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:
Mental 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.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.