policeThe use of police powers under the Mental Health Act is a major concern for service users, family carers and professionals alike, and needs to change, according to research.

The research, commissioned by the Department of Health and the Home Office as part of their review of police powers under Sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act in England and Wales, and published by the Centre for Mental Health, explores people’s experiences of these sections and their views about how they should be changed. 

It is based on meetings and interviews with health and social care professionals, police officers, commissioners, service users and carers who have had experience of the use of Sections 135 and 136. 

The review found that for many people being detained by the police was a frightening experience. The use of Section 135 powers in a person’s home was especially traumatic for those who had experienced it.

It concludes that the use of police powers under the Mental Health Act has to change. In most cases, change could be achieved through better use of existing powers. In all cases, heeding the voices of people who have been detained under these sections is vital to ensure any changes to police powers or their application improve people’s experiences.

Dr Graham Durcan, author of the report, said: “Our research found a few areas of the country where the use of these sections was markedly better than in most places. This requires strong relationships between the police and health and social services, good commissioning and robust service provision. This can, for example, speed up the process of obtaining a warrant for the use of Section 135 and ensure that better places of safety are available when a person is detained.

“We found broad agreement among all those who worked with or had been subject to Sections 135 and 136 that police custody should seldom if ever be used as a ‘place of safety’ and that the duration of detention should be as short as possible. There was less agreement about the extension of police powers, which caused particular concern among service users.

“There was widespread agreement, however, that the use of these sections with children and young people was especially problematic. We also found consistently that black people’s experiences of the police featured greater and earlier use of force.”

Outlawing police custody as place of safety

The Centre’s evidence review accompanied a Department of Health and Home Office report of their review of Sections 135 and 136. Their report includes proposals to change the law to outlaw the use of police custody as a place of safety for people under 18 who are detained under the Act, to extend the use of Section 136 to anywhere apart from a person’s home (such as a railway station), and to shorten the length of time a person can be detained under these sections. It also includes proposals for changing the use of the Act, including improved commissioning of places of safety and faster arrangements for the use of Section 135.

Centre for Mental Health chief executive, Sean Duggan, welcomed the report. “The report clearly heeds the evidence gathered from professionals, service users and family members.

“The legislative changes proposed in the report are a proportionate response to the needs presented in our review and the wider evidence provided to government. They must be accompanied by robust action nationally and locally to improve crisis care for children and adults alike with mental health problems. 

“This should include investment in age-appropriate places of safety in all areas; in the promising role of street triage to prevent the use of these sections wherever possible; and in the provision of liaison psychiatry services for people who attend A&E in a mental health emergency.

“It is vital that in all areas of the country local action plans to implement the Crisis Care Concordat are in place and that commissioners of health, social care and police services secure adequate levels of provision to meet the needs of the people they serve.”