Negotiating in a crisis

Detective Inspector Alex House is one of Bedfordshire Police’s negotiators. As part of World Suicide Prevention Day, he has blogged about his role in situations where people are experiencing a mental health crisis.

When people hear that I work for the police, they assume that I spend my time fighting crime.

But we also spend a lot of time protecting people – whether that is from others or themselves.

I joined the police because I wanted to help people, so as well as my day job as a detective, I’m also trained as a hostage and crisis negotiator.

This means at any time of day or night I need to be willing to drop whatever I’m doing and attend incidents where people are in crisis; threatening to hurt themselves or commit suicide.

What could be more important than saving a life?

Someone experiencing a crisis has an impaired ability to think straight. Everyone forgets things or functions differently when stressed – this is maximised when experiencing a crisis.

They’ve reached a place where they cannot see a more logical way out and feel that suicide is the only way to end their pain or problems.

That’s where I come in.

As a trained negotiator I attend incidents where people are threatening to self-harm. In order to talk to them and give them the opportunity to think more rationally.

My aim on arriving at such an incident is simple; I’m there to save that person’s life.

I do this by engaging with them verbally. Hearing and understanding what their issues and problems are, in order to help them see everything from a different perspective. I have to unpick their problems to help get them into a state of mind where they can think more clearly.

Once they are in a clearer state of mind, they’ll be more likely to make rational rather than emotional decisions.

It’s a very intensive role. From the moment you receive the phone call from the control room you’re thinking about what you are going to say. It’s like a mental game of chess, working out how to read the person and how they will react to every tiny thing you say.

There is a risk of becoming emotionally involved, especially if someone is in a similar situation to one you have been in yourself, and you can also be working in physically dangerous situations. That’s why we usually work in pairs; two minds are better than one and we can look out for each other.

Despite the difficulties involved in being a negotiator, it is an incredibly rewarding role. When you talk someone down it is an absolutely amazing feeling to know that you have saved someone’s life and potentially changed the course of it forever.

I once got called to a young man who had fallen out with his girlfriend and was worried he wouldn’t see his child again. He went to the top of a multi-storey car park and sat there thinking about throwing himself off.

I was called to the scene as a negotiator and started talking to him. I found out his problems and challenged his thought process, to help him see that there were alternatives and that suicide wasn’t the answer.

I made him think of the impact his death would have on his loved ones. How would his child feel growing up without a father, knowing he had chosen to end his own life?

Fortunately he came down off the car park roof and we were able to get him help.

I can vividly remember the moment when he came down. I saw his shoulders physically drop with relief as he realised he’d made the right choice, and when he came over to thank me I felt a real sense of achievement.

Of course we never know whether a person is actually planning on committing suicide – it may be a cry for help, but we treat each incident at face value. We need to look at their situation, their thought process, and their mental state on an individual basis and engage with them accordingly.

When it comes to mental health, we can never be blasé.

Dealing with people with mental health issues does take time and patience.

In an organisation where we’re stretched to the max dealing with crime, which is what people think we do, we also have to protect the welfare of others – victims of crime, people in custody, those in crisis – some of society’s most vulnerable people.

And we’re not just talking about people threatening to jump from a roof. There can be people in public who are acting differently from usual, maybe they’ve forgotten to take their usual medication, have experienced an emotional trauma, or have an undiagnosed mental health condition.

Whatever it is that’s causing them to act like that, it’s our responsibility to make sure that they, and the public, are kept safe and that they then get the help they need.

If you need someone to talk to or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can contact the Samaritans at any time of day or night by calling 08457 90 90 90 or emailing jo@samaritans.org

For further information on mental health issues and what to do if you, or someone you know, is experiencing them, visit the charity Mind.

In an emergency situation, or if you believe someone’s life may be in danger, always call 999.

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