31/08/2015 16:43 BST | Updated 31/08/2016 06:59 BST

Police Cells Are No Place for the Vulnerable

Imagine you are suffering a crisis. You've been tipped over the edge and are so distressed that you are overwhelmed by thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Now imagine that, instead of being given appropriate NHS care and support, you are locked up in a police cell like a criminal.

This was exactly what happened to 161 young people in England and Wales last year, according to new figures. All were vulnerable individuals suffering with serious mental health conditions.

Mental illness is not a crime. So it is unacceptable that anyone - children or adults- should be put behind bars when suffering mental distress. And the police should not be the ones who pick up the pieces because the system cannot cope. Officers are spending too much of their time dealing with problems related to mental health. Mental health is a core police issue but officers are not health professionals. It should be the NHS which responds and provides an appropriate place of safety.

I recently chaired an independent commission on mental health and policing. What we found to our dismay was that too often it was the police who turned up when someone suffered a crisis and called the emergency services. That would never happen if it was a physical health crisis. There is no question that an ambulance would arrive and take you to hospital if you had a heart attack. So why should mental health be any different?

There have been welcome attempts at reform in the two years since the commission published its findings and the Crisis Care Concordat was published. Recommendations by the commission, such as street 'triage' schemes, where mental health nurses work alongside police officers, have provided nearly 10,000 people with emergency attention in just 12 months.

Innovative schemes like street triage are helping to reduce the number of people in custody with mental health problems. Other initiatives include putting mental health experts within police custody suites and courts. This is so they can identify early when someone has a mental health issue and needs support. In addition, the government has also announced an extra £15million next year to provide more places of safety for people detained under the Mental Health Act.

But the system still has flaws. It is inexcusable that patients face a shortage of acute mental health NHS beds. Indeed, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that on some days there are no beds available full stop. There are deep-seated problems with services for children and teenagers. Waiting times for services are increasing and this is for beds which can be miles from home. Another issue is the lack of co-operation that can exist between the police and the NHS.

We also need to be vigilant that improvements made in one area are not undermined by changes in another. Mental health is a challenge for social policy and public services but the NHS is the frontline. So we cancel out any benefit if we fund police training on mental health only for the Department for Work and Pensions to introduce policies which impact on the benefits available for people with mental health issues.

Let us not forget as taxpayers that these issues over mental health impact on us all. They have profound social and economic consequences such as lost working days and other costs which amount to more than £100 billion a year. Change is needed urgently. NHS mental health services should be available 24/7 as they are for physical health problems. Crisis teams should be available to respond every day and at all hours of the day and night. We also need to end the stigma people with mental health issues often face when they dial 999 for help.

It is clear that we need more places where people can receive mental health treatment. This support does not necessarily have to be provided by hospitals. There are alternatives such as residential units in the community which can provide a place of safety and support.

We are not short of solutions- but we must act on them. Otherwise we will never end the travesty of young people held behind bars through no crime of their own.