Senior Police Officer criticises use of prisons to detain mentally ill

By - Monday 16th September, 2013

With the tragic recent suicides at two Croydon stations, the spotlight is on providing good care for the mentally ill in the town

Photo by Still Burning. Image used under Creative Commons License.

For years, those who are unfortunate to suffer from mental illness have frequently been detained in police cells, seemingly with no-one understanding the nature of their issues, or how to treat them, let alone anyone to speak out about how inappropriate a police cell is for detaining someone who is mentally ill.

That is until now. Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis told the BBC that she believes police cells should not be used to hold people who are mentally ill. With 9000 people detained in police custody under section 136, where no crime needs to have been committed, it is about time that someone spoke out about such a concerning issue.

Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell has a keen focus on mental health, pushing through the mental health discrimination bill last year in Parliament. Yet, when it comes to politicians and discussing mental health, one might suggest there is a lot of rhetoric spoken, with little substance to the words when it comes down to it. It is difficult to argue that there is much concern for mental health services from either the current government, or previous governments. It is often left to individual MPs or local councillors to raise the issue of spending on mental health, or at least discuss mental health in political circles.

Police forces are facing cutbacks, just as many other areas of the public sector are, so the likelihood of training police officers to deal appropriately with people who are mentally ill decreases significantly. Not that it was ever on the cards. What is critical for people with mental health issues, or mental illness, is that there is someone who understands them to some extent, is sensitive, approachable, is able to discuss things in a calm and rational manner. There is a desperate need for care and sensitivity.

A police station is not designed to offer emotional support, a police cell is hardly an appropriate place to hold someone who may not be in a rational state of mind, who needs to be treated differently to the majority of people who are held in police stations. Furthermore, the detention of the mentally ill in police stations leads to the implication that they are being punished for how they feel, what they think, and that being mentally ill is a crime. It serves only to perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental health, but more disconcerting is that the care provided at a police station could cause setbacks in recovery, could prevent the most appropriate treatment being administered.

In Croydon alone, somewhere in the region of 84,000 people will face mental health issues at any one time, with some facing more severe mental illness

Whilst there is no evidence to suggest that the police do not care about the mentally ill, it is perhaps unclear sometimes as to whether certain behaviour occurs due to the mental state of a person, and the treatment (or lack of) received in a police station is far inferior to that which may be received in a hospital. Chief Superintendent Curtis discussed the need for those who are mentally ill to be treated in hospital when a secure mental health unit was unable to host them, claiming that it “must be better than a police station.”

In Croydon alone, somewhere in the region of 84,000 people will face mental health issues at any one time, with some facing more severe mental illness. Funding cuts for Croydon Council are to total almost £200m, with £150m being held back from the council for “future use” according to Croydon Voluntary Action. Adult Social Care faces a £10m cut, and there is a £1.2m cut for Voluntary Organisations. Whether or not funding cuts are necessary is not the debate here, it is about the potential impact that they have. The services affected by these cuts are able to support people with mental health issues, and to reduce their funding may have a knock on impact on the number of people the police force is required to have contact with who suffer from mental illness, which in turn also impacts upon the financial situation of the police force.

The detention of mentally ill people in police cells is simply an ill considered solution to an issue which needs far greater attention and consideration. Whether it is feasible for every mentally ill person the police come into contact with be treated in hospital or mental health units is questionable, but if funding was provided for police to be trained in mental health first aid, offered most notably by Mental Health First Aid England, then perhaps there wouldn’t be such a need for hospital admission, a concession could be made if it was felt that would be the most appropriate action for detention in a police cell with extra care placed on the emotional needs of the person in question.

Metropolitan Police Custody Centre, Windmill Road, Croydon

Norman Lamb called the care that some people in mental health crises are receiving a “national scandal” and the care minister has previously helped the government work more closely with the police force in their handling of situations involving those with mental health issues during call outs.

It would appear then, that attitudes within Parliament may be changing when it comes to mental health. There is a distinct need for politicians to involve themselves more in mental health, even if it is just by discussing the topic.

Recently two people have ended their lives at train stations in the Croydon area, and it is incidents like these which hopefully can be prevented with the right care being provided for those who are mentally ill. The police have a role in that, and by detaining people in cells they risk creating more issues, rather than solving them. The work of Gavin Barwell to implement the Mental Health Discrimination Act goes some way to showing that there is attention to mental health in Parliament, but the pathetic showing of MPs in the Commons during the debate sadly indicates a large degree of apathy.

Whether the decision to cut spending on the NHS, particularly mental health services is right or wrong, it will have a significant and detrimental impact upon people’s lives

Funding cuts may or may not be necessary, but in Croydon, where there have been a number of incidents related to mental health, one fears that it will lead to more incidents, more mental health issues and further strain on an already crippled local health service. The introduction of mental health nurses to accompany police on call outs is welcome, but currently it is only a trial, and is not being implemented nationwide.

Whether the decision to cut spending on the NHS, particularly mental health services is right or wrong, it will have a significant and detrimental impact upon people’s lives. The government must take a large amount of blame for the lack of attention and care it places on mental health services, whilst the lack of any coherent plan to deal with mental health issues between emergency services must also be looked at, despite the introduction of mental health nurses accompanying police. There is a worrying disparity between attitudes towards physical health and mental health, as well as the importance which is placed upon them both. Police forces must be better equipped to deal with those who are mentally ill, and a police cell is far from an appropriate place for them to be held.

One person, who asked not to be identified, discussed their story of being detained in a police cell and their contact with the police in a situation involving mental illness. An episode of psychosis occurred following an epileptic fit, where a head trauma resulted in a loss of consciousness and caused bleeding on their eye. Two days after the head trauma they began to act strangely, going out of their way to have a cigarette despite not having smoked in six months, being overly aggressive and nasty, something which was totally out of character. The police were called to the house by their daughter, following shouting and screaming, it was assumed that there was an intruder. A glass was thrown and the person in question even took a knife and was prepared to use it. A struggle ensued when the police arrived along with paramedics due to the restraining procedures. It was not at all obvious to them that this was an episode of psychosis. The restraint was very forceful, leaving bruises all over the body and the person was handcuffed due to their violent behaviour.

Unfortunately, when they arrived at a police station, they were treated with the attitude that they were no more than a common criminal, someone who was violent and a danger to others. The situation was greatly misunderstood as it was thought that the person had overdosed on a substance of some kind, hence the abnormal behaviour. It was even assumed that the person was a heroin addict, something which appears to have been affirmed to the person by the police. After a night in the police cell, they were questioned and charges were going to be pressed for ABH, but eventually it came to light that the behaviour was the result of a mental health issue, as opposed to substance abuse. Despite this, at no point was any medical opinion sought, or medical support provided. Indeed, the person was sent home the next day with no charges being pressed, but equally no psychiatric review or intervention from a mental health crisis team, or any medical professional.

It is, of course, difficult to know how to react to mental illness in certain situations, but therein lies the problem. Unless people are educated about mental illness, especially those who have regular and close contact with those who are mentally ill, then little will change. Croydon is a particular area of concern, being an area in which people are vulnerable to mental health issues, despite the mental health services or organisations which are situated in the area, especially when there is even less funding for schemes which either help to prevent issues, or actively deal with issues when they arise.

Ultimately, a police cell is an inadequate place to detain someone who is mentally ill, regardless of circumstance, for numerous reasons, not least because it is unlikely to provide sufficient quality care and also gives the impression that wrongdoing has occurred for being mentally ill.

Matt Woosnam

Matt Woosnam

Matt Woosnam is a Kingston University student in his final year as a Politics & International Relations undergraduate. A campaigner on mental health he is the founder of @Talk_Out, as well as part of the TalkEasyTrust, and seeks to break down stigma by encouraging talking out. Matt is also an avid Crystal Palace fan and the online editor of Five Year Plan Fanzine, as well as a regular contributor to the Croydon Guardian.

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