Police dealing with more people in mental health crisis than ever

In one force, Suffolk Constabulary, the number of mental health call-outs almost quadrupled between 2019 and 2021

22nd February 2023 about a 3 minute read
“It is a damning indictment of this government that they’ve abandoned the police to spend hours dealing with people who should be getting mental health support.” Sarah Jones, shadow policing minister

Police forces in England and Wales have seen a dramatic increase in the number of requests to intervene in cases of people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Freedom of information requests show that, in some forces, the number of requests to deal with mental health crises more than tripled between 2019 and 2021. Suffolk Constabulary saw an increase of 342%, Norfolk 260%, Northamptonshire 90%, and Leicestershire 54%.

The Labour Party asked police forces to provide the number of 999 calls they received logged as a mental health-related incident between 2019 and 2021, and 26 forces responded. These included Gwent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Merseyside, the Metropolitan police and North Wales. Of the 26 forces, 23 recorded an increase over the two years. In 2019, there were 247,336 cases across the forces that responded, which jumped to 281,598 two years later – a 13.9% increase.

Sarah Jones, the shadow policing minister said: “It is a damning indictment of this government that they’ve abandoned the police to spend hours dealing with people who should be getting mental health support.”

Right care, right person

Police have expressed concern for some time about the amount of time officers spend on mental health call-outs. Earlier this month, Bedfordshire Police announced it would begin charging the NHS for the time its officers spend on unnecessary mental health calls. Lee Freeman, the chief constable of Humberside police, has created the “Right Care, Right Person” scheme to cut the amount of mental health work for officers. He has given the health services a year’s notice that police would no longer routinely spend hours sitting with patients in a mental health crisis, or ferry people to hospital. North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire have adopted similar schemes, while the Met is also considering adopting it.

Under the Mental Health Act, the police are called out to help deal with a situation if a person experiencing a mental health emergency is thought to pose a risk to themselves or others. Officers then typically take the person to hospital for treatment, but may spend hours waiting with them in A&E.

A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs’ Council said that non-crime incidents such as mental health crises and vulnerabilities had a significant impact on available resources: “Policing is often seen as the service of last resort, but chiefs must make decisions balancing ever-growing demands. The demands on policing are significant and it is vital that we deliver our own priorities to protect the public and catch criminals first.”

‘Significant’ increase in workload

Figures published this week also show that police officers in England took more than 730,000 sick days last year – up from 320,000 in 2012/13. Steve Hartshorn, who leads the Police Federation of England and Wales, attributed the increase to the greater stress on police officers, saying: “Police officers want to do their best while facing horrific cases. The increase in workloads is ­significant – that’s down to austerity and budget cuts. They’re dealing with more trauma and violent scenes without any break. There’s a lack of support.”

The figures equate to more than 2,000 officers absent each day last year compared with 877 in 2012/13. The Metropolitan Police, Britain’s largest force, was the worst affected. An estimated 292 ­officers were absent each day due to mental health issues.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, the shadow cabinet minister for mental health, said that the Conservative government had run down public services, with many frontline workers taking time off sick as a result of mental health problems.  She added: “I am tired of seeing people unable to get the help they desperately need – all because of this government’s disregard for the safety and security of the British people.”

FCC Insight

The figures show a remarkable increase, in a relatively short period of time, in the number of mental health call-outs the police are having to deal with. From the police point of view, this is not the best use of their time – but many would also agree that the police are not the most appropriate agency to be accompanying a person in crisis to hospital. It is time for a drastic rethink about how to provide more suitable, multi-professional support to people in crisis, enabling patients to receive the care they need. We would also like to see renewed investment in community support that could help reduce the number of people reaching crisis point.