I think I’ve explained that originally, my interest in this area of policing arose from professional frustrations; a professional lack of knowledge of what I could or could not do; what I must or must not do when responding to incidents. I had no personal reasons to develop this interest and this crucially means I lacked a personal insight.
Frankly, probably along with many members of our society and many cops, I could not even begin to understand why some people self-harmed when they were in crisis. As a constable and as a sergeant, I had been involved in detaining, restraining and / or arresting many vulnerable people who had self-harmed or were attempting to do so. I could not see the necessity or the point: I just didn’t get it. As such, the experience of policing events involving those who had self-harmed or were threatening or likely to do so, was frustrating to me because of my own perceptions: the sheer lack of necessity, as defined be me.
But this is not about me, is it? If fact, the last thing it is about, is me.
The moment that it clicked for me, was during a night shift as a sergeant, when one of my officers and I arrested a young woman who had cut her arms apart again with a razor blade and who was head banging in her hostel when staff called the police. After having to arrest her, we removed her to A&E for treatment to her arms and the young probationary constable I was with just asked her outright, “Why do you do this? I want to understand.” I’d never thought to ask the question at all and both the answer and the subsequent exchange between the two of them over the next hour made it click. For me at least.
The woman explained that it made her feel better. The sensation of the pain, the physicality of bleeding was matched by a release of anxieties and fears which abated her depression and quieted down the voices she heard. In short, it brought (at least) temporary relief from her demons. She then said something quite innocuous which nailed it for me, although it still feels like a silly example, even now: “Plenty of people get this from doing sport. They go out to push themselves, end up pushing themselves to pain and hurt and derive both pleasure and a physiological, mental release.” I play squash and sometimes you really push yourself; it hurts, you can’t breathe but it doesn’t seem to equate. But something did click around the concept of ‘release’.
It doesn’t even make sense to me having typed it up; but something in my head clicked. That she articulated it so clearly and rationally, whilst awaiting her cuts to be cleaned and dressed made me realise that to her, this was a rational act; regardless of what I thought.
Years later, a colleague in another police force rang for advice. Officers in that force had attended a private premises to a call involving a known mental health patient who was self-harming. Upon arrival, officers established that she was open to services and contacted the local MH crisis team. Upon checking records, it was established that she had been seen earlier that day by her professional team and was believed to be doing OK. The officers wanted advice about the fact that she was currently self-harming and were asked, “Is it serious self-harm or just superficial cutting? If it’s just cutting, just let her get on with it, it’s what she does.” And that was that.
After my ‘penny-dropping moment’ and the fact that I’d since spent three years working on nothing other than mental health issues for the police, I understood this. I actually had to remember I’m a cop and think about what they’d be wondering, “How the hell do I know if this is serious self-harm or superficial cutting?! I’m not a doctor?!! Does she have the capacity to take this decision in light of its consequences?! It’s all very well saying you saw her earlier today, but what if she’s taken something which has changed all the risks?!! What if I think it’s superficial and leave her to do it, as per your advice, only to find she bleeds to death after I’ve gone?! I’m going to be asked the basis upon which I’ve assessed the incident, in light of your advice. Anyway, even if I think it’s on the more serious side, I haven’t got any bloody powers in a private dwelling?! Any chance of some help here?!!” Or something similar.
This blog post is about something crucial to the policing of mental health incidents: officers are often told that we need to have greater understand of and insight into mental health issues and what it’s like to live with them. This often leads to calls for more / better training, perhaps including insight from service-users. All fair enough – my own journey has done part of that for me. Sympathy / empathy or lack of, for those at risk from mental illness, is one of the most remarked upon features of feedback to the police.
Although important, it’s not actually helping me police the event, though. Not one bit. Do we leave her there to her own devices and how do we determine that this is correct, safe and defendable; or do we intervene and if so, how and on what legal basis? <<< That is the training and the leadership we really need because all the sympathy / empathy in the world is futile if we then go and do the wrong thing and either leave someone at risk or criminalise them.
The Mental Health Cop blog won
– the Mind 2012 Digital Media Award, in memory and in honour of Mark Hanson.
The Awards celebrate the “best portrayals of and reporting on mental health in the media.”
– a World of Mentalists 2012 #TWIMAward for the best in mental health blogs.
It was described as “a unique mix of professional resource, help for people using services and polemic.”