Imagine you currently suffer from a debilitating mental health condition and you are in a time of crisis. The world is closing in around you and all hope is lost. You feel that you are out of options and your emotions are exploding in terrifying ways that even you do not understand. You could be around friends, family or even total strangers, while the setting could be anywhere. One thing is clear: you are a danger to yourself and maybe even to others. If there is one thing you need right now it’s help and to give you that help somebody calls the police to protect you from yourself. You are taken away by police officers who do not really understand what is happening to you, potentially beaten or verbally assaulted and despite doing nothing wrong you are thrown into a police cell for up to 72 hours. Of the 972 deaths in police custody since 1990 half of them have been people detained under section 136 of the 1983 Mental health Act.
Mental health is one of the last great taboos of our society; it is something we don’t like to talk about and something we do not know how to deal with. The police have had to pick up the slack in order to protect people who are suffering from mental health conditions and they are not really equipped or prepared for this role. Decades of chronic underfunding in our mental health services means that there is little the police can do but put someone who is at immediate risk in custody without really understanding what that person is going through or what is happening to them. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of police has already identified that police custody as a place of safety should only be used in exceptional cases yet between 2011 and 2012 9,000 people were detained under section 136, some of those people as young as 14. 81 per cent of the people detained were there because they had either attempted or thought about self-harm. If you are currently in that state of mind, then being put in a police cell for any length of time up to 72 hours like a common criminal is hardly going to help. The police, however, are aware of this disparity. The most common reason for people being held under section 136 is because of a lack of space and staff in the appropriate mental health facilities. The police also see it as a waste of their time as people held under section 136 need more robust monitoring, tying up the resources of officers.
Ultimately the police are a force to tackle crime, they are not specialists in mental health and nor should they be; but without the appropriate funding, this is a role they will have to continue to fulfil.
In January 2014 the Government announced they were trialling a £25 million project in which they would place mental health nurses in 10 police districts. While this move is welcomed, it is not enough. More training for the police on how to deal with mental health would be beneficial but the reason why people are detained under section 136 is because the NHS lacks the resources to deal with mental health, and this needs to be addressed now. But we also need to change our attitude to mental health; it should not be something that we feel we can’t talk about. Our attitudes need to change towards how we see people with mental health conditions; there is nothing wrong with it and not every person with a mental health issue is an axe wielding psychopath. If we stop acting like every person with a mental health condition is a potential criminal then maybe we will stop treating them like criminals.