The fact that mental health issues continue to feature in deaths in, or after periods spent in police custody, highlights the need for police officers to receive more training in mental health. But it also shows that the police and mental health professionals need to work in a more integrated way.
Last week’s report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), 'Deaths during or following police contact: Statistics for England and Wales 2012/13' showed that deaths in police custody remained at 15, the same as 2011-12, but almost half of those were known to have mental health concerns. Additionally, four of those who died were known to have been restrained by police officers.
While the proportion of deaths in custody of people with mental ill health remained the same as in 2011/12, it is still far too high. But, worryingly, the proportion of deaths of people with known mental health problems, in the 64 apparent suicides which occurred within two days of release from police custody, has increased – to two-thirds of the individuals concerned.
Taking the first issue of deaths in custody, Dame Anne Owers, chair of the IPCC, hit the nail on the head when she said: “The police are often called in to deal with acutely mentally ill people, who may be a danger to themselves or others or who may be behaving in a disturbing or strange way,” she said. “It is clearly important that they are better trained in mental health awareness.”
She’s right. It has been estimated that the police spend between 15-25% of their time dealing with people with mental ill health. As such, mental health issues form a core part of what a police officer deals with, so it stands to reason that they should receive more relevant input, when they are completing their initial training and on an on-going basis thereafter.
I’m not suggesting that police officers need to become mental health professionals but a greater awareness of mental ill health and how to treat someone who is, for example, experiencing a crisis, could help to avoid the situation escalating and enable their diversion to appropriate care. Police cells are still too often being used as ‘places of safety’ for people experiencing a mental health crisis.
This is where more integrated working with mental health professionals would help. There are already integrated working initiatives in place, such as the pilot launched in June that sees street triage teams patrolling with police officers in the Derbyshire, Devon & Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Sussex force areas. The effectiveness of these pilots needs to be assessed and, if they are proved to be of value, then they should be rolled out nationally.
Better integrated working could also help to address the number of apparent suicides of people with mental health problems s after their release from custody. Given the figures, it seems clear that more needs to be done to support such individuals. But, currently, it appears that some people are falling through the cracks. While the reasons for this might be complex – lack of funding, lack of numbers in mental health teams etc – more has to be done to address this problem.
For instance, police officers could do more to involve their local mental health teams to try to ensure that anybody with mental ill health is given the post-arrest support that could avert the crisis that leads to them taking their own life.
The current situation cannot be allowed to continue. These deaths are all individual tragedies and much more needs to be done to avert them in the future.