by Janet Rogers and Derek Turner
Possibly for the first time in history, the new Mental Health Act Code of Practice (April 2015), for England, has included a section that puts a responsibility on Mental Health Practitioners to encourage ‘patients’ to set out their wishes in advance as ‘statements’ or ‘decisions’. While advance statements are not legally binding professionals are advised that they ‘should make all practical efforts to comply with these preferences and explain to patients why their preferences have not been met.’
Within the Code Advance Decisions relate to medical treatments and should be adhered to by practitioners whenever possible, whereas Advance Statements can be used to cover a wide range of factors that might affect the life of a person who experiences difficulties as a result of their mental health, and how other people, as a result, become involved in the person’s life. This article aims to explore the rational for writing an Advance Statement to assist Practitioners in supporting a person who might experience a mental health crisis at some point in the future. The history of psychiatry has been dominated by Practitioners who have tried to design interventions that can be used to control/manage/support/treat a person whose behaviour is deemed to be ‘insane’. It may seem to some pointless, or at best counter-intuitive, to ask someone who is ‘insane’ to plan their own crises, however with some 30 years or so of learning to listen to, and learning from, people planning their own mental health recovery journey, a realisation is slowly beginning to dawn that this is the only sane way forward. The early pioneers of recovery have not only engineered fulfilling lives for themselves but have given new insights that are now at the forefront of what is considered to be ‘best practice’.
The key to ‘recovery based practice’ for Practitioners is developing a capacity to think differently about ‘how’ to use hard earned skills and expertise. Perversely it has been the drive towards ‘evidence based practice’ that has embedded a culture that suggests that ‘what’ Practitioners do is important. Interestingly it has been the Police who, in becoming increasing dissatisfied with ‘what’ they have been doing, have become open to different ways of working that are more concerned with ‘how’ they engage with the person.
More often than not it is the Police who are the front line service when a person is in crisis. The Mental Health Act gives the Police powers to ‘arrest’ the person and ‘remove’ them to a ‘place of safety’ where they can be assessed by other Practitioners. In the past this has often meant that the person has been bundled into a Police van and transported to a Police Cell. The Triage Pilot, currently being run by Dyfed-Powys Police, has already shown that the numbers of people traumatised by such an experience can be dramatically reduced by engaging with the person and their particular circumstances. The Pilot includes a follow-up visit to each person and it is here that the potential for encouraging people to write and agree their Advance Statements could potentially reduce trauma even further.
Advance Statements can be very simple agreements or more complex arrangements. An example of a very simple statement was told to me recently by a lady who has been prone to panic attacks when out shopping. These are very distressing to her and worry people who are near her. Recently a member of the public called the Police and a female Community Constable arrived. The Constable was not fazed by the situation and encouraged the lady to go with her to a local café. With a cup of tea and a bit of a chat the panic subsided. The lady was then able to tell the Constable that if she had been ‘arrested’ and taken to a Police cell she might not have been able to go out shopping again for many months as she would be fearful that this might happen again. They agreed together that a note would be put on her file saying that going to a café and having a cup of tea and a chat was the best way to deal with a situation like this if it happened again in the future. In telling this story the lady was able to say that she now felt more confident going out shopping knowing that, if she had a panic attack and the Police were called, she would be treated in the same way by any Police Constable.
Another situation involved a woman who had had many ‘arrests’ by the Police, some were very traumatic and others were less so. In talking things over with an advocate this woman was very clear why some Police Officers found her very difficult to manage while others treated her as a member of the community who needed some support to get through the current crisis. In trying to manage her distress she needed to move around and she would be aware that her fists were clenched. Police Officers who did not know her often interpreted this behaviour as aggressive while those who knew her allowed her space to work things through. Police Officers were often at a loss to know what to do with her as her thoughts made no sense to them at all. As a consequence she frequently found herself bundled into a van and transported for anything up to 2 hours in order to be assessed by other mental health Practitioners. The woman understood why the Police behaved this way but she was keen to write an Advance Statement that, if agreed, might mean that she could manage the crisis with the help and support of the Police and other important people. She knew that the person who would have the most calming effect on her behaviour was her husband. He was prepared and willing to be contacted by the Police and to come at short notice. She had this agreement with her husband already and so she needed the Police to agree to make the phone call when required. She also recognised that she sometimes needed a ‘place of safety’ but travelling long distances was very difficult for her and her family. She needed a separate agreement with her local Community Mental Health Team if she was to be able to use one of their rooms to fulfil this purpose.
It can be seen from this example how a range of other factors might need to be considered. Each of these may require separate agreements with the people involved if the Advanced Statement is to have the desired outcome.
Even with the full support of the Code of Practice the introduction of Advance Statements is likely to be slow. There are several reasons for this:
- Trust is probably the biggest factor for most people. Survival in the mental health system has, for many people, been closely linked to keeping Practitioners in the dark about the reality of their mental health systems.
- There is a more general scepticism in society about voluntarily sharing personal information with the Police.
- Another survival strategy that many people use is denial: “It won’t happen again.”
- There are currently no support systems in place to help people to make an Advanced Statement.
Janet Rogers is a trustee at the mental health charity Ponthafren Association, and has previously written for this blog on Volunteering whilst getting benefits and Mental Health 1983: Code of Practice - the review (in England).
Derek Turner worked for the PAVO mental health team for many years. He is now retired, and runs The Thomas Shop in Penybont with his wife Liz.