The Metropolitan Police Service has agreed a damages settlement with a mental health patient who was arrested and locked in a cell after calling for help when feeling suicidal.
The woman was known to officers as under her care plan for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), devised by a team of mental health specialists, she was instructed to call ‘999’ to request help and support.
She had been battling the condition – which causes many people to self-harm and attempt suicide – since 2011, having suffered depression following the death of her mother and post-natal depression after the birth of her second child.
The mother of two, who worked as a nursery nurse before her mental health declined, says she had called 999 ‘on many occasions’ when following the plan, with officers usually ‘comforting, understanding and supportive’.
However, when she called for help in May 2016, as she ‘felt she may kill herself’, she was arrested at her home, put in a police van and locked in a cell at a station for 12 hours.
The arresting officer claimed the arrest was for ‘misuse of the 999 system’ – a decision which led to the force facing legal action through police misconduct specialists Hudgell Solicitors.
The force faced allegations of unlawful arrest – and as a result false imprisonment – leading to an out of court settlement for the woman, now 42.
Incident has left mental health patient ‘too scared to call for help’
The woman, who has asked not to be named, says the incident has left her ‘too afraid’ to follow her care plan and call 999 for help when feeling she may self-harm.
She has a history of overdosing and needing intensive care, and says her case is an example of how people with mental illnesses after often ‘ignored and seen as a problem’, and not helped at crucial times.
“This has had a huge impact on my life, and has ultimately left me feeling I can’t reach out for help when I am at my lowest point. I won’t call the police myself again, I just feel I’ll be accused of doing something wrong. I have nowhere to turn and I worry what will happen when I can’t control my mind again,” she said.
“Nobody chooses to be mentally ill. I was a working mother of two when I had a breakdown following the loss of my mother, and since that date I have been a different person. I’d love to have the old me back but I just can’t, it’s out of my control.
“I’ve been in intensive care on a number of occasions because I have taken overdoses. I can’t stop it and 999 used to be my helpline. Now I fear for what may happen.”
Condition causes impulsive and often suicidal behaviour
BPD causes people to become emotional instability, suffer from disturbed patterns of thinking or perception and impulsive behavior, something the woman says she cannot control, with even the smallest things causing her to have suicidal thoughts.
“Some days I am fine but it can only take something minor to send me into a state, such as spilling a drink,” the woman added.
“I have other triggers which I am aware of and try and plan for, such as the anniversary of my mother’s death or my children’s birthdays because they can no longer live with me and have to live with my ex-husband, but I can’t prevent it.
“With all this in mind I was advised by my mental health team that due to my complex needs I should call emergency services at times when I feel suicidal and that is what I had done many times. I don’t agree with the plan, I think the mental health service should do more, but that is what I am advised to do and on many occasions the police have been fantastic.
“They would often just sit with me and have a cup of tea and a chat and I’d calm down, but on this occasion I was met by rudeness and aggression.
“When I called that day an officer attended at my house but the whole approach was different. He said that they were ‘not there to deal with mental health’.
“I rang again later in the day and a sergeant called me back and she was aggressive with me and yelling, saying that they were ‘fed up of sending officers to my address’. She said that they were dealing with real emergencies like people threatening to throw themselves off bridges, to which I responded ‘is that what I need to do to get help?’
“A few hours later two officers came to my home and by this time I was in a really bad way. One of them was caring and kind but the other just suddenly said he’d had enough and that he was arresting me. He said ‘This stops tonight’.
“I was arrested and put in the back of a police van and then left in a cell. The officer who arrested me was sat outside my cell for a few hours which I found upsetting, and when he changed his shift I heard him say ‘Guess who I’ve got in here?’. It was like a joke to him and like he was proud of himself, despite my obvious distress.
“The whole situation has had a massive impact on me and I feel it shows how police forces are not prepared to handle mental health patients. Officers individually can be excellent, but given the increasing number of mentally ill people police forces have to deal with, collectively they are not prepared.
“You become someone like me, with little specialist support and simply classes as ‘known to the police’. Sadly many have no idea of how to support us and it is only going to get worse.”
Specialist actions against police lawyer Andrew Petherbridge, of Hudgell Solicitors, said: “This was inconsiderate, inappropriate and also unlawful.
“The care plan had been put in place by mental health specialists to ensure my client had speedy access to the help which she would desperately need.
“On this occasion she was not given such support, but was also unlawfully arrested for ‘misusing the 999 system’.
“The decision to arrest and detain her in a cell was wholly inappropriate and unlawful.
“It led to a period of false imprisonment and the whole episode has had a lasting, damaging impact on her trust in the police service – the people who should have helped her. This case raises many questions over the care and protection in place for people affected by mental health.”
The woman added: “I may have had a financial settlement from the Met but I’ve had no apology from the force.
“People like me are just ignored and I feel there will be so many more being let down. You go on the list of being ‘known to police’ and you are considered a time waster or like a criminal. It is wrong but we can’t fight it.
“If you have a mental illness your opinions and what you say is ignored. I am glad this legal case has at least challenged them in some way – even if they have just paid out to make it go away.”