Police and the cost of our mental health crisis – an alternative view

The volume of demand that is related to mental ill health that the police service responds to is at a staggering level, which today’s article in the Guardian acknowledges.

The lack of resources and funding for local mental health provision is undoubtedly influencing the high levels of demand faced by the police. What must also be acknowledged is the effect of inadequate provisions of mental health services to demand faced by ambulance services across the country.

There are several statistics provided in the Guardian article to demonstrate the scale of this demand to the police, which to anyone who works in or with the police will know are not surprising. Though, how police services record mental health as being a factor within an incident requires some scrutiny, given our findings of an outdated and unsophisticated recording system in force.

In the Guardian article, ZoëBillingham (HM Inspector of Constabulary and HM Inspector of Fire & Rescue Services)states “We cannot expect the police to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system. Overstretched and all too often overwhelmed police officers can’t always respond appropriately, and people in mental health crisis don’t always get the help they need.”

These types of comments feed a view that the police ‘fight crime’ and that health professionals ‘save lives’. Yes, the police fight crime and yes, health professionals save lives – but both groups of professionals do more than this. The police have a duty to protect people from harm and abuse, with reference to the Mental Capacity Act and the Mental Health Act. All police forces have multi-agency arrangements to respond to people who are identified as being vulnerable and the welfare of the individual is rightly the first consideration.

The real challenge is how do the police best respond to people in crisis? There is no question that the last place for a person in mental health crisis is in police custody, and sometimes the lack of alternatives in terms of conveyance due to pressures on the ambulance services means that an individual will be conveyed by the police to a health-based place of safety. This may be achieved in cooperation with an individual as opposed to in handcuffs or in the back of the van. Although not ideal, this is preferable to a person in crisis waiting on the side of the road with police for hours for an ambulance to arrive.

Our research on mental health street triage demonstrates how the police and health professionals can work together to give the best possible outcomes. Mental health street triage involves coordinated collaboration of the police and health services to provide better decision-making, in some cases joint response to emergency situations, expedited access to mental health services, reductions in the use of police cells as a ‘place of safety’, and reductions in repeat detainments. My colleague Dan Moloney has published a set of blogs in Policing Insight on the research.

Levels of mental ill health are having a major impact on demand experienced by the police and ambulance services across England and Wales. The police are under intense pressure and for some officers responding to people in mental health crisis is uncomfortable, especially when they lack important knowledge on mental health. However, the police are going to continue to be in many cases the first response to an individual in mental health crisis and it is fair to expect that police officers should have the necessary skills to respond to the situation, before connecting the person with an expert in a health-based setting.

Whilst it is easy to say that responding to mental health is not a police job, the police will, no matter the provision of mental health services, continue to play a critical role in the response to people in crisis.