Imagine this: someone rings the police to express concern for a friend or relativeâ€™s mental wellbeing, asking the police to â€˜check on themâ€™ to see that theyâ€™re OK. The officers attempt to do so, ringing a phone number that the friend provided and knocking on the personâ€™s front door. Â No reply and no response. There was no information to suggest the person was suicidal or self-harming, just that the friend or relative had non-specific concerns. Phone calls are put in by the police control room several times, including in to the early hours of the night and a note with a reference number is posted through the personâ€™s front door.
What is going on here, precisely? It all falls back to that whole discussion about â€˜welfare checksâ€™, sometimes known as â€˜safe and wellâ€™ checks and Iâ€™ve written about them before. Whether or not the police realise it, they are going to struggle to do them even if they do locate the person concerned; so letâ€™s remind ourselves of the problems where the safe and well check is connected to mental health issues.
The problems go beyond this, however: they also need considering and a recent experience highlights a few of them â€“
Obviously, where the police receive information that a vulnerable person may be self-harming, suicidal and or a serious risk to themselves, they have a clear duty to protect life â€“ but not all situations are like this. Also important to acknowledge that an accurate risk picture may not be known when a member of the public or a mental health professional chooses to report a concern. But it seems to me a legitimate public policy question about whether the police can actually do what is asked of them; and whether the police themselves realise their limitations? Iâ€™ve seen more than one report investigating an untoward outcome â€“ including reading another one just yesterday! â€“ where the decision of police officers to fully absorb responsibilty for asserting someone elseâ€™s wellbeing, without calling upon others and amidst a lack of ability to do anything other than refer the matter to others, has taken them in to gross misconduct territory.
This post doesnâ€™t say anything I havenâ€™t already said but the message bears repeating: police officers are NOT mental health professionals and cannot always do what mental health professionals can do, or what various people think they can do. This is not about a lack of training â€“ it is about unreasonable expectations being placed on officers which do not always seem unreasonable. If we are going to rely upon the police in terms of searching for or checking on people, officers and police services need to feel entitled to say, â€œOK, weâ€™ve found this person â€“ others now need to support us in making sure we get this right.â€
Winner of the Presidentâ€™s Medal from
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.