Ask the public who should be dealing with people in mental health crisis – nobody suggests the police.
While almost always supportive, considerate and compassionate, it is simply unacceptable that police officers with little specialist training have become the service of first resort in responding to these very vulnerable individuals.
The research we have revealed today shows that police officers now take those suffering an acute mental health crisis to safety in a majority of cases, often because an ambulance or other medical transport simply is not available.
This raises profound questions about how and why we treat those suffering from acute mental illness as people to be contained, rather than patients to be supported.
How can it be right that they are kept in the back of a police car for hours on end rather than accessing the support they need? When we talk about parity of esteem, this is why it matters; no physical illness would be treated in this way.
That’s why the usually-cautious Inspectorate of Constabulary has called this issue – and the role of the police in it – a national crisis. It undoubtedly is.
At its root is a familiar theme in this decade of austerity. Gaps in mental health provision, therapies and early intervention have become a chasm and the support is simply not there for those to whom it could make a real difference if dealt with early enough. So people are arriving in the system at crisis point, completely unable to cope.
One anonymous contributor to a recent HMICFRS report revealed the tragedy of the broken system. He had a relapse from schizophrenia which morphed into a full-blown crisis. The community mental-health team said he couldn’t access crisis support; so he said he needed to take a knife and look to harm someone or himself before he could get sectioned by the police.
In desperation, those suffering from or dealing with crises are forced to turn to the police. The Metropolitan Police (MPS), the UK’s largest force, now deals with a mental health call once every four minutes, and sends an officer to deal with a mental health issue once every 12 minutes.
This cannot continue. If we want the police to be the primary responder to mental health crises, then they should be trained and funded properly. But ask the police, patients and the public and this is the last thing they want. It is not their role to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system.
That’s why senior policing figures, such as the outgoing President of the Police Superintendents Association has asked ‘what is it we want the police to do?’. The answer, very clearly came back: not this. Just 2% of the public think the police should be responding to mental health-related calls. Violent crime, child sexual exploitation, terrorism; these are the things they want the police to deal with.
A Labour government would do everything within our power to free up the police to focus on exactly those priorities. We would invest in mental health services as part of over £30billion in extra funding for the NHS, and ring-fence budgets so that funding reaches the frontline. We would implement minimum staffing levels in the ambulance service and the NHS.
Taken together this would ease the pressure on our drastically over-stretched police forces to deal with mental health and vulnerable individuals. Austerity has augured an era in which the police are now the ‘service of first resort’ for the very vulnerable. Far from their now-forgotten pledge to tackling the “burning injustices”, it is this terrible failure that is set to be the shameful legacy of this government.
Louise Haigh is shadow policing minister and Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley
Paula Sherriff is shadow minister for mental health and Labour MP for Dewsbury