This is a reproduction of an article I wrote for the last edition of Greater Manchester Police Federation’s Magazine “Manchat.”
As always I thank my friends at GMP for allowing me to have another channel through which to speak.
The Mental Health Act celebrates its 30th year in existence in 2013 but you will forgive me if I don’t put up the bunting. At the moment it is arguably causing the police more work and placing officers and detainees at more risk than any other piece of legislation we commonly use.
Police involvement with mental health matters has increased dramatically over the last few years and the situation seems to be getting worse rather than better.
There are very few areas in the country with sufficient bed spaces to accommodate patients for assessment. Where these spaces exist you will find that many mental health trusts have put barriers in the way which makes accessing them very difficult. The term “Emergency Duty Team” is possibly the most over-optimistic title I have ever come across.
The upshot of this is that whilst demand has risen – provision hasn’t and it is the police who have been called upon to plug the gap.
Coroners, the IPCC and a number of charities have been challenging and criticising the police for their handling of the incidents following the deaths of Mental Health Act detainees in police custody.
More recently, the Metropolitan Police commissioned Lord Victor Adebowale, the Chief Executive of mental health charity “Turning Point”, to conduct an independent review of their handling of mental health detainees over a five year period.
The results were damning. In that timeframe up to 50 deaths were potentially attributable or linked to police involvement. In six of those cases the direct cause of death was linked to restraining the person in a police van or cell.
The Adebowale Report demands change and rightly so.
Fundamentally, the problem is that police officers are being asked and expected to deal with a medical emergency without the necessary understanding, training, equipment or legislation to protect or assist them.
When it comes to restraining mental health detainees police officers are actually entering into a world beyond their training and experience. Whereas we are taught to use pain compliance and mechanical restraint NEITHER of these techniques are advocated when dealing with restraining patients. There is good reason for this – the risks are different and inherently more dangerous.
Police are also left with the awkward situation of having no powers to deal with a mental health crisis in a private place. We can use Section 17 PACE to force entry but once inside, officers are forced to criminalise the sick by using Breach of the Peace inappropriately.
The Government are taking notice. In her keynote speech to the Federation Conference, the Home Secretary announced an urgent cross-department review of mental health provision. Tom Winsor announced that HMIC will be reviewing Section 136 of the Mental Health Act.
It is now being realised just how much demand (approx. 20% of police work is directly linked to mental health) is being diverted to the police when really it is the function of the NHS.
There is a unique opportunity and a public mandate to make significant improvements to the way in which mental health crises are managed.
The NHS should be expected, resourced and equipped to deal with these situations and police involvement should be reduced to absolute necessity – with unrestricted handover to the NHS at the earliest opportunity. Officers must be trained in recognising mental health issues and how to deal with them properly and safely.
In the meantime we are set up to fail – and that simply isn’t fair or right to either officers or, more importantly, the patients we are dealing with.
I also highly recommend following @MentalHealthCop This is the twitter feed of Inspector Michael Brown of West Midlands Police. He is widely acknowledged as the national front-line expert on mental health and policing and his blog is the best training resource in existence and should be required reading for all operational officers.