“Police cannot fix a broken mental health system” says HMICFRS

Police officers are increasingly being used as the service of default in responding to people with mental health problems, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services has said.

The report, ‘Policing and Mental Health: Picking Up the Pieces’, says that whilst the police service is doing a good job in difficult circumstances, there are concerns over whether the police should be involved in responding to mental health problems at the current level. The report emphasises that there needs to be a radical rethink and a longer-term solution to what has become a national crisis.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoë Billingham said:

“Police officers naturally want to respond and do their best to support vulnerable people when they ask for help. And we found that police officers respond to those with mental health problems with care and compassion.

“But we cannot expect the police to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system. Over-stretched and all-too-often overwhelmed police officers can’t always respond appropriately, and people in mental health crisis don’t always get the help they need.

“People in crisis with mental health problems need expert support – support that can’t be carried out in the back of a police car or by locking them into a police cell.

“All too often, the system is failing people when they most need help. This is not a problem that the police alone can solve. Other services need to stop relying on the 24/7 availability of the police.

“We have grave concerns about whether the police should be involved in responding to mental health problems to the degree they are. Fundamental change is needed urgently in the way those with mental health problems are supported by the state. The police should be the last resort, not the first port of call.”

HMICFRS commissioned a survey to understand better the public’s view of the role of the police service in helping people with mental health problems. The findings included:

  • just two percent of people surveyed felt it was the police’s responsibility to respond to mental health calls.
  • seventy percent of people felt it was the main responsibility of the health services to deal with people with mental health problems; and
  • a further 10 percent felt that the local authority or council were responsible.

However, the report reflects that demand for police to respond to mental health-related calls is increasing. Forces tended to underestimate the number of officers sent to mental health incidents, the response to which took longer than forces realised. Some forces are more advanced at understanding and measuring demand in this area than others, but overall, the report says, the police service needs to improve its understanding of the extent of mental health demand.

Read the report here