SHUT in a police cell for 22 hours – with no idea why she was there.

Frightened, scared and convinced she must have done something terrible, Valerie Walsh still suffers today with traumatic flashbacks of her time locked up against her will.

But she was not a criminal. Her only “crime” was to have suffered a mental health crisis that saw her threatening to jump in front of a train.

With nowhere else to take her and without specialist mental health training, officers had no option but to keep her in custody until the right help was available for her.

During that time, Valerie became obsessed with the idea that she had committed a crime and her fragile emotional state only worsened, to the point that she ended up spending 14 weeks in a secure hospital.

Today Valerie knows her recovery would have taken just a few days had she not suffered the distress, embarrassment and indignity of a night in the cells after being taken away in a police car and viewed as a criminal by those watching.

That is why she is backing the launch of a new pilot scheme that sees police officers and mental health workers joining forces to bring an end to unnecessary trauma for those suffering from mental illness.

Valerie describes Netley Operation Serenity as the best thing to happen to mental health services in the past decade and the results have already proved what a success it can be.

Launched last month, the new scheme puts mental health workers from Southern Health in Hampshire police patrol cars and control centres in a bid to put them on the frontline, ready to respond when those in crisis need it.

Over three months, mental health practitioners are joining police patrols on Friday, Saturday and Wednesday nights, between 5pm and 2am, heading immediately to incidents to offer their specialist skills.

While in the control room in Netley, mental health professionals are working every night to give telephone support to officers across Hampshire attending calls that involve someone in a mental health crisis – whether that be a suicide attempt or a threat to a member of the public.

The aim is to reduce the number of people being detained in police cells – by having the specialist support at the scene to properly assess the person, getting them to a safe place – whether that is their home or hospital facility – and with the right treatment.

Valerie, 50, said: “In my opinion this is the best thing to happen to mental health services in the last ten years.

“When you are in crisis the first contact you have with somebody can have a huge impact on your recovery and can mean the difference between someone being in hospital for a week or, as in my case, 14 weeks, because I was so traumatised.

“It was so traumatic to be held within a police cell and I still have flashbacks now because I became convinced that I had committed a crime and couldn’t understand what was happening.

“All of a sudden all these police cars appear and people are looking. It is extremely embarrassing and if you are already in an emotional state, this only makes it worse.

“The police are used to dealing with criminals, so it is reassuring to know that there are mental health practitioners out there, to offer those in distress the right care they need.

“Mental health workers will have the skills to calm people down and being approached by a mental health worker wouldn’t be as scary as seeing a police officer.”

Between April 2012 and 2013, 593 people across Hampshire with a suspected mental health problem were detained in police custody – 232 of these were in Southampton.

The year before, this figure was 674 in Hampshire, with 267 of those in Southampton.

But while the trial is only in its third week, it has already proved a huge success, with the Serenity Squad car – which is unmarked to help maintain a patient’s sense of privacy and dignity – called to 22 incidents and in all of those police cells were avoided.

The control centre arm of the operation has achieved similar success, being involved in more than 150 calls, during which support was offered over the phone to people, without the need to send police to the scene.

A fortnight ago Jon Lomax, a senior nurse practitioner for Southern Health, and his assigned officer were called into action when a woman was threatening to jump in front of a train at Southampton Central train station.

It soon became clear that Paul had previously met this woman and was able to speak to her, assess her and get her home safely, without the need to detain her under the Mental Health Act, and once home he was able to refer her to the service she needed.

He said: “Operation Serenity allows us to help people without the circus, which I think causes great confusion and panic for those already in distress and more importantly preserves their dignity, which is priceless.

“Putting someone in a police cell is not the best option, so this operation is giving us the opportunity to get people the right care, as quickly as possible.”

The results of the pilot will be carefully monitored and if proved effective, it is hoped the pilot will be expanded.

Supt Paul Bartolomeo, who leads the project for Hampshire Constabulary, added: “Police are often called to respond to incidents involving people with mental health concerns and our aim is always to minimise any risk and protect everyone involved from harm including that individual, the wider community and the police officers themselves.

“However, we recognise that in such circumstances, once the initial incident has been resolved, the police service is not best placed to provide an effective level of care. Operation Serenity aims to address this by deploying the right resource to provide a service to the patient.”