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26th September 2013

Policing and Mental Health

A BBC Panorama programme a couple of weeks ago highlighted a trend that many might not have been aware of. The amount of time and staff resources that the police now devote to people with mental health problems is rising and is estimated by some forces as being about 20% of police time. Now, the term ‘mental health problems’ covers a wide spectrum, after all some 1 in 4 of us will have a mental health problem at some time, so maybe the 20% figure shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. However the people on the Panorama programme detained in Southampton Central Police cells were all in an acute state of crisis. What was impressive was the caring and attentive nature of the police. Though they were all uneasy about police cells being the appropriate place of care, none of the officers on the programme said ‘this isn’t our job.’  Indeed, my experience is that police officers do believe it is part of their job. Contrary to some ideas that police work is all about fighting crime, there’s a wider duty of promoting the safety and wellbeing of communities. I think the other issue for the police is that they are a genuine 24 hour emergency service.  There may well be crisis services in mental health and accident and emergency departments in hospitals, but interventions in healthcare settings can take hours of wait, as the Panorama film showed. The other great strength of the police in these situations is their knowledge and application of their powers in law, backed up by a clear documented process.

So are there any messages for care staff arising from this programme and the recent debates about policing and mental health?  One of the things that police officers say when asked to provide assistance to service users is ‘what powers do we have that health and care staff don’t?’ Of course, relationships between agencies can be severely tested in times of crisis, so I think it is important to be aware of your powers, and any limits on those before crises occur. I think there are some key messages about awareness and training around your own policies on a range of care matters where police assistance or involvement might be relevant:

  • Challenging Behaviour – how do we manage that on our own, and when is it appropriate to ask for police assistance?
  • De-escalation - what happens if this doesn’t work?
  • Restraint – in what circumstances can we restrain someone?
  • Missing persons – when do we ask the police to look for someone?
  • Confidentiality – how much information will we give to the police about our service users?

There may be more!


David Beckingham – QCS Expert Mental Health Contributor

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