When Michael Brown’s name was called out at the Mind Media awards and he made his way to the stage to pick up the award from Stephen Fry, the audience cheer was distinctly louder than for any of the evening’s other winners. That Brown was stunned to win, never mind be given such a rapturous response, was patently evident. Reflecting a few weeks later on the accolade for his popular blog, written under the moniker Mental Health Cop, the shock is still evident.
“I didn’t in the least bit think that I’d win at all,” Brown says, an expression of disbelief still on his face. “To subsequently learn that actually the judges felt it was a clear winner astounded me, to be perfectly honest.”
The blog was initially conceived a year ago as an attempt to provide an online space where police officers could access clear, informed advice on how to deal with incidents involving people with mental health difficulties. Brown describes it as “by a cop interested in mental health issues, for cops who have to deal with mental health incidents”.
“It might be people who maybe present a risk to themselves or [are] expressing suicidal ideas. Or [a situation] where some kind of emergency intervention is needed,” Brown says of the kind of incident a police officer might encounter.
Equipped to cope
He refers to officers as “street-corner psychiatrists”, who are often first at a scene when a person might need expert medical attention from mental health professionals. Brown says it is “essential” that police officers are equipped to cope. Providing an online resource that officers feel happy to consult is, he suggests, one way of helping that happen. With this in mind, the blog is packed with more than 200 articles touching on issues ranging from the use of physical force by officers to the prevalence of mental health problems within the force itself. Alongside these are practical tools such as an FAQs section and digested guides to complex aspects of mental health legislation.
The fact that mental health problems can be extremely complex and that symptoms might not be obvious to an officer arriving at the scene makes it a confounding area, Brown argues. Add to this that mental health legislation seems opaque and perplexing to many officers, and it is understandable that some feel out of their depth.
“A police officer who hasn’t had time to get their head around [the law] is going to be incredibly confused. It’s quite awkward legislation,” he says.
Brown says a particularly pleasing aspect of writing the blog is the positive feedback he gets. He volunteers a story by way of example of a female officer in Wales who was called to an incident where she needed to find a “place of safety” for someone with mental health problems, and ended up in a dispute with the local A&E as to whether they would fulfil that role. The Mental Health Act requires that a place of safety, such as a hospital environment, be found for people who are to be detained. The officer contacted Brown to tell him that she used the blog to remind staff at the hospital that if someone is displaying a “Red Flag” – for example, is physically harmed or exhibiting signs of mental distress such as mania, then they can legally be sent to the emergency room.
“She said that she pulled the blog up on the iPhone, pointed it towards the nurse and said ‘Can you read that, please?’”, he says.
Mental Health Cop now has thousands of followers, including health and social care professionals, lawyers, campaigners and service users. It also has guest bloggers, and solicits input from anyone interested in the subject of mental health and criminal justice.
“I thought when I started doing this that it would be worthwhile doing it if we could get a niche following, and that might include people from outside the police service,” Brown says. “I didn’t envisage in a million years it would have 7,000 followers. It’s [now] a broad network of people. I know that psychiatrists read it. A lot of mental health nurses read it. There [are] a lot of service users who read it, I’m pleased to say.” Brown, 38, had always wanted to be a police officer, despite studying music and a short spell as a music teacher. His personal curiosity in mental health issues was sparked, he says, after realising that more than half of his first arrests had involved “someone in mental distress”.
But it developed into a “genuine” interest when he was a custody sergeant and observed that many people experiencing mental health difficulties were being brought to the station. He began to wonder if it was really an appropriate place for them.
“I found myself working on a cellblock and therefore far more of my day was spent dealing with people who had mental health problems,” he says.
The blog’s genesis came out of work he was doing on mental health-related projects with the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) aimed at improving the force’s response to incidents when someone presented with a mental health problem.
Feedback from the “frontline” included requests for an online resource that officers could turn to for answers to critical questions in an emergency. This, combined with encouragement from some Twitter followers – Brown had been tweeting under the name Mental Health Cop for a while – galvanised him to write a blog that would be “accessible to everybody”.
He speaks at length and with great earnestness about why he believes the blog is a valuable aid to policing and something that fosters respect among officers for people who are in distress. When it comes to the more controversial areas of policing and mental illness, such as using unnecessary force on people in custody, Brown is less forthcoming, but he doesn’t shy away from the concerns that shroud the police force’s reputation on the issue. He is aware that media attention tends to focus on when something has gone terribly wrong, such as when someone dies in custody.
Brown mentions, unprompted, Sean Rigg, perhaps the most high-profile recent incident of a death in custody. The 40-year-old musician, who had schizophrenia, died in August 2008 after Metropolitan police officers held him in a “prone” position for eight minutes. An inquest in August concluded that police had used unsuitable and unnecessary force.
Brown stresses that Acpo’s work on mental illness and training is a positive move towards a much-improved system for officers interacting with people in mental distress. Concerted efforts to improve liaison with key agencies, such as ambulance services, to make sure detained people are dealt with appropriately is a key factor in preventing mistreatment, he suggests.
When asked how his bosses have reacted to the blog, which he writes in his spare time, usually at night, he says their support has been “overwhelming”. But he acknowledges that there are limits to what he can write, mainly to do with being a serving police inspector. He cannot comment, for example, on “ongoing cases”.
“I do sit and check myself constantly. Do I know what I know because I am a police officer?” he wonders.
So what are his ambitions for the blog? More guest bloggers, including service users, and he says he wants to add more thorny topics to his repertoire. “I’ve kind of touched on and hinted at things like mental health restraint … but there’s something to be said about how we can improve what we do around that.”
Family Married with one son.
Education Ashington high school, Northumberland; University of Birmingham, music degree and MA; Cardiff University, MSc in criminology and criminal justice.
Career 2010-present: visiting lecturer on MSc in forensic mental health course, University of Birmingham; 2009-present: guest lecturer University of Wolverhampton on policing degree courses; 2010-11: part-time secondment to the National Policing Improvement Agency; 1998-present: police officer, West Midlands police; 1997-98: peripatetic music teacher, Northumberland county council music service.
Awards Mind digital media; chief constable’s award (2012) for outstanding contribution to mental health; Bramshill Fellowship (2007) to study policing and mental health.
Interests Watching rugby and coaching his son’s team, playing bass in several bands, reading non-fiction.