The Police Can't Cope With Mental Health Alone

02/07/2013 17:21 BST | Updated 01/09/2013 10:12 BST

In an emergency situation involving an individual with mental health issues it's often frontline police officers who are first on the scene, frequently without backup from health or care services.

All too often this means that vulnerable people end up locked in a police cell being supervised by officers who do not have the relevant training to deal with the situation.

This is why a new initiative announced by the government where nurses patrol alongside police officers on the beat is welcome. These special pilots will be tested in force areas including Sussex and Derbyshire. The aim is to ensure fewer people with mental health problems end up in the wrong environment.

Any move that means people are no longer detained in police custody unnecessarily has to be a step forward. If mental health nurses are there on the frontline then this is less likely to happen.

I recently chaired the Independent Commission on Mental Health and Policing which reviewed more than fifty cases of death or serious injury of those with mental health issues following contact with the police. Although the cases all related to the Metropolitan Police, our findings had implications for forces across the country.

The Commission found that too many people are being held in police custody when they should be in hospital or other places of care. The report recommends that mental health nurses with experience related to offenders should be available to all custody suites. Locking someone in a police cell who is suffering a mental health crisis should never be seen as a medical intervention. But this happens all too frequently.

Police vans too are not appropriate when transporting someone who is experiencing a health emergency, regardless of whether this is because of a physical or mental health condition. This would never happen if someone was having a heart attack, yet people in extreme mental distress are often picked up in public by officers and bundled into the back of them.

Mental health is core business for the police but it is not their responsibility alone. The NHS should be providing an appropriate place of safety for people suffering a mental health crisis and any response should be a joint one, involving all key partners including the ambulance service and social services. The police should be adequately trained in how best to identify and support someone with mental health issues, however when they need support the NHS needs to respond- and quickly. It should never be a case of an officer saying they have someone in clear mental distress and the ambulance service leaving the police to cope alone.

For the government's initiative to work, it must be properly funded and rolled out countrywide- and we should really be starting with London. The capital has the highest proportion of people with mental health challenges: 18% have a common mental health problem, compared with 16% nationally.

Mental health is not about 'us' and 'them.' One in four people in any one year are likely to face a mental health issue. Everyone with a mental health problem should be treated with dignity and respect- and in a place of safety. This pilot is one small step towards making this happen but there is a lot more still to do.