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People with lived experience must be at the heart of changes to how police handle mental health incidents

Friday, 18 August 2023 Mind

On 18 August, the Met police announced they will delay rolling out a change in how they handle mental health incidents. In this blog, CEO Dr Sarah Hughes questions whether the delay is long enough. And how it will be rolled out across the country in a way that centres people with mental health problems.

Have you ever struggled with your mental health? The chances are, you have, because 1 in 4 people reading this will at some point in their lives.

But have you ever struggled to the point you need the emergency services to step in? Sadly, since the pandemic, and with an ever-deepening cost of living crisis, this too is becoming increasingly relatable. Most of the time, it’s the police who attend first.

Recently, the UK government set out its plan to change that, drawing a hard line between mental health incidents that involve a crime or threat to life, and those that don’t.

But there are 2 major problems. The line between what is life-threatening and not is often difficult to determine over a 999 call, and there is no other service currently equipped to step in for all the things that don’t meet this threshold.

The biggest force, the Metropolitan Police, has acknowledged this complexity, going back on a leaked plan to introduce the change in a couple of weeks to allow more time for staff to understand this difference. While this is a relief, there are still many unanswered questions about how this will work in practice and in other parts of the country.

When the national announcement was made, it was framed in a deeply worrying way. Nothing that involves some of the most vulnerable people in our society should be reduced to the number of hours of work saved.

The Met’s change in plans reflects that it’s also not that straightforward. The police are right that much of this isn’t their job. But this decision has the potential to affect any of us and yet communities haven’t been consulted, risk assessments haven’t been done and the NHS and social services simply aren’t equipped to manage the fallout.

The police are clear they will always have a role, enshrined in law, in keeping people safe who are struggling with their mental health to the degree they are likely to hurt themselves or anyone else, but how does that work in reality now? And what about everything else in between?

The police might not be the right service to deal with many incidents involving mental health. But how can it be the NHS, with its current waiting list of 1.8 million people who need mental health treatment? Or social services, with their £6.1bn funding gap?

And this is the problem. This decision is right in principle - police officers aren’t trained mental health professionals and they are taking on too much. It’s understandable that they are feeling the strain of taking on huge amounts of work outside of their responsibility and areas of expertise. But, right now, it is not the right decision in practice.

Those of us who work in mental health know just how complex things are on the ground. To understand how we got to a place where an increasing number of people are becoming mentally unwell and fewer people are getting support, we must look back.

A devastating combination of cuts to public services, funding for community organisations and welfare support, increasing racial disparities, a global health crisis followed by an economic one, and decades of underfunding of mental health services has led us here.

And so, as people increasingly struggle to find help, they become more unwell and they turn, in desperation, to the police, who have become the public service of last resort.

I know this all too well because I have waited with someone in a mental health crisis. The police were the only emergency service that could keep the person safe while we waited the many hours for NHS mental health support.

This is why the messaging around this is so important. Stepping back before other support is in place is dangerous. We've already heard of calls for help being rejected by the police, only for them to later concede they got it wrong.

The Met’s delay to rolling this out is further evidence that time, patience, and communication are crucial. As the police try to reset the balance, we need to be sure that it isn’t people with mental problems who hold the risk. Until a better system can be built, we need them. Like never before.

There is still time to get this right. Take Humberside in Yorkshire, the first place this way of working was trialled, as an example. The police force, in partnership with the NHS, and Hull and East Yorkshire Mind, took things back to the drawing board.

Faced with the same issue of police being regularly called out to support people with mental health problems, they looked at why people were experiencing psychological distress in the first place. They worked together to understand people’s social needs that weren’t being met and which organisations were best equipped to meet them. They placed mental health experts from the local Mind in their call handling centres, to make sure emergency calls were triaged in the right way. And crucially, they took their time. Almost 5 years in fact.

If other areas can harness the same level of local leadership, are given clear guidance and change is carefully monitored, we can maintain some hope that fewer people will fall between the cracks.

At Mind, we are ready to play our part, but we cannot do this alone. The UK government must explain how it will replace lost police support with investment. Local police forces and the NHS must maintain constructive communication. And crucially, communities, who know best what they need must have the right time and resource to work this out.

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