Fixing the UK’s mental health crisis will need both police and health

People in need deserve better than a few patchy pilot schemes. It’s time to fill the gaps in our over-stretched police and mental health services

A project in Lancashire has seen local authority, health and voluntary sector organisations join together, sharing data and pooling budgets. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian


You’re walking home late one night and you see a person, visibly distressed and shouting, zig-zagging down the middle of a busy road. What do you do? You’re first instinct is more than likely to call the police. Whether it’s substance misuse or mental distress, the police – not health professionals – have become the first port of call for vulnerable people. It’s a trend that needs urgent attention.

That UK police are spending as much as 40% of their time dealing with incidents related to mental health problems won’t come as a surprise to those working on the frontline in policing, or in health. The police have always had to deal with callouts where mental illness is a factor, but never before in a climate of such severe cuts across public services.

Barely a week goes by without more news of mental health services buckling under high demand and sharp budget cuts. Coupled with pressure on A&Es around the country and overstretched police forces grappling with their own drastic reductions in funding, the fallout for people unable to access appropriate care when they need it most can be disastrous. Between 2011 and 2014, there was a 33% rise in the number of mental health related incidents dealt with by police, despite a drop of 10% in reported incidents, with big rises in some parts of the country, including south Wales and Suffolk.

December’s report by the Revolving Doors Agency and the Transition to Adulthood Alliance details examples of promising work by police and crime commissioners (PCCs) to prevent and reduce crime, including dealing with people with mental health difficulties and other complex needs.

The report explains the importance of intervening earlier with vulnerable adults, pointing out that an incredible 84% of all control room calls are related to non-crime incidents, often linked to issues of vulnerability, public protection and safeguarding. In some places, better partnership working between the police, health and social care has generated a slew of fledgling early intervention strategies. There are also innovations in youth justice, substance misuse and domestic violence, as well as for people with complex, multiple and mental health needs.

Alun Michael, South Wales PCC,Alun  Michael, South Wales PCC, is forging close relationships with health partners. Photograph: Barry Batchelor/PA


What’s really interesting is the variety of work. In South Wales, PCC Alun Michael has been championing what he describes as a public health approach to prevention, forging close relationships with health partners. One initiative is a drive to identify the groups most at-risk, including people with serious mental health problems who are repeatedly in contact with the police and who could be directed, earlier on, to more appropriate services.

Meanwhile,  Lancashire has been acknowledged as a pioneer in early intervention. PCC Clive Grunshaw spearheaded the launch of “public service Lancashire”, which has seen local authority, health, and voluntary sector organisations join up to improve services for vulnerable people. Among Their efforts include investing £6million in early action response teams that include police, social workers and mental health professionals as well as youth and family support workers.

Progress is patchy

Work is being done to ensure grant funding continues for community services that support vulnerable people and perform valuable preventative work. nderstanding the demand on services by improving data collection also has a vital role to play in prevention and responding to repeat demand. The guiding idea is that someone with, say, ongoing serious mental health issues should have an appropriate care package rather than bouncing around different services including the police.

Christina Marriott, chief executive at Revolving Doors Agency, saChristina Marriott, chief executive at Revolving Doors Agency, says there’s a long way to go. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian 


That said, as Christina Marriott, chief executive at Revolving Doors Agency, told me, there is still a long way to go. For all the promising projects dotted around the country more evidence needs to be gathered on effectiveness and, of course, they are not consistent.

It is great if encouraging progress is being made in south Wales or Lancashire or Essex or Derbyshire, but what about the places where no such schemes exist? And what happens if pioneering PCCs aren’t voted back in this year’s election?

The research indicates that the police are facing increasing surges in demand from vulnerable people. Something is still clearly amiss. We need to identify the gaps – and find the best ways to fill them – if we’re to tackle this problem.

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