To support policing we need to tackle mental health crisis

I’d like to welcome the NHS chief’s admission that police are carrying a heavy burden when it comes to mental health.

Speaking at this week’s Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and National Police Chiefs’ Council, Sir Simon Stevens accepted that police officers are picking up problems that should be resolved by health professionals, and that one of the things the service was committed to doing was improving the range of mental health crisis services.

These are welcome words for a police audience, as this is a problem we been dealing with now for a long time.

The Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report in late 2018 laid out clearly the extent of this problem nationally, showing an overwhelming demand is placed on police services by dealing with people who have mental health issues.

Picking up the pieces

The report, aptly titled Policing and Mental Health: Picking Up The Pieces stated that people with mental health issues were being let down, placing an intolerable burden on police officers and staff.

It went on to highlight a critical lack of resources in the mental health system, leading to the police being relied upon to provide emergency cover.

Meanwhile, last summer’s Tweetathon showed that even a relatively small force like Dorset Police regularly has to deal with this issue.

The Force tweeted every single 999 and 101 call that came into its control room during a busy Friday night and among them were several involving mental health.

They included a 999 call from a man living with dementia, who was struggling to tell the difference between real life and a TV drama, as well as calls about people who were suicidal or threatening self-harm.   

Close work with mental health professionals

Mental health issues have become central to policing, and it is absolutely right that frontline officers who are the first on the scene when responding to people in crisis have an understanding of these issues.

I am proud that Dorset Police has a close working relationship with mental health professionals and others.

A huge amount of work has been done locally, from Our Street Triage Scheme which sees trained mental health professionals advising response officers, to embedding mental health staff within custody centres to better support those in crisis. The early intervention work carried out by Dorset Retreats and Community Front Rooms also does an excellent job with people approaching crisis.

However, the additional demand routinely being placed on the police is a huge problem, with overstretched officers across the country sadly finding themselves left with responsibility for some of the most vulnerable people in society, who would be far better dealt with in the hands of other agencies.

Services don't meet demand 

Nationally, we’ve been providing a sticking plaster solution which has got nowhere near the heart of problem – mental health services have been chronically underfunded and don’t meet the demand.

This Government have stated they are taking policing out of austerity, and their pledge of an additional 20,000 officers is of course something that we would all welcome.

However, if they are serious about supporting policing, it’s vital they deal with the mental health crisis as well.

Seeing the head of the NHS acknowledge that this problem exists is welcome, and is an important first step. We now need to see much more detail about how they plan to deal with it.

Innovative solutions 

I would like to see the UK look towards introducing radical ideas that have been trialled successfully in other parts of the world.

This includes Sweden’s mental health ambulance, in which a team including two mental health nurses and one paramedic respond to calls from people who are suicidal or in other severe distress, or the CAHOOTS programme from Oregon, USA, in which a specialised crisis team responds to mental health related emergency calls.

But ultimately, we need commitments from the government that they will address a problem which was created by austerity, and begin funding adequate mental health services in our communities.

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