According to an article in today’s @guardian Home Secretary Theresa May has pledged up to £15m to provide health-based alternatives for the 4000 people per year who spend time in detention in police cells under the Mental Health Act.
Currently, people detained under the MHA can be held in a hospital or a police station for up to 72 hours, with the premise being that a police station is a place of safety.
Section 135 empowers police officers to enter private premises (with a warrant) to remove a person suspected of needing an urgent mental health assessment. Section 136 gives power to the police to remove someone from a public place to a ‘place of safety’ where, under the Mental Health Act, they can be detained for up to 72 hours. In around one third of cases, the ‘place of safety’ is a police cell.
Under the new policing and sentencing bill which is due to be released next week, the use of police cells to detain children with mental health problems will be banned.
This comes soon after research published by the Centre for Mental Health in late 2014. The research was commissioned by the Department of Health and the Home Office and found that for many people, being detained by the police was a frightening experience. That does not really come as a surprise – I know that I certainly wouldn’t choose to spend time in a police cell and Theresa May appears to be on the right track that people with mental health issues should not be ‘locked up’. This is particularly so given the report’s statement that “we found broad agreement among all those who worked with or had been subject to sections 135 and 135 that police custody should seldom if ever be used as a ‘place of safety’… there was widespread agreement that the use of these sections with children and young people was especially problematic”.
Whilst this Tory plan to put more funding into creating more suitable places of safety for young people with mental health issues came as a nice surprise to me, it does only apply to children. The new legislation will, however, ensure that police cells are only used as a place of safety for adults if the person’s behaviour is so extreme that they cannot otherwise be safely managed. Immediately, my mind asks what on earth ‘so extreme’ refers to and whose call it is as to when behaviour meets that threshold. I guess only time will tell with that one.
I think that it would be a good starting point to have age-appropriate places of safety. Of course, the legislation discussed above is more concerned with people under the age of 18, who are therefore classed as more vulnerable. But what about older people? I can say with conviction that a police cell absolutely would not be a suitable place for my 81 year old grandma.
We won’t know the exact ins and outs until the bill is set out in next week’s Queen’s speech but for now it is suggested that the bill will reduce the current 72 hour maximum period of detention and will enable places other than police cells and health-based alternatives to be ‘places of safety’.
In utilising police cells for the purpose of detention under the Mental Health Act, it automatically feels as though the person detained has done something wrong when, of course, in the vast majority of cases they have not. When you think of a police cell you don’t think of it as a place of safety, you think of it as a place for punishment, regardless of what its purpose actually is. I understand that sometimes there simply aren’t enough beds to go around but surely a prison cell can’t be the only alternative? Imagine how daunting it would be to be taken from a public place and put into a prison cell, ostensibly for your own safety. I know that I would be beside myself and would probably be quite scared that I was being accused of some sort of a crime. Do people with mental health issues really need these extra levels of hardship when what we should be doing is re-assuring them that they are safe and protected, but also that they have done absolutely nothing wrong. This could be particularly important given the fact that after the detention period there will be a mental health assessment. We ought to be reducing stress-levels, not increasing them.
If those with a physical illness were turned away from hospital due to overcrowding and were taken to a police cell, there would be a massive outcry. Shockingly, it is estimated that between 20% – 40% of police time is spent dealing with people with mental health issues. Needless to say, the correct place for someone with a mental health problem is not a police cell and the best people to look after them are not police officers.
Let us hope that Theresa May puts her words in to actions and we see more health-based and perhaps community-based places of safety for the mentally ill.