The role of the police in supporting people in mental health crisis


There's been a lot of media coverage recently about the role of the police when it comes to supporting people experiencing a mental health crisis. In this blog, Kirsten from our policy team looks at how police engage with people experiencing mental distress, and what changes might be on the cards.

The police exist to uphold the law fairly and firmly. They aim to prevent crime, pursue and bring to justice those who break the law, and keep the King’s Peace. The police are here to protect, help, and reassure the community, and must do so with integrity, common sense and sound judgement.

Their responsibilities can also include responding to incidents where someone is experiencing a mental health crisis.

The impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis on the nation’s mental health has been huge, but extends further than a rising demand for mental health services. The police have responded to an increasing number of calls to people in mental distress in recent years. In Merseyside, calls of this nature have increased from 7,629 in 2017 to 28,039 in 2022 - a 313% rise.

The police have raised concerns about the amount of time and resource that is required in responding to calls about mental ill health, which, on the 26 July, prompted the government to publish the National Partnership Agreement, ‘Right Care, Right Person’.

What is ‘Right Care, Right Person’?

This agreement is a national commitment from the Home Office, Department for Health and Social Care, Police and NHS England to work towards ending the inappropriate involvement of police in responding to the majority of mental health incidents over the coming years.

Police forces have been tasked with working with Integrated Care Systems – partnerships of NHS, voluntary sector and local authorities – to develop local plans on what local health and care provision will take the police’s place.

This may include improving access to health-based places of safety, increasing provision of 24/7 outreach services and improving how the different services all join up to work together. This will ensure that when there are concerns for a person’s welfare linked to mental health, medical or social care issues, the right person with the right skills, training and experience will respond.

What needs to happen next?

Any change in the response to a mental health crisis call should be led by people with lived experience alongside experts in mental health from the health and social care sector, the voluntary sector and marginalised communities.

The health and social care system is already struggling and underfunded in the face of rising demand, and we are concerned that there will be no service available to respond to a person in need if police refuse to do so.

This leaves people severely affected by mental illness vulnerable to a lack of support, and the National Partnership Agreement vulnerable to failure. The government must prioritise dedicated health and social care funding to ensure a system is developed and available to respond to people desperately needing support during a mental health crisis.

The National Partnership Agreement is right in principle: people experiencing mental health crisis should be met and supported by trained mental health professionals, not the police. It is also right that the Agreement is implemented over time – and we must not have a situation where the police are stepping back unilaterally without any health and care provision to take its place.

Right Care, Right Person in practice

Take a look at a case study from Humberside explaining how Right Care, Right Person works in that region.

Incidents where there is immediate risk to life

However local forces evolve their response to mental health incidents, there will still be a role for the police in responding to mental health crises where there is a real and immediate risk to life.

While there are many dedicated officers, trying their hardest in difficult circumstances, there are also many examples of the police failing to respond appropriately to people experiencing mental health crisis, including in cases where force is over-used, or people are unnecessarily criminalised.

The intersection between racial injustice, mental ill health and the police

The disproportionate number of Black and minority ethnic people who have been subjected to an excessive use of force and tasering, such as in the cases of Kaine Fletcher, Godrick Osei and Oladeji Omishore provide evidence of how racism plays a part in how Black, Asian and minority ethnic people experience contact with the police.

When the police are called to incidents where the intersection of race meets with mental ill health, in too many cases it has had a devastating end result. INQUEST’s 2023 report ‘I Can’t Breathe: Race, Death & British Policing’ details the stories of five men, all Black, who died as a result of contact with the police while experiencing a mental health crisis. Excessive use of restraint has come up as the leading causing of death in these cases.

People living with mental illness and in particular Black, Asian and minority ethnic people need assurance that where the police continue to respond to these calls, they will be collaborative and compassionate, prioritise the principles of mental health care and respect people’s universal rights and dignity.

Improving ‘places of safety’

When people in distress need to be taken to a place of safety, it is fundamentally wrong that in 2023 they are kept in police cells or prison simply because they are experiencing a mental health crisis. We need more investment in health-based places of safety, so that a person can receive the care they need and deserve in a safe and appropriate setting.

We welcome the draft Mental Health Bill’s proposal for removal of prison and police cells as ‘places of safety’. Reform is crucial, because it could reduce any further delays and ensure that people experiencing a mental health crisis are treated fairly and without experiencing racial injustice, but it is now long overdue.

We must not forget that people severely affected by mental illness have died in police custody, and we must continue to campaign for the fair, and safe treatment of people living with mental illness by the police. When things go badly wrong, the police and other services should be held accountable, and we support the INQUEST campaign which calls on the government to establish an independent body to collate, analyse and follow-up on recommendations that arise from investigations into state-related deaths.

In order to understand how people experiencing a mental health crisis are supported, to fully understand the extent of the problem, and to make sure that their perspectives, interests, hopes and fears are represented to policy makers and feature in the decisions made, we need to hear from people with lived experience of mental illness who need emergency care in the community.