Police left to pick up pieces of broken mental health system
27 November 2018
National Chair John Apter
The Prime Minister and Home Secretary “should hang their heads in shame” says the National Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales as a highly critical report concludes that the mental health system in this country is broken and it is the police who are left to pick up the pieces.
The assessment, by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) paints a damning picture of the situation facing those experiencing mental-health issues in England and Wales.
It makes it clear that, while the police service is doing the best it can in difficult circumstances, there are concerns over whether the police should be involved in responding to mental health problems at the current level. And emphasises the need for a radical rethink and a longer-term solution to what has become what it calls “a national crisis”.
Responding to the report – authoured by HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoe Billingham and published today (27 November) – National Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) John Apter said: “The very title of this report – ‘Picking up the Pieces’ gives you a good idea of the situation facing my members, and I welcome Ms Billingham’s frank assessment which reflects the reality of what we are experiencing every day.
“She acknowledges we are the service of last resort, the organisation which cannot refuse to go when we are called, the people who fill the 5-9 gap left by other agencies; and that it is placing an ‘intolerable burden’ on police officers.
“The government’s austerity policies have led us to this dire state. I hope the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary read this report and hang their heads in shame at the situation they have not only created, but were warned about on numerous occasions.
“It is not right for anyone – officers or the public – that the police should be responsible for the safety and welfare of people that other professionals would be better placed to deal with.
“We are police officers not social workers or medical experts,” said Mr Apter.
The report assessed how effectively police forces in England and Wales as well as the British Transport Police:
- identify people with mental health problems and when they first contacted the force
- dentify and record the number of cases involving people with mental health problems to provide the right support
- make sure expert help is available from other organisations, in particular health professionals.
It has made five recommendations which it wants implemented by December 2019 which include the formulation of a new nationally accepted definition of mental ill-health, an evaluation of each forces mental health triage services and a review of all forces mental health training programmes.
Overall the report praised officers for their actions and found that they responded to those with mental health problems with care and compassion.
It also found that there was strong leadership and governance on mental health across most forces. And well-established partnerships across the country to support the most vulnerable in society, the most widespread of which is a mental health triage system to manage mental health demand and respond better to people in crisis.
Additionally, police officers had a good understanding of how to respond to those with mental health problems and feedback from partner organisations recognised the empathy officers showed in supporting those with mental health problems.
But Ms Billingham also acknowledged that crisis care for those experiencing mental ill-health should not be the responsibility of the police service.
She said: “We cannot expect the police to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system.
“Over-stretched and all-too-often overwhelmed police officers can’t always respond appropriately, and people in mental health crisis don’t always get the help they need.
“People in crisis with mental health problems need expert support – support that can’t be carried out in the back of a police car or by locking them into a police cell.
“All too often, the system is failing people when they most need help. This is not a problem that the police alone can solve. Other services need to stop relying on the 24/7 availability of the police,” she said.
Mr Apter continued: “Society can be measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable. As ever, my members are doing their very best and providing a high standard of care in increasingly difficult circumstances.
“But the police service cannot be a panacea for society’s problems. Something must be done to alleviate this situation and it must be done now,” he concluded.