The Independent on Sunday obtained figures showing that 202 vulnerable people under the age of eighteen were kept in police cells last year because there were no suitable services or hospital beds available.
Hampshire police detained a 17 year-old girl for 63 hours and 40 minutes, Nottinghamshire police detained a 16 year-old girl for 52 hours, and other youngsters, some as young as twelve, were kept in the cells after being detained under the Mental Health Act.
Mental health services in the UK are in critical condition. Constant cuts to social welfare budgets mean that many charities and other voluntary sector providers which mental health services rely on have had their grants cut or stopped all together.
The service as a whole is failing abysmally under the weight of care they are mandated to provide, but for which they have grossly inadequate resources.
Young people are particularly at risk. In the majority of cases where youngster have been kept in police cells there was no risk to the public whatsoever. Most were in danger of self-harm or committing suicide.
Chief executive of mental health charity Sane, Marjorie Wallace, responded to the Independent’s findings, saying “It is quite unacceptable that anyone suffering from a mental health condition, especially a young person, should treated as a criminal.
“Nothing could be more damaging to the mental health of a young person than to be left isolated, unprotected and feeling they have done wrong, when they are suffering from mental illness. They are afraid, sometimes they are handcuffed, they have no means of contacting people and they are put into a cell alongside people who may be drunk or violent.”
The figures were obtained under a freedom of information request made by the newspaper.
This is not the fault of the police. When they find a person who is vulnerable suffering from mental health problems they can remove them to a ‘place of safety’ for up to seventy-two hours under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. They have a duty of care to do so if the person is at risk of harm or of harming others.
The police, mental health staff, and the most important person – the person being detained/sectioned, are all victims of this ridiculous situation.
Having one’s liberty taken away when feeling vulnerable and disturbed can be an extremely traumatic experience – especially for a young person who understands that they are feeling incredibly powerful emotions they are unable to control. Add to that a young person going through a lot of other stuff because of growing up and it is extremely important that they get appropriate intervention as soon as possible to prevent their condition from becoming worse.
It is frustrating for most staff involved in the process – the vast majority want to help the person in distress as best they can, yet the system they have to work under fails them.
The last place anyone experiencing mental health problems should be is in a police cell, locked away, alone and feeling incredibly vulnerable.
Last year, Assistant Chief Constable, Paul Netherton, of Devon and Cornwall police tweeted “We have a 16-year-old girl suffering from mental health issues held in police custody. There are no beds available in the UK! This can’t be right!” Unfortunately that is the way it is right now – and it isn’t going to get better until more effort and resources are put into social care.
This is an example of where cuts in other public sector services place increased strain on other services. Health and social care are closely entwined and integrated in our society. Changes to one will affect the other.
Sarah Brennan, of the charity YoungMinds told the Independent “We created this situation by making it much harder for young people to access mental health services when they are first experiencing problems. We really need to prevent young people from reaching this point of crisis in the first place.”
Although Sarah Brennan has a valid point, that is something to be tackled in the longer term. Right now we need action to (at least) stabilise mental health services so they are able to provide core services efficiently and appropriately.
A young person (or any person) experiencing mental health problems is not interested in tomorrow – it is the here-and-now where they need all assistance available to overcome debilitating (and sometimes life-threatening) conditions. Waiting three days in a police cell is totally unacceptable for anyone, and the police are not providers of specialist mental health services, and neither should they be.
Politicians and ‘executives’ will bandy around figures – percentages of this and percentages of that, and put more pressure on services to provide appropriate care.
Firstly, the police are on the edge of being unable to function because of budget cuts. They do not have the capacity to cater for specialists needs during their day-to-day work. Having taken someone to a ‘place of safety’ they want the person to move on to appropriate treatment, both for the good of the person and to free up over-stretched police resources.
Secondly, mental health staff want to provide the vulnerable person with the safest environment and appropriate care they can. With their resources close to collapse, they are simply unable to do so no matter how much they want to or how much goodwill they contribute.
Thirdly, social care services provided by most county councils are on their knees – unable to cope with the demands placed on them. Yet again, mental health social workers have ridiculous – and sometimes dangerous – workloads to cope with – many struggling to cope with their statutory duties. Where they are coping they have to make serious compromises to the care of those in their charge.
Until we get away from the budget-bickering that is plaguing our welfare and social care systems there is little hope of any real changes or improvements being made. Until all the services are able to provide high-quality and properly funded services the situation will only get worse, and the politicians and executives will do nothing more than enter into passing-the-buck and denying all responsibility for the situation they have created.