Interview: Penny Roberts, Mental Health Liaison Officer for the South Wales Police

What are the main challenges of your job?

I was appointed as Force Mental Health Liaison Officer in July of 2004. Up until that time I was carrying out duties as a community beat officer and my knowledge of mental health issues was much the same as many other beat officers – very basic! I certainly did not realise the prevalence of mental illness and how it can affect any one of us at any time. Neither did I realise that there is a wealth of support to be found in the community so it is proving quite a challenge (all be it extremely enjoyable!) for me to forge new links and develop my own knowledge and expertise.

I have therefore found myself embarking upon another challenge, which is to develop a mental health training program that is designed to raise awareness and improve the knowledge of all beat officers.

What are the issues facing police today with regard to mental illness?

By nature of our role, Police Officers are generally faced with mental illness when there is a crisis. This is compounded when there is the co-occurring problem of alcohol/substance misuse resulting in officers being turned away from hospitals and having to use police cells as a place of safety. As we have all no doubt read in the press recently, half of all people who died in police custody for the year to 2004 were suffering with mental illness. This requires the police and healthcare professionals to work together to effectively deal with mental health issues in our communities.

How does police work link in with statutory and voluntary services?

South Wales Police comprises of 7 Basic Command Units. Within these divisions we have Mental Health Liaison officers who deal with local issues. These officers are primarily working within the divisional Community Safety Departments and are therefore networking regularly with statutory and voluntary services. These divisional liaison officers and I are all regular participants in multi agency working groups whose members are from many services, both statutory and voluntary. South Wales Police is committed to dealing with mental health issues in a multi agency environment.

How are you working to promote a better understanding of the role of the police to the mental health community?

At the moment I am delivering a mental health training program to beat officers which is designed to improve their knowledge of their responsibilities under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. I intend to extend this program to all probationer constables from April 2005. I am also working on a program of recognition training, which will be delivered to police officers by healthcare professionals. This will develop the skills of police officers in identifying the symptoms of different types of mental illness.

How do you envisage the Draft Mental Health Bill impacting on the role of the police with regard to mental illness?

The new Mental Health Bill is focused more on community based care. It provides an opportunity for South Wales Police and our partners in Local Health Boards to work together to establish more efficient methods of dealing with patients who are in crisis. People experiencing acute mental ill health should receive rapid and professional support and treatment and it is important that we focus our joint responses in the way which most suitably addresses the needs of these patients.

Recent figures show that a large percentage of people in prison have a mental illness. How are you involved in improving court diversion services?

Improving police links with the Criminal Justice Nurses who work in the South Wales Police area forms part of the strategy for the South Wales Police Mental Health Unit. I work closely with officers who are dealing with cases where the suspect suffers from mental illness. I provide advice on mental health legislation, and on what information to provide to the Crown Prosecution Service in order to ensure that the individual is most appropriately dealt with by the Criminal Justice System, having regard to their individual circumstances.

Why did you choose a role involving mental health?

I have previously worked as a Police Domestic Abuse Co-ordinator, which is where I realised the great benefits to be gained from working in a multi-agency environment. When this post became available I jumped at the change to return to the multi-agency forum. I wanted to work with other professionals to improve the service we provide to persons suffering with mental ill health.

What has been your career highlight?

I have worked for South Wales Police for 18 years, as both civilian support staff and police officer. During that time I have dealt with so many varied incidents and met people from all walks of life. It would be very difficult for me to pinpoint one particular occasion. I think the most rewarding, however, was speaking to 300 people at a Domestic Abuse conference where AM Jane Hutt was also a guest speaker. I was absolutely terrified but it went without any hitches and I received some very complimentary feedback afterwards.

Who has had the biggest influence on you?

Again I would find it difficult to identify one person. I have worked with some extremely knowledgeable and professional police officers that inspired and encouraged me, especially when I was a probationer constable. When you talk about influence though, I think I would have to say that victims have influenced me most, especially when I was a Domestic Abuse Co-ordinator. When you work so closely with someone who puts their entire trust in your capability to make their life change for the better, it alters your own perspective on life as you know it, and it has made me focus more on what being a police officer means.

What makes you happy?

Knowing that I have made a difference to someone’s life by doing the best I can in my role as a police officer.