Edinburgh’s Howden Hall police station recently faced a distressing incident when they received a call about a man armed with an axe and knife. The police swiftly responded to the situation and managed to eliminate the immediate threat. However, their involvement with the distressed man did not end there. Two constables had to wait with him for a staggering four hours until he could be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Furthermore, another officer had to guard his flat until the broken front door could be repaired. This incident is just one example of the mounting number of calls related to individuals in distress that Police Scotland’s overstretched frontline resources are grappling with.
The decline in the nation’s mental well-being has been attributed to the ongoing pandemic and the cost of living crisis. Consequently, Police Scotland is witnessing a significant surge in mental health incidents, averaging around 20,000 cases per month. It is worth noting that the majority of these incidents do not involve any criminal activity. In fact, approximately one in six incidents handled by the police are directly connected to mental health issues. PC Kate Gardner, a two-year veteran of the force, acknowledges that dealing with mental health has become a regular part of their job.
The shift for PC Gardner and her colleague, PC David Macleod, often commences with a series of welfare checks that must be completed within four hours. They recently encountered a vulnerable individual who had not responded to calls from their support worker for three weeks. After thorough assessment, they determined that a man who had expressed his desire to acquire a self-loading rifle posed no immediate threat to himself or others. In another instance, they were tasked with locating a woman who had absconded from a psychiatric ward. Upon discovering her apartment in darkness, PC Macleod had to employ a small battering ram to gain entry. They successfully escorted her back to the hospital, ensuring her safety.
Senior officers within the force acknowledge that the police often find themselves filling in the gaps in mental health services provided by other agencies. Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham of Police Scotland recognizes the challenges officers face when trying to access services better equipped to handle mental health issues. In an attempt to reduce officer deployments, the force is exploring a new system for assessing calls. The focus is on collaborating with senior partners in the health services to ensure that individuals in need receive appropriate care and support. This approach aims to allow the police to concentrate on addressing serious crimes, harm, and vulnerability during crises.
There is a consensus that the police may not always be the most suitable organization to respond to individuals in crisis or distress. However, finding a solution to this predicament is proving to be a daunting task, primarily due to limited public finances. The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland has highlighted a workforce crisis across the police, social work, and psychiatry sectors. The chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland has called for a comprehensive review of mental health services. Campaigners at Scottish Action on Mental Health stress the importance of placing individuals with mental health problems at the forefront of any changes in approach by Police Scotland.
The Scottish government is fully aware of the issue and is actively collaborating with the health service and the police to alleviate unnecessary demands on the frontline. Towards the end of their shift, PCs Macleod and Gardner responded to a report of a woman contemplating suicide. Fortunately, they found her outside her home, no longer considering self-harm. They offered reassurance that they would investigate whether she required additional care. As they departed, they noticed her watching from her front window, comforted by her faithful dog.
PC Gardner reflects on her role, acknowledging that although she joined the force to help people, the number of mental health-related calls has been eye-opening. PC Macleod, with six years of experience, sees these incidents as a normal part of their duty, understanding the importance of having someone there to handle them. Addressing the challenges posed by mental health-related incidents necessitates a collaborative effort to provide the necessary care and support, allowing the police to focus on their unique role in addressing serious crimes and vulnerabilities.