Special report: On the front line dealing with mental health issues

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ON a bright, autumn weekday morning – as tourists queue for tickets to visit Elizabeth Castle – a man in crisis dials 999 and tells the operator he needs help. He wants to die.

It is the second time in as many days that the man, in his 40s, has called the police. He is a regular caller and has battled mental-health issues and alcoholism for years following a family tragedy.

A police officer, who knows the man well from previous encounters, is deployed to the scene near La Frégate at 10.34am. The man is drunk and sobbing but he is not aggressive.

‘He’s called us, which is a good sign, I suppose,’ the officer says on the way to the scene. ‘It means he wants help.’

So far this year the force has responded to 1,265 mental-health incidents – a 17% rise on the same period last year. And a senior detective said such incidents were impacting on the force’s ability to respond to other issues. (Full story: Page 7.)

By 10.40am the officer called to the incident – who has removed his hat, as it is less formal that way – is locked in conversation with the man. It is a conversation that runs on until 11.30am without a break.

‘He says he wants to go to Orchard House and needs help,’ says the officer, more than an hour after the police were first called. ‘I can’t leave him because if something happens I could get in trouble and it’s on my conscience.’

However, the force medical examiner cannot come straight away, as they are dealing with another mental-health assessment at police headquarters and Mental Health Services are also tied up.

Officers do have powers to detain people in crisis under Section 36 of the Mental Health (Law) Jersey. The power can only be used in public areas and requires an officer to detain someone who is not a criminal as if they are under arrest.

‘Sometimes it doesn’t sit right,’ says the officer.

By 12.20pm the man is beginning to sober up – the officer has dipped into his own pocket to buy him a coffee – but he is still threatening to harm himself and suggesting he wants to end his life. He asks to use the public toilets at the start of Victoria Avenue.

‘We just have to wait,’ the officer says as the man walks towards the toilets. ‘The FME [force medical examiner] is still busy.’

Two minutes later, the man walks from the toilets and makes a beeline for the busy dual carriageway. Without hesitation he walks out in front of traffic – spurring a chorus of horns – and is narrowly missed by a double-decker bus.

The officer leaps into action and runs after him across the carriageway. The situation has changed.

‘I wanted to do the softly, softly approach. A Section 36 should only ever be used as a last resort and I’d like to think I gave the man every option, but when his safety, and that of the general public, is put at risk, officers have a duty to respond,’ the officer says.

Back-up is called. Two more officers arrive in two separate vehicles. There are now three police officers on the scene in three vehicles and the job has been ongoing for almost two hours.

The man, for his own safety, is placed in handcuffs and then put in the back of a van.

‘The situation changed and there was an immediate risk of harm [to the man]. I didn’t want to do this,’ the officer repeats.

Asked what the next stage for the man is, the officer says: ‘It’s difficult to say. However, this particular gentleman has been through the exact process more than once – detention and assessment – in the past seven days. I suspect that this particular gentleman will come to the notice of the police in the near future with similar circumstances.’

The man was taken to the Emergency Department and assessed by the mental-health team. The officer says hospital staff questioned whether he was fit to assess, as he was drunk, but were satisfied because of the level of time the officer had spent with him. Had they not agreed to assess him, he would have been taken to the police station, been booked in by a custody sergeant and kept in a cell until he was deemed fit.

The man was eventually taken to Orchard House, voluntarily and not under order, for treatment and support.

Speaking after the incident, Chief Inspector Craig Jackson said: ‘That was a relatively routine call. Some go on much longer and can last for a whole tour of duty of an officer. The man was compliant, so at first only one officer had to attend. If he had been violent or aggressive, it might take two or three officers.

‘Equally, it was in a public place. If it was the man’s home we have limited powers to detain someone under a Section 36. It can mean it takes a lot longer.’

As Chief Insp Jackson was speaking to the JEP during that weekday afternoon, the police were responding to five live mental-health incidents.

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