I wonder whether you know what the biggest killer of men and women under the age of 35 is?
It’s suicide. It is quite shocking to think that every day, on average, 17 people will die at their own hands in the UK – 17 people, male and female, from all walks of life and cultures.
I am not surprised by the figures because each morning I read a summary of some of the more serious incidents that police officers have had to deal with in the previous 24 hours and suicides or attempted suicides feature regularly. It is always distressing to read them, and I feel for the officers who are called to the scene or have to break bad news to next of kin.
Last week the Chief Constable, the Chief Fire Officer, a representative from Yorkshire Ambulance Service and I met a group of people who are promoting what they say is the biggest suicide prevention initiative the country has ever seen. It’s called the Baton of Hope. The CEO of the initiative, Mike McCarthy, came into my office to explain how it came about and what they hope to achieve.
Mike began by explaining that his son, Ross, had taken his own life, but in the hours before he did so he wrote to his family imploring them to help campaign for better mental health support. He had suffered from severe depression but the wait time for services was six months. He died after two weeks of waiting. Mike, a former journalist and radio and television presenter, who lives in Sheffield, was determined to do what he could to honour this request.
Briefly, Mike and another bereaved parent, Steve Phillip, realised that what united all the families affected was the way their loved ones had lost hope. They have had a baton made, the Baton of Hope, that will be carried around various UK cities in an attempt to raise public consciousness around suicide, to challenge the stigma that so often prevents our talking about it, to seek improvements to mental health provision, and in so doing save lives. They are looking to raise £1.5m in order to fund a campaign.
The baton is a fine piece of craftsmanship and will be carried over the summer through Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester, Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol, Milton Keynes, Brighton and London. In each place there will be stops with events taking place to raise awareness of the issues.
The baton will be in Sheffield on Wednesday 28 June. It will be carried round the city, stopping at various places, including Police Headquarters, where we will be joined by all three emergency services, and ending in Tudor Square.
I hope you can watch out for further news and note the messages the organisers will try to put across – about the need to be less inhibited in talking about suicide and the need to transform mental health services to support people in crisis.
Right Care, Right Person. Right Time?
Which brings us to what happened just over a week ago, when the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley, caused a stir by announcing that as from September, his force would not be responding to calls to deal with people having non-emergency mental health issues unless there was a threat to life – the person’s own or other people’s. He explained that answering these calls was not really police business and was taking officers away from fighting crime for significant amounts of time – 10,000 hours every week. The Met will direct callers to more appropriate agencies; the police will not be answering these calls anymore. This policy is called Right Care Right Person (RCRP).
There is, I think, a widespread acceptance that as public services were cut back in the decade of austerity, the police began to pick up where other and more appropriate organisations and agencies were beginning to cut back. But this accumulation of extra responsibilities is now impacting on the number of hours the police have to deal with matters that should be their primary concern.
There is a logic to this. Who would say that the best person to deal with someone having a mental health episode in a town centre is a police officer? A police officer is not medically trained, and a police vehicle is not an ambulance. Officers should not be spending time dealing with such a person, taking them to A&E, waiting several hours with them until they are seen; they should be dealing with matters of crime and anti-social behaviour. There is little point in increasing officer numbers if those officers are destined to spend so much time on non-crime matters. So, we know that the present situation is becoming unsustainable.
Humberside Police began to say ‘no’ in 2020 and have over 500 fewer callouts per month as a result. Successive policing ministers have urged all police forces to emulate them and do the same.
The only question is about timing. For reasons I don’t understand, the Met decided to take what, on the face of it, seems a unilateral decision simply to serve notice on their partners – the NHS, adult social services, mental health services – that they will no longer be doing what they have done in the past and will be referring callers to these partners instead – Right Care Right Person. But Humberside took two years to work with partners to plan and prepare for the changes. Why the Met has not done the same is a mystery. And why the Mayor of London, who is the PCC, was not consulted first – I am assuming he wasn’t – is equally strange.
In South Yorkshire I am kept in touch with how RCRP is being developed. It is being done carefully and partners are being engaged. Partners – the NHS, mental health services, adult social care, and so on are being consulted. And call handlers are being trained to ensure that calls for service are understood and appropriately directed. The police know full well that they cannot refuse to attend an incident if there is a threat to life – and there may be grey areas.
While I think the general direction is right, the policy must be rolled out with care, taking account of partner preparedness. Right Care Right Person, yes. But also, by taking time to work with partners on the programme.
As PCC I give grants to a range of organisations including those that support victims of domestic abuse (DA). Last week I visited one such organisation to hear about their work with women from minority ethnic groups. I had a long conversation with one woman from a Pakistani Muslim background. She spoke Urdu – so I had to have a translator – though she could understand English.
Mariam (not her real name) had been married for twenty years and had five children. She had lived for most of that time in a West Midlands town and had endured an abusive relationship. Her female relatives had told her that she had to put up with her husband’s behaviour because that was how men were and the woman’s role was to keep the house and raise the children. In the end she had taken the children and fled to South Yorkshire where she had other relatives.
The DA charity had been her lifeline. She had learnt there, among sympathetic and understanding women from her own culture and religion, that things could be different. For the first time in her life she felt there was some hope. Life was still very tough, especially financially. But her children were settled and she had found courage and confidence. She now hopes that she can secure an Islamic divorce from a shariah court. This will mean a lot to her.
All those who suffer domestic abuse need support. It is not easy to escape from controlling relationships, especially where there are children and financial dependencies. But for those in some of our minority communities, there are the added pressures that particular cultures can bring. And that is why the support I can give to those DA charities who understand that can be so vital.