Working as a police officer has forced me to be a part of some of the most unbelievable indignities I’ve ever seen and I wasn’t a willing participant in many of them – and unfortunately the worst of them have been mental health related incidents. After almost eighteen years of experience, I’ve seen and done some things I’d really rather not and it’s influenced my thinking about what I believe we should be trying to achieve here.

I wanted to share just some of them with you —

  • I don’t want to see a complete, unequivocal end to the use of police custody as a Place of Safety under the Mental Health Act because it saves the custody officer some grief – it’s absolutely degrading to see someone in distress in custody where they have done nothing wrong. In many cases it is also legally degrading and no-one should pretend that cases like MS v UK aren’t being repeated in the United Kingdom notwithstanding the court’s ruling. I’ve seen several such cases since that judgment and I’ve flagged every single one of them: the answers that always come back are answers which are never legally acceptable … “not enough money”, “not enough beds”.
  • I don’t want to have to criminalise someone in order for them to be able to access a service which meets their needs and which would otherwise be unavailable – some mental health services are not open to people purely on the basis of clinical need, but require legal conditions to be imposed that only the justice system can determine. This tendency to criminalise people for the sake of accessing clinical services is something I cannot get used to and to have your future DBS record marked by a prosecution is especially degrading when the real issue was you needed empathy, compassion and support. We would never stand for it in any other kind of healthcare and I really don’t see why we insist upon it in mental health.
  • I don’t want to be forced to determine whether or not a vulnerable person in need of care and a safe space should be illegally detained or illegally neglected – I’m actually quite happy to take decisions in legally ambiguous circumstances; it’s not the decision-making I object to. I actually resent be obliged to manage a position where someone suffers such indignity because we cannot plan services to ensure basic human rights. I’m referring here to the rights not to be detained other than in circumstances the law has taken trouble to specify; not to be degraded whilst detained and not to be held in an environment that is irrelevant to my particular needs when I’m unwell.
  • I will admit that I don’t want to be connected to forcing medication on patients because it is utterly degrading to see an adult woman being restrained by mixed sex nurses who are pulling her trousers down in order to force medication upon her by injection to the backside – I’ll be honest: it’s not what I joined the police for! There would be no question in other legal contexts that forcing someone into a situation where their clothing is removed would be done by same-sex professionals. I’ve got huge ethical objections to it, never mind the question of whether it’s even lawful for the police to be involved in such things. If you’re interested in doing that to other people, you should plan and prepare adequately so you can do it yourself, as envisaged by the Act itself and required by Health & Safety law.

Today is World Mental Health Day – the theme is dignity. To begin with, I struggled to think what could be said in short post. It was only when I reversed the proposition to think of indignity that I was over-run with examples, ideas and frustrations from my experience. It has always been at the heart of my concerns in policing and mental health that we need to do much more about very obvious indignities and degradations our broader system of mental health and crisis care inflicts on people and in particular, we need a far deeper understanding of how policing, coercion and a lack of compassion can unwittingly contribute to some of the the greatest indignities we’ll ever see. I suspect some of the things I worry about are easily dismissed by many but having now been actively working in this area of policing for well over a decade I would conclude this:

I blog for World Mental Health DayMental health care seems to works best when it is designed and delivered in such a way as to maximise the engagement of those of us who use services and is built around their needs, not those of organisations or professionals; it minimises power imbalances with those professionals and involves coercion, criminalisation and custody only to the extent that is utterly unavoidable.

I fear we still have a long way to go; indeed I worry that we’re actually going backwards.

IMG_0053IMG_0052Winner of the President’s Medal from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.


7 thoughts on “Indignity

  1. Quick first comment, and perhaps a medical professional can answer, I don’t understand why the ploce go to a lot of trouble to ensure that same sex officers are available to do the taking clothes off stuff, but somehow nurses don’t have to bother. The same is true of general nursing too, I have seen old ladies given a bed bath by a man and not given an opportunity to object.

    1. I’ve just made a similar point by making an addition to the post – genuinely read your comment afterwards. I think it’s different if you’re a consenting adult, but as soon as we’re talking coercion, then it should be same sex professionals in my view. I totally agree!

  2. Sorry, another thought / question . It seems to be the case now that in order to access low secure services you need to be a threat to others/ actually have been charged with a crime. This seems to leave people who are a severe danger to themselves being held for months on acute wards, while an alternative is found. An acute ward is by definition nowhere to hold severely distressed people for months. As there is less physical or relational security it actually results in more restrictions and far less availability of any sort of activity, therapeutic or otherwise, than would be the case in a more secure environment. Would love to be told I’m wrong about that by someone who knows….

    1. Hi, I come from USA. The local police in my town were horrible. I tried to report that I was raped in 2012, and they claimed I had fabricated the story. It was like,”We aren’t going to do anything about your complaint but we’ll gladly escort you to a mental hospital.” Their ambulance services were negligent as well. When I called after I had fainted they came and yelled at me and threatened me. No one in my low income building dared call 911, which is the emergency number in our town. They accused me of crimes I never committed nor planned to commit, and this they did with NO evidence nor warrant. My home was also searched illegally. I learned to fear and loathe the cops. I really had no choice.

  3. All of those four things in your list have happened to me in the last year. I sometimes feel we are a very long way from achieving dignity for people mentally unwell in the UK

  4. Whilst there are people around like you Michael; people who are prepared to stand up and be counted, and who actually know what they are talking about and who actually care – then change will happen. Fantastic blog – yet again.

  5. Yes thank goodness there are people that care and know right from wrong. Too often people get desensitised to wrong doing because the system, broken, has allowed it to become normal. Keep telling what is wrong and when writing up incident reports ect, make sure it is written when someone is forceably undressed by someone of the opposite sex ect. I’ve known people who have had mental health episodes, spending a night in the cells does not tend to make someone feel safer or better.

    We are living in a country when only one kind of person counts at all; The Hard Working. Everything is geared that they will continue producing more GNP. It is not for the old, infirm, for the mentally ill or disabled nor for those with physical issues. It is not for babies, or mums or kids or carers. See how the NHS is stretched, how 40% of maternity units have had to close for admissions, due to lack of staff and being over stretched. Perhaps folks need to work harder still and pay for private health care, pensions, security, and so on? Cutting taxes and sevices is a choice. Folks need to ask is it what they would choose?

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