Pilot scheme sees mental health workers and police join up to keep mentally ill people out of cells

James Barton, Valerie Walsh, PC Sarah Humphries,  access and assessment manager Colin Edwards, PC Tom Cottrell, senior nurse practitioner Jon Lomax and Sgt Paul Southam at the launch of Operation Serenity.

James Barton, Valerie Walsh, PC Sarah Humphries, access and assessment manager Colin Edwards, PC Tom Cottrell, senior nurse practitioner Jon Lomax and Sgt Paul Southam at the launch of Operation Serenity.

First published in News Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Crime Reporter

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.”

Comments (7)

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3:56pm Mon 24 Feb 14

magssoton says...

a brilliant idea, top marks
a brilliant idea, top marks magssoton
  • Score: 8

3:59pm Mon 24 Feb 14

Inform Al says...

Something has gone seriously wrong over the last few years. In the Met in the 1960/70s if police suspected there was something mentally amiss with a person in custody the Medical Officer would be called. I probably took a 'deemed' person down to the Mental Health facility at Banstead about once a month, and they were usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick.
Something has gone seriously wrong over the last few years. In the Met in the 1960/70s if police suspected there was something mentally amiss with a person in custody the Medical Officer would be called. I probably took a 'deemed' person down to the Mental Health facility at Banstead about once a month, and they were usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick. Inform Al
  • Score: 8

4:17pm Mon 24 Feb 14

SotonLad says...

They have been running Op Serenity on the Isle of Wight for ages and it works well. Let's hope the NHS put in the resources to make it work. It should be all day everyday, not just weekends and Wednesdays.
They have been running Op Serenity on the Isle of Wight for ages and it works well. Let's hope the NHS put in the resources to make it work. It should be all day everyday, not just weekends and Wednesdays. SotonLad
  • Score: 7

6:18pm Mon 24 Feb 14

LadyNetley says...

A brilliant scheme and hopefully nobody else will have to go through the trauma of being hewld in a cell for 22 hours.
A brilliant scheme and hopefully nobody else will have to go through the trauma of being hewld in a cell for 22 hours. LadyNetley
  • Score: 4

11:56pm Mon 24 Feb 14

Starfish123 says...

Inform Al wrote:
Something has gone seriously wrong over the last few years. In the Met in the 1960/70s if police suspected there was something mentally amiss with a person in custody the Medical Officer would be called. I probably took a 'deemed' person down to the Mental Health facility at Banstead about once a month, and they were usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick.
"Usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick"

That is what is supposed to happen but it doesn't. I've spent many a day/night locked in a cell. Alone, afraid and desperate to talk to someone who understands what's going on in my mind.

I applaud this scheme and really hope it works. It can only serve to lessen the fear that already traumatised people are going through.
[quote][p][bold]Inform Al[/bold] wrote: Something has gone seriously wrong over the last few years. In the Met in the 1960/70s if police suspected there was something mentally amiss with a person in custody the Medical Officer would be called. I probably took a 'deemed' person down to the Mental Health facility at Banstead about once a month, and they were usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick.[/p][/quote]"Usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick" That is what is supposed to happen but it doesn't. I've spent many a day/night locked in a cell. Alone, afraid and desperate to talk to someone who understands what's going on in my mind. I applaud this scheme and really hope it works. It can only serve to lessen the fear that already traumatised people are going through. Starfish123
  • Score: 1

5:19am Tue 25 Feb 14

LadyNetley says...

I agree so much with what you are saying starfish123. When one is locked in a cell when already traumatisied the fear is unbearable.
I agree so much with what you are saying starfish123. When one is locked in a cell when already traumatisied the fear is unbearable. LadyNetley
  • Score: 2

11:13am Tue 25 Feb 14

Inform Al says...

Starfish123 wrote:
Inform Al wrote:
Something has gone seriously wrong over the last few years. In the Met in the 1960/70s if police suspected there was something mentally amiss with a person in custody the Medical Officer would be called. I probably took a 'deemed' person down to the Mental Health facility at Banstead about once a month, and they were usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick.
"Usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick"

That is what is supposed to happen but it doesn't. I've spent many a day/night locked in a cell. Alone, afraid and desperate to talk to someone who understands what's going on in my mind.

I applaud this scheme and really hope it works. It can only serve to lessen the fear that already traumatised people are going through.
Which is why I said something has gone seriously wrong since the 1970s. I do not recall any person who was thought to be a mental health risk ever being left alone in my day. I suspect part of the problem may be due to the watering down of thw mental health services since then, it may also of course be partly due to an increase in mental health problems due to illegal drug use that seems to have taken off since then.
[quote][p][bold]Starfish123[/bold] wrote: [quote][p][bold]Inform Al[/bold] wrote: Something has gone seriously wrong over the last few years. In the Met in the 1960/70s if police suspected there was something mentally amiss with a person in custody the Medical Officer would be called. I probably took a 'deemed' person down to the Mental Health facility at Banstead about once a month, and they were usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick.[/p][/quote]"Usually accompanied all the time they were in the nick" That is what is supposed to happen but it doesn't. I've spent many a day/night locked in a cell. Alone, afraid and desperate to talk to someone who understands what's going on in my mind. I applaud this scheme and really hope it works. It can only serve to lessen the fear that already traumatised people are going through.[/p][/quote]Which is why I said something has gone seriously wrong since the 1970s. I do not recall any person who was thought to be a mental health risk ever being left alone in my day. I suspect part of the problem may be due to the watering down of thw mental health services since then, it may also of course be partly due to an increase in mental health problems due to illegal drug use that seems to have taken off since then. Inform Al
  • Score: 3

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