Police have been ‘picking up the slack’ in mental health care due to shortcomings in the health-care system, according to a report from the Chief Inspector of Constabulary.
Sir Tom Winsor released his annual State of Policing report on 20 April. His focus was how police were being forced to ‘fill the gaps’ in mental health care long after the chance of effective intervention by clinicians is lost.
He referred to hypothetical situations where a person
was attempting suicide on a motorway bridge or railway line, or threatening to use a weapon ‘in a state of high distress’ as occasions when ‘the expense to all concerned is far higher than it should be’. He argued that better-funded and maintained mental health care could prevent these situations.
Sir Tom wrote: ‘The police are considered the last resort. In some areas, particularly where people with mental health problems need urgent help, the police are increasingly being used as the service of first resort. This is wrong.
‘The provision of mental health care has reached such a state of severity that police are often being used to fill the gaps that other agencies cannot. This is an unacceptable drain on police resources and it is a profoundly improper way to treat vulnerable people who need care and help.’
Mental health charity Mind said police intervention in mental health crises may make pre-existing conditions worse, especially without specialist supervision from clinicians.
Mind head of policy and campaigns Vicki Nash said: ‘Mental health is core police business, as police will always be a possible first point of contact for people in crisis and they have specific powers under the Mental Health Act to detain people who are very unwell under section. But they should not be plugging the gaps created by failings in health services.
‘If the police do need to be involved in helping someone in crisis, they can only do this properly with the right support from the NHS, which needs adequate resourcing so that people are treated in a safe, therapeutic environment.
‘Too often, people in crisis end up in police cells because there is nowhere else to take them. When you’re in a mental health crisis, you may become frustrated, frightened and extremely distressed and being held in a police cell and treated like a criminal only makes things worse.’
NHS England promised to increase spending on mental health care in its Five Year Forward View, published February 2016. Clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) were told to increase spending on mental health by an extra £1 billion a year by 2020/21.
However, research from GP magazine Pulse showed 46 CCGs are not expected to meet this year’s target, falling short of NHS promises by £20.8m.
Pulse discovered that five CCGs are actually cutting their mental health spending: Walsall (cutting by 3.2%), South Sefton (2%), Scarborough and Ryedale (2%), Isle of Wight (0.5%) and St Helens (2%).
The Royal College of Nursing’s chief executive Janet Davies said: ‘Patients deserve more than empty promises. That the police are having to fill gaps left by failures in mental health provision is completely unacceptable.
‘These hidden cuts demonstrate that parity between services is sadly a long way off. Mental health is still considered the poor relation and an easy target. The government should commit to sustained and protected investment, supported by clear workforce planning.’