Published: 00:01, 23 May 2017
Nearly 60% of calls to police in some parts of Kent involve people suffering from mental health issues.
Control room officers can lose up to 90 minutes speaking to someone who does not have a genuine emergency and is in need of counselling or support.
But a pioneering project is helping cut time lost to calls that would not usually be a police matter - unless there was an imminent threat of danger to the person on the line or people around them.
It involves well-being workers from the Maidstone and Mid-Kent branch of mental health charity Mind operating out of the force’s control room in the town two nights a week.
They work eight-hour shifts to handle such calls, which can involve people threatening to commit suicide, and offer follow-up support to ensure they get the assistance they need.
The Mind Force Control Room project has dealt with an estimated 640 calls since launching on a trial basis in December 2015.
Wayne Goodwin, mental health liaison inspector for Kent Police, said there was high demand for such support.
“Police officers aren’t experts when it comes to dealing with health related incidents,” he told KentOnline.
“What we find is due to the 24/7 nature of policing and the ease of access to call us via 999 or 101 is that we often become the first point of contact for people in crisis - rather than the last resort.
“We know that around about 20% of all calls to Kent Police seem to have an amount of mental ill health attached to them so there is quite a high demand on officers for calls of this type.
“In Thanet about 50% of all calls have some amount of mental health element and in Medway that is 57%.”
Following its success the project recently received £117,000 from Kent’s police and crime commissioner Matthew Scott to continue for the next three years.
That will pay for a well-being worker from the charity to operate in the control room on Tuesday and Saturday nights from 4pm to midnight and also for them to continue to provide personal support once the initial call has finished.
Mr Goodwin says the involvement of Mind staff has been invaluable.
“They have got the time, they have got the training and they are able to support both the call takers within the control room and also officers in providing an alternative non-law enforcement way of dealing with people in crisis,” he said.
“On average the call takers will take around about four or five calls a shift.
“Some of the calls can be fairly quick, but some of the calls can last up to an hour and a half.
“We get people that do call us on a regular basis and we look to engagement with those people in slower time.
“The well-being workers have also made calls to GPs to signpost people that might not be accessing GP services.
“They have provided them with mental support, they can look on the Kent County Council’s Live it Well website and find out what support is available specifically in the area the person is calling from and through that give them alternatives, give them support within the community and reduce their reliance on calling the police and also on other services they may be trying to access when they don’t need them.”
Mr Goodwin says no one shift is the same and the situations they are dealing with can be life-threatening.
“We get a vastly different variety of calls coming in. There are people who will phone us and they will state they have got some sort of suicidal ideation,” he said.
“Before the call is passed to the well-being worker from Mind we put it through a threat and risk assessment to see if that call is suitable to pass to the well-being worker or if the threat to that person or others around that person so high that we need to send a patrol.
“What has also taken place in the past is we’ve passed the call over to the well-being worker whilst a patrol has made their way and they’ve been able to de-escalate the person in crisis until a patrol has arrived and then taken over.”
Julie Blackmore, chief executive officer, of Maidstone and Mid-Kent Mind, said the project’s impact had been “life-saving”.
“We’ve had several calls where our workers have been talking to somebody who has threatened to harm themselves or commit suicide and we’ve managed to show them there is lots of support out there and signpost them to other services around Kent, not just to Mind.
“Without a doubt I do think it’s saved lives, they are desperate, they are calling for support and for many it would be the first time they have picked up the phone and engaged with mental health services.
“The outcomes we have got from it already are fantastic. We are taking calls from right across Kent.”
Ms Blackmore says there are many other benefits of the project.
“We’ve not only saved the police from having to attend callouts that are really inappropriate but the people calling have someone to speak to that is experienced and qualified in mental health support so they are getting to right help they need which they would not necessarily be getting for a 999 control room staff member,” she said.
“We are probably cutting down on A&E admissions as well because if people are determined to speak to somebody and if they can’t get that support through the police control room they may well have presented themselves at A&E or called an ambulance.
The Metropolitan Police have visited the control room in Maidstone and are said to be looking at introducing it themselves.
“You could put a well-being worker in an ambulance control room or a fire control room and they could be doing exactly the same job,” added Mr Goodwin.
“We know that demand on the ambulance service is nearly as great as what it is on the police when it comes to people presenting to them potentially inappropriately so you could extrapolate this to any public sector control room and the benefits would certainly be there for the callers.”