Why are mental health crisis services citing the “right to privacy” as a reason not to call clients in crisis?

Written: April 5, 2022

In protecting someone’s human rights, we must always be mindful of this: the right to life would surely take precedence over the right to privacy, in a situation where someone’s life is at risk.”

I run a Suicide Crisis Centre where we provide face to face support for people in suicidal crisis. We are independent from psychiatric services.

There are times when a member of the public will contact us because they are concerned about their friend or loved one. Sometimes they are phoning to ask our advice about how to help or what to do in a specific situation. But often they call to ask us if we will contact their friend or loved one directly to provide help and support to them. We have always done so, because the person’s life may be at risk.

The same applies if a professional from another organisation asks us to call a client under their care. They have sometimes called the psychiatric crisis team first to make the same request, and have been told that the crisis team can’t do this, because they have to respect the client’s right to privacy. I have heard this many times myself, when asking the crisis team to call someone.

I understand the concern. The right to a private life is enshrined in law, in article eight of the Human Rights Act. We have to be very mindful of the individual’s human rights, and a call from a stranger in a psychiatric crisis service could feel intrusive or unnerving to some people.

But in protecting someone’s human rights we must always be mindful of this: the right to life would surely take precedence over the right to privacy, in a situation where their life is at risk. The “right to life” is article two of the Human Rights Act and it means that we need to take appropriate steps to try to protect the individual’s life.

When a family member or friend has asked us to call someone, we know that it is important to do this as sensitively and gently as possible, because our contact is likely to be unexpected. So far, no one has objected or expressed distress at being contacted. Perhaps our independence from psychiatric services makes us seem less daunting to the person receiving the unexpected call. We always make it clear that we are a charity. From the way that we talk to them, it is clear that we are not trying to impose help on them, but we are genuinely concerned and want to help as much as we can.

An unexpected call from a psychiatric crisis service could feel initially more challenging for some people, because they might associate psychiatric services with having powers that a charity wouldn’t have – including the power to detain or “section” someone. Psychiatric services only ever section a very small proportion of the individuals under their care, though. Most people who disclose that they are having suicidal thoughts (or even a plan to end their life) do not get sectioned. But for some people, a psychiatric service may still be perceived as a symbol of power, and it may feel frightening to them.

When the crisis team explains that they won’t be able to call the individual, they usually advise the family member or friend to call the police instead. Some family members or friends are reluctant to do this, however, and they may not feel able to take this step, meaning that the person at risk doesn’t receive any professional help at all. If they do call the police to express concerns about someone’s risk of suicide, the police may well be able to reach the person quickly and this can be a life-saving intervention. But interestingly, the police will probably contact the crisis team shortly after arriving at the person’s home and ask them to speak to the crisis team on the phone. This of course is the same team that said they were unable to call the person directly on the grounds of privacy.

For some people, it may feel much more distressing to be contacted unexpectedly by the police, and it is almost certain that the police will involve a psychiatric service if there is a risk of suicide. So it can sometimes be hard to understand the psychiatric crisis team’s reluctance to contact the at-risk individual themselves.

Concerns about intruding on privacy also mean that crisis teams may refuse a request to call a patient who is already known to them, unless the patient has given their specific consent. If we call the crisis team to ask them to phone someone who is already under psychiatric services, they will almost always refuse to call the known patient unless they have given us their consent on that day or evening.  

Our approach has been to pro-actively reach out to the individual in crisis. We know that it can be extremely hard for someone to be able to seek help when they are experiencing a suicidal crisis. I would always prefer to call someone, when a family member or friend asks us to do so. We take great care to try to do this sensitively, in a way that is respectful, kind and compassionate. So far, no one has objected to our calling them. Perhaps psychiatric crisis teams could look at this in the way that we do – as “offering help” rather than “making an intrusive call”.

For information about the Suicide Crisis Centre:  http://www.suicidecrisis.co.uk/

Other sources of help include the Samaritans on 116 123

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