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Police in Bristol were left caring for a suicidal woman this week when overstretched and underfunded mental health professionals failed to turn up.

The incident took place on 17th September, after police officers were called to the woman’s home address. It was apparent that a mental health assessment was needed, and the officers stayed with the woman while they waited for the medical professionals, who never arrived.

The officers found themselves in a difficult situation – due to the fact that the woman was in her own home, they were unable to section her under the Mental Health Act, but they were also unable to leave her because she was threatening to end her life.

Thankfully, the woman in question decided to attend the Bristol Royal Infirmary and so would have had access to the care she needed. But it might not have ended this way.

Mental Health Problems Need Specialist Care

Sue Mountstevens, Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset, stated that she remains ‘passionate’ that:

people who are vulnerable and mentally ill need specialist care, and need to receive help from a medical professional as a first point of contact and not a police officer.

She added that although the police have initiatives in place such as the presence of mental health nurses offering advice to staff in the control room on the best ways to support people experiencing a mental health crisis, and street triage projects (where calls are attended by a mental health professional and a police officer) this isn’t enough.

Mountstevens said:

All public sector services are facing the challenges presented by budget cuts, but in not getting those people suffering mental health crisis the right support, from the right people, in the right place, we are letting them down and it’s not right.

Police left to pick up the pieces of an overstretched NHS

Across the UK, police are increasingly being left to pick up the pieces with the NHS unable to help enough people. Police forces around the country have for some time reported increasing numbers of 999 calls relating to mental health, which regularly leads to arrests under the Mental Health Act.

Last year, the Met received a phone call asking them to help a person with a mental health issue every five minutes, a record high of 115,000. According to data released under freedom of information legislation, this is an increase of almost a third since 2011-12.

An underfunded mental health service

What happened in Bristol this week has been described as an ‘everyday occurrence’ by one police officer, in spite of the fact that the police are unable to provide the correct support. 

Britain’s mental health services have seen years of underfunding, known to have impacted heavily on child and adolescent mental health, as well as adult mental health.

The 4.5m cuts announced this April affect the type of services that can be provided, and are leaving people at risk. There simply aren’t enough mental health professionals to cope with the increasing need for services, and it’s taking longer for mentally unwell, vulnerable people to access these services. As a result, other public services such as the police are being relied on to help.

Inspector Michael Brown, mental health coordinator for the College of Policing, said:

We know that there has been a 60% increase in referrals to NHS mental health crisis teams but these services have had a cut in their funding.

Recommendations for police and mental health

National recommendations regarding the police and mental health cases were released on the 20th September, following the death of James Herbert. Herbert, 25, died in the custody of Avon and Somerset Constabulary in 2010 after police were called to reports he was running into the path of traffic in Wells, Somerset.

The report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission considered how a different approach may have prevented the tragedy, and made recommendations including:

  • Officers responding to an incident should prioritise the welfare and safety of all those involved, including the patient
  • Officers should be effectively trained in verbal de-escalation
  • Officers should be trained to use containment rather than restraint
  • Forces should develop clear processes for the recording and sharing of information about individuals who are known to, or are suspected to have mental health problems.

Yet another example of people at risk in Tory Britain

This particular story – as well as the wider issue of untrained police having to step in where mental health services are so overstretched that they are unable to do so – is yet another in a long line of shocking examples demonstrating how cuts in public spending under the Tories mean that services are failing to meet vulnerable people’s needs and putting lives at risk.

How to offer or receive help

Advice from the mental health charity Rethink on supporting someone who seems suicidal:

  • Ask them how they are feeling and offer to help
  • Talking to someone about their suicidal thoughts does not make them more likely to end their life
  • Listen to them without judging
  • Try to help them think about other options
  • You may need to get crisis help from mental health services or the emergency services.

If you think someone is about to try and take their life, call 999 and ask for the police and an ambulance.

If you are feeling suicidal you can call the Samaritans on: 116 123

or NHS Direct: 111

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