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Should mental health patients ever be kept in police cells?

In Devon and Cornwall the practice of putting people experiencing mental health crises into police cells has been completely stopped. This raises the question of whether mental health patients should ever be kept in police cells rather than in a psychiatric unit.

Lack of specialist beds in the region of Devon and Cornwell resulted in more than 700 vulnerable individuals being locked up in police cells in 2014. This is a shocking figure but ITV News has obtained new figures suggesting that this has now fallen to zero. This is fantastic progress for Devon and Cornwall but such changes should be seen across the country, not just one region.

There were 2,100 instances of adults being detained under Section 136 Mental Health Act 1983 in police cells in England and Wales during 2015-16. This was unacceptable. Our view is that people suffering a mental health crisis should never be held in police cells as they find it terrifying and can become even more unwell. Local psychiatric beds should always be available for these vulnerable people.

Paul Harmer, the chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said in 2016: “When you’re in a mental health crisis you may become frustrated, frightened and extremely distressed. Your behaviour could be perceived as aggressive and threatening to others, but you desperately need support and compassion,”

“Being held in a police cell and [in effect] treated like a criminal only makes things worse. Now is the moment to ban this damaging practice once and for all.”

Insp Wayne Goodwin, Kent Constabulary’s Mental Health Liaison Officer, said: “Kent police believe the use of police cells for those detained under the Mental Health Act should be a never event. Cells are not appropriate places for anyone detained under the act and we know that their use can add to the trauma of the crisis and potentially delay that person’s recovery.”

Officers usually take someone in crisis to a cell only when there is no “place of safety” available in a local NHS hospital. This illustrates the extent of the lack of mental health beds available for vulnerable individuals suffering a mental health crisis.

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, officers have 24 hours after an arrested person arrives at a police station to release or charge them.

But data gathered by the College of Policing showed 264 instances where people were held for longer when they were judged to be in need of mental healthcare after being arrested. In one case an adult was detained for six days before a bed was identified. A child was detained for five days.

Officers often have to decide between releasing people who could pose a risk to themselves or others, or breaking rules set out in law by continuing to hold them in police cells beyond the 24-hour limit.

Labour's shadow police minister Louise Haigh said government reforms to keep people with mental health problems away from police stations were welcome.

But she added: "Without the mental health beds and resources to accompany it the police are put in an impossible situation - either to put people back on the street where they're at risk to themselves or others or to break the law and detain them."

Should mental health patients be kept in police cells? The answer is no. A police cell is a completely inappropriate environment for a person suffering from a mental health crises. Adequate mental health care is not available in such a setting and the sufferers’ recoveries will not begin in a police cell. More must be done to ensure psychiatric beds are available whenever they are so desperately needed.

Here at Swain & Co our specialist Mental Health Lawyers have represented many people detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983 (as amended), including those who have been detained under s136, and have assisted them to access the help they so desperately need in hospital as well as the community once discharged.

Swain & Co Solicitors work tirelessly to assist vulnerable people and ensure that their rights under the Mental Health Act are observed.  If you, a family member or friend are experiencing problems or are detained under the Mental Health Act contact our team today on 023 92 483322.

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