Under-pressure police praised for handling of mental health emergencies as number of detentions increases

(Title Image: West Midlands Police, Creative Commons Licence BY-SA-2.0)

Health & Social Care Committee
Mental health in policing & police custody (pdf)
Published: 30th October 2019

“We have heard of some concerning evidence but also some excellent best practice. Frontline police officers are providing support for individuals who have been in a mental health crisis, however, policing should not be used as a substitute for mental health services.”
– Committee Chair, Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West)

1. Detentions under the Mental Health Act are increasing

The Mental Health Act 1983 gives police officers certain powers in relation to people who are suffering a mental health crisis – including detention. Following changes to the law in 2017, the police must consult mental health professionals and should only use police stations for detention “under exceptional circumstances”.

The Committee was assured that the number of people being detained at police stations was falling (only 20 cases in 2018-19 compared to 117 in 2016-17) and provision of mental health care for people detained by the police for mental health reasons was generally good (which I turn to later). However, the number of detentions overall has increased from 1,722 in 2014-15 to 2,256 in 2018-19.

A number of witnesses said the police were becoming the main agency for dealing with mental health emergencies, which was described as “unsustainable” in light of budget cuts to policing. The National Police Chiefs Council told the Committee that the police were being too involved in health or social care issues.

2. The police are praised for their handling of mental health crises, but there are a lack of safe spaces

Mind Cymru said many families who have sought police help for a mental health crisis have been grateful for the support they received. Homelessness charity, The Wallich, also praised the police, saying they were often more helpful than (NHS) Crisis Teams.

Other witnesses described the police’s response to mental health emergencies as kind and compassionate – though there were concerns over a lack of what is described as “health-based places of safety”, which are usually located at psychiatric hospitals or mental health wards at general hospitals.

There was also said to be a marked increase in the number of detainees who are drunk, drugged, aggressive or a combination of all of them, often meaning the police have to stay for longer while mental health staff can’t undertake an assessment.

The Committee recommended that work should start on developing non-healthcare based places of safety which can offer short-term accommodation to people suffering a mental health crisis – particularly for people at risk of suicide.

Given that a majority of detainees are brought to a place of safety by the police and not by ambulance – which is contrary to the legal requirement to protect dignity and privacy – the Committee demanded an urgent Welsh Government review of mental health patient transport.

3. There’s a “revolving door” when it comes to care planning

Mind Cymru told the Committee that the majority of people (68%) detained under the Mental Health Act are eventually discharged following an assessment because they’re not deemed to require urgent inpatient treatment.

The National Police Chiefs Council raised concerns about a “revolving door” as 50% of people the police deal with were already patients in some form – though Cardiff & Vale Health Board said people repeatedly detained under the Mental Health Act should have a care and treatment plan in place to prevent a relapse.

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