This is a true story. It details my first ever encounter with Mental Health as a police officer in 1992. Names have been changed
I sat in the parade room quickly scanning through my outstanding paperwork. I had a big smile on my face. It was 9.15pm, parade was over, the night shift loomed large ahead of me and I had been doubled up on one of the vans all night. No walking for me. Racing around with blue lights to pub fights, domestics and chasing burglars over back fences. A HUGE grin.
Nigel was my partner. A bobby with about 5 years service. Confident, capable and a good chap who would use his experience to develop mine. He stuck his head around the door, smiled and asked “You coming then?”
I leapt out of my seat, grabbed my coat, hat and gloves and followed him out into the car park. Our vehicle was a short wheel base Ford Transit van. Primary purpose; prisoner transportation. It had no cages in the back, just a wooden bulkhead that separated the driver and passenger from the rear. A wooden bench seat down each side and a spare tyre and a jack were loose on the floor. Yes, I kid you not, these items were just left in the back of the van and not once do I ever recall a prisoner using one to assault an officer.
We set off on patrol. We drove down toward the first town area and had a quick scan of the pubs to see how busy they were. A good indicator for potential problems later. We then turned toward our beat area. We chatted and Nigel asked if there was anything I needed to do. Any jobs I had’nt dealt with that we could try and get to as a learning exercise.
As we approached the next town area we came up to a roundabout. Just before the roundabout was a bus stop and sat on the bench was a woman. I came to know her as Nora but for now she was simply sat on the bench. She was leaning forward and waving her arms toward us in quite a distressed manner. Nigel pulled over and I got out.
Nora wasn’t making any sense at all. She couldn’t sit still, kept rocking backwards and forwards and continually waved her arms about. Emanating from her mouth were moans, groans and attempts to speak that we’re unintelligible. The next problem was she was drunk. A bottle of White Lightning or similar was propped up by the feet of the bench. She was in her late 20’s to early 30’s, completely bedraggled and unkempt.
Nigel joined me. “Your job. What are you going to do?”
I tried to talk to Nora but got nowhere. I tried to find ID but couldn’t. I pondered. People were walking past, she was making a bit of a scene and I couldn’t leave her there. I chose to arrest for Drunk and Incapable. Nigel nodded approval so we lodged her in the van and headed off for custody.
As a custody sgt for nearly 7 years that last sentence makes me smile. The response I got from the custody sgt that night was the response I would give now. He refused detention completely.
“I’m not having her in here. Take her to hospital.”
Tail firmly between my legs I escorted (almost carried) Nora back to the van, poured her into the back before heading off to A&E. Nigel discussed what had happened in custody with me. After a little while I realised the Sgt was right. This lady showed all sorts of signs of mental health issues and that was the key word for me.. Health. Hospitals care for people with health problems and that was where I was taking her. Sorted. Drop her off at A&E and we could get back on patrol. It all made sense.
We arrived and grabbing an errant wheelchair I slid Nora from the van into the chair and pushed her into hospital. The calm and respectful silence of the waiting area was destroyed immediately by Nora. I pushed Nora alongside the seating and left her to her caterwauling whilst I put my best smile on and approached the charge nurse.
The look on his face did nothing to reassure me that this was the solution to Nora’s problems or mine. The details of the conversation I cannot recall other than my pleading for help and his reluctance to get involved. He finally acquiesced a little. I was instructed to sit and wait with Nora and to keep her quiet. Nora was having none of it. She continued bawling non-word sounds that did nothing to settle the minds of those waiting for treatment or kick start the nursing team into action. Nigel got called away to a job and deeming I was capable of looking after Nora by myself cleared off.
The joy of triage. Nora and I waited for around 3 hours to be seen. I watched many people arrive by ambulance who were clearly in need of medical care and knew this was pushing Nora further down the queue. Occasionally a nurse would wander past, glance over with a mixture of sympathy and disdain and then continue with their duties. We were finally seen by a very nice nurse. She tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with Nora and after chatting with me about how and where I had found her came up with a solution.
I was thrilled. Light was at the end of the tunnel. We had been referred to the on duty Psychiatrist from the mental health unit and he would come and assess Nora.
Two hours later he arrived. He looked like he had just got out of bed and his face said it all. This was not going to go well. He asked questions. Nora groaned, moaned and waved her arms about. Within the space of two minutes he concluded she was showing no signs of mental illness and was just drunk.
I can do nothing for you. You will have to take her to custody or do something with her.
I knew custody would not have her back so was stuck. I called up Nigel and asked him to come back with the van. Nora had no ID. I didn’t know where she lived and she wasn’t showing up on our systems. Just before I left a staff nurse took me to one side and passed me a sheet of paper. On it was a local address. “I think it’s her address. If not, at least a family member”.
I thanked her, helped Nora back into the van and told Nigel what I had. He concluded that with nothing else the address was where we were going. At about 2.45 in the morning I began knocking on the door of the address. No reply. I kept knocking. Nigel finally told me he had seen an upstairs curtain twitch. I knocked some more, harder, and eventually a lady spoke to me from behind the closed door. I identified myself and she was happy we were the police but she wouldn’t open the door. Meanwhile Nora was bawling her unintelligible noises out of the vent at the back of the van for all the neighbours in this quiet residential street to hear. Curtains were twitching at more addresses than just where I had been knocking.
The lady admitted that Nora was her daughter. She didn’t live there and she didn’t know where Nora had been living. She confirmed that Nora had been seeing her GP and mental health people about a number of problems. She also adamantly refused to have her for the night. “She causes me too many problems and I’m too old and unwell to cope with her”. Despite my best attempts Nora stayed in the van and the front door remained firmly shut.
One little nugget Nora’s mum offered was a street name and a red front door. “About half way down on the left hand side” she said. She didn’t know if Nora lived there or not but she had been known to stay there. The street was a huge row of terraced houses that were mostly student digs and shared houses. Desperate for any solution I pulled every last bit of Nora’s bag out and searched. Nothing to ID her, an address or anything but I did find one solitary Yale key.
We drove to the street and I sat looking at about 50 houses. Which had a red door? It’s not the done thing really as a cop to wake up a home owner/occupant by rattling a key in their lock trying to find the home of a drunk with mental health problems. I could have cried. I had had enough.
We drove up and down and based on Nora’s mothers comments I took the plunge and tried the key in the door of the nastiest, dirtiest looking house in the middle if the block with a red door. It unlocked the door. We checked the house. Nobody was home but it was clearly a doss house for drunks and down and outs. The downstairs front room had a bed in it that was astonishingly made up and clean’ish looking.
Faced with no solution we took Nora from the van and into the house. She still wasn’t making any sense but she was suddenly smiling in between her now quieter vocals and in a shambling, shuffling kind of way, steered us into the front room. We led her to the bed and she lay out on it and the noises stopped instantly. She simply smiled a rotten toothed and gappy grin at us, rolled over and promptly fell asleep.
With no other option open to us we put her bag and key next to her bed, pulled the door to and left her.
We returned to the station and finished just on time. A whole 10hr shift… gone.
Please remember this was 1992. Policing was very different and what was deemed to be acceptable then would never happen today.
This story outlines the problems that I faced as a police officer dealing with my first mental health case. You’d like to think that in over 20 years this situation has changed? Ask a response cop today. They still get passed from pillar to post even now. There are improvements and some forces have made great progress but on a national scale mental health still causes a huge drain on police resources. Whilst Nora never made it to a cell, many do, either as s136 cases or as those arrested for offences but found to have mental health issues. Either way its still far too many and the infrastructure that allows mentally ill people to get help and in many cases it is found wanting.
I am delighted, as a custody sgt, to know that we have strong advocates in the the police who are pushing, debating and helping to shape how improvements can be made in @mentalhealthcop and @nathanconstable who organised the #mhpolchat after the recent Panorama programme.
Only by talking and working together can we make progress. Any change needs time and care in planning before implementation. Officers desperate to get on with policing need to know that a quick drop and run at Mental health units is a long way off. Time sat with people at hospitals will still, for the time being, be necessary. Hopefully as time progresses though a team ethic will be built between us where the best interests of the patient are at the heart of everything we do.
I didn’t sleep after that shift. I was worried about Nora. No phone calls at home though and when I paraded on the next night I wasn’t dragged off to the office because something awful had happened.
I didn’t deal directly with Nora again. I was aware of other officers dealing with similar situations though and going through the same process of rejection at every turn. Eventually I moved to traffic and didn’t see or hear of her again…..
One day whilst out on enquiries I was passing a Benefits office when a job came in. A female causing a disturbance. I pulled up outside and was met immediately by a member of staff.
“There’s a lady in one of the interview rooms. She’s kicking off and we can’t get any sense out of her”. I asked for her name as I was led to the room. “Nora” she said. Time stood still. Not again… It was probably 6 or 7 years since I had seen her. I was trapped. No escape. I had to deal with it.
The door was opened and I stepped into the room almost wincing at what was to come. Nora turned toward me. She was clean and tidy. Her teeth were still a mess but her long hair was brushed through and she looked healthy. I was speechless. This wasn’t the Nora I knew.
“Oh my goodness” she said. “I haven’t seen you in years. You’re that really lovely man who looked after me all night and then took me home and put me in bed. You really took care of me and I will never forget that. I was in a bad place in those days.”
I was glued to the spot.. I just smiled a confused sort of smile and said “Hello Nora”. I had never, ever heard her speak.
Nora turned to the lady from the benefits office. “I’ll come back and sort this tomorrow. I’ve spoilt this cops day once before. I’m not doing it again”. With that she put her arm through mine and walked out onto the street. She wished me well, said I looked like I had a better job now with a fancy car and said thank you again before walking away.
I never saw her again. Wherever you are Nora, I hope you are well and happy.