Police, Release Me


    Last year I became very unwell and made a hoax call to
    the police. I told them I was ill and in need of help. However, I
    was locked in a cell, stripped naked and forced to put on a
    forensic suit. I have physical problems as well in that I have
    bladder weakness – I became soaking wet and had to take the
    suit off. Nobody came near me for over three hours. The only thing
    they did was get a doctor to examine me who had no knowledge of my
    medical history. The care was non-existent. I should really have
    been admitted to hospital. The police just don’t know what it
    feels like. They treat you as if you are bad and a

    This anonymous account from a woman with mental health problems
    makes for shocking reading. Yet it is neither exceptional nor

    With the closure of long-stay hospitals and increasing emphasis
    on care in the community, the police have become more involved in
    the lives of people with mental illness. This is partly because the
    police are on hand 24 hours a day and are often the first to be
    called to a situation. It might be that they are called by somebody
    who wants to report a person acting strangely. Or it could be that,
    with conventional mental health services closed after office hours,
    a person who feels suicidal or who is self-harming has nowhere else
    to turn.

    The police are ill-equipped to deal with such people. During
    their basic 15 to 18 week training, recruits receive minimal
    information about mental illness and what they do learn tends to be
    based on their powers under the Mental Health Act 1983.

    “Mental health is included in a number of modules but it is not
    concentrated on,” says Linda Van Den Hende, who works for the
    Metropolitan Police and is the disability and mental health lead
    for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

    “There is no set number of hours and it is not about how to
    recognise mental health issues and deal with them sensitively. They
    don’t have what I might call a general awareness

    Custody sergeants, who are responsible for detainees in police
    cells, are given more training, but not much more. Those in the Met
    receive an additional two hours – hardly enough given that it
    is they who decide whether someone is fit to be interviewed and

    Given the frequency with which officers come across people with
    mental health problems, their lack of training is somewhat
    alarming. Can they really be prepared for what becomes a
    significant part of their job?

    One survey found that in six police force areas there were 200
    incidents involving people with mental health problems every
    day.(1)  Many of these incidents – exact figures are unknown
    due to lack of adequate recording – will be “section 136s”.
    Under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, a police officer can
    remove someone from a public place to a “place of safety” (usually
    a hospital or police station) for assessment by a doctor.

    Considering the number – and sensitive nature – of
    the incidents, it stands to reason that at times the police will
    make mistakes. This can mean mishandling that will only add to the
    individual’s distress and occasionally has tragic

    According to the Independent Police Complaints Commission
    (IPCC), the body responsible for investigating police complaints in
    England and Wales, about half of deaths in custody involve people
    with mental illness – a disturbing figure given that 38
    people died in custody in England and Wales in the year to March

    The IPCC’s findings during its first year of operation
    have led it to consider mental health as its single most important
    area of concern.

    But John Crawley, the IPCC commissioner with lead responsibility
    for mental health, says that it is not just the police who are at

    “Sometimes it is to do with statutory services not working
    together,” he says. “The police do get it wrong but often they are
    caught as a key actor in a complex system where they have
    insufficient power to deliver what the person needs.

    “Community mental health teams are not sufficiently resourced.
    The police are often called because they are available and will
    turn up. But sometimes it’s only the police who turn up. They
    can be the first, and only, response.”

    It is paramount then that the police are trained to deal with
    incidents involving people with mental health problems. But what
    sort of training should this be?

    The Social Exclusion Unit’s 2004 report into mental health
    highlights an

    awareness course run by Northumbria police in response to
    officers’ needs. Sessions were delivered by mental health
    professionals and user groups who gave information on conditions
    including psychosis, personality disorder and self-harm.
    Independent evaluation found that the training resulted in quicker
    and more appropriate responses to incidents – and improved
    attitudes from officers.

    Elsewhere, other forces have introduced a system whereby people
    with mental health problems give talks to officers about their
    experiences. While this is better than nothing, it is no substitute
    for evidence-based, standardised training.

    However, this is an area being developed. The government has
    made £155,000 available to strengthen police training in
    mental health and work is under way to establish what officers need
    to know. By June 2007, the Central Police Training and Development
    Authority (Centrex) is expected to be in a position to roll out
    this training.

    Better police awareness about mental illness is long overdue.
    Those in the midst of a mental health crisis are often frightened
    and distressed, and the way they are treated by a police officer
    can be their make or break. Being spoken to like a criminal and
    thrown in a police cell to “cool off” is, without doubt, the last
    thing they need. 

    1. Mental Health and Social Exclusion, Social Exclusion
      Unit, 2004

    Screaming sirens and flashing lights add to the

    “I have mental health problems and, because of the behaviour of
    the police, I am now denied emergency treatment when I need it.

    “I suffer very severe long-term anxiety and one of my symptoms
    is that I self-harm. When I have injured myself and called an
    ambulance the police always come too, yet they know very well that
    I am not a danger to anyone except myself.

    “Despite this the police come, with sirens screaming and lights
    flashing, and cause a great hoo-ha. Sometimes more than one police
    car comes and they park all over the road. Before, when they came
    into my flat, they left the police car lights flashing. It was as
    if they had come to arrest a dangerous criminal. All my neighbours
    were out and watching – it was awful. Goodness knows what
    sort of total nutter they must think I am. And all because I had
    injured myself superficially.

    “The police also made a lot of noise with their radios going and
    their loud voices. They had no intention of sparing me the
    embarrassment. I think it’s quite likely they may have even
    done it on purpose as the police hate people with mental health

    “The police presence causes me massive trauma on top of the
    trauma I already suffer from the illness. Because of the police I
    have stopped calling ambulances and in effect have been denied

    The right approach

    “When the police came to collect me I told them that I
    didn’t want their radio on as it was a Saturday afternoon in
    the summer and everyone was in their gardens. So they turned their
    radios off. When they got information they explained to me what was
    happening. From what could have been a confusing and frightening
    situation they did their best to explain things and reassure

    “My brother has schizophrenia. Every time we saw the police in
    action we saw calming, non-assertive, non-aggressive behaviour that
    worked. The police referred my brother to the GP, and that led him
    to being sectioned. The actions of the police led to him being
    supported and getting treatment in the mental health system.”

    “I work in a hostel. I’ve found that on the whole the
    police react well when they’re experienced or have a superior
    officer present. I have always found the police to be attentive,
    co-operative and ready to do whatever is decided in the best
    interests of the patient. I have never seen a single incident of
    the police being heavy-handed or using any physical methods. This
    may be a fluke. It could be that when they hear the incident on the
    radio the only officers who attend are those who want to deal with

    The wrong approach

    “I was head-butting a police cell wall for three hours and they
    didn’t know how to deal with me. They came in and put a cup
    of coffee on the floor and walked out even though I had a bruise
    the size of a tennis ball on my head. Another time I was at a tube
    station, behaving oddly. The police saw me as a public nuisance.
    They told me to go home but I said I couldn’t. They said
    ‘either go home or we will arrest you’. My flatmate
    wouldn’t let me in and so I wandered around London and was
    lost for 12 hours.”

    “I live in a good bit of town. When I say I have a son who has
    schizophrenia who has gone missing they send people round who
    couldn’t be better. But they make assumptions based on how
    people talk and where they live. I was once helping a mum who
    needed to go to the police station where her son was being held as
    he needed his medication. The custody sergeant wouldn’t let
    us in. This family lived on a bad council estate and the police
    made the assumption that the lad was criminal and not mentally ill.
    It took us nearly three hours to get into the police station.”

    “The police should be made fully aware of people with mental
    health problems, perhaps with a department that specialises in this
    field. Where I live the police can’t be bothered or
    don’t have the knowledge to deal with people with mental
    health problems.”




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