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For senior nurse practitioner and RCN health and safety rep Ian Fairbairn, working with the police perfectly reflects his family background. “My mum was a nurse and dad a police officer,” he says. “He’d always wanted me to follow him, so when I told him about the job, he said: at last, you’ve seen the light!” 

As a member of the Blue Light team – a specialised group of 4 mental health nurses who are part of Sussex Partnership Foundation NHS Trust (SPNHSFT) – Ian works alongside Sussex Police to ensure those in urgent need of mental health treatment receive it quickly, and to help support police officers effectively and sensitively deal with these situations. Amid changing policies on police response to mental health callouts in some areas of the UK, teams like Ian's are becoming even more crucial.

Now the team’s contribution has been commended by Sussex Police, who highlighted their dedication, professionalism and commitment, saying: 'The Blue Light team has worked tirelessly alongside uniformed colleagues to manage, maintain and promote best practice in mental health police provisions.'

“We didn’t know anything about it – an officer nominated us,” Ian explains. “We feel very proud.”

Expert assessments and advice

Ian joined the team almost 3 years ago, after retiring from working within an A&E department for 15 years. His team covers North West and Mid Sussex, which has a population of 385,000, with one nurse on each shift available from 2pm until 10pm each evening. There are 4 other teams serving Eastbourne, Brighton, Worthing and Chichester.

“Any officer can call from wherever they are and ask for our support,” Ian explains. This might include over-the-phone advice, some history if the person they’re trying to help is known to the service, or attending in person.

Any officer can call from wherever they are and ask for our support

Team members can also check on calls coming from members of the public, to see if there’s anything they can help with straightaway – for example, if a person is showing signs of distress and demonstrating risky behaviour, such as dodging in and out of traffic on a busy road.  

Immediate assessments are carried out to determine whether someone should be held under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act, which gives the police emergency powers to remove someone from a public place to somewhere safe.

Decisions can also be made about whether any follow-up is needed from mental health, social or substance misuse services.

“The beauty of this system is being embedded with the police,” says Ian. “I’m very impressed with their attitude towards someone in a mental health crisis. They’re very supportive, helping us to develop this service.” 

Ian Fairburn with colleagues having conversation outside

Above: Ian, left, pictured with colleagues

The service operates alongside a growing demand for mental health support. SPNHSFT says calls to a mental health crisis line more than doubled over a 12-month period – reaching 17,000 in September 2023, up from 7,500 the previous year. Meanwhile there has been a 15% rise between 2019 and 2023 in those attending A&E departments for mental health conditions, says the trust.  

Reducing crises

A key aim of Ian’s service is to reduce the number of people detained under Section 136, by assessing what’s best for the person at that point. Options might include admission to a mental health unit, referral to a crisis team, or a voluntary place at a local haven where someone can access immediate support.

“The difference for patients is they get a gold star service,” says Ian. “We’re all very experienced senior nurses and we can be there, on the spot and face-to-face.” 

Feedback is overwhelmingly good, both from patients and their families. Meanwhile statistics show their intervention works too, with just 9 people receiving a Section 136 during a recent month – around two-thirds less than in other areas.

“Patients are engaging with us,” he says. “They don’t have to go to A&E and be assessed – I can do it and we can agree a plan together about the best course of action.” 

The difference for patients is they get a gold star service

His service also reduces the pressures on the police, with several staff often tied up for many hours if someone has to be detained. “We have a fundamental principle of the least restrictive practice,” says Ian. “We work with patients and it’s a negotiation. We de-escalate situations and once the person is calm and receptive, we can look gently at what’s happened, what’s brought this about and their options.” 

Additionally, team members act as role models for police officers on how to interact with someone who is having a mental health crisis. Officers also ask for advice in how to deal with different scenarios, when they feel mental health issues might be a factor. “Sometimes during an interview they can become uneasy with someone’s presentation,” says Ian. “Because we’re in the police station, we’re able to inform and support lots of different services, improving their confidence.” 

Further information

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