The police cannot be expected to pick up the pieces of a ‘broken mental health system’.
That’s the headline finding of a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published earlier this week.
Hastings In Focus understands that an increasing amount of local officer’s time is spent dealing with people who have mental health issues. Frontline officers can often be tied up for hours, even for their entire shift, sitting with people in the midst of a mental health crisis while more appropriate support is sought from social services or other agencies.
Zoë Billingham HM Inspector of Constabulary, speaking at the time of the report’s publication said: “Police officers naturally want to respond and do their best to support vulnerable people when they ask for help and we found that police officers respond to those with mental health problems with care and compassion.
“But we cannot expect the police to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system. Over-stretched 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.”
The report, Policing and Mental Health: Picking Up the Pieces, makes it clear that while the police service is doing a good job in difficult circumstances, there are concerns over whether the police should be involved in responding to mental health problems at the current level. The report emphasises that there needs to be a radical rethink and a longer-term solution to what has become a national crisis.
Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne described it as ‘reassuring’ that the report recognised the police were, “…regularly and often unfairly relied upon to ‘pick up the pieces’.” She was also pleased to see the report had raised concerns around the impact on police resources when responding to mental health call outs.
Ms Bourne said: “The public has seen changes to the deployment of officers and PCSOs at the frontline of policing and their confidence in Sussex Police is naturally more influenced by what they see rather than by the huge amount of policing that goes on unseen, tackling serious crime and handling incidents of mental health.”
Ms Bourne was pleased that Sussex Police had been specifically commended as a force that is, “…both equipped to identify people with mental health problems at first contact and one that offers an effective street triage service.”
She explains that Sussex Police treats all calls it identifies as involving mental health issues as a priority and pointed out that the report praised the local force for good processes for assessing risk which helped control room staff make effective decisions.
“People experiencing a mental health crisis often require almost immediate assistance so putting in place a quick and effective first contact and referral system is crucial,” she says.
Street triage in Sussex Police has also expanded since the initial pilot project in 2013. A senior mental health nurse and a uniformed police officer in an unmarked car work late shifts Monday to Friday attending both 999 and 101 calls. They can refer people to mental health services without the need for further assessment.
Ms Bourne says: “Sussex Police has put these measures and training in place because it has been necessary to do so, to safeguard those in crisis when the medical support they require is not available at that time.
“I agree with the report when it highlights that ‘people in crisis with mental health problems need expert support – that can’t be carried out by locking them into a police cell.’ In the last year, under section 136 of the mental health act, Sussex Police has not detained anyone in custody who is suffering from mental health issues, unless they have committed a crime. They are instead taken to hospital for a proper assessment.
“Too often authorised ‘places of safety’ for mental health patients are stretched and have no beds available. I do not think the onus should be placed back on to our police force to transport patients to A&E and wait with them until the proper care can be given, which often takes hours.
“As referred to in the report, this is a national crisis which should not be allowed to continue. There does need to be a fundamental rethink and urgent action taken to bolster our partners so they can properly prioritise their resources and relieve the strain they can place on policing.”