Posted on 11 September 2017
Police officers frequently come into contact with individuals with mental health problems. The College of Policing estimate that approximately 15-20 per cent of police time is spent on such incidents.
As part of a package of work with North Yorkshire Police, researchers at the University of York reviewed the research literature and found no high-quality evidence evaluating mental health training relevant to the police context. The researchers in the York Trials Unit went on to run a randomised controlled trial to assess the effectiveness of a bespoke mental health training package for frontline police officers.
The unique one day training package was developed by collaborators in the department of Social Policy and Social Work and aimed at improving officers’ understanding of and ability to identify people with mental health needs. The training was delivered by mental health professionals from the Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust (TEWV) to 230 frontline officers based at police stations across North Yorkshire.
Anonymised police data were collected to compare calls attended by officers who had received the training with calls attended by officers who had not. All Police officers were also asked to complete an on-line survey. The research team aimed to assess whether the mental health training reduced the demand on police resources and improved how officers recorded incidents involving individuals with mental health problems.
The study revealed that the training of frontline officers did not reduce the number of incidents reported to the police control room up to six months after its delivery; however training may have a positive effect on how the police record incidents involving individuals with mental health problems.
During the trial period 9,157 incidents were reported to North Yorkshire Police which resulted in one in 10 incidents being given a mental health tag. Tags added to incident records help ensure officers respond to future incidents involving that individual appropriately.
An independent check by a mental health professional confirmed that police officers were applying tags to records appropriately. However, there may be even more incidents involving individuals with mental health problems that are not being tagged.
The survey results suggest that there was a positive change in police officers’ knowledge, attitudes and confidence in responding to incidents involving individuals with mental health problems.
In particular, officers reported greater confidence in understanding mental health terminology; recognising the signs and symptoms of a range of mental health conditions; recording incidents involving mental health; responding to individuals experiencing mental ill health; working with partner agencies and reviewing actions taken in relation to incidents involving mental ill health.
Professor David Torgerson, Director of the York Trials Unit, said: “We have been delighted to work with North Yorkshire Police in their drive to base their policy and practice on research evidence. This project shows that it is possible to undertake randomised controlled trials in a complex operational environment.”
The trial was part of Connect, a collaborative project between the University of York and North Yorkshire Police on new approaches to dealing with mental health problems. The Connect Project is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Home Office, administered by the College of Policing, as part of the national Police Knowledge Fund.
Deputy Chief Constable Lisa Winward of North Yorkshire Police, said: “The Connect project has been one of the most useful and valuable collaborations we have undertaken and I am grateful to the College of Policing for the funding, and to the University of York and TEWV for their invaluable work on the project. The research strands examined evidence from across the world. The most important people in the process – those who live with mental distress – were also consulted. This has helped us develop better practices to serve the needs of vulnerable people in a much better way.
“Notably, the training delivered by mental health professionals from TEWV has been particularly helpful, both improving our understanding of our respective roles and capabilities, and strengthening the relationships between operational staff in the complex landscape of mental health crisis care. That, in turn, helps us provide a better service to people in distress.
“Clearly there remains much work to be done to support people with mental health problems and avoid the need to contact the police in the first place. But if and when they do, I am confident that we are far better informed to ensure they get the most appropriate care at the time.
“We are now planning to expand the training across the force to all our frontline staff - from officers on the beat to our Force Control Room.”
It is anticipated that the results of the study will help inform the next review of national guidance for training police officers in their approach to individuals who may have mental health problems.
The study is published in the journal PLoS One.