Banged-up for being suicidal
- 19 July 2012
- From the section Scotland
Consider this scenario: For whatever reason, someone is trying to take their own life and the police are called to help. Officers arrive to find someone on the edge. What do you think happens next?
Surprisingly often, they are arrested and put in the cells overnight, for their own safety. Banged up for being suicidal.
The police do not want to arrest them. But sometimes they are left with no choice because there can be nowhere else for them to go.
I know this because I have been allowed to read the only account we have of what lies behind Scotland's suicides.
It is raw data from Tayside Police charting every call related to a suicide attempt or threatened suicide over a year.
It includes children, one as young as nine.
There are details of those with a noose around their neck, hanging from a bridge, scissors in their stomach.
It is grim. And there are about 150 entries every month.
But what repeatedly caught my eye were extracts like this: "Apprehended suicidal breach of peace as mental health hospital refused to admit."
I can see from the data how often the police try to get them medical help.
It is straight-forward if you require stitching up or treatment for obvious physical symptoms.
But if you are feeling suicidal, you may need to be seen by a psychiatrist or mental health specialist.
I can see from the data, that if you are feeling so distressed you want to hurt yourself, there is a fairly high chance you will have taken something to drink, or perhaps drugs.
Yet the presence of alcohol or drugs immediately means you cannot be assessed by mental health staff, closing the door to immediate medical help.
Even if you have not taken a drink, you might not fit the criteria for a treatable mental illness - that also closes the door to treatment at a mental health facility.
What you might need is something quite simple: someone to talk to; somewhere to go where you can readjust your thoughts; someone to care.
But in the absence of these, what we might call, TLC services, the police are left with someone who might be a danger to themselves.
The solution for them is the cells.
And in this case, it is me.
Det Ch Insp Gordon Milne from Tayside Police feels so strongly about the way suicidal people are treated that he has agreed to show me exactly what happens.
I am taken to the station's charge bar, where I would get formally arrested or detained.
It is specially designed to hold aggressive criminals safely as they go through the process.
I feel like a criminal. I am held by the wrists. I would be "patted down".
The arresting officer would go through the details. Imagine the anxiety if I had expected medical help but here I am about to be locked behind bars.
I am held by the wrists as I'm walked down to the entrance of the cells where I come face-to-face with floor-to-ceiling foreboding bars - the old fashioned type that creak, slam and echo.
We turn left along the corridor to cell 33.
Shoes off. I'm taken inside.
In some cases, I would be strip-searched.
At the very least, I'd be stripped bare and offered a one-size-fits-all harm prevention suit.
It consists of a triple-stitched top and shorts so I can't rip them up to use strips of material to harm myself.
The door slams shut. Another echo.
I have no bed - because that's potentially dangerous too.
Just a toilet. I'm left with just my own thoughts for company.
I imagine if I was actually suicidal, those thoughts would not be good company at all.
In fact, I'm quite sure if I was that distressed, cell number 33 is the last place on earth I would want to be.
In Edinburgh, there is a place where people can go if they are suicidal.
The Edinburgh Crisis Centre provides a place where people can feel safe with someone to talk to and care.
It is not a medical centre, but staffed by people who know how to listen.
Tayside Police want services like this available throughout Scotland.
The mental health charity, SAMH, agrees but wants to go even further.
It wants services that address all the needs of suicidal people, not just when they are at crisis point.
Even the Scottish government admits there is a gap for more of these services. But someone has to pay for it.