In the second of her two-part guest blog series, Linda Bryant, Director of Criminal Justice Services at Together for Mental Wellbeing proposes four steps anyone can take if they are concerned about the health or wellbeing of an offender. Linda is a member of the Ministry of Justice's Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Board (RR3).
In part one of this blog series I explored why it’s crucial that professionals across the criminal justice system are equipped to spot the signs if someone has a mental health or wellbeing need.
Gone are the days when budgets and time allowed staff to be released from frontline work to attend training days, no matter how useful they are. So, with mounting time pressures and more people to see, how can criminal justice professionals be supported to recognise and respond to mental health and wellbeing issues?
At Together for Mental Wellbeing we’ve been breaking the cycle of offending for thousands of people with mental health needs for over 20 years. Over this time we’ve developed a wealth of knowledge about how to do this effectively and we’ve recognised the need to offer practical tools and resources that provide ‘on the job’ support to those on the front line to spot vulnerabilities and take the right actions.
In 2010 we collated our experiences of working on the ground into a practical guide that can help professionals as they go about their daily work. We’ve just published an updated version of this guide: A common sense approach to working with defendants and offenders with mental health and wellbeing needs gives straightforward guidance on spotting potential issues as well as giving them the information they need to refer individuals to specialist community support. The guide is based around four simple steps that anyone can take if they are concerned about the health or wellbeing of an offender. By following these steps together we can change people’s lives.
I talked about Tina* in my first blog. Tina had been arrested and charged with assault. It was her first offence, but a serious one. She appears distressed, but nobody knows why. Here I will take you through how following these four steps could have led to a better outcome for Tina.
1. Spot the issue
This is the most obvious, but most crucial step. Since without spotting the issue, how can we ensure an individual gets the most appropriate support?
There are some common outward signs that someone is experiencing a mental health issue. These can vary greatly from someone seeming distressed, anxious or distracted to speaking to themselves or experiencing unusual things. Often many of these signs occur in combination but one or more indicates there is more to explore. You can find a full list of signs in our guide.
In Tina’s case the court probation officer spots that something is not quite right. Tina seems distressed. The probation officer begins to think about how the court environment may be affecting her and this leads to step two.
2. Understand the impact of the surroundings
The probation officer noticed that Tina was becoming increasingly anxious in the court room. Her voice was barely above a whisper when she responded to questions from her solicitor and she seemed to struggle to catch her breath.
What this tells us is that the environment people find themselves in – whether that be a court room, police cell or prison van – may impact on their mental health and general wellbeing. It can influence how they are able to understand, respond and relate to what is happening to them. The surroundings may also make it difficult for the person to answer questions as they may worry about other people’s attitudes towards them or may not want friends and family to know about their problems.
We therefore need to understand and take the context of our contact with vulnerable people into account when working with them.
3. Ask questions to find out more
Now it’s time for the probation officer to find out more about Tina. Asking questions again seems like an obvious thing to do, but in a busy environment where the clock is ticking and you have multiple people to see, filling out a form may be all that happens. But from our experience, criminal justice colleagues do want to find out more, but often don’t feel equipped to ask the right questions, or may be worried about saying the wrong thing.
By asking questions the probation officer was able to understand from Tina that she was under the care of a Community Mental Health Team, but that she had not seen her doctor or taken her medication for over three months. It also became clearer that Tina was a victim of domestic and sexual abuse by her partner and had been defending herself when she was arrested.
In our common sense guide we’ve prepared over 40 example questions that can be used at a moment’s notice. These are short, simple, easy to understand questions that can help someone to feel comfortable in order for them to tell you what has been happening to them and what help they may need. This was crucial in Tina’s case. Understanding someone’s distress not only means that we can get the right help for them, but that we can keep them safe in busy and challenging environments such as police stations. It also means that staff can deal with situations more effectively and keep themselves and others safe too.
Often where there are immediate risks it’s easier to know what to do, like contacting emergency services or a mental health crisis team. But if there is no immediate risk it’s still important to share critical information and refer onwards.
What happened to Tina next? The probation officer was able to refer her to the local liaison and diversion team. A dedicated women’s practitioner at the court talked to Tina in more detail and found out that her partner had been stopping her leaving the flat, which meant she could not attend any mental health appointments or pick up any medication. The practitioner talked to her Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) and made an emergency appointment with them and other support services, including the local women’s centre. This would help Tina to get support with housing so that she didn’t have to go back to her partner’s flat.
The probation officer and practitioner then wrote a report to give the court details of Tina’s situation and the support available to her. The report gave the Crown Prosecution Service the information they needed to drop the charges.
Good news for Tina. But liaison and diversion services are not available everywhere – yet. Therefore, it’s worth us all understanding what services are out there for people, whether it’s a GP, CMHT or voluntary sector service. Our guide gives you information about organisations that can help and how you might find out about local available services in your area.
We wrote the guide because we wanted to make sure that every contact with a vulnerable service user was a potential step towards getting the right help and support.
We’re all part of the puzzle and together we can help vulnerable people put the pieces of their lives back together and stay away from crime.
Click to download the guide, and don’t forget to share it with your colleagues!
*Tina is a pseudonym
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We are extremely disappointed that the JCVI advice on phase 2 of the COVID vaccination programme does not prioritise people in prison and those who work with them, including voluntary sector staff and volunteers https://gov.uk/government/publications/priority-groups-for-phase-2-of-the-coronavirus-covid-19-vaccination-programme-advice-from-the-jcvi/jcvi-interim-statement-on-phase-2-of-the-covid-19-vaccination-programme