Policing Mental Health: Improving services, reducing demand, and keeping people safe

October 10th,  World Mental Health Awareness Day.

Have a look around you; one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year.

This is a fact that MIND, the most well-known mental health charity in England and Wales tell us.  Founded in 1946 (two years before the creation of the NHS), they advise that:

“We all need to take care of our mental health and wellbeing whether we have a mental health problem or not”

MIND further describe mental wellbeing in terms of how we are feeling and how well we can cope with day-to-day life.

“It can change from moment to moment, day to day, month to month or year to year”.


Now imagine that you are a police officer on patrol in the early hours of the morning.  What are the chances that a person presenting with mental health conditions will come into contact with you?  The police are on duty 24/7 and the encounters between officers and those suffering from mental health are very common indeed. Some of the symptoms will be obvious but many more will be hidden.

How would you deal with this encounter and what impact will that encounter have on the person suffering from mental health?

This is just one of the questions that will be explored at our fourth annual N8 Policing Research Partnership Police Innovation Forum on 8th November at Lancaster University.

In 2017, research published by the National Development Team for inclusion, in collaboration with Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust[1], highlighted the importance of improving social networks and prevent social isolation for people with mental health problems but tell us that previous research findings were patchy.  Effectiveness of supported housing and accommodation, encouraging meaningful activity for people with mental health problems and methods to prevent social isolation for people with mental health problems are appropriate interventions but more research is needed on the effectiveness of interventions to reduce or prevent loneliness and social isolation specifically for people with mental health problems.

Equally, social isolation can lead to mental health problems, so the problem needs to be tackled in both directions.  Social, and not just therapeutic or clinical interventions are needed.

It is so important to ensure that the earliest possible intervention at the lowest appropriate level is delivered to help promote recovery to those coming into contact with police presenting mental health conditions as it is a police officer who is more than likely going to be the ‘gatekeeper’ to these interventions.  Other questions will seek to explore how services can be improved to keep people safe while also reducing unnecessary or inappropriate contact with the police.

The aim of the Police Innovation Forum is to bring together key academics, police and other stakeholders together to discuss contemporary challenges in policing and look to develop innovative, practical, and evidence-based solutions. 

The demand on the police – as a 24/7 service – by virtue of encounters with those presenting with mental health conditions is huge and the forum will be looking at innovative and practical ways to reduce repeat calls for service where mental health is a component, by focusing on the identification of unmet needs and working with other parties and organisations to address them.  Keeping people safe is a joint aim of both policing and healthcare but responsibility for this extends beyond just the police service and the healthcare sector.  Many voluntary and third sector organisations provide invaluable support, but the complexity of networks and identification of effective pathways remain elusive.

The forum will start with a keynote address from Chief Constable Mark Collins who is the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) lead for mental health and Michael Brown OBE, the NPCC mental health coordinator.

Professional actors will then play out a scenario based on a real-life encounter which explores the real challenges faced by those police officers who police our streets and highlights the difficulties that emerge in determining the most appropriate response and intervention.  A facilitated discussion will then take place in which the opportunities for improvement of services and integrated approaches to reduce unnecessary or inappropriate contact with the police will be explored but with a dual focus on identifying unmet needs and ensuring that mechanisms for referral to the appropriate agencies is available.

In the afternoon, a series of parallel workshops are available for delegates to attend.  This will include an exploration by Michelle Addison of Newcastle Univerisity of Novel Psychoactive Substance (NPS) use and its consequences for police practitioners and substance users which has a direct impact on encounters with the police.  Jane Senior from the University of Manchester and Ian Cummings from the University of Salford will ask a key question; “Mental health is police core business – or is it?

Nicola Moran (University of York) will provide insight on mental health training for front-line police through an evaluation of a training package for North Yorkshire Police.  Supporting this, a different insight will be offered by Steve Baker of Northumbria Police and Claire Andre from Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation in relation to the ‘RESPOND’ programme, which is a multi-agency mental health training programme.  A further workshop will be jointly led by Dan Thorpe from South Yorkshire Police and Michael Brown OBE from the College of Policing in showcasing force innovations to assist police forces in tackling mental health demands.

We hope that the outcome of the forum will lead to a range of innovative and exciting ideas to achieve the objectives of improving services, reducing demand, and keeping people safe.  The Small Grants Awards open call for 2018 will also be launched at the forum.  The aim of the small grants is to provide pump-priming funds to support research into targeted and important areas of policing work and areas where the gaps in knowledge are most prominent and where research benefits are of greatest value.  Ideas generated via the ‘Policing Innovation Forum’ activity strand are particularly welcomed and we hope that we will be able to encourage partners to take forward ideas from the forum and apply for small grant funding.

[1] Introduction to the research on: the effectiveness of supported housing and accommodation for people with mental health problems, Dr Naomi Harflett, Yasmin Jennings and Kate Linsky, © 2017 National Development for Inclusion, www.ndti.org.uk

written by Dr Stephen Brookes, N8 PRP and Strand Lead for the Policing Innovation Forum

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