It’s a tough question to answer: faced with a person you believe is in the midst of a mental health crisis, in a situation where harm may come to them and to others, what do you do? If you happen to be a police officer, tasked with making critical judgements about their actions and wellbeing, it becomes even tougher.
The police operate in the middle of a Venn diagram, where issues of legal process and mental health overlap. Clarity is needed.
That’s why the Department of Health and the Home Office have announced a review into sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Open until 3 June 2014, the review has been launched in the spirit of recent landmark initiatives, including our mental health action plan Closing the Gap: priorities for change in mental health and the Crisis Care Concordat. Both seek to improve health outcomes for those experiencing mental health crises - minimising detentions in police cells is a principal goal.
Sections 135 and 136 relate to the powers and discretion police have to temporarily remove people from their homes, work or public areas to ‘places of safety’ - ideally hospitals, but to police stations in exceptional circumstances too.
The first stage of the review focuses on information gathering. If you have ever experienced mental illness, know someone who has, or work in roles (police, mental health and care services) where you have experience of supporting people in crisis, I urge you to complete the joint DH/HO online survey. If you’ve also come into contact with this aspect of mental health legislation, your views will be especially welcome.
You may feel there is little clarification needed. You may also feel there are other things unrelated to legislation which need to change. These are important views in themselves, but I suspect the majority of you reading this will have opinions and experiences which can help shape and improve the way the legislation operates in practice. Not least because it relates to police powers, but also to the way the police work with health and care professionals and, of course, the wider judicial system.
The online survey is not the beginning and end of this review. It forms part of a broader engagement involving focus groups, workshops, fact-finding visits and roundtable events featuring academics and other leaders in their fields.
But returning to my earlier point… an hour spent in police custody is an hour too long when access to support, treatment and care through our health service should be the first, best option. There are of course many and complex reasons why this doesn’t always happen, but this only strengthens our resolve to find better ways – legislative and otherwise – to protect our most vulnerable citizens.
Please - read the terms of the survey, share its purpose with your colleagues and networks, but whatever you do, don’t ignore it. The more we understand the role of the police in working with vulnerable people, the more we can do to preserve and enhance lives. That’s got to be worth a few minutes of anyone’s time hasn’t it?