The Metropolitan Police’s plan to stop attending emergency mental health incidents has been described as potentially alarming. My Mind News reports.
From this September, officers from London’s Metropolitan Police will only attend mental health emergency calls where there is an “immediate threat to life.” The Met argues the move will free up officers after a significant rise in the number of mental health incidents being dealt with by the force in the past five years.
Some police chiefs believe this is down to the service increasingly being seen as the first resort for people in a crisis, as well as a lack of capacity in the NHS and social services to deal with growing mental health demands.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley wrote to health and social care services in Greater London to inform them of the plan last week, the Guardian first reported.
In the letter, which has been seen by the BBC, Sir Mark said it takes almost 23 hours on average from the point at which someone is detained under the Mental Health Act until they are handed into medical care.
He writes that his officers are spending more than 10,000 hours a month on “what is principally a health matter,” adding that police and other social services are “collectively failing patients” by not ensuring they receive appropriate help, as well as failing Londoners more generally because of the effect on police resources.
Zoe Billingham, previously Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue, said that the Metropolitan Police’s plan to stop attending emergency mental health incidents is “potentially alarming.” Furthermore, Bellingham added that the proposals could create a “vacuum.”
But Ms. Billingham, who is now chair of the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS mental health trust after 12 years as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue, warned mental health services are “creaking” and “in some places are so subdued with demand they are not able to meet the requirements of people who need it most.”
Speaking to the BBC, she warned there is “simply no other agency to call” other than the police for people in crisis, adding, “There isn’t another agency to step in and fill the vacuum.”
She expressed doubts about the timeframe set by the Met for the change, adding that she would be “very surprised” if mental health trusts across London could get extra round-the-clock mental health facilities up and running by 31 August.
Ms Billingham agreed a total withdrawal is unlikely in practice but warned it would be “really, really dangerous” if the Met took that approach.
She authored a 2018 study that looked at the increasing demands mental health crises were putting on police, including:
- Officers being called to detain people under the Mental Health Act – half of which result in them having to transport patients to a medical facility
- Long waits in A&E with someone having a mental health crisis when specialist NHS help can’t be obtained immediately
- Supporting victims of crime with mental health problems – who Mind estimates to be three times more likely to become a victim – and carrying out welfare checks.
- Attending mental health crises, including where someone is threatening to take their own life, to close roads, speak to them, or protect the public.
- Looking for missing people, including those in extreme distress or with dementia
Meanwhile, Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the BBC that Sir Mark Rowley had “obviously decided unilaterally that the Met are going to go it alone,” describing the move as “unhelpful.”
“We don’t have those resources at the current time. We also have a workforce crisis in the health service. We can’t just pluck new members of staff from nowhere. I think it’s too short a period of time. I think that Sir Mark should look very closely at whether there is some flexibility around that.”
Others welcomed the announcement
Ken Marsh, chairman of the Met Police Federation, which represents officers up to the rank of chief inspector, broadly welcomed the announcement. But he said officers will still attend “most” calls because they will be concerned about the consequences of not responding.
“At the end of the day, who makes the decision that you can’t go to something and if God forbid this ended up in a coroner’s court, what does my officer then say?”
In March, Sir Mark Rowley told BBC Newsnight that the staff hours involved in policing mental health are equivalent to dealing with 500,000 victims of domestic abuse.
He pointed to one case where Met officers spent 30 hours supervising one individual having a crisis because they could not find a space in a mental health unit. He said,
“This isn’t what police officers are trained to do. They’re the wrong people to be doing it, we’re letting vulnerable people down,”
More on mental health incidents
The College of Policing defines a mental health incident as “any police incident thought to relate to someone’s mental health where their vulnerability is at the center of the incident.”
Police officers are estimated to spend 20-40% of their time dealing with such incidents.
The Met’s new plan has already been adopted by Humberside Police, who introduced the Right Care, Right Person (RCRP) scheme in 2020 to ensure mental health professionals deal with mental health calls.
In the meantime, the government announced a £150m capital investment in January to improve the places and spaces across the NHS for people experiencing – or at risk of experiencing – a mental health crisis.
It said the funding would allow for the procurement of up to 90 new mental health ambulances, which will take specialist staff directly to patients to deliver support on the scene or transfer them to the most appropriate place for care.
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