a baby – that is traumatic,” he said. But he hopes working with partners both inside and outside the force will help change perceptions about the police’s “tough” role.