This reflective piece by a second year student caught my eye! It is honest, reflective and highlights much learning…..
In 2010 I volunteered to become the Mental Health Liaison Officer responsible for being the point of contact between the local police in Hounslow, mental health service providers and service users. There was no bespoke training for the role, but simply by being named as the MHLO I became the local police ‘expert’ on all things mental health, I had no experience of mental ill health, I got lost when mental health nurses and psychiatrists discussed psychosis or personality disorder and could not understand why someone who appeared to me to be suffering a mental ill health condition was not suitable for treatment at the acute hospital. During my 18 months as the MHLO I re-wrote the local policy on how police and service providers worked together and participated as a joint lead in a project examining what affect the Bradley Report would have on policing mental health.
Policing Mental Health
It is estimated that 25% of the prison population suffer some form of mental health (MH) illness (Ramesh, 2014) and as such it is no surprise that police officers must deal with people suffering an MH illness frequently. In fact the Metropolitan Police Service has dedicated officers in every borough tasked with being a liaison between the police and mental health service providers. At the time of my appointment as a liaison officer Bernard Hogan-Howe had recently been appointed as Commissioner of the MPS and had made policing mental health a priority (Towl & Crighton, 2012). However, given the importance of this, there is surprisingly little training for Mental Health Liaison Officers (MHLO), in fact there is not much training for police in general when it comes to working with people suffering mental ill health.
I took up the post of MHLO as The Bradley Report was published and I approached the local mental health trust’s senior leaders to look at the recommendations of the Bradley Report and what that would mean for policing. The Bradley Report looked at the realities where persons suffering an MH illness were processed through the criminal justice system and made recommendations about effective diversions to make sure people were treated rather than punished (Department of Health, 2009). I spent a lot of time reading the report and its recommendations, had I had the knowledge I have now (and access to the same resources) I would have found that Bradley had already been reviewed in a policing context including a piece by Cummins (2012) where use of Section 136 of the Mental Health Act, liaison between police and MH service providers and police training were all considered in light of Bradley. As it turns out I chose to focus on police training, the use of 136 of the MH Act and liaison as my initial priorities anyway, however had I been able to rely on Cummins’ work it would have improved the weight of my argument to get people interested in my project.
After introducing myself to the MH Trust’s senior leaders I approached the MPS central unit for MH and was informed that there was no real strategy for development training of police. I explained that I intended to address this for my borough. I designed a training package and organised attendance at local training days to deliver it aided by one of the senior nurses from the local acute hospital. I was unaware that police training had been considered by many academics including Cummins above but in other work as well. For example, Cummings & Jones (2010) highlighted two successful approaches to training police, one where new recruits spent two days at a local MH hospital where they met service users and experienced some of the issues and conflicts first hand, and another where custody sergeants were targeted for training as it was thought that as experienced officers and role models they would be able to pass on the learning to other staff. Had I been aware of these findings I would most certainly have adapted my approach to meeting with smaller groups of more senior officers where I may have been able to arrange input from MH staff and potentially service users too. Moore (2010) also looked at training as part of a literature review of the topic and supported the finding of Cummins & Jones that actually meeting MH sufferers and understanding the issues from their perspective was invaluable in reducing the stigma attached to MH and thereby improving the way police respond to these issues.
Finally looking at the benefits of liaison Coleman and Cotton (2010) wrote an article on a Canadian model where police working closely in support of MH staff delivered real benefits. They detailed several principles for effective MH policing including having identified liaison with partner agencies and ensuring staff were trained to an acceptable level. At a time where Evidence Based Policing was becoming more and more popular having the weight of these academic arguments to support my work would have been of real benefit and would almost certainly have not only improved what I was doing practically but would have encouraged greater ‘buy in’ from the staff I was trying to develop.
I took on the role of MHLO as a volunteer and did it as I wanted to develop myself and thought it would be a good challenge. My experience of the role and the people I got to work with really helped me and may well have been one of the main motivators for starting a degree. I looked at MH issues in a policing context and worked to address them, however I worked hard not smart. With the basic knowledge I have already gained from the Policing BSc I am able to very easily find numerous journals which have researched, reviewed and published findings on all areas of policing including mental health. Not only would this have saved me time, it would have helped me make better arguments for what I wanted to achieve. What I have also taken from this is the value of the degree education and I recognise why the College of Policing are promoting the Education Framework.