Mental Health Warriors: An Interview with Michael Brown

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As part of our commitment to help individuals continue their journey to mental health, happiness, and improved well-being, we are continuing to profile “Mental Health Warriors,” individuals who have been outspoken in their advocacy and support for mental health issues. This week, we caught up with Mental Health Coordinator for the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council, Seconded Police Inspector from the West Midlands Police, and “Mental Health Cop,” Michael Brown.

Talkspace: Mental health cop. Did you choose this path or did this path choose you?

Michael Brown: A bit of both! I got interested in why I had been given very little training on a topic that was so much a part of my work and after asking some difficult questions that didn’t have easy answers I was given a job to “sort it out.” Since then, I’ve repeatedly kept chipping away at issues around policing and mental health, including on social media (@mentalhealthcop on Twitter and my blog www.mentalhealthcop.wordpress.com).

Three years ago, the UK College of Policing and the National Police Chief’s Council came knocking on my door to ask if I’d work on it full-time as a national coordinator for UK policing on mental health. I think the US and the UK have a lot to learn from each other.

TS: The UK seems to be more active than the US in working to destigmatize mental health –– do you have any insights as to why this is?

MB: Our countries are very different, despite their similarities and relationship. Law enforcement, as you call it in the US, is routinely armed and you have many more, much smaller police departments at different levels. The public mental health care systems work very differently and we have very different penal policies. All of that affects the overall culture. Psychiatrists have told me that treatment approaches and availability vary significantly.

I’m not sure whether mental health issues in the US have become associated with the criminal justice system feeds this idea “offending” and “danger” to a greater degree, but that might play a role. These background factors are ripe for stigma and prejudice, but the UK still has a long way to go and the worrying thing is that the professions with most work to do on stigma, ironically enough, seem to be the police service and mental health care system!

TS: What’s one memory from being “on the job” that will stick with you forever?

MB: We started an evening duty with a task to locate and arrest a man who’d recently been released from prison after seriously threatening the life of his ex-partner. He had a long history of serious mental illness. Whilst we were attempting to trace him, we received word he was threatening to take his life in some wasteland. My officers and I went there, ostensibly to de-escalate the crisis incident and keep him safe, but he must have been aware that the police were also looking to arrest him for serious offenses, something we had a duty to do to keep his ex-partner safe. He covered himself in accelerant and threatened to ignite it — our attempts to talk him out of this ultimately failed. I’ll never, ever forget his screams as we battled to put out the flames and get him to hospital. He subsequently died.

TS: What’s the number one mental health intervention you wish you could implement for the people you encounter on the streets?

MB: I just wish that there were 24/7 walk-in centers that were open to people and which officers could use to refer people without having to arrest or detain them. My main complaint is that mental health support and care is not sufficiently available and the police in most countries have become a more efficient gateway to care than those otherwise available. Who designed it like THAT?!

TS: What do you wish that police officers (and politicians) knew about mental illness?

MB: That coercion often makes things much worse, not better, and that the answer to how we address mental illness issues is not always a question of just regularly taking medication. Some commentators actually argue this can make things much worse and most people I’ve met with serious mental illness have unresolved trauma in their history that perfectly explains why they struggle or behave as they do. Mental illness is all-too-often the cost people pay for the choices other people make.

TS: You’ve sometimes referred to police officers and “street-corner psychiatrists” — is this the right role for them or just the reality of the state of our mental health system?

MB: That’s actually a phrase from US academic Professor Linda Teplin — borrowed with pride because it’s so good! But even with the best funded, most accessible mental health and healthcare systems imaginable, the police service will always have a role to play. Not all crisis events are predictable or preventable and they don’t all involve people known to mental health services who should have access to crisis support.

Furthermore, those of us living with mental health problems are often victims of crime and sometimes perpetrators: the police duty to investigate crime means it’s important we don’t further stigmatize people by making generalized assumptions that victims can’t be believed — a real problem right across the criminal justice system — or that perpetrators with mental illness are never responsible for their crimes when they offend.

Research actually shows most people with mental health issues who offend do not do so directly because of their illness. It may play a contributory factor and sometimes it’s entirely irrelevant. All cases decided on their individual merits.

TS: Police officers are exposed to their own set of traumas — how does mental health play a role in how they do their job?

MB: Research shows that cops are more likely than the working population to experience mental health issues. The suicide rate amongst men is higher than for woman and the police are still, numerically, a male dominated organisation -—so all the risk warnings are there because we send these people to humanity’s most traumatic issues, involving death, danger, and destruction.

That said, the key appears to be proper support for officers: research in the Netherlands looked at rates of traumatic injury and PTSD in officers deployed to mass casualty disaster and found that it’s not the work we do that usually causes the problems; it’s often the culture of the organisation, the question of support before, during, and after this work. So it turns out it might not be policing that hurts cops, but the police organization.

We need to ensure a good work-life balance, proper rest and nutrition as well as incident-specific support where that’s necessary, for example to the first responders (paramedics are exposed too!) to the recent terror attacks in Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge in the UK.

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