Mental Health Emergency

Melissa Powex • 26th May 2017

You may see in the street someone looking very unwell, paranoid, distressed, preoccupied or expressing worrying signs of mental disturbance – as if they want to hurt themselves or others. You may have seen it and I think it’s important that people know where they can get help. You may see any of the above in a gym setting as well as at the bus stop as people who have a mental health diagnosis need to use the gym too (and it’s helpful to do so!)

I want to highlight what to do in various different situations – but first – I will start with an emergency – in the street.

An example comes to mind straight away from a personal experience at a well known London hospital. I was talking to an American nurse at said hospital – and my American citizenship led to a conversation about healthcare…Heated time for debate hey!

I told the nurse a story -

I was in New York one New Year and as I was looking up towards Times Square from the Lower East Side with an old school friend, we could see the haze of the impending ball dropping. A guy walked towards us and in my view (being an experienced mental health professional) I thought that he was likely to have schizophrenia based on his behaviour. He wanted to talk to my friend but as he did, he could hear her British accent. The guy became confrontational and my instinct was to minimize the conversation to avoid a difficult potentially dangerous situation. On the other hand, my friend was trying to be kind and placate the guy (we all manage situations differently!)

We managed to convince the guy to walk on and escaped into my friends apartment building – but I felt stuck. Middle of New York and I knew if I called the police, this guy would end up in a police cell and maybe in prison for a long time. Awful. No medical insurance, no medical help for a mental illness. The American nurse agreed this would be the end result.

In the UK however, we are incredibly lucky that our ambulance and police services are trained to understand mental health at least a bit.

What would I do in the UK? Call 999 or 101. Tell them that I was concerned about the mental health of this person in the street and I could not predict if they might cause harm to themselves or others in their ongoing journey. This guy could do with a medical assessment and a bit of help.

I have done this many times and at the moment the NHS will respond to a community threat like this – particularly if this person may be unpredictable – and unfortunately, sometimes mental illness can lead to such behaviour when not supported or given the right medical treatment.

The American Nurse (working in a London hospital) was shocked that you could call 101/999 to seek support. Police may not be perfect, but they are trained to know that some people need to be taken to a safe place for help and this is often a hospital, for assessment.

Calling the police or an ambulance is not asking for people who may look unwell to end up in a prison cell – it is getting them help in a hospital – the same way that you would call 999 for an ambulance after a car accident.

My advice – if something doesn’t feel right and you feel that someone may be at risk to themselves or others – call 101/999 and talk it through with the emergency services.