Fear For Welfares come in at a rate of between one and five a day, and they range from elderly neighbours who haven’t been seen for a few days, to lost children and suicidal relatives. Our job in such matters is to locate the relevant party and solve whatever crisis led to the concern for their welfare in the first place. This is usually fairly simple and can be achieved by a quick snap of the fingers and muttering of some magic words.
The incident at 14 Bishop Drive is the sort of thing which will be attended daily in each police area across the nation.
The controller elaborates. ‘Caller is from the Mental Health Team. They’ve received a call from a patient saying she is going to kill herself. Could you attend to check on her welfare?’
The Mental Health Team is part of the local authority’s Social Services Department. They have a Crisis Team on duty 24/7. Despite that, it naturally makes sense to send us: after all, police officers have the psychotherapeutic training to counsel a suicidal woman and the necessary legal powers to deal with her. Don’t we? The answers are, ‘No’ and ‘Sometimes’. Section 136 of the Mental Health Act allows us to detain a person who might pose a danger to themselves or others if they are in a public place. In the privacy of your own home, however, you are free to be as mad as you please. People can be sectioned from their own homes and locked up against their will, but this is done by doctors and social workers (such as members of the Mental Health Team). But they have far more training in Arse-Covering than we do so, as here, their back-up plan is to make sure it is the police’s fault (see Victoria Climbie).
Being a cold-hearted public servant, I’m generally not too fazed by these calls. You turn up, find the crying person, comfort them for a short while and then phone the Mental Health Team back and say, ‘Are you on your way?’
The answer is invariably ‘No’, which leads to the customary batting of responsibility between us and them. This can take up to an hour. Sometimes the problem can be solved by phoning the person’s estranged mother who now lives abroad, waking her up and blaming her for her daughter’s imminent suicide if she does not immediately get on a plane and come to her side.
Failing that, the Ambulance service is always there to take final responsibility should we leave and the person tops herself later. ‘Well, she was checked out by paramedics,’ we say, with a regretful shake of the head. ‘They refused to take her to hospital so don’t blame me.’
It turns out we have been called to Colleen Moore, a manic depressive anorexic in her late twenties.
When we arrive she answers the door in her underwear, which is one of the signs I look for to identify a ‘maddie’. Rich doesn’t do skinny women in grubby underwear, so I have to ensure Colleen is wrapped in a curtain before he can enter. Once inside, she moves out of the curtain and into the lounge virtually naked, which means that Rich says very little for the rest of our stay. I think I can safely say that Colleen is the saddest woman I have ever seen. The sadness just pours out of her; it is suffocating. She is clearly starving herself, her bones sticking out under grey skin, her lank hair just hanging off her head. The whole impression is of a kind of deflating soufflé. Within three minutes, I almost want to kill myself.
Usually, a suicidal person will happily tell you all their woes – about how their sister just killed herself, their brother is in jail for rape, their parents abused each other and her... in a way, it’s actually quite reassuring. You think, You don’t end up like this unless you are extraordinarily unlucky in life, so maybe I’ll be OK.
Colleen, however, says not a word. She just sits in the corner, with her back against the wall, thin knees pulled up to her chest, and sunken, red-rimmed eyes staring into space. She’s immune to my questions about medication, alcohol, illnesses and the like. Rich and I stand off a little and go through the various parties we could pass responsibility to, discounting ambulance, mental health, social services and family. Finally the time comes when we have to leave, the prospect of her suicide looming. A quick phone-call to the sergeant ensures that this, if it occurs, will be his fault.
I try a last-ditch effort. ‘Colleen, is there anything you want from us... even something you might not think the police can do?’
Tears rolling down her face, she looks up at me and whispers her first words. ‘Just a hug.’
I don’t hug people much, and certainly not members of public. This isn’t because I don’t care, nor that I don’t sometimes want to. I just don’t. So I take her hand and pat it, feebly.
‘There, there,’ I say.
She looks up at me and nods; I think she understands my inability to do the one thing she needs.
‘Thank you,’ she murmurs. ‘God bless.’
And we leave.
We wander in for some tea and sandwiches and the rest of the night passes at a crawl. It gets to 07.00hrs and I’m ashamed to say that I have not affected Positive Intervention once in all of the nine hours I had in which to do so. I’ve returned a drunk home, reinforced street discipline in a wayward teen and spent fifteen minutes holding a lonely woman’s hand.
I haven’t met a single target, or filled out one form. As far as the Senior Management Team is concerned, I may as well have stayed at home.
Maybe tomorrow night I will.
God bless the police.
'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in some bookstores and online.