A warning from the Metropolitan police that it will stop responding to many mental health-related emergency calls within three months has sparked serious concern among campaigners.
The warning came in a letter sent on 24 May to health and social care services across London by Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley.
He said his officers were spending 10,000 hours a month dealing with mental health-related issues such as waiting to hand patients into medical care.
In his letter, first reported by the Guardian, Rowley said the situation was “untenable” and that he had told his team that the force would “withdraw from health related calls by no later than 31 August”.
The force will instead introduce the Right Care, Right Person scheme (RCRP), which is backed by the government.
The scheme was first tested by Humberside police and is now being introduced by other forces.
Under the scheme, police refuse to respond to concerns about a person’s mental health unless there is a threat to life or a risk of significant harm.
In other cases, support must be provided by health or social care agencies.
Mary Sadid, policy manager for National Survivor User Network (NSUN), a network of groups and people with experience of mental distress, said Rowley’s letter reflected the level of underfunding of mental health services, but she warned that his warning to remove emergency responses in many situations risked causing further “serious harm”.
She said: “We know that police involvement in mental health emergencies can result in criminalisation, punishment and deaths.
“The system is not fit for purpose, and police involvement and its punitive or fatal consequences are a symptom of a deeply cruel and broken system.”
But Sadid said NSUN did not think that health and social care services would be able to introduce plans to fill the gaps left by the police by 31 August.
She said: “We are deeply concerned about the state of mental health emergency response and crisis care.
“The latest announcements reflect the reality of dangerous underfunding and understaffing as well as a deep lack of care and compassion when responding to people in crisis.
“We do not believe that police are the appropriate first responders for people in crisis, but we also do not see adequate alternatives being put forward.”
She added: “The number of mental health beds available has fallen by over 50 per cent since 2000.
“Community services, including grassroots groups, have been decimated by austerity policy.
“People are also being pushed to the brink by a punishing and ableist welfare system.
“In this context, the withdrawal of emergency response risks creating further serious harm.
“We need a response proportionate to the risk people continue to face that values the lives and dignity of the people affected.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the disabled people’s and service-user organisation Shaping Our Lives and himself a long-term user of mental health services, said his posts on social media about Rowley’s letter had drawn a “massive response” which was “mostly fearful”.
Many of the responses highlighted that the need for police involvement in such emergencies showed the “inadequacy of mental health services”, which was “seen as getting worse and relates to the defunding and low priority of mental health policy and services”.
But he said there had also been a recognition that the police were facing cuts themselves and had inadequate officers “for all the tasks they are expected to take on”.
Beresford said there were comments about both positive and “problematic” treatment from police in such situations, as well as concerns at how some mental health services have responded.
He said: “Clearly mental health policy and provision is in long term crisis.
“If nothing is done about this by government, the police withdrawal from responsibility can only make things worse.
“The government must act on this and other matters with urgency and implement mental health reform, increasing support and funding to make it possible.”
Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, expressed sympathy with the Met at their “challenges”, but said that he and his colleagues were “surprised and concerned by the unilateral declaration by Sir Mark Rowley to withdraw the police from attending emergency related mental health incidents”.
He said: “It is simply unhelpful and impractical to make decisions like these before we have worked out what will happen in some very concerning situations, both for patients with mental illness, but also for the public and police officers alike.”
Rowley said police officers across all forces were spending nearly one million hours a year with mental health patients in hospitals waiting for them to be assessed, which was time which “could have been spent conducting the initial attendance at 500,000 domestic abuse incidents or 600,000 burglaries”.
In a statement, the Met police said its officers were “not trained to deliver mental health care and spend an average of 10 hours with a patient when they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act”.
Despite government “attention and support” and increased health spending, the Met said that “in the interests of patients and the public, we urgently need to redress the imbalance of responsibility, where police officers are left delivering health responsibilities”.
It added: “Health services must take primacy for caring for the mentally ill, allowing officers to focus on their core responsibilities to prevent and detect crime, and keep communities safe and support victims.”
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