Mental Health and Policing

This evening I have the pleasure of speaking at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health and Policing, including recent successes and how we can develop and improve for the future.

As a passionate advocate for improvement in this area, I am pleased to note the recent achievements in mental health and policing. But there is still much progress to be made, predominantly: how we can improve outcomes for service users while reducing policing demand?

According to a 2014 Home Affairs Select Committee review, the reality we face sees mental illness as a factor in 20-40% of police activity.

Policing is a 24/7 service that people in need will go to for help, and this figure will of course include some entirely legitimate use of police time. But we must accept that, as funding for health and social care is increasingly stretched, much of this time is spent staying with people in crisis who should be in the care of other agencies.

I accept this challenge and am mindful of the difficult circumstances facing all safeguarding professionals. This said, we cannot rely on police to take on disproportionate or inappropriate responsibility. Rather, we must adapt and work in partnership to unpick the issues, identify opportunities for early intervention from the appropriate agencies and invest in new initiatives that better support those with mental health issues.

As the Association for Police and Crime Commissioner’s lead for mental health, I am proud to say that PCCs have assisted in funding such successful programmes. This has included pump-priming street triage services, bringing county wide agencies together, funding training for police officers and staff and commissioning a vulnerable victim specialist worker.

This work has brought considerable progress, for example in the number of people detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act and taken to a police cell as a place of safety. Nationally, we have seen numbers fall by two thirds in just two years.

The concept that it is ever appropriate to take an individual suffering from an acute medical crisis to a custody cell is worrying. It not only increases the anxiety of the patient but places a great deal of risk on the shoulders of custody staff, who have not received the appropriate training to ensure the medical safety of highly vulnerable individuals.

In and out of custody, police restraint has too often been used without proper understanding of the cause of behaviour or the consequences for the individual. In response, Dorset officers are now receiving an input on recognising the symptoms of acute behavioural disorder in order to better identify those in mental health crises. The Force is also working with partners, including Bournemouth University, to deliver a newly issued College of Policing training package across the organisation.

We know that people with a mental health issue are three times more likely to be a victim of crime, so our responsibility extends to prevention of offences. The commitment made by statutory organisations to work in partnership to identify vulnerability and effectively safeguard has made huge progress. We can now look at new development and I am pleased to say that Dorset Police is already forging additional networks with those businesses, such as banks and hotels, that have a valuable role to play in preventing these crimes.

In our pursuit to improve service for members of the public, we must not forget to look closer to home and engage with our emergency services staff and volunteers, who are statistically more likely to experience a mental health problem than the general workforce.

This will not only benefit the individual, but minimise the impact on the organisation and the service provided to members of the public. In December 2016, ITV News reported that across 27 police forces, officers and staff had taken over a million sick days in the last three years due to psychological problems.

In response, police forces have referred officers to Trauma Risk Management (TRIM) services, supported national initiatives such as ‘Time to Talk Day’ and set up regular appointments with mental health professionals for officers working in high risk roles, such as child protection and high tech crime.  

These are positive steps but more is needed, fundamentally, in the form of a culture shift. Having been a police officer myself for many years, I know that officers are often reluctant to seek help, concerned about the impact ‘admitting a problem’ may have on the rest of their team and their own professional development.

The police organisation must take responsibility for offering support and cultivate an environment where those in need can ask for help. More than 70 emergency services, including Dorset Police, have signed the Mind ‘Blue Light Pledge’. In doing so, they have committed to challenging stigma and promoting positive wellbeing across their organisations.  Mental health does not discriminate by rank or role and this pledge is the first important step towards an exciting and positive future, where colleagues feel they can discuss mental health, support others and seek advice.

We are operating in a time where understanding of mental health is developing and the need to provide a sustainable response, built on the needs of those in crisis, is being widely accepted. With a workforce of over 200,000 and constant and varied contact with the public, police should be leading the way.

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  1. David Munro Mar 21, 2017 at 12:42 PM

    As PCC for Surrey, I was there at the meeting and found it extremely useful - thanks Martin for sharing your experiences. The trouble with police officers getting inappropriately over-involved with people who need help with their mental health issues is not just that diverts officers from other duties - although that's important - but that it's so often not in the best interest of those being helped. So, hats off to all police officers and staff who are giving the very best help they can, but the system needs to improve.

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