A new national agreement that will limit how often police respond to incidents involving people in mental health crisis has caused “deep concern” because of the lack of funding to support the changes, according to a user-led organisation.
The national agreement for England, published yesterday (Wednesday), describes a “new approach” to the “inappropriate involvement” of police officers in response to 999 calls about individuals in mental distress.
Under the Right Care, Right Person agreement, signed by government departments, police bodies and NHS England, police forces will refuse to respond to concerns about a person’s mental health unless there is a threat to life or a risk of significant harm, or if a crime is being committed.
In other cases, support will have to be provided by mental health services.
Police call handlers will be provided with new guidance on how to manage mental health-related calls.
Ministers claim the approach could save one million hours of police time a year.
But there are significant concerns that mental health services that are already significantly under-funded will not be able to fill this gap.
National Survivor User Network (NSUN), a user-led network of groups and people with experience of mental distress, said it was “deeply concerned” about the announcement.
Mary Sadid, NSUN’s policy manager, said: “Whilst we do not believe the police should be involved in mental health care or crisis response, we are deeply concerned about the lack of substance in proposed alternatives.
“Today’s announcement shows that this expansion is both under-developed and under-resourced.
“No new funding has been announced to support this change, and in the context of an NHS funding and staffing crisis, we remain troubled by the levels of harm, exclusion and neglect that is allowed to occur in the context of mental health services.”
There is particular concern over the approach of the Metropolitan police, which warned in May that it planned to implement the new approach from the end of August.
A Met spokesperson confirmed to Disability News Service yesterday that it still plans to keep to that deadline, although it would “continue to listen to our partners as to whether that is achievable by 31 August”.
Sadid said: “We are incredibly alarmed to hear that the Met are still trying to stick to their deadline of the 31st of August, as though mental health services decimated by austerity are somehow able to fix issues of under-funding and staff shortages by the end of next month.”
The policing minister, Chris Philp, refused to comment on the Met’s deadline, although the Home Office said that police forces “operate independently and will determine individual timeframes for implementation of the Right Care, Right Person approach locally”.
The implementation of the new approach will be decided by each police force, “following engagement with health, social care and other relevant partners”.
The Right Care, Right Person approach was first tested by Humberside police and has also been introduced by other forces, including those in Lancashire, South Yorkshire and North Yorkshire.
The new agreement covers police forces in England, but those in Wales are in discussions over a separate agreement with the Welsh government and the NHS in Wales.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council said the agreement was “not about us stepping away from mental health incidents, it is about ensuring the most vulnerable people receive the appropriate care which we are not always best placed to provide”.
Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said: “This announcement goes nowhere near offering enough guarantees that these changes will be introduced safely – there is no new funding attached and no explanation of how agencies will be held accountable.
“It is simply impossible to take a million hours of support out of the system without replacing it with investment, and mental health services are not resourced to step up overnight.
“These changes must be introduced slowly and carefully, so no-one is abandoned without support.”
The Local Government Association also raised concerns that the approach was being rolled out too quickly “with inadequate local engagement and partnership working meaning that other agencies risk being unable to pick up any increases in demand for their services”.
Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national mental health director, also appeared to raise funding concerns.
She said: “Health services and police forces should use this agreement to develop protocols that best meet the needs of their local population, including seeking the views of patients, alongside assessing the additional resources they will need to deliver this.”
The government said it was already investing an extra £2.3 billion-a-year into mental health services in England by 2024 with about £1 billion of that for community mental health services for people with “serious mental illness”.
It also said that every area of the country was investing in alternatives to accident and emergency and hospital for mental health crisis, such as crisis cafes, safe havens, and crisis houses, supported by a £60 million investment by the end of 2023-24.
And it said £150 million will be used to build mental health urgent and emergency care facilities, including up to 90 mental health ambulances.
Philp said: “We have listened to the concerns raised by police leaders about the pressures that mental health issues are placing on policing which takes officers’ time away from preventing and investigating crime.
“This landmark agreement will see those in a mental health crisis receiving the most appropriate treatment in the right environment by healthcare professionals and free up considerable amounts of police time to focus on keeping our communities safe.”
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